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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, January 14

How to Play an Ancient Greek Drinking Game

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Heather Sharpe of West Chester University of Pennsylvania took a replica 3-D-printed kylix, some diluted grape juice, and some students to try to play kottabos, an ancient Greek drinking game. She described her experience at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Ancient texts and images from works of art describe two variations of the game. In the first, the male drinkers attempted to toss their wine and knock down a disc balanced on a tall metal stand in the middle of the room from their couches. In the second variation, the players had to toss their wine dregs into small dishes floating in a larger bowl of water to get them to sink. The modern players soon realized that flinging the juice overhand, as if they were pitching a baseball, was more successful than attempting to throw the wine with a flick of the wrist, Frisbee style. The resulting mess was surprising, too. “By the end of our experiment we had diluted grape juice all over the floor. In a typical symposium setting, in an andron, you would have had couches arranged on almost all four sides of the room, and if you missed the target, you were likely to splatter your fellow symposiast across the way. You’d imagine that, by the end of the symposium, you’d be drenched in wine, and your fellow symposiasts would be drenched in wine, too,” Sharpe told Live Science. She commented that playing the game while drinking actual wine would be required to “get the full experiment.” To read about another experiment in recreating ancient Greek culture, see "Classists Reconstruct the Sound of Greek Music."

Late Medieval Settlement Found at Dunluce Castle

COUNTY ANTRIM, NORTHERN IRELAND—Scientists looking for traces of a seventeenth-century town near Dunluce Castle discovered a structure dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. “What we are now beginning to uncover are traces of earlier and extensive late medieval settlement activity which are equally as important as the remains of the seventeenth-century Dunluce Town,” Mark H. Durkan, the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland, told Culture 24. The structures were probably part of a small settlement just outside of the original castle gate, close to the cliffs on which the castle was built. “Very few fifteenth-century buildings, other than those built entirely from stone, have survived in Ulster and normally there would be few traces, if any, for archaeologists to investigate. We are extremely lucky to make this exciting discovery,” he said. To read in-depth about the excavation of an early medieval site in the region, see "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."

Bone Tool Discovered at Neanderthal Site in France

MONTREAL, CANADA—A bone tool from the Grotte du Bison at Arcy-sur-Cure in France is further evidence that Neanderthals had abilities usually attributed solely to modern humans, according to Luc Doyon of the University of Montreal. Made from the left femur of an adult reindeer, the tool is between 55,000 and 60,000 years old, and bears marks suggesting that it was used for butchering meat and fracturing bones, and as a scraper and sharpening tool. “The presence of this tool at a context where stone tools are abundant suggests an opportunistic choice of the bone fragment and its intentional modification into a tool by Neanderthals. It was long thought that before Homo sapiens, other species did not have the cognitive ability to produce this type of artifact. This discovery reduces the presumed gap between the two species and prevents us from saying that one was technically superior to the other,” Doyon said. To read more about our close cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Snaketown’s Pyrite Mirrors Linked to Mesoamerica

PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Emiliano Gallaga of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History has studied more than 50 mirrors made of pyrite that were unearthed at the Hohokam site known as Snaketown in the 1930s and 1960s. Such mirrors are usually associated with elite members of cultures from Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, Maya, and Aztecs. Thirty-six of the mirrors at Snaketown had been broken, burned, and buried with cremated human remains in 16 graves. Gallaga’s analysis showed that the mirrors were difficult and expensive to make. “According to our research, a single, small mirror could need 900 to 1,300 hours, or 110 to 160 days, for a single craftsperson to do,” he told Western Digs. The techniques used to make the mirrors suggest that they were made in Mesoamerica, and there are no deposits of pyrite known to have been used by the Hohokam. Radiocarbon dates from the burials indicate that they were made between 650 and 950 A.D. “We think that the sedentary communities such as the Hohokam are getting prestige items such as the pyrite mirrors from a long distance, but we think not directly. We think that the nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups of northwest Mexico and the American Southwest are the ones who are transporting this material from the south to the north, and shell, turquoise, and other items from the north to the south, probably as far as the borders of Mesoamerica, where [long-distance traders known as] pochtecas would carry on the trade inland,” he explained. To read about another culture in the ancient Southwest, see "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

Tuesday, January 13

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty announced that the foundations of a 3,000-year-old fortress have been found at Tell Habua, near the Suez Canal. The fort had been part of a defensive line of fortresses and military cities. “The discovery is significant as it reflects the details of the ancient Egyptian military history. It is a model example of ancient Egypt’s military architecture, as well as the Egyptian war strategies through different ages, for the protection of the entirety of Egypt,” archaeologist Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud told The Cairo Post. The fort was part of the Horus Military Route, which protected Egypt’s eastern front. Five of the 11 forts that made up the route, described on the walls of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, have been found. “The route was fortified by two parallel walls, followed by 11 fortresses acting as early alert points before the arrival of any conquering army to the strategically located Tharu Fortress. In the same area there was an economic society, indicating that it had been a commercial and customs zone where taxes were collected before reaching the Delta,” Maqsoud elaborated. To read in-depth about ancient Egyptian animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."

Painted Leather Discovered in Iran’s Burnt City

TEHRAN, IRAN—The Tehran Times reports that archaeologist Seyyed Mansur Sajjadi and his team have found a piece of painted leather at the 5,200-year-old Burnt City in southeastern Iran. “Due to extensive corrosion, some experts and the archaeologists are trying to save the leather,” he said. This season’s excavation has also uncovered a structure with two thick walls supported by nine buttresses. “The signs of fire are clearly seen in some rooms of the building,” Sajjadi said. Pieces of textiles were found in the rooms, one of which may have been used for offering sacrifices. The Burnt City, which burned down three times and was not rebuilt after the last fire in 1800 B.C., was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites last year. To read in-depth about the Burnt City, see "The World in Between."

