Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, March 10

Another Tomb Discovered at Al-Qurna

CAIRO, EGYPT—Another 18th Dynasty tomb has been discovered by archaeologists from the American Research Center in Egypt at Al-Qurna in Luxor. Paintings on the walls of this New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.) tomb “are records of daily life practices that prevailed in that era,” according to a statement made by Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty. This tomb, which belonged to Satmut and his wife Ta-kh-at, was also looted in antiquity, and some of the scenes and inscriptions on its walls were erased. “The newly discovered tomb is located to the east of TT110 and they share the same courtyard. The tomb door is to the south of the first tomb and it has an oblong hall with a shaft filled with debris,” team member Ali El Henawi told the Luxor Times. To read about the recent discovery of a tomb in the area belonging to a sacred singer, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Study Suggests Juvenile Hominins Developed at Their Own Pace

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Tanya Smith of Harvard University says that the teeth of juvenile hominins grew in a way that was unlike those of either modern humans or apes. “We calculated the age of death of 16 fossil individuals that lived between about one and four million years ago, and were able to look at how their teeth formed relative to living humans and chimpanzees of the same chronological age,” she explained. Rather than slicing into the teeth and examining their structures with microscopes, Smith and her colleagues used high-powered x-rays generated by a synchrotron to produce super-high-resolution images of the internal structures of the teeth. Then by counting the daily growth lines, they were able to determine an exact age for each individual. The team discovered a wide variation in the speed of development across the fossil species. “These fossil species have to be seen independently, as having their own evolutionary trajectory that is not identical to any living animal,” she concluded. To read about the evolution of the ability to throw, see "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Poorly Preserved DNA Identifies Origins of Enslaved Africans

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine have extracted DNA from the poorly preserved tooth roots of three enslaved Africans who had been buried on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin more than 300 years ago. The technique, called whole-genome capture, revealed that one skeleton belonged to a man who had likely belonged to a Bantu-speaking group in northern Cameroon. The samples from the other two individuals shared similarities with non-Bantu-speaking groups in present-day Nigeria and Ghana. “This project has taught us that we cannot only get ancient DNA from tropical samples, but that we can reliably identify their ancestry,” said Carlos Bustamante of Stanford University. Teeth from all three of the skulls had been filed down in patterns characteristics of certain African groups, but that was not enough information to pinpoint where the individuals had lived when they were unearthed in 2010 during a construction project. And historic records from the slave trade usually refer to shipping points, not information about the origins of the captured. “There are still certain limitations—which are essentially to do with the comprehensiveness of our modern reference panels—but I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to identify specific source populations or ethnic groups in the future,” added team leader Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen. To read about the extraordinary excavation of slave quarters on an island in the Indian Ocean, see "Castaways."

New Thoughts on Africa’s Pastoral Environments

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—It had been thought that the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness and nagana and thrives in bushy woodlands, stopped the spread of herders of domesticated animals into southern Africa some 2,000 years ago. Fiona Marshall of Washington University has led a team of researchers who analyzed the isotopes in animal teeth from a 2,000-year-old settlement near Gogo Falls in southern Kenya. The people who lived there ate a varied diet that included domestic and wild food sources. The region is now made up of bushy woodlands, but the results of the study suggest that there had been abundant grassland vegetation for the animals to eat in what may have been a grass-woodland transition zone. So did the human residents consume wild food because tsetse flies damaged their livestock herds? “Our findings challenge existing models that explain the settlement’s diverse diet as a consequence of depressed livestock production related to tsetse flies. Instead of this ecological explanation, our isotopic findings support the notion that herders may simply have interacted with hunter-gatherer groups already living in these areas, adapting to their foraging styles. This suggests that social factors may have played a greater role than previously thought in subsistence diversity during the spread of pastoralism in Eastern Africa,” Marshall explained. Changes in rainfall, grazing by wild herbivores, and burning of land by the herders may have maintained the savanna for the livestock and provided a corridor through the Lake Victoria basin for the migration of pastoralists into southern Africa. To read about a fascinating archaeological discovery made in southern Africa, see "First Use of Poison." 

