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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, February 24

Statues of Sekhmet Unearthed at Kom El-Hitan

LUXOR, EGYPT—More than 60 statues of Sekhmet have been found at Amenhotep III’s temple at Kom El-Hitan on Luxor’s west bank. Now Egyptologist Horig Sourouzian has uncovered two more busts of the lioness goddess on the northeastern side of the temple’s pillar halls. One of the statues depicts Sekhmet sitting on a throne; the other, smaller sculpture is of her face. “Some Egyptologists believe that king Amenhotep constructed a large number of statue goddess Sekhmets in an attempt to cure him of a specific disease that he suffered during his reign,” Sourouzian told Ahram Online.

Did Plague Travel From Asia to Europe on the Silk Road?

OSLO, NORWAY—Christian Stenseth of the University of Oslo and his team have examined tree-ring records from Europe and compared that information with more than 7,000 historical outbreaks of the Black Death to see if the weather conditions would have supported large populations of black rats to transmit the bacteria-carrying fleas to humans. “For this, you would need warm summers, with not too much precipitation. Dry but not too dry. And we have looked at the broad spectrum of climatic indices, and there is no relationship between the appearance of plague and the weather,” Stenseth told BBC News. The research team thinks that the wet springs and warm summers in Asia, however, may have caused the great gerbil, which also carries plague, to thrive. “We show that wherever there are good conditions for gerbils and fleas in central Asia, some years later the bacteria shows up in harbor cities in Europe and then spreads across the continent,” he said. Now plague bacteria DNA taken from skeletons across Europe is being analyzed. Large amounts of variation in the genetic material would support the idea of different strains coming from Asia rather than a European rat reservoir. For more on the disease, see "Plague Vampire Exorcism."

Cathedral Grave May Have Belonged to a Medieval Knight

HEREFORD, ENGLAND—An osteological study of more than 700 sets of human remains excavated from Hereford Cathedral suggests that one of the graves held the remains of a knight. Analysis of the knight’s teeth shows he was likely from Normandy and had moved to Hereford later in life. The skeleton, which has been dated to between A.D. 1100 and 1300, had several fractures to the ribs and right shoulder that are consistent with injuries sustained while jousting. Only some of the wounds had healed; the unhealed wounds had been sustained close to the time of death. The body also had an unusual twisting break in the lower left leg, perhaps inflicted after a hit to the right side of the upper body while on horseback. The hit could have spun the rider, catching the left foot in the stirrup. “Obviously we can never be sure how people came about their wounds, but in this case there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting this man was involved in some form of violent activity and the locations of his injuries do match quite closely what might be expected from taking part in mock battles. The fact that he was still doing this after he was 45 suggests he must have been very tough,” Andy Boucher of Headland Archaeology Limited told British Archaeology News Resource. For a similar discovery, read "A Knight's Family Crypt Unearthed in Scotland."

Defleshed Body Parts Found at Mortuary Complex in Bolivia

LANCASTER, PENNSYLVANIA—In the mortuary complex at Bolivia’s site of Khonkho Wankane, Scott C. Smith of Franklin & Marshall College and Pérez Arias of the University of Pittsburgh unearthed human body parts that may have been defleshed and processed into easy-to-carry pieces. These were “portable ancestors for a mobile population,” Smith told USA Today. In one stone and adobe building, the team discovered nearly 1,000 teeth and small bones that were coated with a thin layer of white plaster, in addition to white-coated pots and tools made of llama bones. White blocks, probably quicklime, were also discovered. Quicklime, which turns to white plaster when exposed to air, is still used to clean skeletons. And an image of a person with defleshed ribs was found carved on a stone pillar outside the mortuary. Researchers think that from the first through fifth centuries A.D. itinerant llama herders used the site to strip flesh and clean the bones of the dead so that they could be carried from place to place. “The dead still played an active and important role in the lives of the living,” Smith explained.To read about another recent discovery made in Bolivia, see "Tiwanaku Drug Paraphernalia Found."

Monday, February 23

Browns Canyon Added to List of National Monuments

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—President Obama has added Browns Canyon in central Colorado to the list of protected National Monuments. “Browns Canyon harbors a wealth of scientifically significant geological, ecological, riparian, cultural, and historic resources, and is an important area for studies of paleoecology, mineralogy, archaeology, and climate change,” the president said in a statement reported by The Environment News Service. Artifacts estimated to be more than 10,000 years old have been found in the Browns Canyon area. Eighteen archaeological sites have been found in the few areas that have been surveyed, including five prehistoric sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. 

