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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, August 01

Archaeologist Finds Roman Bones on the Way Home

YORK, ENGLAND—The Guardian reports that Mike Heyworth, the president of the Council for British Archaeology, made a startling discovery on his own street as he walked home from work. In a trench dug by a utilities company, he spied fragments of Roman bone, including a jaw with teeth, as well as pottery. The workers were digging not far from a Roman cemetery where the remains of 80 gladiators were found in 2010, but evidently they were not obligated to have an archaeologist to monitor their project. The work has been halted and an archaeologist will examine the trenches for more evidence of Roman remains and artifacts. 

Your Teeth Tell Your Story

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—The University of Florida reports that geologist George Kamenov has demonstrated that trace amounts of lead in human teeth can be used to figure out where people came from. The four isotopes that make up lead change according to the rocks, soil, and ores in each part of the world, and can be identified in teeth because tooth enamel, which develops during childhood, preserves the lead. “When you grow up, you record the signal of the local environment,” Kamenov explains. “If you move somewhere else, your isotope will be distinct from the local population.” Archaeologists can use the information from teeth to identify, for example, the presence of Europeans in the New World to trace human migrations.  

Terracotta Army Mystery Solved

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Since their discovery in 1974, China’s first emperor’s almost 2,000-year-old terracotta army has been the subject of almost continual study—but until now scientists have not been able to figure out how the colorful pigments which decorate the figures adhered to their surface. According to a report in the Science China Press, researchers at the College of Chemistry and Materials Science, Northwest University in Xi'an, have used sophisticated technology, including lasers and mass spectrometry, to isolate the substance, a challenge made all the harder, explain the researchers, because "following almost 22 centuries of storage under these conditions, the remaining pieces of original polychromy that have survived on the sculptures contain extremely small amounts of the binding media.” Now the substance has been identified as East Asian lacquer obtained from lacquer tree applied directly to the surfaces of the warriors in one or two layers as a base coat.  

Thursday, July 31

Graves of Dublin's Viking Warriors

DUBLIN, IRELAND—After 15 years of study, archaeologists are ready to release a massive report that collects and presents evidence for the astounding number of Viking warrior burials beneath the streets of Dublin, reports the Irish Central. The burials, which date to between A.D. 841 and 902, represent the “largest burial complex of its type in western Europe, Scandinavia excluded,” says Stephen Harrison, who co-authored the 800-page report. It has long been thought that ancient annals that reported that there were vast numbers of Viking warriors in Dublin were greatly exaggerated, but now the great number of burials, along with the impressive grave goods the Vikings have been found with, are evidence not only that the annals may not have exaggerated as much as previously thought, but also that during the ninth century, Dublin was a wealthy and important city.  

Investigating Unhealthy Mummies

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA—After studying ancient Egyptian, Peruvian, Native American, and Mongolian mummies, medical researchers with a group known as the HORUS study team have found evidence for narrowing of ancient peoples' arteries due to high build up of fatty deposits, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which can contribute to a number of heart problems. In modern times, atherosclerosis can be caused by smoking, obesity, lack of activity, and other factors that were presumably not present in ancient cultures. Now the Horus study team is proposing that "non-traditional" causes of atherosclerosis could explain the prevalence of the condition among the mummies they have examined. In a World Heart Federation press release, the team points out that chronic infections caused by unhygienic conditions can produce prolonged inflammatory responses that lead to a build up in atherosclerotic plaque. Inhalation of smoke from fires might also cause atherosclerosis. The researchers found that the condition seems to be more common in female mummies, which could be explained by the fact that traditionally women spent more of their time near fires.

Dark Age Necropolis Unearthed in France

SAINT-AUBIN-DES-CHAMPS, FRANCE—Researchers from France's public archaeology agency INRAP are excavating an early medieval necropolis in Normandy. Dating from the fifth to the seventh centuries A.D., the village cemetery held more than 300 burials and was not included in any surviving records from the time, an era when the Frankish Merovingian dynasty ruled the region. According to an INRAP press release, the team is particularly interested in how the site shows how ordinary people experienced the transition from the pagan beliefs of the Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity. Earlier burials in the cemetery feature skeletons buried with lavish grave goods, such as a woman found wearing pins in the shape of bronze trumpets, and a man buried with twenty objects, including an ax, spear, dagger, and a silver coin placed in his mouth. Later burials do not seem to include as many artifacts, reflecting the growing influence of Christianity, which did not encourage the villagers to take objects with them into the afterlife.

