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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, December 15

Denmark's Ribe May Be Older Than Previously Thought

AARHUS, DENMARK—A new study suggests that the coastal town of Ribe, the oldest town in Scandinavia, is older than had been originally thought. “If Ribe began as a city in the early 700s, then it was long before the Vikings and thus casts new light on our understanding of this period,” Sarah Croix of Aarhus University told The Copenhagen Post. She reviewed archaeological data collected in the 1980s by archaeologist Stig Jensen, who died before compiling the results of his partial excavation of a house on St. Nicholas Street. Croix found that tools, such as millstones for grinding grain, show the wear and tear of daily use. She thinks additional houses, perhaps with fire places, could be found nearby, indicating that Ribe was a more permanent habitation site, in addition to being a harbor and commercial area. To read in-depth about the oldest evidence for Viking raiding in the Baltics, see "The First Vikings."

Racton Man’s Bronze Dagger Is 4,200 Years Old

CHICHESTER, ENGLAND—The tests results are in, and Racton Man’s bronze dagger, discovered by a metal detectorist in 1989, has been dated to 4,200 years ago, making it the earliest securely dated bronze object ever found in Britain. At the time, James Kenny, an archaeologist at Chichester District Council, went to the burial site and uncovered the skeleton and additional rivets. “What makes his dagger so stunning is the rivet-studded hilt. Its design is distinctively British, but of a significance is the fact that it dates to the transition from copper to bronze metallurgy. This dagger is bronze and so this item would have been incredibly rare at the time; its color and keen hard edge would have distinguished it from the more common copper objects in use,” explained archaeologist Stuart Needham. Analysis of Racton Man’s bones by a team from the London Institute of Archaeology shows that he stood more than six feet tall, and was more than 45 years old at the time of his death, perhaps caused by the unhealed wounds found under the right armpit and to the upper right arm. He also suffered from spinal degeneration, a chronic sinus infection, tooth decay, and an abscess. Isotope analysis of his teeth by scientists from Durham University suggest that he grew up in southern Britain. To read about a weapon from the same time period, see "Artifact: Bronze Age Dagger."

The Roman Method of Water Management

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS—The Romans carefully managed the water supply in the Mediterranean region through an extensive grain-trade network in order to provide food for an estimated 70 million people, according to a new study published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. Environmental scientist Brian Dermody of Utrecht University, and a team made up of hydrologists from the Netherlands and classicists from Stanford University, determined how much water it took to grow the staple crop, then used a hydrological model to calculate grain yields, also accounting for climate and soil type. Maps of the Roman landscape and population were employed to estimate where agricultural production and food demand were greatest, and the grain trade was simulated, based upon the Roman transportation network. “If grain yields were low in a certain region, they could import grain from a different part of the Mediterranean that experienced a surplus. That made them highly resilient to short-term climate variability,” Dermody explained. But the stable food supply may have contributed to the eventual decline of the Roman Empire. As the population and urban centers grew, the system became more dependent upon trade and more vulnerable to climate variability. “We’re confronted with a very similar scenario today. Virtual water trade has enabled rapid population growth and urbanization since the beginning of the industrial revolution. However, as we move closer to the limits of the planet’s resources, our vulnerability to poor yields arising from climate change increases,” he said. To read about Roman water management, see "Rome's Lost Aqueduct." 

Skeletal Remains May Be Famed English Racehorse

NEWMARKET, ENGLAND—Skeletal remains of a carefully buried racehorse have been uncovered at the seventeenth-century royal stables at Palace House in eastern England, the site of a new National Heritage Center for Horseracing and Sporting Art. The remains could be those of Doctor Syntax, a stallion who won 36 races between 1814 and 1823. “Where it was buried, it would make sense. Doctor Syntax was euthanized here in 1838,” curator Graham Snelling of the National Horseracing Museum told The Telegraph. Archaeologist Chris Faine of Oxford Archaeology points out that Doctor Syntax is thought to have been 28 when he died, but the skeleton’s teeth suggest that this horse was 18 to 20 years old at the time of death. “There’s no trace of any other injuries on the skeleton. The skull was heavily smashed, which means I can’t tell from it whether it was euthanized,” he said. The location of the burial in the palace yard would indicate that animal was one of the king’s favorites. To read about the excavation of a WWI-era equine hospital, see "England's Real-Life War Horses."

Friday, December 12

News from Egypt’s Karnak Temple and Ramesseum

LUXOR, EGYPT—Youssef Khalifa, head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, announced the discovery of a tomb of within the walls of a temple at the Ramesseum temple complex on Luxor’s west bank, according to a report in Ahram Online. Little is known about Karomama, called a divine royal wife, who had been buried there, along with 20 ushabti funerary figurines and other offerings. Study of the tomb could reveal the name of her royal husband. At the Karnak temple complex, French archaeologists recovered three small, bronze statuettes—two depict the god Osiris, who is sitting and wearing a wig. The third represents an unidentified, standing god decorated with hieroglyphic text that should reveal the god’s name. The team also found a pot containing blue glue. To read about another recent discovery in Egypt, see "Reused Royal Tomb Opened in Luxor."

