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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, September 03

3,000-Year-Old Royal Chariot Discovered in China

PEKING, CHINA—China Daily reports that a royal bronze chariot discovered in a village in northwest China has been partially excavated. The 3,000-year-old vehicle sported a thick layer of bronze on its wheel rims. “The wheels of chariots from the Western Zhou Dynasty that have been found previously were made of wood covered with a one centimeter layer of bronze,” announced a team from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. The wheels on this chariot, however, are 15 centimeters thick. Skeletal remains of three or four horses have been found in front of the chariot, along with bronze ornamental items. “One point that supports the preliminary conclusion that it is a ceremonial chariot is that we did not discovery any weapons,” added Lei Xingshan of Peking University. 

Red Sea Vessel Unearthed in Berenike

BERENIKE, EGYPT—Iwona Zych of the University of Warsaw and Steven E. Sidebotham of the University of Delaware unearthed part of a ship’s hull dating to the Roman period while digging at the site of Berenike, a port on the Red Sea founded in the third-century B.C. They think that the ship had been dismantled and stored in a warehouse. “This will be the first time that we know the actual size and construction of a Red Sea vessel, because no ancient vessels, or even wrecks have survived to this day,” Zych told Science & Scholarship in Poland. Near the port, the scientists found a large cemetery for small animals that had been buried in damaged clay vessels or covered with pieces of pottery. Most of the 60 animals were cats, but dogs, two vervets—one of which had been wearing a metal collar—and a baboon were also recovered. Archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska thinks the animals may have died of a plague brought to the port from another location, or that they may have been used in rituals performed before a journey. The team also mapped the site’s streets, an administrative center, and a tetrapylon, or gate with four entries. To read about another vessel uncovered recently in Egypt, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Oldest Egyptian Funerary Boat."  

Parched Grass Reveals Complete Circle at Stonehenge

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—Dry spots in the grass that appeared during last year’s summer drought suggest that the outer circle of sarsen stones at Stonehenge was once complete. “I was standing on the public path looking at the grass near the stones and thinking that we needed to find a longer hosepipe to get the parched patches to green up," Tim Daw, who cares for the site, told BBC News. "[There was a] sudden light bulb moment in my head, and I remembered that the marks were where archaeologists had looked without success for signs that there had been stone holes, and that parch marks can signify them.” Archaeologists had conducted a high-resolution geophysical survey few years ago that failed to find evidence of stones that would have completed the circle. “It’s great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognize them for what they were….If we’d had a longer hosepipe we might not have been able to see them,” added Susan Greaney of English Heritage. To read about the suprising similarities between Stonehenge and monuments in Madagascar, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Conversation: Sacred Stones."  

Tuesday, September 02

Silk Relics Cleaned and Studied in Milan

BONN, GERMANY—Archaeologist Sabine Schrenk of the University of Bonn, and Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, are working together to clean silk tunics housed at the Basilica of Sant-Ambrogio in Milan. Most recently, the garments had been kept between heavy glass plates that contributed to their deterioration, and a careful cleaning is required to preserve them. The tunics are ascribed to St. Ambrose, a fourth century bishop of the emperor’s residence of Milan, who is honored as a doctor of the Christian church. According to Schrenk, the tunics have not been proven to date to the fourth century, but she doesn’t think that they could have been made much later. One of the tunics is decorated with intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards. “These pieces were revered as the tunics of St. Ambrose probably by the eleventh century,” she told Science Daily. Schrenk thinks that such silks may have been produced in Milan in the fourth century with thread from China. “Milan at the time, being the emperor’s residence, had access to ample patronage, and used silk in grand fashion. I would be very surprised if there had not been silk workshops there at the time,” she added.   

Are Marks in Gorham Cave Neanderthal Art?

GIBRALTAR—A team led by Clive Finlayson, director of the heritage division of the Gibraltar Museum, claims that etchings discovered on a table-like rock outcropping in Gorham’s Cave were scratched by Neanderthals more than 39,000 years ago. The marks, which were covered with sediments that contained stone tools typical of those made by Neanderthals between 30,000 and 39,000 years ago, are up to a few millimeters deep and cover an area about the size of a Frisbee. Testing revealed that carving the engravings would have taken purposeful, repeated motions with Neanderthal tools. “Is it art? I don’t know. I can’t get into the minds of these people. It looks geometric. It looks like criss-cross patterning. What is clear is that it’s abstract, it’s deliberate, and it speaks to their cognition in a way that brings Neanderthals, once again, closer to us,” Finlayson told Nature. To read about paintings in Spain some scholars consider the work of Neanderthals, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Neanderthal?"  