Skull Fragment May Represent Extinct Lineage of Humans

NAIROBI, KENYA—A second look at a 22,000-year-old skull fragment from the collections at the National Museums of Kenya suggests that humans were more diverse than previously thought. “It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we’ve since lost,” Christian Tryon of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum told Live Science. The skull, discovered in the 1970s at rock shelters at Lukenya Hill, resembles that of a modern human, but its dimensions are different from finds of the same age in Africa and Europe. The skull is also thickened, perhaps from damage, nutritional stress, or a highly active childhood. Artifacts from the site include 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads, and tiny stone blades.

Skeletal Remains Found in Buddha Statue

AMERSFOORT, NETHERLANDS—CT scans and endoscopy of a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue from China have revealed a mummified body thought to belong to the Buddhist master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School. The statue, housed at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands, was examined at the Meander Medical Center. Discovery News reports that the body’s organs had been removed from the abdominal cavity and replaced with an unidentified material and paper printed with Chinese characters. Researchers at the Drents Museum speculate that the statue may represent a rare case of "self-mummification," in which monks would follow a special diet that turned them into "living skeletons" and would then be placed into tombs only slightly larger than themselves where they would eventually die. To read about tattoos on a more ancient mummy from China, see "Tarim Basin Mummy."

Archaeologists Will Use Drones to Search the Amazon

EXETER, ENGLAND—An international project funded by the European Research Council will search the Amazon River Basin for clues to the forest’s inhabitants for the past 3,000 years. Jose Iriarte of the University of Exeter says that recent work has shown that the Amazon was populated with more complex societies than scientists had thought the forest could support. Dark earth, cultivated by humans to create raised agricultural fields, and geoglyphs made up of large ditches, can be spotted from the air by drones carrying Lidar technology, which uses lasers to map the topography of the ground. “We are hoping that with Lidar we are going to be able to discover all of these archaeological features like mounts, ditches, trail ways and so forth, so that when you put them together you can really have an idea of the regional archaeological landscape,” Iriarte told Deutsche Welle. The data will also help scientists see how humans have changed the forest. “This has implications for conservation because maybe the very biodiversity that we want to preserve today is not only the result of millions of years of natural processes, but also have a human footprint,” he said. To read more about the use of Lidar in New World archaeology, see "Lasers in the Jungle."

Friday, February 20

Ancient vs. Modern Cities

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO—Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Colorado Boulder have revealed the results of a study designed to understand whether ancient settlements and modern cities functioned in similar or different ways. By examining pre-contact archaeological data from sites in the Basin of Mexico to estimate populations, densities, size and construction rates of monuments and buildings, and the intensity of site use, the researchers learned that, in fact, ancient settlements and modern cities functioned in much the same way. “It was shocking and unbelievable,” says anthropologist and study author Scott Ortman. “We were raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.” To read more about Mexico City’s buried history, go to “Under Mexico City.”

Under the Streets of Singapore

SINGAPORE—At a 1,000-square-meter excavation site in front of the Empress Palace in Singapore undertaken in advance of a large construction and beautification project, archaeologists have found artifacts dating back as much as 700 years, reports AsiaOne. The dig is the largest excavation project in Singapore for more than three decades and the finds include Chinese ceramics, jars, and figurines, copper coins, and carnelian beads. "The Empress Place was the location of a thriving port in the early days and any new discovery will hopefully advance our understanding of Singapore's earliest beginnings," said excavation leader and archaeologist Lim Chen Sian. To read about the world’s oldest pottery, go to "The First Pots."

Medieval Polish History Uncovered

MAZURY, POLAND—At the site of Skomack Wielki in northern Poland, archaeologists have discovered a surprising cache of intact pottery, and iron and bronze artifacts dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, reports Science and Scholarship in Poland. The metal finds include both luxury items such as jewelry and buckles, as well more every day objects as knives and toiletries. Excavation director Anna Bitner-Wróblewska suggests that the site was probably inhabited by members of the Galind tribe, a community that had what she calls “extremely extensive contacts” with large areas of Europe at this time. To read about a cemetery filled with vampires, go to “Polish ‘Vampire’ Burials Studied.” 

New Research Into Indo-European Languages

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Linguists at the University of California, Berkeley, have used data gathered from more than 150 languages to show that the common ancestor of many of today’s languages, including English, first emerged 5,500-6,500 years ago in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Using sets of words from both living and dead Indo-European languages, the researchers found evidence to support what is known as the “Steppe Hypothesis,” as opposed to the interpretation that suggests that these languages evolved from a common ancestor in Anatolia (modern Turkey) as much as 9,500 years ago. To read more about—and to hear a sample of—Indo-European languages, go to “Wolf Rites of Winter.”