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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, November 19

Second Possible Medieval “Witch Girl” Unearthed in Italy

SAN CALOCERO, ITALY—The remains of a severely malnourished young girl have been found in a pit covered with heavy stone slabs by a team led by Philippe Pergola of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology. The burial suggests that the girl, between the ages of 15 and 17 when she died sometime between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, was perceived to be dangerous. She had been burned, taken by her elbows, and thrown into the pit so that her chin almost touched her breastbone. “We can’t say whether she was alive or not when she was burnt. Fire attacked her body when soft tissues were still present, so it could have occurred before death or soon after,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News. The skeleton were unearthed near the spot where the remains of another malnourished individual, dubbed a “witch girl,” was found two years ago. It is unlikely that the two were related, but if radiocarbon dating shows that they are from the same time period, scientists will try to compare their DNA. To read about a similar discovery, go to "Witches of Cornwall."

Roman Coin Hoard Discovered in Switzerland

UEKEN, SWITZERLAND—A farmer in northern Switzerland discovered a cache of 1,700-year-old Roman coins in his cherry orchard and alerted the regional archaeological service. “The orchard where the coins were found was never built on. It is land that has always been farmed,” archaeologist Georg Matter told The Guardian. Numbering more than 4,000, the bronze coins may have been worth a year or two of wages and are in excellent condition. They were probably hidden in small leather pouches shortly after they were minted, around A.D. 294. A Roman town was discovered nearby a few months ago. To read about a similar discovery in England, go to "Seaton Down Hoard."

Well-Preserved 18th-Century Trade Center Excavated in Qatar

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—In the eighteenth century, Qatar’s historic city of Al Zubarah had a successful pearl fishery and was a center of commerce thought to have been founded by people from the Utub tribe in Kuwait. “The pearls from Al Zubarah were sent by sea to India. From there, they were sent on to the rest of the world. In Al Zubarah, we also found porcelain from China and Japan and coins from Germany, so it was a thriving global trading network, 250 years ago,” Moritz Kinzel of the Institute of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen told Science Nordic. Kinzel and his team have so far excavated a residential neighborhood, a market area, and a palace, and found pottery, decorated building fragments, wooden boxes, and stone weights used by pearl divers. “Al Zubarah was neither under the influence of the Ottoman Empire or the British. People could trade freely and build their own businesses. But it didn’t last,” Kinzel said. The city was destroyed by the Sultan of Oman in 1811. But as Al Zubarah was forgotten and reclaimed by sand, it was also protected from modern development. To read more about archaeology in the Persian Gulf, go to "Archaeology Island."

New Survey Conducted at Chile’s Monte Verde

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University has worked at Monte Verde in southern Chile since 1977. It had been thought that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in the Americas some 13,000 years ago, but Dillehay’s work at Monte Verde helped scientists to push back that date. Now he has led an international team of archaeologists, geologists, and botanists in an archaeological and geological survey of Monte Verde that found cooking pits with burned and unburned bone and scatters of simple stone tools. “One of the curious things about it is that unlike what we found before, a significant percentage, about 34 percent, were from non-local materials. Most of them probably come from the coast but some of them probably come from the Andes and maybe even the other side of the Andes,” Dillehay said in a press release. Some of the bones came from very large animals that were probably killed and butchered elsewhere between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago. Dillehay thinks people may have traveled through Monte Verde while traveling from the coast to the Andes during the summer months because it may have been more walkable than the surrounding bogs and wetlands, and the site had stone for making tools. To read more about the New World's earliest settlers, go to "America, in the Beginning."

Wednesday, November 18

Spanish Explorer Gave Thanks in St. Augustine, Florida

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Scholars from the University of Florida say that the first Thanksgiving took place in St. Augustine, Florida, 50 years before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World on the Mayflower. Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in 1565 with 800 soldiers, sailors, and settlers, after losing half of his eight ships to hurricanes and other hardships over the 68-day journey. “A Mass and feast of Thanksgiving was the first thing Menendez did, and he invited all of the local native people who were so curious about them,” Kathleen Deagan, distinguished research curator emerita of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a press release. The meal is thought to have taken place near the mouth of Hospital Creek on the Matanzas River, the site of Menéndez’s original encampment and first colony. Salted pork, red wine, garbanzo beans, olives, sea biscuits, and foods acquired during a stop in the Caribbean were probably on the menu. Timucuan guests may have contributed corn, fish, berries, and beans to the meal. To read more about Spanish Florida, go to "Off the Grid: Mission San Luis."

