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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, July 13

Unique Images Uncovered in Fifth-Century Synagogue

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA—Additional portions of the floor mosaics in the east aisle of a fifth-century synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq have been uncovered by a team led by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Previous excavations in the synagogue, which is located in the Lower Galilee, unearthed pictures of Samson and an image that may depict Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest—the first non-biblical story to be found in an ancient synagogue, according to Magness. This summer’s excavations have revealed images surrounding a dedicatory inscription that include animals, male figures supporting a garland, a rooster, and male and female faces in a wreath. There are also winged putti, or cupids, holding roundels with theater masks. The team also uncovered columns inside the synagogue that had been covered in plaster and painted ivy leaf designs. “The images in these mosaics—as well as their high level of artistic quality—and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue. These are unique discoveries,” Magness said in a press release. To read about the previously unearthed portions, go to "Mosaics of Huqoq."

Open Settlement in Southern Britain Predates Roman Arrival

DORSET, ENGLAND—A geophysical survey conducted by a team from the University of Bournemouth has located 150 roundhouses and other features in a prehistoric town named Duropolis, after the Durotriges, a local Iron Age tribe. Sixteen roundhouses in the settlement have been excavated so far. “What we’ve discovered is extremely significant for the whole of Southern Britain because in the past archaeologists have tended to look at really obvious sites, like the big hill-fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester. What we have here is an extensive open settlement, not a hillfort, so it wasn’t visible as a settlement from the earthwork on the landscape. What we’ve discovered is one of the earliest and largest open settlements in Britain,” archaeologist Miles Russell said in a press release. It had been thought that before the arrival of the Romans, most people in Britain lived in protected hillforts. The team also uncovered the bones of animals whose body parts had been rearranged to form hybrid beasts, grinding stones, spindle whorls, and metal working debris. To read about recent work at England's largest hillfort, go to "Ham Hill's Violent History."

Middle Stone Age Tools Reveal Cultural Differences, Similarities

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A new study of 71,000-year-old stone tools from Sibudu and Blombos, two South African archaeological sites that are more than 600 miles apart, shows that these two groups of people used similar types of tools, but made them differently and from different materials. Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand and an international team of scientists examined two types of Middle Stone Age tools—Still Bay and Howiesons Poort—from the two sites. The two sets of Howiesons Poort tools were crafted in a similar pattern that may have been socially transmitted by teaching and verbal instruction. But the team concluded that although similar, the differences between the Still Bay-type tools from Sibudu and Blombos suggest that the toolmakers from the two sites did not share the same rules and traditions. “This was not the case at 65,000 years ago when similarities in stone tool making suggest that similar cultural traditions spread across South Africa,” Wadley said in a press release. To read about the oldest stone tools yet discovered, go to "The First Toolkit."

Stolen Stones Returned to Museum in Israel

BE’ER SHEVA, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority reports that two sling stones were returned to the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva. A museum employee found the stones in a bag in the museum’s courtyard with a note that read, “These are two roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995 and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!” The museum handed over the stones, which were chiseled by Roman soldiers or their prisoners, to the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Almost 2,000 such stones were found during the archaeological excavations in the Gamla Nature Reserve, and this is the site where there is the largest number of ballista stones from the Early Roman period. The Romans shot these stones at the defenders of the city in order to keep them away from the wall, and in that way they could approach the wall and break it with a battering ram,” explained archaeologist Danny Syon, who excavated at Gamla for many years. To read more about this period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."

Friday, July 10

Early Humans May Have Cooked to Avoid Illness

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Alex Smith of Harvard University led a study of the safety of meat eaten by early human ancestors. “Some would argue the archaeological record indicates that meat was scavenged before the earliest accepted dates of controlled fire-use, but our research suggests that cooking might be more ancient,” he told The Huffington Post. He and his team measured the growth of bacteria on raw boar meat and bone marrow over a 24-hour period, and then they measured how effectively roasting the meat eliminated the bacteria. As expected, they found that roasting the meat over hot coals killed most of the bacteria. Fewer bacteria grew on bone marrow, suggesting that it may have been a safer snack. “We hope this research brings the importance of cooking and its effects to discussions on early hominin carnivory,” he concluded. 

Important Inscription Discovered at Bulgaria’s Aquae Calidae

BURGAS, BULGARIA—A marble slab bearing a first-century A.D. Greek inscription from the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful of the ancient Thracian states, has been unearthed at the site of Aquae Calidae, an ancient spa resort. “This is a historical monument of international importance,” archaeologist Miroslave Klasnakov told Archaeology in Bulgaria. The inscription, which belonged to Apollonius, son of Eptaikentus, a military governor, had been built into an altar and mentions the names of the last Thracian kings of the Odrysian Kingdom and their children. Aquae Calidae may have been an administrative center in addition to being a resort destination. The Romans eventually deposed the Odrysian kings and Thrace became a Roman province. The inscription also lists a shrine dedicated to Demetra that had been built by the military governor. The altar where the inscription was found may have been dedicated to her. To read about another Greek inscription found in Turkey, see "In Search of a Philosopher's Stone."

