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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, April 21

Sediment Cores Reflect Maya Adaptations to Climate Change

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT—A new study of lake sediment cores in Mexico’s northern Yucatan region and in Guatemala has found that markers of historic droughts in Central America correspond with patterns of disruption in Maya society. “Our work demonstrates that the southern Maya lowlands experienced a more severe drought compared to the north. The south was the center of the Maya population, and their capacity to adapt was limited. The north was already accustomed to fairly dry conditions and did much better. There was actual expansion there after the collapse, but the southern cities never recovered,” Mark Pagani of Yale University said in a press release. The team examined hydrogen and carbon isotopes in leaf waxes from the sediment cores. The hydrogen isotopes provided information on drought, and the carbon isotope signatures provided information on agricultural methods. Peter Douglas of the California Institute of Technology notes that early in the drought period, the Maya adapted their method of farming maize from slash and burn to a more intensive system of agriculture so that their populations continued to grow. “The research makes clear that the ancient Maya were not passive victims of climate change—they adapted in response to drought, but it only worked up to a point,” Douglas added. To read in-depth about ancient Maya civilization, see "The Maya Sense of Time."

Old Kingdom Mastaba Found in Quesna

CAIRO, EGYPT—Mamdouh El Damaty, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, announced that a mastaba, or mud-brick tomb, from the Old Kingdom period had been found in Quesna, which is better known for its Roman period antiquities. “In 2010 a mud-brick monument was located in the north of the site that had beer jars dating to the early Old Kingdom. The shape of this monument suggested that it was a mastaba, but further investigations were needed to fully understand the architecture and its exact date. In the last few days of the 2014 excavation, an extraordinary artifact was found in one of the two burial niches—a seal impression bearing the name of King Khaba within a serekh,” Joanne Rowland of the Free University of Berlin said in a statement released by the Egypt Exploration Society. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, a serekh is the rectangular enclosure that surrounds the text of a royal name. King Khaba ruled during the Third Dynasty for about six years, and this tomb is the first to be found in more than 100 years that can be assigned to his reign. The tiny fragment was found by team member Yassen Hasan Abdallah Omer, who carefully examined every piece of mud removed from the site. To read about another tomb recently unearthed in Egypt, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Iron Age Owl Brooch Unearthed in Denmark

BORNHOLM, DENMARK—An enameled bronze brooch has been unearthed near the east coast of the island of Bornholm, located in the Baltic Sea. Shaped like an owl, the brooch, which has large orange eyes and colorful wings, dates to the Iron Age, and would have been used to fasten a man’s cloak. “There are very few of these types of fasteners,” archaeologist Christina Seehusen of Bornholm Museum told The Copenhagen Post. It was probably made along the Roman frontier, in Cologne or another nearby town. “There have been a number of discoveries in graves and settlements on the island that show there was contact with many parts of the world including frequent contact with parts of the Roman Empire,” Seehusen said. To read about another remarkable artifact discovered in Denmark, see "Bronze Age Dagger."

Thracian Child Sacrifice Discovered in Bulgaria

MURSALEVO, BULGARIA—Skeletons of three children thought to have been sacrificed by the Thracians in the sixth century B.C. have been discovered in one of 20 ritual pits at a site in southwest Bulgaria. The pits were uncovered during rescue digs by archaeologists from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences along the planned route of a new highway. Stones thought to have been used in the sacrificial ritual were also removed from the pit. Other pits contained the remains of food and animal offerings, such as the complete skeleton of a calf that was found with a knife blade. Archaeologists think that the Thracians honored the site because of the early Neolithic city that once stood there. The 8,000-year-old settlement had three parallel major streets divided by smaller, perpendicular streets. Each section formed by the streets held three or four homes built of plant stalks and clay. Artifacts from the homes include ceramic figurines of a mother goddess, tools, a golden earring, a button, and a needle. The city appears to have been deliberately burned, according to Archaeology in Bulgaria. To read about a recent archaeological discovery in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Monday, April 20