Study Examines Roles Played by Climate, Politics on Landscape

TEMPE, ARIZONA—Arizona State University archaeologist Christopher Morehart has partnered with researchers in the U.S. and Mexico to survey, map, and excavate archaeological sites over a large area to study how changes in climate and political structure affect how people interact with the environment. “Understanding what affects people more, shifts in the natural or in the political environment, is critical to understanding how we adapt and respond to change. To study these questions requires a long-term perspective and a large study area. We are working in the lands of four municipalities in the Basin of Mexico, making this project the largest regional survey and excavation project in this area in decades,” Morehart said in a press release. “This is a pressing concern today since the stability of political and institutional relationships directly impacts the sustainability of social and ecological relationships and human livelihoods,” he explained. To read in-depth about archaeology in the region, go to "Under Mexico City."

Operation Hidden Idols Recovers Bronze Sculpture

MUNCIE, INDIANA—Operation Hidden Idols, carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), has recovered a Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati that dates to the Chola Period (A.D. 860-1279) that had been purchased by the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University from a New York City gallery. Special agents from HSI’s cultural property unit traced the trail of false provenances that had been provided by the gallery for the sculpture back to when it had been looted from a temple in southern India in 2004. “HSI’s long-term goal is to reduce the incentive for this kind of criminal activity. Our partnerships with institutions like Ball State University are instrumental to this effort. We hope that other collectors, institutions, and museums will see this surrender as a successful example of a way to move forward when dealing with artifacts that might be of concern,” Glenn Sorge, acting special agent in charge for HSI New York, said in a press release. The bronze will serve as potential evidence in the case against the art dealer. It is anticipated that it will then be repatriated with at least six other Chola bronzes recovered by HSI to India. To read more about archaeology in that country, go to "India's Village of the Dead."

Tuesday, November 17

Denisovan DNA Extracted From Large, “Weird” Teeth

TORONTO, CANADA—Analysis of two molars from Siberia’s Denisova Cave by an international team of scientists confirms that they belonged to two adult male Denisovans who lived some 60,000 years apart. The earlier individual lived up to 130,000 years ago, while the more recent one lived between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The teeth are larger than those of Neanderthals and modern humans. “In its size, it’s comparable to hominins that lived two or three million years ago…but the age of it shows that it’s very recent,” Bence Viola of the University of Toronto told CBC Canada. “The whole group probably had very large and weird teeth.” Denisovans probably had large jaws to accommodate these teeth. And genetic evidence indicates that a large, diverse population of Denisovans lived over much of Asia for tens of thousands of years. There may even be excavated fossils in China that have not been recognized as Denisovan yet. “I’m really convinced. The genetic data shows that these guys were spread over large parts of Asia, so we must have them,” Viola said. To read more, go to "Denisovan DNA."

Gold Coins, Ingots, Found in Western Han Dynasty Tomb

NANCHANG, CHINA—The Xinhua News Agency reports that 75 large gold coins and 25 hoof-shaped ingots have been discovered in a tomb in a Western Han Dynasty royal cemetery in Jiangxi Province. The 2,000-year-old tomb is thought to belong to Liu He, who served as emperor for only 27 days before he was deposed. The gold had been placed in three boxes under a bed in the tomb’s main chamber and may have been a gift from the emperor. The tomb has also yielded a portrait thought to represent Confucius; documents recorded on some 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips; and artifacts made from bronze, gold, and jade. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles." 

Austria Returns Statue to Egypt

VIENNA, AUSTRIA—The Local, Austria, reports that an ancient ushabti figurine confiscated from two men who tried to sell it for more than two million euros has been returned to Egypt by Sabine Haag, director of Vienna’s Art History Museum. The two men, who were acquitted of receiving the allegedly stolen artifact, claimed to have bought it at a flea market. Museum officials authenticated the figurine, which is some 2,500 years old, and handed it over to the Egyptian ambassador Khaled Abdelrahman Abdellatif Shamaa. Ushabti figurines are grave goods that were intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife. To read in-depth about ancient Egypt, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Byzantine Wine Press Unearthed in Southern Israel

NETIVOT, ISRAEL—Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, assisted by volunteers and students, unearthed a press that was used for the mass-production of wine some 1,500 years ago in a village in the Negev. “First, the grapes were pressed. Then the juice was funneled through canals to a pit where the sediment settled. From there, the wine was piped into vats lined with stone and marble, where it would ferment until it was stored in clay bottles,” supervisor Ilan Peretz said in a press release. A cross had been etched into seashells that decorated one of the vats of the wine press. The excavators also found a workshop and a public building that had been decorated with marble latticework in the form of a cross and flowers. The team also recovered tools, seals, cups, and oil lamps. For more on ancient wine, go to "A Prehistoric Cocktail Party."