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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, June 11

Study Suggests Human Ancestors Smiled

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND—A study of the smile types displayed by chimpanzees in the wild suggests that their communication is more similar to that of humans than had been previously recognized. Humans and chimpanzees have the same types of smiles when laughing, and they can produce those smiles silently. “Humans have the flexibility to show their smile with and without talking or laughing. This ability to flexibly use our facial expressions allows us to communicate in more explicit and versatile ways, but until now we didn’t know chimps could also flexibly produce facial expressions free from their vocalizations,” Marina Davila-Ross of the University of Portsmouth said in a press release. This suggests that positive facial expressions and flexibility in facial expressions were present in our common ancestor. There are still differences between the laughter of humans and chimps, however. “Chimps only rarely display crow’s feet when laughing, but this trait is often shown by laughing humans. Then, it is called Duchenne laughter, which has a particularly positive impact on human listeners,” she said. To read about a very different way scientists are looking at the evolution of the human face, go to "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel?"

Medieval Wall Unearthed in England’s East Midlands

LINCOLN, ENGLAND—Road construction in England’s East Midlands uncovered part of a medieval wall. “You can see pieces of pottery and bone through the layers allowing us to date them. Although we have what looks like a medieval dwelling, we do not know at this stage its purpose—whether it was residential or if a trade was carried out here,” archaeologist Leigh Brocklehurst said in a press release from the Lincolnshire County Council. The wall is thought to date to the twelfth century, when it would have been set back, behind buildings that faced the High Street. Its rough construction could indicate that it had been a home for daily wage workers who had moved into the growing town, then known as Wigford. To read about how chess was played in medieval England, go to "Artifact."

Cross-Sections of Roman Aqueduct Reveal Water Supply

URBANA, ILLINOIS—Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied the limestone deposits within the Anio Novus aqueduct in order to estimate the rate of water flow from the Apennine Mountains to Rome. They determined that the aqueduct, which was built between A.D. 38 and 52, would have delivered 370 gallons of Aniene River water to the city each second. The buildup of limestone, or travertine, indicates that the 54-mile-long aqueduct channel was almost always full of water. But as the deposits got larger, they eventually reduced the water flow by 25 percent. Earlier estimates of the amount of water carried into Rome were taken from historical accounts and average velocity based upon the slope of the aqueduct. However, this new study has found variations in the slope across the aqueduct that could dramatically change those estimates. “Regardless of the different estimates, researchers agree that these aqueducts were the core piece of infrastructure that permitted large-scale urbanization. With this reliable water supply, Rome’s population was able to grow between 600,000 to a million people during the first century A.D.,” geologist and microbiologist Bruce Fouke said in a press release. To read about the search for the source of one of the most famous ancient aqueducts, go to "Rome's Lost Aqueduct." 

Wednesday, June 10

Large-Scale Study Examines Bronze Age Genomes

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Analysis of the genomes of 101 individuals who lived in Europe and Central Asia during the Bronze Age—between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago—suggests that the economic and social changes that occurred during this period were due to massive migrations. “Cultural change is actually happening because people are moving around and not just through the spread of ideas,” Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark said in a video clip included in a press release. It also shows that at the end of the Bronze Age, the ability to drink raw milk was still very rare, even though it is common among northern Europeans today. “Previously the common belief was that lactose tolerance developed in the Balkans or in the Middle East in connection with the introduction of farming during the Stone Age….We think that it may have been introduced into Europe with the Yamnaya herders from Caucasus but that the selection that has made most Europeans lactose tolerant has happened at a much later time,” added Martin Sikora of the museum’s Centre for GeoGenetics. To read about one of the earliest migrations in human history, go to "New Evidence for Mankind's Earliest Migrations."

Oklahoma’s Bison Kill Sites Used for Generations

NORMAN, OKLAHOMA—Leland Bement of the University of Oklahoma was surveying bison kill sites along the Beaver River in northwestern Oklahoma when he found butchered bison bones on a narrow bench of land between two arroyos. Such “arroyo traps,” where the ditches were used as natural drive lines, are the oldest-known method of large-scale bison hunting. The pieces of leg, foot, and back bones were accompanied by a quartzite hammerstone and a small flake made from Texas chert. This site is 11,500 years old, and is “the most recent Paleoindian site along this stretch of the river,” Bement told Western Digs. “All of these sites [in the Beaver River complex] are large-scale bison kills in arroyo traps. Each kill was of between 30 and 60 animals.” Taken together, the sites, which are part of a study being conducted by Kristen Carlson of the University of Oklahoma, reveal a transformation from the tools of the Clovis culture to the Folsom tradition. “To have a kill complex in use for over 800 years speaks to the ability of hunters to plan and coordinate and revisit a successful hunting ground through generations,” Carlson said. To read about the remarkable way prehistoric Native Americans hunted buffalo, go to "Letter from Montana: The Buffalo Chasers."