Monday, March 09

Carved Jadeite Artifact Found Underwater at Arroyo Pesquero

FULLERTON, CALIFORNIA—An unusually shaped artifact carved from jadeite has been found underwater at the site of Arroyo Pesquero, in Veracruz, Mexico. “The iconography is pretty difficult to interpret; it’s definitely not clear,” Carl Wendt of California State University, Fullerton, told Live Science. The artifact, which dates to the time of the Olmec, “seems to be an abstract representation, I believe, of a cob of corn,” he said. The sculpture may have been attached as a finial to a staff as a symbol of power and authority before it was placed in the stream, where freshwater and saltwater intersect, as an offering, sometime between 900 and 400 B.C. “While having practical importance today as a spot to collect fresh water, in Olmec times, the confluence would also have been important for symbolic and cosmological reasons, and an ideal place for a ritual hoard or votive offerings,” Wendt and his team wrote in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. So far, no buildings dating to between 900 and 400 B.C. have been found at Arroyo Pesquero. “Freshwater, so critical to daily life, was relatively scarce in a region of stagnant swamps. It is no wonder that springs and other freshwater sources were sacred places, and sacrificing [objects] at them was an important part of Olmec ritual,” they continued. To read about evidence for Olmec writing, see "The Cascajal Block."

Tsunami May Have Struck Yucatan Peninsula 1,500 Years Ago

BOULDER, COLORADO—A study conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Mexico’s Centro Ecological Akumal (CEA) suggests that the Yucatan Peninsula may have been hit by a tsunami of two or three giant waves between 1,500 and 900 years ago. A large, wedge-shaped berm at least 30 miles long and made up of large stones has been found some 15 feet above sea level. The boulders on the face and top of the berm are composed of coral and fine-grained limestone. “The force required to rip this reef material from the seafloor and deposit it that far above the shoreline had to have been tremendous. We think the tsunami wave height was at least 15 feet and potentially much higher than that,” said Larry Benson, an adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Structures were built by the Maya between A.D. 900 and 1200 on top of the berm. Other “outlier berms” made of layers of coarse sand and small and large boulders have been found along 125 miles the Yucatan coast. “I think there is a chance this tsunami affected the entire Yucatan coast,” Benson added. He and CEA scientist Charles Shaw think that additional evidence for a tsunami could be found in sediment cores from mangrove swamps along the coast. To read about a recently excavated Maya site, see "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Saving Chile's Chinchorro Mummies

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—After thousands of years, Chinchorro mummies, now housed in the collection of the University of Tarapacá’s San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile, were rapidly degrading, so archaeologist Marcela Sepulveda of the University of Tarapacá, who specializes in materials characterization, turned to Ralph Mitchell, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology, Emeritus, at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We wanted to answer two questions: what was causing it and what could we do to prevent further degradation?” Mitchell explained. He and his team examined the microbiome on the samples of degrading mummy skin and undamaged skin sent to Massachusetts from the museum’s collection. “With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist,” Mitchell said. They found microbes in both sets of samples that in very humid conditions, triggered black, oozing damage to the skin. Sepulveda reported that humidity levels in Arica have been on the rise. This precise information will help the museum staff preserve the mummies in the collection. But what of the large numbers of Chinchorro mummies that are still buried throughout the region? “Is there a scientific answer to protect these important historic objects from the devastating effects of climate change?” Mitchell asked. To read more about the archaeological impacts of climate change, see "Sites in Peril."