Cave Deposits in Israel Record History of Fire Use

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A study of flint tools and debris recovered from Israel’s Tabun Cave suggests that human ancestors regularly began using fire some 350,000 years ago. “Tabun Cave is unique in that it’s a site with a very long sequence. We could examine step by step how the use of fire changed in the cave,” Ron Shimelmitz of the University of Haifa told Science. While almost none of the flints from the oldest layers of the cave were burned, many of the flints from layers dating after roughly 350,000 years ago are red or black, cracked, or have small, round depressions where fragments flaked off the stone. Shimelmitz and his colleagues suggest that because wildfires are rare in caves, the flints were probably burned in fires controlled by ancestral humans. Other sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe suggest a similar timeline for the regular use of fire. To read about even earlier use of fire, see "We Didn't Start the Fire... Homo erectus Did."  

1,300-Year-Old Imperial Building Found in Japan’s First Capital

KASHIHARA, JAPAN—Thirteen holes for stone foundation posts have been discovered in the Toho Kanga area of Fujiwara-kyo, the capital of Japan between 694 and 710 A.D. “When the capital was relocated to Fujiwara-kyo, the east side may have been dedicated to residential quarters for imperial family members or for other important purposes. The discovery could be a crucial turning point in research on Fujiwara-kyo,” Masashi Kinoshita of Tokyo Gakugei University told The Asahi Shimbun. The building may have been a pavilion or a storehouse on stilts with a tiled roof. Another building, represented by five square-shaped holes with rounded edges, was also uncovered.  

The Origins of Staple Foods Studied

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND—Scientists from the University of Sheffield studied crops grown by early farmers in the Fertile Crescent to see if they could determine why some plants were chosen for domestication and not others. Catherine Preece and her colleagues grew wild versions of staple foods in a greenhouse, and found that the types of plants that are less bushy as adults, and have bigger seeds on fewer stems, are ideal for agriculture. “Our results surprised us because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley. It is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what we would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed,” Preece said. The next step in the research is to plant experimental fields in Turkey, the heart of the Fertile Crescent. “Cereal breeders are taking an increasing interest in modern crops’ wild relatives as a source of useful traits that may help to increase yields or increase resilience to climate change, and our work should help this process,” she added. To read about domestication of crops in the New World, see "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Thursday, December 11

3-D Sonar Images of Steam Ship Wrecks Released

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Maps and images created with 3-D Echoscope sonar, a technology developed by Coda Octopus, of the SS City of Rio de Janeiro and the SS City of Chester, have been released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its research partners. The SS City of Rio de Janeiro sank on February 22, 1901, after it struck jagged rocks near the Golden Gate, killing 128 of the 210 passengers and crew aboard the ship. Many of the passengers were Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the U.S. “Today the wreck is broken and filled with mud, and it is a sealed grave in fast, dangerous waters in the main shipping lanes,” explained James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The SS City of Chester was also rediscovered last year, resting in the mud near the City of Rio. “The level of detail and clarity from the sonar survey is amazing. We now have a much better sense of both wrecks, and of how they not only sank, but what has happened to them since their loss,” said Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator. For more on nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Quileute Petroglyph Discovered in Washington

FORKS, WASHINGTON—Last year, Erik Wasankari and his son Reid were on a fishing trip when they discovered a petroglyph on a 1,000-pound rock in the Calawah River. The carvings are thought to date to the early eighteenth century, and may depict figures from Quileute mythology. K’wati, a figure of good, transformed the Quileutes from wolves into people and killed the Red Lizard, who “was a very bad monster,” according to Quileute Tribal Councilman Justin “Rio” Jaime. Lee Stilson, a retired state archaeologist, and Eugene Jackson, a Quileute tribal member, think the rock could have served as a trail marker that moved downstream. “On the 1893 General Land Office map, they show a trail here,” Stilson told The Seattle Times. Stilson helped to authenticate the carving, which had been made with stone tools. 

Bronze Age Grave in Denmark Contained Egyptian Bead

AARHUS, DENMARK—The chemical composition of 23 glass beads unearthed in Denmark was examined with plasma-spectrometry, and compared with the trace elements found in beads from Amarna in Egypt and Nippur in Mesopotamia. One of the beads, made of blue glass, had come from a woman’s Bronze Age burial that was excavated in 1880 at the Ølby site. She had been buried in a hollowed-out oak trunk wearing a belt disc, a string skirt with small bronze tubes, a bracelet made of amber beads, and a single blue glass bead. Science Nordic reports that the research team, made up of scientists from Moesgaard Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, Aarhus University, and the Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux in Orléans, France, matched this bead’s chemical signature to beads made 3,400 years ago in an Egyptian workshop. They now think that Egyptian glass beads, perhaps symbolizing the Egyptian sun cult, traveled north from the Mediterranean on the amber route, which carried Nordic amber south. Amber and glass beads have been found together at sites in the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Germany. To read more about these ancient Egyptian ornaments, see "Beads and Bead Making at Hierakonpolis."