Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, February 01

Switzerland Returned Etruscan Artifacts to Italy

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—Last month, the Swiss government returned 45 boxes of Etruscan artifacts to Italy, including two earthenware sarcophaguses. According to a press release from the city government of Geneva, the antiquities had been stored in a local warehouse, registered to an offshore company, for more than 15 years. Italian experts believe that the vases, frescoes, sculptures, and reliefs were illegally excavated from sites in Umbria and Lazio and imported through the Geneva Free Ports by a disgraced British art dealer. To read about excavations at at Etruscan site, go to "The Tomb of the Silver Hands." 

Homo heidelbergensis Wielded Sophisticated Tools, Weapons

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Hominins living 300,000 years ago at the site of Schöningen were more like modern humans than had been previously thought, according to Nicholas Conard, Jordi Serangeli, and Christopher Miller of the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment. They say that Homo heidelbergensis lived in social groups, conducted coordinated group hunting, and communicated about the past, present, and future. Excavations at Schöningen have recovered well-preserved Paleolithic wooden, bone, and stone tools, including a unique hammering tool made from the humerus of a saber-toothed cat. The site has also yielded evidence of the hunting and butchering of large animals. The team has not, however, found convincing evidence at the site for the mastery of fire by Homo heidelbergensis. “The findings from Schöningen suggest that archaic humans may have been able to survive in the Ice Age landscape of northern Europe without being able to make and control fire,” Miller explained in a press release. A special issue of the Journal of Human Evolution is devoted to the Schöningen excavations. To read more about Homo heidelbergensis, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."

Hominins Ate Tortoises in Israel’s Qesem Cave

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Shell and bone remains found at Qesem Cave suggest that tortoises were cooked and eaten there some 400,000 years ago. Marks on the bones indicate that the tortoises were sometimes roasted whole and sometimes they were butchered. “Somehow they cut them with stone knives, and most probably into small pieces,” archaeologist Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University told The New York Times. Gathering tortoises would have been a low-risk, low-energy activity that supplemented deer, birds, wild asses, horses, and aurochs that made up most of the diet. To read about how tortoise shells were used in Bronze Age China, go to "Artifact: Oracle Bone."

Well-Preserved Boat Unearthed at Abusir

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC—A 60-foot-long boat dating to about 2550 B.C. has been discovered to the south of a large mud-brick tomb in the Old Kingdom necropolis at Abusir. Its wooden planks, joined with wooden pegs, are intact, as are the plant fibers that covered the planking seams. Ropes that bound the boat together are also well preserved. Most of the ancient Egyptian boats uncovered by archaeologists have been poorly preserved or were dismantled in antiquity, so this vessel offers a unique opportunity to examine how ships were built 4,500 years ago. The name of King Huni from the Third Dynasty has been found on a stone bowl in the tomb, but the name of the tomb’s high-status occupant is unknown. “In fact, this is a highly unusual discovery since boats of such a size and construction were, during this period, reserved solely for top members of the society, who usually belonged to the royal family. This suggests the potential for additional discoveries during the next spring season,” Miroslav Bárta, director of the mission for the Czech Institute of Archaeology at Charles University, said in a press release. To read more, go to "Oldest Egyptian Funerary Boat."

Friday, January 29

Researchers Date Mount Fuji Mound

FUJI, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that ceramics have helped researchers date Suzukawa no Fujizuka to the eighteenth century. During the Edo Period, (1603-1867), fujizuka, or mountain-shaped mounds, were constructed to honor Mount Fuji by religious groups known as fujiko. The ceramics, when combined with a date inscribed on a stone lantern at the monument, suggest that Suzukawa no Fujizuka was built before the practice became popular. Mountain ascetics, when preparing to climb Mount Fuji, brought stones from the ocean shoreline and placed them on top of Suzukawa no Fujizuka to pray for safety. The researchers also found smooth stones at Suzukawa no Fujizuka. To read more about archaeology in Japan, go to "Dogu Figurine."

Back-to-Africa Gene Flow Was Limited to Eastern Africa

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Population geneticist Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge announced that he and his team made a mistake in the conclusions drawn from the comparison of the genome they obtained from the 4,500-year-old human remains found in Ethiopia’s Mota Cave, and the reference human genome. The paper claimed that traces of Eurasian ancestry, brought to Africa by farmers from the Middle East some 3,000 years ago, can be found in Ethiopian highlanders, West Africans, and the Mbuti of Central Africa. “The movement 3,000 years ago, or thereabouts, was limited to eastern Africa,” Manica told Nature News. Incompatibility between two software packages caused the error, first detected by Pontus Skoglund and David Reich of Harvard Medical School, who tried to duplicate the results. “Almost all of us agree there was some back-to-Africa gene flow, and it was a pretty big migration into East Africa. But it did not reach West and Central Africa, at least not in a detectable way,” Skoglund said. To read about early human forays out of Africa, go to "New Evidence for Mankind's Earliest Migrations."

