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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, July 22

Qur’an Manuscript Is One of World’s Oldest

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Fragments of two parchment leaves on which text of the Qur’an had been written have been radiocarbon dated to between A.D. 568 and 645. The manuscript, held at the University of Birmingham, is thought to have been written shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who probably lived between A.D. 570 and 632, making it one of the oldest surviving examples of the book. The text contains parts of the Suras 18 to 20, and is written is an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. These leaves had been bound with similar leaves that date to the late seventh century. “The radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an folios has yielded a startling result and reveals one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collections. They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” David Thomas of the University of Birmingham said in a press release. To read about an early medieval Christian manuscript discovered in an Irish bog, go to "Artifact: The Faddan More Psalter."

Hohle Fels Cave Yields Paleolithic Figurine Fragments

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Two fragments of a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory have been found in Hohle Fels Cave. The fragments resemble a breast and part of the stomach of the 40,000-year-old figurine known as the Venus from Hohle Fels, which was discovered in 2008. This carving may have been slightly larger, however, than the approximately two-inch-tall Venus. “The new discovery indicates that the female depictions are not as rare in the Aurignacian as previously thought, and that concerns about human sexuality, reproduction and fertility in general have a very long and rich history dating to the Ice Age,” Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen said in a press release. To read about another masterpiece of Paleolithic art, go to "New Life for Lion Man."

The Peopling of the New World

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A new large-scale genome study is adding to the debate over how the peopling of the Americas occurred. An international team of scientists sampled several present-day Native American and Siberian populations, in addition to ancient DNA samples from across the Americas. “Our study presents the most comprehensive picture of the genetic prehistory of the Americas to date. We show that all Native Americans, including the major sub-groups of Amerindians and Athabascans, descend from the same migration wave into the Americas. This was distinct from later waves that gave rise to the Paleo-Eskimo and Inuit populations in the New World Arctic region,” Maanasa Raghavan of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen said in a press release. The results also indicate that the initial migration took place no earlier than 23,000 years ago, when Native Americans split from East Asian and Siberian populations. Ancestral Native Americans may then have been isolated in Beringia for some 8,000 years, since the oldest archaeological evidence in the Americas is about 15,000 years old. The study also found that some 13,000 years ago, this population split into northern and southern branches. Gene flow between some Native American groups and present-day East Asians and Australo-Melanesians was also detected. “It is a surprising finding and it implies that New World populations were not completely isolated from the Old World after their initial migration. We cannot say exactly how and when this gene flow happened, but one possibility is that it came through the Aleutian Islanders living off the coast of Alaska,” added Eske Willerslev, who headed the study. To read more about the peopling of the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."  

4,000-Year-Old Egyptian Reliefs Unearthed

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damaty announced the discovery of two carvings by archaeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology. The reliefs were uncovered in the temple of Serapis in the ancient port city of Berenice, located on the Red Sea coast. One of the reliefs has been dated to the Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 B.C.) because it bears the cartouche of the 12th Dynasty king Amenemhat IV. The other has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period (1674-1549 B.C.), although it is not as well preserved as the first. The reliefs are older than the port city, which was built by Ptolemy II in the third century B.C. To read about a recently unearthed temple to the god Amun, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Tuesday, July 21

Genetic Study Links Amazonians and Australasians

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—A genetic study has revealed that the Tupí-speaking Suruí and Karitiana, and the Ge-speaking Xavante peoples of the Amazon had an ancestor more closely related to indigenous Australasians than other present-day populations. “We’ve done a lot of sampling in East Asia and nobody looks like this. It’s an unknown group that doesn’t exist anymore,” Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School said in a press release. Skoglund and population geneticist David Reich have labeled this ancestor group Population Y, after the Tupí word for ancestor, “Ypykuéra.” They think that Population Y and the so-called First Americans, whose DNA resembles that of today’s Native Americans, traversed the Bering land bridge into North America more than 15,000 years ago. “We don’t know the order, the time separation or the geographical patterns,” Skoglund said. The team would need DNA from a member of Population Y to determine how much it contributed to today’s Amazonians. “We have a broad view of the deep origins of Native American ancestry, but within that diversity we know very little about the history of how those populations relate to each other,” Reich said. To read about the earliest migration to the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."

The Earliest-Known Chicken Dinners

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Archaeological evidence suggests that chickens were used in cockfighting in Southeast Asia as early as 8,000 years ago, and that the birds and the sport reached the Levant some 5,000 years ago. Now more than 1,000 chicken bones have been unearthed at Maresha, a city that flourished in what is now southern Israel between 400 and 200 B.C., on the trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt. Here there were twice as many female bird bones as males, and the bones showed signs of butchering, indicating that the birds had been raised for meat, and probably eggs. “This is a matter of culture. You have to decide that you are eating chicken from now on,” Lee Perry-Gal of the University of Haifa told NPR. Just one hundred years later, chickens had spread across Europe. For more on chicken's significance in the archaeological record, go to "Polynesian Chickens in Chile."