Everyday Latin Read on Spain’s “Terra Sigillata”

VALÈNCIA, SPAIN—Josep Montesinos of the Asociación RUVID, and Xaverio Ballester of the University of València are gathering information about the Latin spoken in Roman Hispania through the writing found on the molded and stamped ceramic wares kept in the Spanish Royal Academy of History. “Research focuses on the words written on the surface of these everyday ceramic pieces which can provide linguistic data, but also territorial and ethnological information,” Montesinos said in a press release. The pots bear marks and decorations made by their users, and include personal details such as proper names and colloquial phrases. The ceramics “allow us to approach the real language, popular Latin, very different from formal Latin or from that found in obituaries and, therefore, reveal the customs and habits of Roman Hispania,” Montesinos explained. To read about the Roman Empire's rise to dominance, see "Rome's Imperial Port."

Steel Blade May Have Been Wielded by Mongol Invader

YAROSLAVL, RUSSIA—Analysis of a fragment taken from a saber found in a mass grave in the historic trade center of Yaroslavl indicates it is the oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe. Steel of this kind was first produced in India in the first century A.D., and later in Central Asia, but it was very expensive during the medieval period. The grave, located alongside the Dormition Cathedral, holds the remains of people slaughtered during the invasion of the city by Batu Khan in 1238. “The site contains comprehensive evidence of the atrocity committed that day. We found numerous skeletons of murdered women and children, many household objects like dishes, jewelry, many weapons, and this saber,” Asya Engovatova of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a press release. The weapon’s handle has been lost, and its blade is bent. Micro-cracks in the blade show that it had been heated to a high temperature, perhaps in order to bend it before it was discarded. Engovatova thinks the blade may have belonged to a wealthy warrior from Batu Khan’s army. To read about another recently discovered sword, see "Viking Trading or Raiding?"

New Thoughts on Neanderthal Cooking

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Neanderthals went extinct in most of Europe around 40,000 years ago, some 5,000 years after the arrival of the first modern humans. “The issue of Neanderthal extinction is very complex, and very little is agreed upon,” Anna Goldfield of Boston University said at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, reported in Live Science. She thinks that mastery of fire may have given modern humans an advantage over Neanderthals in the struggle for survival. Cooking would have provided modern humans with more calories from the same amount of food, and it kills bacteria, making the food safer to eat. Fires also provide warmth. Goldfield and mathematical biologist Ross Booton of the University of Sheffield used mathematical models to simulate how the populations of modern humans and Neanderthals might have changed if modern humans were using fire more frequently than Neanderthals, and when the two groups were using fire about equally. They also looked at the reindeer population—a food source for both groups. The numbers suggest that if modern humans used fire more often than the Neanderthals, they would have eventually won the competition for resources. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post reports that a study published in the journal Antiquity suggests that Neanderthals living in northern Spain some 50,000 years ago were cooking with chamomile and yarrow, which have anti-microbial and anti-parasitic properties, just because they liked the taste. Chemicals from the herbs and chemicals associated with smoked and cooked meats were found on the Neanderthals’ teeth by a team led by Karen Hardy of the University of Barcelona. Sabrina Krief of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues agree that the Neanderthals may have used the herbs as medicine, or even as flavor enhancers, since they have observed chimpanzees in the wild chewing bitter herbs and flavorful soils before and during meat-based meals. “The strong, bitter taste of the leaves may modify the flavor of viscera, muscles, organs, or water. The bitter taste of the cooked plant does not necessarily disappear completely; chamomile, for example, remains bitter when infused,” they wrote. To read more about Neanderthals, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Fragments of the Ancient Wall of Memphis Found