Caver Discovers 2,300-Year-Old Silver Stash in Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A member of the Israeli Caving Club discovered a cache of valuable objects while exploring a stalactite cave in northern Israel and reported his find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Two silver coins minted during the reign of Alexander the Great; silver signet rings, bracelets, and earrings; and eight white and black agate beads stored in a small clay oil lamp are thought to have been placed in a cloth pouch before being hidden in a niche in the cave. “The valuables might have been hidden in the cave by local residents who fled there during the period of governmental unrest stemming from the death of Alexander, a time when the Wars of the Diadochi broke out in Israel between Alexander’s heirs following his death,” according the a statement made by the IAA and reported by CNN. When archaeologists investigated the cave, they found many crevasses that could hold hidden artifacts. “At this point they believe they have found artifacts in the cave that first date to the Chalcolithic period c. 6,000 years ago; from the Early Bronze Age c. 5,000 years ago, the Biblical period 3,000 years ago and the Hellenistic period approximately 2,300 years ago,” according to the IAA statement. To read in-depth about a massive excavation project in Israel, see "Excavating Tel Kedesh."

Friday, March 06

Researchers Analyze Beer From 1840s

ESPOO, FINLAND—Bottles of beer recovered from a nineteenth-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea have been sampled by researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland and the University of Munich. “These bacteria were still alive,” said Brian Gibson of the VTT Technical Research Centre. “We have a reasonably good idea about what kind of hops were used, different ones than today. These hops would have been harsher, these days they are quite mild. The one surprising thing is the beers were quite mild. The original alcohol level was 4.5 percent, nothing extreme,” he told Discovery News. Seawater had seeped through the bottle’s cork, however, replacing about thirty percent of the bottle’s original contents. Chemical analysis suggests that the beer, which was brewed in the 1840s, was similar to a modern amber or lambic ale. “We looked at esters, which give beer a fruity or flowery taste. Most of the compounds that we would expect were there,” Gibson said. To read about vodka preserved in a bottle from another Baltic shipwreck, see "A 200-Year-Old Bottle's Suprising Contents."

25th Dynasty Artifacts Found at the Karnak Temple Complex

PARIS, FRANCE—A pit, or favissa, near the temple of the god Ptah at Karnak has yielded 38 religious artifacts that had been placed around a seated statue of the god Ptah. The items date from the eighth to seventh centuries B.C. and include 14 statues and figurines of Osiris; three statuettes of baboons; two statuettes of the goddess Mut; one head and fragments of a statue of Bastet, the cat goddess; two unidentified statuette bases; a small plaque and part of a small stele marked with the name of the god Ptah; and several inlays—an iris, cornea, beards, and headdresses. A sphinx statue and a small statue head, possibly of the god Imhotep, were found in the upper part of the pit. The removal of the objects from the pit was recorded by a topographer specialized in archaeology, who complied hundreds of photographs taken during the fieldwork to make a virtual 3-D reconstruction of each step of the excavation. This allowed the scientists from the Centre franco-égyptien d’étude des temples de Karnak (CNRS/Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities) to excavate the site quickly, in order to protect the valuable artifacts, and preserve all the data. To read more about the excavation of a tomb belonging to a priestess at Karnak, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Oregon’s “Tantalizing” Evidence of Human Occupation

PORTLAND, OREGON—Near the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, beneath a layer of ash from an eruption of Mt. St. Helens some 15,800 years ago, archaeologists have found a tool made of orange agate thought to have been used for scraping animal hides, butchering, and possibly even carving wood. “The discovery of this tool below a layer of undisturbed ash that dates to 15,800 years old means that this tool is likely more than 15,800 years old, which would suggest the oldest human occupation west of the Rockies,” said Scott Thomas, Bureau of Land Management Burns District archaeologist. A blood residue analysis of the tool revealed animal proteins consistent with the ancestor of the modern buffalo. The director of the excavation, Patrick O’Grady of the University of Oregon, adds that the excavation will be expanded to look for more artifacts underneath the ash layer. “We want to assemble indisputable evidence because these claims will be scrutinized by researchers. That said, the early discoveries are tantalizing,” commented Stan McDonald, BLM Oregon/Washington lead archaeologist. To read more about the earliest people to live in the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."