New Thoughts on the “Out of Taiwan” Theory

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND—It had been thought that Austronesian languages spread “Out of Taiwan” and throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Madagascar, and the islands of the Pacific with a migrating population some 4,000 years ago. But Martin Richards of the University of Huddersfield and his colleagues conducted a large-scale genetic study, and they have found that Pacific Islanders’ mitochondrial DNA was present in Island Southeast Asia much earlier. They also found that the expansion from Taiwan accounts for only about 20 percent of the population in the region. Richards and his team suggest that rising sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age some 11,500 years ago transformed the landscape of the region and made migration possible. They also think that populations expanded from Indonesia to Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands some 8,000 years ago. Austronesian languages, which can be traced to Taiwan, may have been associated with a new religion or philosophy, or perhaps the Taiwanese migrants constituted an elite group that others emulated. For more, go to "Settling Southeast Asia."

First Australians Ate Megafauna Eggs 50,000 Years Ago

BOULDER, COLORADO—Australia’s first human inhabitants cooked and ate the cantaloupe-sized eggs of Genyornis newtoni, a flightless bird that stood nearly seven feet tall and weighed 500 pounds, according to a new study led by Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna. We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent,” he said in a press release. The bones of Australia’s extinct megafauna rarely survive in the harsh soil, leaving little chance to find evidence of early hunting activity. The burned eggshell fragments, however, were dated to between 54,000 and 44,000 years ago with optically stimulated luminescence dating, and radiocarbon dated to no younger than 47,000 years old. Analysis of amino acids in the eggshells indicate that the eggs had been cooked at one end with a localized heat source. Many of the burned eggshell fragments were also found in clusters. Miller and his team argue that “the conditions are consistent with early humans harvesting Genyornis eggs, cooking them over fires, and then randomly discarding the eggshell fragments around their cooking fires.” To read more about the relationship between humans and megafauna, go to "Butchering Big Game."

Thursday, January 28

Babylonian Astronomers Described Jupiter’s Motion

BERLIN, GERMANY—Historian of science Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University, using the texts from three published and two unpublished cuneiform tablets from the British Museum, realized that the Babylonians calculated the position of the planet Jupiter with geometrical methods between 350 and 50 B.C. It had been thought that Babylonian astronomers used only arithmetical methods, and that such geometrical computations were not carried out until the fourteenth century. Ossendrijver had been studying four tablets with texts that describe trapezoids when Hermann Hunger of the University of Vienna brought him a photograph of a fifth, uncatalogued tablet that does not describe a trapezoid, but does describe an astronomical computation that is mathematically equivalent to the others, and can be assigned to Jupiter. “The crucial new insight provided by the new tablet without the geometrical figure is that Jupiter’s velocity decreases linearly within the 60 days. Because of the linear decrease a trapezoidal figure emerges if one draws the velocity against time,” Ossendrijver explained in a press release. “It is this trapezoidal figure of which the area is computed on the other four tablets.” To read more about ancient people's perceptions of planetary motion, go to "An Eye on Venus." 

Evidence of Ceremonial Bridge Found in Japan

SAKAI, JAPAN—Five new boreholes for piers thought to have supported a massive bridge have been found at the Nisanzai Kofun burial mound in Japan’s Osaka Prefecture. The bridge is estimated to have been nearly 40 feet wide, 150 feet long, and aligned with the center of the keyhole-shaped mound. “It seems likely that people stood by on both sides of the bridge while a temporary casket for the body was taken into the tomb. It gives us clues as to how ancient burial rites were performed at giant burial mounds,” Taichiro Shiraishi of the Chikatsu Asuka Museum told The Asahi Shimbun. The bridge, thought to have been used in the late fifth century, would have been torn down after the ceremony. “It is unlikely that a structure of this kind was unique to this burial mound. If they get the chance, we hope researchers will investigate other large tombs as well,” Shiraishi said. To read more about archaeology and Japanese history, go to "Khubilai Khan Fleet."

18th-Century Artifacts Discovered at Fort Lawrence

FORT LAWRENCE, NOVA SCOTIA—Parks Canada archaeologist Charles Burke has found an intact, eighteenth-century surface at the site of Fort Lawrence, a British defensive structure overlooking the Isthmus of Chignecto, which connects Nova Scotia to New Brunswick. “Just inside the walls of the fort we encountered what we call essentially a 1750 walking surface,” Burke told CBC News. Fort Lawrence was abandoned in 1755 after the British took the French Fort Beauséjour, located across the border, and renamed it Fort Cumberland. Burke’s team also uncovered the brick-lined cellar of a large home built by Col. Joseph Morris at the site in 1762. “It would be the first house built in the area after the British military abandoned the property,” he said. The home was burned in 1776 after American sympathizer Jonathan Eddy’s failed attack on Fort Cumberland. Eddy was father-in-law to Morris’s daughter. “It seems likely and you can’t help but imagine that discussions about planning for the attack on Fort Cumberland in 1776 very likely occurred in or near that house,” Burke said. To read more about Canadian archaeology, go to "Canada Finds Erebus."

Historic Graves Unearthed in St. Augustine, Florida

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA—A routine archaeological investigation before the construction of a new water line revealed at least four graves dating from the sixteenth through the early eighteenth century at the site of the church of Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios on Charlotte Street. The heavily used grave site was covered with roads in the early nineteenth century. “So far, we have uncovered four partial human remains, and probably a fifth one in very bad condition. We haven’t recovered any good material with the graves yet, but we have found a lot of loose teeth with extreme wear; some of them with cavities,” city archaeologist Carl Halbirt told Historic City News. A water main break in the area has made the excavation more difficult. The crushed and fragmented remains may be reburied at a church cemetery. To read more about archaeology in Florida, go to "Off the Grid."