Byzantine Church Found Near Ancient Roadway

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A large Byzantine-era church and additional rooms that may have served as living quarters and storage space have been uncovered near the town of Abu Ghosh, during work to expand the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The church, placed near a spring, had a side chapel with a floor of white stone and a baptismal font in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Red-colored plaster among the rubble at the site indicates that the church’s walls were decorated with frescoes. Oil lamps, coins, glass vessels, marble fragments, and mother-of-pearl shells were also recovered. “The road station and its church were built in the Byzantine period beside the ancient road leading between Jerusalem and the coastal plain. This road station ceased to be used at the end of the Byzantine period, although the road beside which it was built was renewed and continued to be in use until modern times,” Annette Nagar of the Israel Antiquities Authority told The Times of Israel. To read about a Byzantine church that made our last Top 10 Discoveries of the Year list, go to "Sunken Byzantine Basilica."

3,800-Year-Old Statuettes Unearthed in Northern Peru

LIMA, PERU—Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced the discovery of three statuettes crafted by the Caral civilization. According to, the 3,800-year-old statuettes had been placed in a reed basket in a building in the ancient city of Vichama. Two of the mud statuettes are of a man and a woman painted in white, black, and red, and are thought to represent political authorities. The third statuette depicts a woman with 28 fingers and red dots on her white face, who may be a priestess. Two sculptures of women’s faces that had been wrapped in cloth and covered with yellow, blue, and orange feathers were also found by a team led by archaeologist Ruth Shady. She thinks the objects may have been used in religious rituals performed before the construction of a new building. To read about the discovery of a 4,000-year-old painting in Peru, go to "New World's Earliest Mural."

Tuesday, June 09

More Roman Kilns Found in Northern Bulgaria

PAVLIKENI, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that four kilns and a well from the Roman period were discovered in northern Bulgaria during a project to upgrade the town’s water and sewer systems. The furnaces resemble the more than 50 furnaces that were uncovered at a Roman military veteran’s villa near the modern town of Pavlikeni in the 1970s. At the time, it had been thought that the modern town had been built on top of a Roman town and necropolis dating to mid-second century A.D. The ceramic factory was destroyed by the Goths at the end of the second century. To read about life and death on the Roman empire's eastern frontier, go to "Burial Customs."

Why Didn’t Neanderthals Hunt Rabbits?

DORSET, ENGLAND—An analysis of 30,000-year-old rabbit bones found in caves in the Iberian Peninsula suggests that rabbits were a crucial part of the modern human diet, but not in the diet of Neanderthals. “Rabbits originated in Iberia and they are a very special kind of resource, in that they can be found in large numbers, they are relatively easy to catch, and they are predictable. This means that they are quite a good food source to target. The fact that the Neanderthals did not appear to do so suggests that this was a resource they did not have access to in the same way as modern humans,” paleoecologist John Steward of Bournemouth University said in a press release. Neanderthals are usually thought of as hunters of large prey over short distances, but as the climate and environment changed and large game died out, Neanderthals may have been driven to extinction as well. Technological innovations could have helped modern humans adapt to catching faster, smaller prey. “If modern humans thrived when Neanderthals did not, it must mean that modern humans were better at exploiting resources than Neanderthals,” he explained. To read about the debate over whether to clone Neanderthals, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?" 

Rare Horse Unearthed in Colonial St. Augustine

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA—While excavating ahead of a construction project in St. Augustine’s historical district, city archaeologist Carl Halbirt uncovered a late eighteenth-century horse burial. “This is the only horse burial we have ever uncovered here in the colonial downtown district,” he told First Coast News. The small horse had been buried on land that had been the site of the Spanish Dragoon Barracks, so the horse was likely to have been a part of the colonial Spanish cavalry in St. Augustine. Its size suggests that it was a now rare breed called a Marsh Tacky. “There’s this subgroup of swamp ponies that are descendants of the original horses brought over from Spain,” explained Amanda LaPorta, a colonial cavalry expert. Marsh Tackies are known for being strong, fast, and able to maneuver the Florida terrain. Halbirt thinks this horse had been a dragoon’s companion. “I think there’s reverence here. They actually laid it out on its side with the legs folded in the chest area. That’s a sign of reverence,” he said. To read about the role of horses in history, go to our newest feature, "The Story of the Horse."