Remains of American Marines Recovered on Tarawa Atoll

BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL—The remains of 36 American Marines have been recovered on Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean where more than 1,600 U.S. troops and more than 4,500 Japanese troops died in the three-day Battle of Tarawa in 1943. The search was coordinated by History Flight, a Florida charity dedicated to returning the remains of fallen soldiers to their families. Among the Americans was First Lieutenant Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient who died on the second day of the battle, but it wasn’t known where he had been buried. Bonnyman’s grandson joined the archaeological expedition to the Republic of Kiribati to look for his grandfather’s remains. “I’ve been to Tarawa five times, I’ve dug holes in the sand, I’ve sifted sand, I’ve washed bones in the lab, I’ve called families asking for DNA samples and honestly we agreed that this is a needle in a haystack. So I was well and truly floored when I got a call saying they felt they had discovered cemetery 27 because if it was 27 then there was every indication we would find my grandfather,” Clay Bonnyman Evans told Radio New Zealand. Dental records were used to make the final identification of 1st Lt. Bonnyman. To read more, go to "Archaeology of World War II."

Complete Roman Fresco Discovered in Arles, France

ARLES, FRANCE—A mural resembling those at Pompeii has been discovered in the bedroom of a Roman villa in southern France. The fresco, which dates between 20 and 70 B.C., is one of only a few full murals to be found outside Italy. Among the 11 images in the painting, now in more than 12,000 fragments, is a depiction of a young woman playing a harp that had been painted in expensive Egyptian blue and red vermilion pigments. “There will be gaps, gaps in these reborn frescoes,” Marie-Pierre Roth of the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) told RFI. It could take ten years to reassemble the full fresco. To read more about Roman murals, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Thursday, July 09

Building in Reykjavik May Have Been Viking Chieftain’s Home

  REYKJAVIK, ICELAND—Traces of a Viking longhouse dating between A.D. 870 and 930, the first years of settlement in Iceland, were discovered in central Reykjavik while archaeologists were looking for a house built in the late eighteenth-century. “We have no records of any building on this spot other than the cottage built in 1799. The cottage was built on a meadow with no remnants of anything else,” Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir of the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology told The Iceland Monitor. The building was at least 60 feet long, and its “long fire,” a hearth that stretched down the middle of the structure, was more than 15 feet long. The excavation team has also uncovered weaving implements within the building and a silver ring and a pearl near it. “The find came as a great surprise for everybody. This rewrites the history of Reykjavik,” said preservationist Þorsteinn Bergsson of Minjavernd. To read more, go to "The First Vikings."

New Dates for Prehistoric Scotland

ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND—Stone artifacts have been found in Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, suggesting that people were in the Cairngorm Mountains as early as 8,000 years ago, or thousands of years earlier than had been previously thought. At this time after the last ice age, there were permanent snow fields in the region and glaciers may have even been reforming. “It is incredible to think that what we have discovered at this one spot in a vast landscape may represent a small group of people stopping for only a night or two, repairing their hunting equipment and then moving on,” Shannon Fraser of the National Trust for Scotland said in a press release. “Glen Geldie is a very chilly place today, even with all our modern outdoor clothing—it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in the much harsher climate 8,000 years ago,” he added. To read in-depth about archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Corn Cobs Unearthed at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Charred corncobs, kernels of corn, and sunflowers have been unearthed by students from Augustana College and England’s University of Exeter at a 1,000-year-old site along Lake Mitchell in southern South Dakota. “This village isn’t the origin of prehistoric agriculture, but it is one of the key sites in understanding what was done here,” professor Adrien Hannus of Augustana College told The Mitchell Republic. The corn cobs are about the size of an adult finger and were probably roasted or boiled whole. “You can see that the corn kernels are about the same size, but the cobs were a lot smaller and there were a lot fewer kernels on the cobs,” added Alan Outram from the University of Exeter. The storage pits, where the cobs and seeds were found, were eventually used for trash and capped with clay and ash. For more, go to "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Did the Ancient Athenians Store Wealth in the Parthenon’s Attic?

HAMILTON, ONTARIO—Spencer Pope of McMaster University, Peter Schultz of Concordia College, and David Scahill of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens think that the city-state of ancient Athens may have stored reserves of coins in the Parthenon’s attic. Writers in antiquity noted that the Athenian reserves sometimes reached 10,000 talents—a staggering sum of silver coins that could have potentially weighed 260 metric tons. However, the ancient records do not mention exactly where on the Acropolis the coins were stored. Very little of the Parthenon’s attic still exists, but estimates suggest that it was 62 feet wide by 164 long, with a floor made of thick beams of wood from cypress trees. There are also remnants of a utilitarian staircase that could have been used to move money to and from the attic, where coins could have been spread across the floor space to distribute their weight. “The attic of the Parthenon is the only suitable space large enough to hold all of the coins in the Treasury. While we cannot rule out the possibility that coins were distributed across numerous buildings, we should recall that the attic is the most secure space,” Pope told Live Science. To read more about money from this period, go to "Mysterious Greek Coins Studied."