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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, February 09

Medieval Christian Chapel Unearthed in Yorkshire

LEYBURN, ENGLAND—Foundations of a Christian church built before the Norman Conquest of 1066 have been unearthed in North Yorkshire by a team from On-Site Archaeology. The remains of a young man and an older woman were also found. They had been buried in crouching positions and are thought to have been Christian burials, due to the east-west alignment of the bodies. Projects officer Graham Bruce thinks the site may have been a family chapel dating back to Saxon or early Norman times. “Interestingly, the Doomsday Book mentions two manors in Leyburn and this may relate to the abandoned settlement,” he told The Advertiser. Animal bones, flint tools, and pottery from the Bronze Age and Iron Age were also uncovered. For more on this era of British history, see "Faces of Medieval Scots Reconstructed."

Animal Bone May Have Told Fortunes in Third-Century Japan

SAKURAI, JAPAN—The right scapula of a boar, discovered in an oval-shaped hole with pottery, a wooden object, and other animal bones, suggests that the third-century A.D. shaman queen Himiko and leaders of Japan’s Yamato State practiced a fortune-telling method imported from China. The pit was found in the Makimuku ruins, thought to be the location of Himiko’s burial place. The bone bears three round burn marks that were probably made with a stick. Archaeologist Kaoru Terasawa of the Research Center for Makimukugaku explained that fortune telling with animal bones gradually became an official activity in Japan. The pit “is significant in thinking about how animal bone fortune telling performed at the grass-roots level during the Yayoi period evolved into a part of the national system,” he told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about a Roman artifact discovered in Japan, see "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

Identifying the Buried at London’s Bedlam Cemetery

LONDON, ENGLAND—Volunteers have examined parish burial records kept at the London Metropolitan Archives and compiled a database of the estimated 5,000 people who were buried in Bedlam cemetery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Named for the nearby Bethlem Hospital, which housed the mentally ill, the cemetery was established in 1569 during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. It is being excavated to clear the site for new Crossrail train tunnels and a station. “These people lived through Civil Wars, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the birth of modern industry, plague, and the Great Fire,” lead archaeologist Jay Carver told London 24. Among the dead known to have been buried at Bedlam were Sir Ambrose Nicholas, Lord Mayor of London in 1575; and Dr. John Lamb, astrologer to the First Duke of Buckingham. All of the skeletons will be reburied at another location. To read in-depth about the excavation of another London cemetery, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

How Hominins Ate Their Starchy Veggies

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lost two bitter taste genes that are still present in chimpanzees, according to a study conducted by anthropological geneticist George Perry of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues. Early hominins probably found wild yams and other tubers to be too bitter to eat, but as human ancestors began to cook their food, they may have been able to tolerate the taste of a wider range of tuberous plants and take advantage of their calories. At the same time, losing the bitter taste genes and eventually domesticating bitter squashes, gourds, and yams furthered the process. The study also found that modern humans carry an average of six copies, and as many as 20 copies, of the salivary amylase gene, which has been thought to help digest the sugars in starchy foods. Chimps, Neanderthals, and Denisovans carry only one or two copies of this gene. “This doesn’t mean that earlier hominins weren’t eating more starch, but perhaps they weren’t getting all of the same benefits as modern humans,” Perry told Science. In addition, modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lost the gene that helps build strong chewing muscles, supporting the idea that Homo erectus, a common ancestor, could cook. To read more about the genetics of our extinct cousins, see "Denisovan DNA."

Friday, February 06

Rare Twin Birth Identified in Russia Hunter-Gatherer Cemetery

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN—A 7,700-year-old skeleton may bear the oldest confirmed evidence of twins, and be one of the earliest examples of death during childbirth, according to archaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Saskatchewan. She found the skeleton, which had been excavated at Lokomotive, a hunter-gatherer cemetery near the southern tip of Russia’s Lake Baikal, in storage at Irkutsk State University. It had been thought to represent the death of a mother and a single child, but Lieverse soon realized that some of the fetal bones had duplicates. “Within five minutes, I said to my colleague, ‘Oh my gosh; these are twins,’” she told Live Science. One of the twins may have been in a breech position, with its feet down, and had been partially delivered. The other twin had been positioned head down and seems to have still have been in the womb at death. Lieverse thinks the breech baby may have been trapped, or tangled with its twin, leading to the obstruction. “It might be a bit circumstantial, but I think it’s quite strong,” she said. To read more about Lieverse's work in Siberia, see "The Case of the Missing Incisors." 

The Ancient Mediterranean Diet

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Zooarchaeologists Michael MacKinnon of the University of Winnipeg and Angela Trentacoste of the University of Sheffield reviewed the contents of ancient dumps and latrines, and shards of porcelain to piece together the ancient Mediterranean diet. They presented their research at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America last month. Pork was a staple food for the Etruscans and the Romans, and was probably served in ways familiar to today's Italian diners. The poor and the rich both ate easy-to-keep pigs, although the rich got better cuts of meat and ate it more often and in larger quantities than the poor. The rich also indulged in rare spices and fancy dinnerware, while the lower classes used crude utensils to eat meals purchased from street vendors, or stews and porridges cooked in large pots. “The wealthier you are the more you want to invest in display and advertising to your guests. Flash was perhaps more important than substance. Whole animals showed great wealth,” MacKinnon explained to Inside Science. To read more about ancient food, see "The Trouble With Blood."