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team from the Russian Institute of Egyptology at Kom Tuman has uncovered white limestone fragments of the wall that surrounded the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, which sits at the mouth of the Nile Delta. The 5,200-year-old enclosure wall protected the palaces of the pharaohs and the state administrative buildings. “Unlike royal tombs, pyramids, mortuary, and cult-related temples and any other buildings related to the afterlife, ancient Egyptian royal palaces, administrative offices, houses, and other life-related buildings were often made of mud brick,” Kamal Wahid, director of the central administration of Giza antiquities, told The Cairo Post. The city, now known for its colossal statue of Ramses II, was founded at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. by Menes, the first-dynasty pharaoh who was the first to unify the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. “A number of pottery-making ovens and bronze tools were also found. The excavations will continue and we will be working to unearth the rest of the wall, as well as any archaeological elements which could help us to know more about this early period of Egyptian history,” added Galina A. Belova, director of the Russian archaeological team. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Friday, April 17

Pictish Fort Unearthed on Scottish Sea Stack

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—A team of six archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen climbed Dunnicaer sea stack on the northeast coast of Scotland, where they uncovered traces of a Pictish fort, including a house, a fireplace, and ramparts. “It shows that people, for at least part of the year, were living on the sea stack which is quite remarkable. There were quite a lot of forts on the coastline and in Moray, control of the sea seems to be a big part of power to the Picts,” archaeologist Gordon Noble told The Press and Journal. The team ascended the sea stack with the help of professional climber Duncan Paterson. “I don’t think any of them have much experience of this kind of terrain, so it’s been a big challenge. Beating the tide was also a challenge, and then I set up a tension rope—some would call it a zip wire—to get them across the water and then they were roped up to climb the stack,” Paterson said. “Was this a precursor to Dunnottar Castle, or one of a series of Pictish forts along this coastline?” wondered Noble. He and his team may return to the site for further excavations. For another sea stack project, see "Scots on the Rocks."

More Evidence of Cannibalism Found in Gough’s Cave

LONDON, ENGLAND—Ancient human remains from Gough’s Cave, located in southwest England, exhibit signs of a sophisticated culture of butchering and carving of human remains, according to scientists from the Natural History Museum of London, University College London, and IPHES and the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Spain. In 2011, scientists from the museum announced that the earliest-known skull cups had been found in Gough’s Cave. “We’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research. We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow,” Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum said in a press release. Radiocarbon dates show that the bones were deposited over a short period of time, possibly during seasonal occupations, nearly 15,000 years ago. Cannibalism may have been part of a mortuary practice that combined processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull cups. “Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough’s Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world,” said Simon Parfitt of University College London. For more recent evidence of the practice, see "Colonial Cannibalism."

Mushrooms Were on the Upper Palaeolithic Menu

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of dental calculus on 18,000-year-old teeth found in Spain’s El Mirón Cave indicates that Magdalenian hunters ate a variety of plant foods and mushrooms, in addition to meat from red deer and ibex. Robert Power of the Max Planck Research Group detected a diverse assemblage of microremains in the dental calculus using optical and scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. “These types of microremains show that the individuals at El Mirón consumed a variety of plants from different environments, as well as other foods, including possibly bolete mushrooms,” he said in a press release. “This finding at El Mirón Cave could be the earliest indication of human mushroom use or consumption, which until this point has been unidentified in the Palaeolithic,” Power concluded. To read about a similar discovery, see "Bone Analysis Shows Gravettian People Ate Mammoth."

Were Footprints Left by Homo Erectus Hunters?

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Some 100 footprints near Ileret, Kenya, are thought to have been left 1.5 million years old by a hunting party made up of Homo erectus adults. “What we can say is that we have a number of individuals, probably males, that are moving across a lake shore in a way that is consistent with how carnivores move,” palaeoanthropologist Neil Roach of the American Museum of Natural History said at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, reported in Nature. Some researchers have speculated that Homo erectus turned from scavenging to hunting to obtain more calories for their developing brains. But “hunting is a difficult thing to prove in human evolution,” Roach said. He and his team plan to study footprints left behind by subsistence hunters today in order to get a better idea of their patterns of movement for comparison. To read in-depth about the evolution of throwing, see "No Changeups on the Savannah."