Spain Returns Smuggled Artifacts to Colombia

MADRID, SPAIN—Colombia has received nearly 700 artifacts, including pre-Columbian pottery, funeral urns, ocarinas, necklaces, and stamps that were seized by Spanish police 11 years ago and placed in the Museum of America in Madrid, where they were cataloged and identified. The objects had been smuggled out of South America by a man accused of laundering money for the drug cartels. “We have repatriated a museum which was abroad and which returns to Colombia to strengthen the historic identity of the country,” Jorge Fernando Perdomo, Colombia’s deputy attorney general, told Hispanic Business. He also thanked the Spanish government for the police work involved in the case. 

UPDATE: Unusual Floor Uncovered in Amphipolis Tomb

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—Removal of loose sand from the antechamber directly behind the wall with two sphinxes at the tomb at Amphipolis has revealed a floor section made of irregular pieces of white marble on a red background. This room also has traces of a fresco with blue coloring on the wall behind the sphinxes. Archaeologists told The Greek Reporter that all three chambers of the unusual tomb had been filled with sand when the structure was sealed. They think that the inner walls may have been installed to hold back the sand, and that gaps in the walls may have been part of the sealing process. The team is also working to protect the excavation from rain, and shore up the tomb against the pressure exerted by the earth in the next chamber. To read about the search for Alexander the Great's lost tomb, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."  

Friday, August 29

Rabbits Provide Window Into Animal Domestication

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—The relatively recent domestication of the rabbit some 1,400 years ago in France makes it an excellent model for the study of the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture. To begin, an international team of scientists sequenced the entire genome of one domestic rabbit as a reference genome assembly. Then they sequenced entire genomes of six different breeds of domestic rabbits, and wild rabbits from taken from different locations in the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. Science Daily reports that the team found domestication occurred, not through changes in the genes that are present, but through small changes in how and when the genes are regulated and used in different cells. Many of those genes altered by domestication are involved in the development of the brain and nervous system, explaining the drastic differences in behavior between domestic and wild rabbits. “We predict that a similar process has occurred in other domestic animals and that we will not find a few specific ‘domestication genes’ that were critical for domestication,” explained team member Leif Andersson of Uppsala University.

The Search for Clovis People in Kansas

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—Rolfe Mandel and a team of students from the University of Kansas are waiting for the results of tests to date the sediment samples they took from the Coffey Site, located in northeast Kansas along Tuttle Creek. “It will tell us a lot about the history of the peopling of the Americas and in particular the peopling of the Great Plains, especially the Central Great Plains, where it’s been pretty much a black hole in terms of unraveling that story,” he told Phys.org. They are hoping to find evidence of Clovis and Pre-Clovis people. “We are talking about small family units, hunters and gatherers. It’s a group of five or six, maybe a little bit larger wandering across the landscape. They’re following herds of animals. Of course, at the time, the assemblage of animals looked a lot different than what it does today,” he added. For the latest on how archaeologists are rethinking the early history of the New World, see ARCHAEOLOGY's special section "America, in the Beginning."    

Genomics Study Offers Clues to Arctic Cultures

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A large-scale study of mitochondrial DNA and the genomes of 169 ancient humans from different time periods in the New World Arctic region by Maanasa Raghavan of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues suggests that the Saqqaq culture, whose people lived about 4,000 years ago, and members of the Dorset culture, who succeeded them 2,800 years ago, belonged to one Paleo-Eskimo people. According to Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, comparison with the genomes of present-day Inuits and Native Americans shows that reindeer-hunting Paleo-Eskimos were genetically distinct, and may have migrated to the New World on their own as a tiny founder population.  But the lineage disappeared at about the same time that the whale-hunting, Neo-Eskimo Thules expanded into the Arctic. Were the Dorsets pushed out of the Arctic by the Thules some 700 years ago, or were they annihilated by a disease? “It’s just mind-blowing to imagine an entire people who just completely vanished,” Willerslev told Science.