Norway’s Melting Snow Exposes Fragile Artifacts

TRONDHEIM, NORWAY—Scientists from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) say that the Kringsollfonna ice patch and the Storbreen glacier are melting fast, and may not survive one or two more hot summers. Ground-penetrating radar has been used to measure the thickness of the ice, and GPS technology measures the barely perceptible movement of the glacier. Snow patches form when more snow accumulates in the winter than melts in the following summer, and they are ideal for preserving artifacts and organic materials, because unlike glaciers, snow patches are stationary. When the snow patches melt, the artifacts are exposed. “Then they’re lost forever. The probability of discovering finds in snow patches is greater than in glaciers, because they’re not moving. The ancient materials inside moving glaciers have melted out long ago,” said Geir Vatne of the department of geography. To read in-depth about the opportunities posed to archaeologists by melting glaciers, see "Letter From Norway: The Big Melt."

Italian Police Seize More Than 2,000 Artifacts

ROME, ITALY—Reuters reports that Italian police seized more than 2,000 artifacts, including vases, coins, and building fragments, in a sweep intended to dismantle a criminal gang dealing in looted antiquities throughout southern Italy. Some 550 artifacts alone were recovered from a house that had been turned into a private museum. The investigation, which led to the arrest of three people, was initiated last year after the theft of part of a fresco of Apollo and Artemis from the House of Neptune in Pompeii. Police also seized metal detectors and other items said to have been used in illegal digs. Police did not say if the missing fresco fragment has been found. To read more about looting of artifacts in Italy, see "Raiding the Tomb Raiders." 

Thursday, February 05

Research Continues at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys

TAMPA, FLORIDA—Erin Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida have updated the Florida Cabinet with the results of their research at the site of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Thirty-one boys who died at the school, open from 1900 to 2011, were thought to have been buried on campus. But 55 graves, many of them outside of the boundary of the cemetery, have been found. What may be a projectile has been found near the lower abdomen or upper thigh area of the badly decomposed remains of one boy, thought to have been of African-American ancestry and between the ages of 14 and 17 at the time of death. The lead object, sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for analysis, “cannot be definitively determined to be an ammunition component due to damage and corrosion; however, it is consistent with ooo Buck size shot pellets for various muzzle loading balls based on weight, size, and physical appearance,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Detective Greg Thomas told The Tampa Bay Times. A total of five sets of remains have been identified. One of the individuals had been an employee of the school, while the others were inmates. And while there were 55 graves, the researchers believe they have the remains of only 51 individuals. Some of the remains were badly charred in a 1914 fire that killed seven to ten people, most of them boys who had not been able to escape their locked cells when the building ignited. 

Crisis Management in the Ancient Southwest

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Throughout the mega drought in the American Southwest between 1276 and 1299, relationships between many social groups grew stronger, according to a study of ceramics conducted by Lewis Borck and a team at the University of Arizona. He used a database of millions of ceramic and obsidian artifacts that had been compiled by Barbara Mills of the University of Arizona and her collaborators at Archaeology Southwest to study the relationships of 22 different subareas of the Southwest from A.D. 1200 to 1400. It was understood that the same types of ceramics, found in similar proportions in different communities, indicated that those communities shared a relationship. Borck and the team members found that the relationships between the communities grew stronger during the drought, perhaps as people turned to their neighbors for food and information. “It seemed to be a way to mobilize resources and to increase your variability of resources, by increasing your interaction with more distant people,” Borck explained. And the communities that had larger social networks had a better chance of surviving the drought without migrating. “A lot of people have hypothesized that this process of having more extensive social networks is sort of a backup strategy for people, but this is one of the first times we’ve been able to demonstrate it at a very large, regional scale. It backs up a lot of these hypotheses about ‘social storage’ being as important as the real storage of actual items. The flip side is that if you are highly insular and protectionist and don’t interact with a lot of your neighbors, you’re really susceptible,” Mills said. For more on the archaeology of the Southwest, read "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

3-D Measurements Revise Date of Dog Domestication

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NEW YORK—Biologists Abby Grace Drake of Skidmore College and Michael Coquerelle of the University Rey Juan Carlos have conducted a 3-D analysis of the 30,000-year-old skulls thought to belong to the earliest domesticated dogs. They compared the new skull measurements with those of modern and ancient wolves and dogs from North America and Europe, and found that the animals thought to have been the first dogs were actually wolves. “The difference between a wolf and a dog is largely about the angle of the orbits: in dogs the eyes are oriented forward, and a pronounced angle, called the stop, exists between the forehead and the muzzle. We could tell that the Paleolithic fossils do not have this feature and are clearly wolves,” Coquerelle said. Drake and Coquerelle add that the new measurements of dog and wolf fossils support the domestication of wolves some 15,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, when wolves would have scavenged at permanent human settlements. To read more about dog domestication, see "More Than Man's Best Friend."

New Dates for Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula

TENERIFE, SPAIN—Neanderthals may have disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula around 45,000 years ago, or some 5,000 years earlier than the rest of Europe, based upon the final occupation layer of El Salt, which has “a very robust archaeological context,” according to Bertila Galván of the University of La Laguna. Plataforma SINC reports that a team of scientists examined the extensive stratigraphic sequence at El Salt, and its lithic objects and remains of goats, horses, and deer. The team also obtained new dates from six teeth from a young adult who may have belonged to one of the last groups of Neanderthals in the region. They think that the Neanderthal population in the Iberian Peninsula gradually declined over several millennia, while the climate grew colder and more arid. Evidence at El Salt and other sites in the Iberian Peninsula suggests that modern humans arrived in the region after the Neanderthals had disappeared. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"