Gods on the Roman Frontier

CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—While digging at the ancient Roman site of Maryport, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a large, stone circular structure in front of what dig director Ian Haynes of Newcastle University says is “the most north-westerly classical temple in the Roman world to be discovered so far,” according to Culture24. The rectangular temple dates from the second century A.D. and the circular structure associated with it was likely an impressive monument of some kind, perhaps a large, freestanding column. The ancient remains at Maryport were originally found in the late nineteenth century, and much remains to be discovered, says Haynes. The fort at Maryport was a crucial part of the Roman Empire’s border defenses for at least three centuries, and the classical temple would have been a reminder of home for the soldiers stationed on this remote north-west frontier of the vast empire, explains Nigel Mills, the heritage advisor to the Hadrian’s Wall Trust.  

Head of Ice Age Lion Sculpture Found

VOLGELHERD CAVE, SOUTHWESTERN GERMANY—Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen have unearthed a small fragment of mammoth ivory that is part of a figurine of a lion, reports PhysOrg. The 40,000-year-old sculpture is one of the most famous works of Ice Age art and was originally discovered during excavations in the cave in 1931. According to Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard, the lion was originally thought to be a relief—making it unique for this period. However, with the small fragment of one side of the lion’s head now reattached, it is clear that the figurine is, in fact, three-dimensional. "The site has yielded a wealth of objects that illuminate the development of early symbolic artifacts dating to the period when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals,” says Conard, including evidence of the world’s earliest figurative art and music.   

Wednesday, July 30

Spain Tests Limited Visits to Altamira Cave

  ALTAMIRA, SPAIN—The cave at Altamira, where bison and horses were painted and carved into the limestone some 22,000 years ago, was closed to visitors in 2002 due to the grown of algae-like mold on the cave walls. But as part of a new study, five randomly chosen visitors a week have been allowed to enter the cave wearing special protective suits since late last February. The goal of the study is to determine “if there is a form of public visiting that is compatible with the adequate conservation of Altamira,” José Antonio Lasheras, director of the Altamira museum, told The New York Times. The results of the investigation are due in September. Some scientists are concerned that the experiment will endanger the rock art in order to promote tourism. “All the data indicate the fragility of the cave and its propensity to suffer a fungal infection if it is opened to visits,” said Cesáreo Sáiz Jiménez, a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council.   

Large Slave Quarters Discovered at Maryland Plantation

CROWNSVILLE, MARYLAND—While looking for the French general Comte de Rochambeau’s 1781 campsite at Belvoir, the plantation home of Francis Scott Key’s grandmother, archaeologists found the brick floor of a large building that may have served as a dormitory-style slave quarters. “The discovery of this is an amazing contribution to understanding African-American life in Anne Arundel County. Up to this point, we did not know they were building slave barracks like this,” county cultural resources planner Jane Cox told The Capital Gazette. The building’s footprint is more than twice the size of most slave quarters. “The foundation of this thing is so massive, we strongly suspect it had two stories,” said county archaeologist All Luckenbach.   

Wine Cup Bearing Famous Names Reportedly Unearthed in Greece

ATHENS, GREECE—The AFP reports that a ceramic wine cup engraved with the names of six men was unearthed in a pauper’s grave in the suburb of Kifissia. Among the names are “Pericles,” and “Ariphron.” “The name Ariphron is extremely rare. Having it listed above that of Pericles makes us 99 percent sure that these two are brothers,” said Angelos Matthaiou, secretary of the Greek Epigraphic Society. Could the cup have been used by the Athenian statesman Pericles, who had an older brother named Ariphron? Matthaiou suggests that the cup was used in a wine symposium, and the six men put their names on the cup as a memento given to a man named Drapetis, who may have been a the owner of the tavern or his servant. “They were definitely woozy, as whoever wrote Pericles’ name made a mistake and had to correct it,” he added.  

Finland’s Prehistoric Dairy Farmers

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Bristol and the University of Helsinki analyzed residues in ancient cooking pots from “Corded Ware” settlements in Finland and discovered evidence of milk fats dating to 2500 B.C. “This is remarkable evidence which proves that four and a half thousand years ago, Stone Age people must have been foddering and sheltering domesticated animals over harsh winters, in conditions that even nowadays we would find challenging,” Lucy Cramp of Bristol University, told Science Daily. These dairy-consuming farmers, who were probably genetically different from the local hunters and gatherers, have been linked to modern-day Finns.