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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, September 02

Silk Relics Cleaned and Studied in Milan

BONN, GERMANY—Archaeologist Sabine Schrenk of the University of Bonn, and Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, are working together to clean silk tunics housed at the Basilica of Sant-Ambrogio in Milan. Most recently, the garments had been kept between heavy glass plates that contributed to their deterioration, and a careful cleaning is required to preserve them. The tunics are ascribed to St. Ambrose, a fourth century bishop of the emperor’s residence of Milan, who is honored as a doctor of the Christian church. According to Schrenk, the tunics have not been proven to date to the fourth century, but she doesn’t think that they could have been made much later. One of the tunics is decorated with intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards. “These pieces were revered as the tunics of St. Ambrose probably by the eleventh century,” she told Science Daily. Schrenk thinks that such silks may have been produced in Milan in the fourth century with thread from China. “Milan at the time, being the emperor’s residence, had access to ample patronage, and used silk in grand fashion. I would be very surprised if there had not been silk workshops there at the time,” she added.   

Are Marks in Gorham Cave Neanderthal Art?

GIBRALTAR—A team led by Clive Finlayson, director of the heritage division of the Gibraltar Museum, claims that etchings discovered on a table-like rock outcropping in Gorham’s Cave were scratched by Neanderthals more than 39,000 years ago. The marks, which were covered with sediments that contained stone tools typical of those made by Neanderthals between 30,000 and 39,000 years ago, are up to a few millimeters deep and cover an area about the size of a Frisbee. Testing revealed that carving the engravings would have taken purposeful, repeated motions with Neanderthal tools. “Is it art? I don’t know. I can’t get into the minds of these people. It looks geometric. It looks like criss-cross patterning. What is clear is that it’s abstract, it’s deliberate, and it speaks to their cognition in a way that brings Neanderthals, once again, closer to us,” Finlayson told Nature. To read about paintings in Spain some scholars consider the work of Neanderthals, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Neanderthal?"  

Spain Returns Smuggled Artifacts to Colombia

MADRID, SPAIN—Colombia has received nearly 700 artifacts, including pre-Columbian pottery, funeral urns, ocarinas, necklaces, and stamps that were seized by Spanish police 11 years ago and placed in the Museum of America in Madrid, where they were cataloged and identified. The objects had been smuggled out of South America by a man accused of laundering money for the drug cartels. “We have repatriated a museum which was abroad and which returns to Colombia to strengthen the historic identity of the country,” Jorge Fernando Perdomo, Colombia’s deputy attorney general, told Hispanic Business. He also thanked the Spanish government for the police work involved in the case. 

UPDATE: Unusual Floor Uncovered in Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Removal of loose sand from the antechamber directly behind the wall with two sphinxes at the tomb at Amphipolis has revealed a floor section made of irregular pieces of white marble on a red background. This room also has traces of a fresco with blue coloring on the wall behind the sphinxes. Archaeologists told The Greek Reporter that all three chambers of the unusual tomb had been filled with sand when the structure was sealed. They think that the inner walls may have been installed to hold back the sand, and that gaps in the walls may have been part of the sealing process. The team is also working to protect the excavation from rain, and shore up the tomb against the pressure exerted by the earth in the next chamber. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's lost tomb, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."  

Friday, August 29

Rabbits Provide Window Into Animal Domestication

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—The relatively recent domestication of the rabbit some 1,400 years ago in France makes it an excellent model for the study of the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture. To begin, an international team of scientists sequenced the entire genome of one domestic rabbit as a reference genome assembly. Then they sequenced entire genomes of six different breeds of domestic rabbits, and wild rabbits from taken from different locations in the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. Science Daily reports that the team found domestication occurred, not through changes in the genes that are present, but through small changes in how and when the genes are regulated and used in different cells. Many of those genes altered by domestication are involved in the development of the brain and nervous system, explaining the drastic differences in behavior between domestic and wild rabbits. “We predict that a similar process has occurred in other domestic animals and that we will not find a few specific ‘domestication genes’ that were critical for domestication,” explained team member Leif Andersson of Uppsala University.

The Search for Clovis People in Kansas

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—Rolfe Mandel and a team of students from the University of Kansas are waiting for the results of tests to date the sediment samples they took from the Coffey Site, located in northeast Kansas along Tuttle Creek. “It will tell us a lot about the history of the peopling of the Americas and in particular the peopling of the Great Plains, especially the Central Great Plains, where it’s been pretty much a black hole in terms of unraveling that story,” he told Phys.org. They are hoping to find evidence of Clovis and Pre-Clovis people. “We are talking about small family units, hunters and gatherers. It’s a group of five or six, maybe a little bit larger wandering across the landscape. They’re following herds of animals. Of course, at the time, the assemblage of animals looked a lot different than what it does today,” he added. For the latest on how archaeologists are rethinking the early history of the New World, see ARCHAEOLOGY's special section "America, in the Beginning."    

Genomics Study Offers Clues to Arctic Cultures

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A large-scale study of mitochondrial DNA and the genomes of 169 ancient humans from different time periods in the New World Arctic region by Maanasa Raghavan of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues suggests that the Saqqaq culture, whose people lived about 4,000 years ago, and members of the Dorset culture, who succeeded them 2,800 years ago, belonged to one Paleo-Eskimo people. According to Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, comparison with the genomes of present-day Inuits and Native Americans shows that reindeer-hunting Paleo-Eskimos were genetically distinct, and may have migrated to the New World on their own as a tiny founder population.  But the lineage disappeared at about the same time that the whale-hunting, Neo-Eskimo Thules expanded into the Arctic. Were the Dorsets pushed out of the Arctic by the Thules some 700 years ago, or were they annihilated by a disease? “It’s just mind-blowing to imagine an entire people who just completely vanished,” Willerslev told Science.   

Thursday, August 28

Researchers Look for Camp Security

YORK, PENNSYLVANIA—Volunteers assisting with the investigation of Camp Security, where more than 1,000 British troops who surrendered at the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown were held, found eighteenth century buttons, a British half-penny adorned with a bust of King George II, and a lead musket ball. One of the buttons was made of tombac, and alloy of zinc and copper. Another button, made of brass with a star-like design, was common during the Revolutionary War period. “Now we don’t know what part of the site we’re on at this point in time. We won’t know that until we’ve done a lot of testing. So we’re hoping to gather that information over the course of the next several weeks,” archaeologist Steve Warfel told The Evening Sun.   

Complete Cruciform Pit House Excavated in Canada

TORONTO, CANADA—An intact cruciform pit house built by the Inuvialuit has been discovered from the in the permafrost of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Such houses, which were in use from about 1400 to 1900, have a central floor area and three large alcoves. “If you look at it from above, it kind of looks like a cross,” Max Friesen of the University of Toronto told CBC News. The floor, benches, and roof of the house at the Kuukpak site along the Mackenzie River were made of driftwood. Skins and sod were added for insulation, and an entrance tunnel extends toward the Mackenzie River. “It’s probably the single largest Inuvialuit site that was ever occupied. I would guess at least maybe 40 houses. That’s enormous,” Friesen said. He and his team will attempt to complete the excavation over the next few years before the site is destroyed by erosion.   

“Slaves’ Hill” Was Home to High-Status Craftsmen

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—New information from excavations in southern Israel’s Timna Valley by Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University suggests that the laborers who smelted copper at the site 3,000 years ago were skilled craftsmen of high social status. Since the 1930s, it has been thought that the Iron Age camp was inhabited by slaves because of the massive barrier that had been unearthed and the harsh conditions created by the furnaces and desert conditions. The well-preserved bones, seeds, fruits, and fabric that have been recently recovered tell a different story, however. “The copper smelters were given the better cuts of meat—the meatiest parts of the animals. Someone took great care to give the people working in the furnaces the best of everything. They also enjoyed fish, which must have been brought from the Mediterranean hundreds of kilometers away. This was not the diet of slaves but of highly regarded, maybe even worshipped, craftsmen,” Sapir-Hen told Phys.org. Ben-Yosef adds that the wall at the site was probably used to protect sophisticated technology and valuable copper ingots. To read about the discovery of an Iron Age temple in Israel, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Artifact."  

Wooden Roman Toilet Seat Discovered at Vindolanda

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—A 2,000-year-old wooden toilet seat has been discovered in a muddy garbage trench at Vindolanda, a Roman fort located at Hadrian’s Wall. “As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found. It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable,” director of excavations Andrew Birley told BBC News. Stone and marble seats are well known, but this example may be the only surviving wooden seat. Birley thinks wood made have been chosen because of the “chilly northern location.” He and his crew will look for the latrine that fits the seat. To read about an ancient Roman birthday party invitation found at Vindolanda, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Artifact."