Study Suggests Co-Evolution of Tools and Talking

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Thomas Morgan of the University of California, Berkeley, and Natalie Uomini of the University of Liverpool, along with colleagues from the University of St. Andrews, University College London, and McGill University, tested five different ways to teach Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students. Oldowan stone tools were used for butchering animals for 700,000 years, beginning some 2.5 million years ago. The researchers learned that when teaching college students, demonstrations enhanced with spoken instructions, over imitation, non-verbal presentations, or gestures, yielded the highest volume of quality flakes in the least amount of time with the least waste. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do,” Morgan explained. This would suggest that the makers of the oldest-known stone tools lacked the ability to talk. “These are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly,” he said. Then 1.7 million years ago, Acheulean hand axes and cleavers were developed. “To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘here’ or ‘there,’” Morgan said. “Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching.” To read about later tool-making, see "Neanderthal Tool Time."

The First “Big City” in North America

EAST ST LOUIS, ILLINOIS—For the past two years, scientists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey have been analyzing the artifacts they recovered during their work to clear land for the construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River. They’ve concluded that the city, located near Cahokia Mounds, was an immigration center that flourished for about 150 years. “This is the first big city in North America. Now we have details, and it’s—wow. Some conjecture had been that all Cahokia moved to East St. Louis, but that’s not it,” chief state archaeologist Brad Koldehoff told The News-Democrat. The team has identified pottery from southern Missouri or northern Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, suggesting that the immigrants brought their own pottery with them. Eventually those pots were replaced with pots made in the local style, however. “The bowls become smaller…less like group eating from big communal bowls,” said research archaeologist Alleen Betzenhauser. Arrowheads from North Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin were also found. “Most every other tool was made locally,” added research archaeologist Steve Boles. But the site had been nearly abandoned by about 1200. “There is evidence of severe drought,” explained Tamira Brennan, the interim field station manager for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. For more on prehistoric immigration to the area, see "Cahokia Was a Melting Pot."

Monday, January 12

Roman-Era Artifacts Found in England

LUTON, ENGLAND—Luton Today reports that three roundhouses, boundary ditches, and pits were unearthed during work to expand a cemetery in Bedfordshire by archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East. Seven Roman cremations, three brooches, a bath flask, Roman pottery, and medieval pottery were also found. The artifacts are expected to be presented to Luton Museum. The Roman burial urns may be reinterred. To read about a massive Roman-era hoard recently unearthed in England, see "Top 10 Discoveries of 2014: Seaton Down Hoard."

Autopsy Detects Poison in Remains of Italian Nobleman

VERONA, ITALY—Traces of poison were detected in the remains of Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who ruled Verona and had conquered Vicenza, Padua, and Treviso at the time of his death in 1329. Historical sources suggest that Cangrande became ill after drinking from a polluted spring, although there were rumors at the time that he’d been murdered. Gino Fornaciari of the University of Pisa and his team found that in addition to signs of arthritis and a mild form of black lung and emphysema, Cangrande had foxglove pollen in his rectum, and toxic concentrations of digoxin and digitoxin, molecules from foxglove plants, in his liver and feces samples. “He became sick with vomit and diarrhea just a few days after winning control over the city of Treviso,” Fornaciari told Discovery News. Chamomile and black mulberry were also found in Cangrande’s system, which may have been administered with the deadly plant. And although it is possible that Cangrande’s death was accidental, Fornaciari and his colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science that he may have been killed by his rivals from the Republic of Venice or the Ducate of Milan, or perhaps even by his nephew and successor. To read more about Fornaciari's work, see "Medici Mystery."

Prehistoric Coral Bracelets Unearthed in Papua

JAYAPURA, INDONESIA—Rare, prehistoric bracelets made of coral have been discovered in Puay Village on the island of New Guinea. “Most of the coral sea bracelets found in the hill slopes have been eroded by the water flowing in Lake Sentani,” archaeologist Hari Suroto told Antara News. “This kind of coral can be found in the coasts of the Pacific Ocean. The bracelets are white, and their shapes are good and smooth,” he added. The bracelets indicate that the people living near Lake Sentani had contact with people living on the coast, probably by traveling on the Jaifuri River. 

Union Coat from the USS Monitor Conserved

NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA—A pilot’s jacket recovered from the turret of the USS Monitor will soon be on display at the USS Monitor Center in southeast Virginia. The coat was discovered ten years ago, trapped in a marine concretion found inside the gun turret of the ironclad ship, which sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a storm on December 31, 1862. “We’ve found all kinds of buttons inside the turret—some made of wood, some of glass, some of bone, some of rubber, some even mother-of-pearl. Clearly the sailors were just tearing their clothes off before jumping into the water—and doing it so fiercely that their buttons were popping off. This coat was left behind by one of those sailors—and it gives you a very real, very personal connection to the story of those men and this ship during its chaotic end,” Monitor Center director David Krop told The Daily Press. The mass of concretion that contained the jacket was soaked to remove destabilizing chemicals and slowly removed with small hand tools and chisels. “It looks like it’s in great shape, but it’s actually pretty degraded,” added senior conservator Will Hoffman. The pieces of the coat are too fragile to be reassembled, and so have been mounted on archival backing for display. For more on nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."