Radiocarbon Dating Endangered by Air Pollution

LONDON, ENGLAND—Fossil fuel emissions could soon make it impossible for radiocarbon dating to distinguish between new items and artifacts that are hundreds of years old, according to a study by Heather Graven of Imperial College London. Fossil fuels are so old that they contain no radioactive carbon-14. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the fraction of carbon-14 in an object, so fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere that are taken up by plants make an object seem to be older than it really is. For example, at the rate that fossil fuel emissions are increasing, by 2050, a new t-shirt would have the same radiocarbon date as a 1,000-year-old robe. “If we reduced fossil fuel emissions, it would be good news for radiocarbon dating,” Graven said in a press release. To read about an innovative dating technique, go to "Nondestructive Radiocarbon Dating."

Study Questions Identification of Remains in Macedonian Tombs

KOMOTINI, GREECE—A new analysis of bones from the tomb complex at Vergina suggests that the remains of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, were laid to rest in Tomb I, and not Tomb II, as scholars have speculated for decades. Philip II, who, according to historical records, limped from a battle injury, was assassinated in 336 B.C. His young wife Cleopatra and her infant daughter died days later in the Macedonian royal intrigue. Antonis Bartsiokas of Democritus University of Thrace and Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid say that the remains of the man in Tomb I was in his 40s when he died, and had suffered an injury that left his left femur fused to his tibia and locked in a 79-degree angle. A hole in the bone suggests the wound had been caused by a projectile and not disease. The tomb also contained the remains of a young woman and a newborn child. But not all scholars are convinced of the identification. “I think that we have made a very strong case. Now the focus of attention will turn to Tomb I. I am open to debate,” Arsuaga told Live Science. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's tomb, go to "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."

Monday, July 20

World War II Tunnels Reopened in Dover

DOVER, ENGLAND—After two years of excavations conducted by volunteers, the Fan Bay Deep Shelter, constructed in just 100 days by order of Winston Churchill, has been opened to visitors. Consisting of tunnels under the White Cliffs of Dover, the bombproof shelter served as a hospital, store, and housing for officers and soldiers from the Royal Artillery. The tunnels were filled with more than 100 tons of rubble and soil in the 1970s, until they were rediscovered in 2012. The volunteers removed the debris by hand to reveal wartime graffiti, wire twisted by hand into hooks, ammunition, and a needle and thread tucked into a tunnel wall. The site also has two sound mirrors, which gave an early warning of approaching enemy aircraft during World War I. “With no public access for over 40 years, the tunnels remain much as they were when they were abandoned. We’ve preserved both the natural decay and authentic atmosphere of the space,” Jon Barker, visitor experience manager at the White Cliffs, said in a National Trust press release. To read more about how archaeologists are adding to the history of the Second World War, go to "Archaeology of World War II."

New York City Site Yields Native American Artifacts

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—More than 100 Native American artifacts, including pottery and stone tools dating to between A.D. 200 and 1000, have been unearthed near the waterfront in Pelham Bay Park. The site may have been a meeting place where clams and other food sources could be harvested. “I’ve never seen anything like it found in New York City before,” Amanda Sutphin, director of archaeology for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, told The New York Post. The site was discovered during a project to remove a deteriorating seawall and add a walking path and an area for dogs to the Bronx park, but the construction has been put on hold and the site covered up it ensure its safety. The park may be redesigned around the archaeological site, which could be declared a landmark to protect it from future development. To read about another fascinating site in the history of New York City, go to "The Hidden History of New York's Harbor."

Software “Unwraps” Charred Ein Gedi Scroll

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A charred scroll discovered in the 1970 excavations of the synagogue at Ein Gedi has been “virtually unwrapped” by Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky. Seales and his team used data collected from a micro-computed tomography scan for the study, leaving the scroll intact and unopened. “The text revealed today from the Ein Gedi scroll was possible only because of the collaboration of many different people and technologies. The last step of virtual unwrapping, done at the University of Kentucky through the hard work of a team of talented students, is especially satisfying because it has produced readable, identifiable, biblical text from a scroll thought to be beyond rescue,” Seales said in a press release. Part of the scroll, dated to the sixth century A.D., is from the beginning of the biblical book of Leviticus. “The page actually comes from a layer buried deep within the many wraps of the scroll body, and is possible to view it only through the remarkable results of our software, which implements the research idea of ‘virtual unwrapping,’” Seales said. To read about another project working to decipher ancient scrolls using hi-tech methods, go to "The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum."