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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, December 08

Mitochondrial DNA Suggests Female Vikings Traveled, Too

OSLO, NORWAY—Analysis of mitochondrial DNA obtained from 80 Viking skeletons in Norway suggests that Norse women participated in the colonization of the Scottish mainland, Shetland, Orkney, and Iceland 1,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited through the female line. “It seems to support the view that a significant number of women were involved in the settlement of the smaller isles, which overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage,” Erika Hagelberg of the University of Oslo told The Independent. Her team compared the ancient Viking DNA to samples of people living in Norway, Britain, Iceland, and other parts of Western Europe today. “This somewhat contradicts one of the views about Viking raids, namely that they were driven by a shortage of women at home,” she added. To read about a notorious massacre committed against Vikings in England, see "Vengance on the Vikings."

Historic Communications Ship Discovered in the Pacific Ocean

MĀNOA, HAWAII—An intact ship has been discovered sitting upright under 2,000 feet of water off the coast of O’ahu by a team of scientists from the University of Hawaii, Hawai’i Undersea Research Laboratory, and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. First launched in 1923 for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company, Dickenson repaired telecommunications equipment and carried supplies to remote stations at Midway and Fanning Island until 1941, when the ship was employed to evacuate Cable and Wireless Ltd. employees from Fanning Island and deliver them to Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7. Dickenson was eventually chartered by the U.S. Navy to service communications cables during World War II as the USS Kailua. It was eventually sunk as a target by submarine torpedo fire in 1946, but the ship’s exact location had not been recorded. “From her interisland service to her role in Pacific communications and then World War II, Dickenson today is like a museum exhibit resting in the darkness, reminding us of these specific elements of Pacific history,” said Hans Van Tilburg of the maritime heritage program in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Shipwrecks."

Royal Viking Feasting Hall Found in Sweden

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Archaeologists wielding ground-penetrating radar have located the foundation of a Viking feasting hall in southern Sweden. The hall was discovered by a team made up of scientists from Stockholm University and Umeå University, in the Aska barrow, which had been thought to be a burial mound. The double-walled hall may have belonged to a royal family, since elite burials have been unearthed in the area. “Parallels are known from several of the era’s elite sites, such as Fornsigtuna near Stockholm and Lejre near Roskilde. The closest similarities are however seen in a recently excavated feasting hall at Old Uppsla near Stockholm. Such close correspondences suggest intensive communication between the two sites,” said Martin Rundkvist of Umeå University. To read about early evidence for Viking warfare, see "The First Vikings."

Men Indicted in Israel on Looting Charge

ARAD, ISRAEL—Young men from the village of Seir have been indicted for plundering the Cave of the Skulls in the Judean Desert. The men were spotted on the side of the cliff where the cave is located by members of the Arad Rescue Unit, who were undergoing routine training. They contacted inspectors from Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who placed the cave under surveillance. The suspects were observed using a metal detector and excavating equipment, which damaged archaeological evidence from the Copper Age and the Roman era. They were then taken into custody by Israel Antiquities Authority personnel after they left the cave and climbed to the top of the cliff. “For many years now gangs of antiquities robbers have been operating along the Judean Desert cliffs. The robbers attempt to locate and find Dead Sea scrolls, pieces of ancient texts, and unique artifacts that were left in the caves,” said Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the Israel Antiquities Authority. To read about a recent dig in Israel, see "Excavating Tell Kedesh."

Friday, December 05

Khoisan Genome Reveals Populous Past

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—The genomes of five Khoisan study participants living in different tribes in Namibia were compared with the genomes of 1,462 people from 48 ethnic groups from around the world. The analysis suggests that the Khoisan population may have comprised the majority of living humans during most of the past 150,000 years, while remaining physically isolated and genetically distinct from Europeans, Asians, and all other Africans. “Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa always have perceived themselves as the oldest people,” Stephan Schuster, formerly of Penn State University and currently at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Phys.org. The genomes of two of the Khoisan individuals of the Ju/’hoansi tribe showed no signs of genetic material from other ethnic groups. “This and previous studies show that the Khoisan peoples and the rest of modern humanity shared their most recent common ancestor approximately 150,000 years ago, so it was entirely unexpected to find that this group apparently did not intermarry with non-Khoisan neighbors for many thousand years,” added Webb Miller of Penn State. These individuals also allowed the team to compare the effective population size of the Khoisan with other human groups, which declined about 20,000 years ago. “This decline did not affect the Khoisan population to the same degree as the remainder of humankind, because they did not share the same habitats and environments,” he said. It is thought that the Khoisan inhabited parts of Southern Africa that experienced wetter, more favorable conditions. To read more about genome studies in Africa, see "DNA From Marine Forager Sheds Light on Human Origins."

Soldiers’ Remains Unearthed in Poland

PRZEMYSL, POLAND—Archaeologists are recovering the remains of more than 3,000 Italian and Soviet prisoners who had been interned by the Nazis during World War II. The crew sorts the bones and bags the skulls. “It’s the only way to count the exact number of victims,” archaeologist Przemyslaw Kolosowski told the AFP. Most of the men died of hunger or disease. “Personal items are extremely rare. The Germans buried most of the soldiers without any clothes,” student Mariusz Dziekonski explained. They have found small Orthodox crosses, a toothbrush, a part of a Soviet-made comb, buttons, kopecks, and Italian and Soviet dog tags. The remains, found in eight of the mass graves near Stalag 327 in southeastern Poland, will be reburied in a new military cemetery. For more on similiar excavations, read "The Archaeology of World War II."

Maori Remains Repatriated

WELLLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND—The remains of more than 100 people, including the skeletal remains of 24 Moriori, 46 Maori, 35 preserved tattooed heads, and two tattooed thigh skins, have been returned to Te Papa. The heads and thigh skins had been collected by a British soldier in the nineteenth century and eventually landed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Pou Temara, chairman of the museum’s Repatriation Advisory Panel, told Radio New Zealand News that the museum will continue to work to identify the remains and return them to their descendants. “I have a deep sense of satisfaction that what we have negotiated in the last ten years has culminated in the biggest repatriation of our work,” he said. 

Thursday, December 04

Climate Change in the Ancient Southwest

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Archaeologist Tim Kohler and researcher Kyle Bocinsky of Washington State University have used tree-ring data, the temperature and water requirements of growing maize, and computer programs to produce a map of the ideal growing regions of the American Southwest for the past 2,000 years. How did the ancestral Pueblo people of southwest Colorado react to climate change in the late 1200s? The data suggest that some 40,000 people left Mesa Verde when drought made it difficult to grow the staple crop, at the same time that there was a population spike at the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande, where conditions had become ideal. “People are generally going to try and find ways to keep on keeping on, to do what they’ve been doing before changing their technological strategy,” Bocinsky explained to Science Daily. To read about investigations into another ancient Southwestern culture, see "On the Trail of the Mimbres."

Cancer Identified in 4,500-Year-Old Skeleton

SASKATOON, CANADA—Holes in the well-preserved bones of a man who died in Siberia 4,500 years ago show that he suffered from lung or prostate cancer that had spread throughout his body from his hip to his head. “This is one of [the oldest]—if not the oldest—absolute cases of cancer that we can be really, really confident saying that it’s cancer,” bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Sasketchewan told CBC News. She speculates that the hunter-gatherer may have developed lung cancer from inhaling smoke from wood fires, and other non-environmental factors. Unlike other men in his community, this man had been buried in the fetal position in a circular pit with an intricately carved bone spoon. “It’s a tragic story. It breaks your heart to think of what he went through,” she said. To read about another ancient cancer case in Siberia, see "MRI Shows 'Princess Ukok' Suffered From Cancer."

Soil Analysis Reveals Traces of Frankincense in Roman Burials

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—Analysis of residues collected from 49 burials from Roman Britain has identified traces of frankincense, which was imported from southern Arabia or eastern Africa, in four of them. Traces of resins imported from the Mediterranean region and northern Europe were found in ten others. “Archaeologists have relied on finding visible resin fragments to substantiate the descriptions of burial rites in classical texts, but these rarely survive. Our alternative approach of analyzing grave deposits to find the molecular signatures of the resins—which fortunately are very distinctive—has enabled us to carry out the first systematic study across a whole province,” Rhea Brettell of the University of Bradford told the Telegraph & Argus. Based upon the type of burial containers used and the clothing that the deceased had been wearing, the resins were only recovered from the burials of higher status individuals. Classical texts record that such precious resins were used to mask the smell of decomposition during funeral rites. They were thought to purify the dead and help them pass to the afterlife. To read more about Roman funeral rites, see "Burial Customs."

Celtic Coin Hoard Contains Six Torques

ST. HELIER, JERSEY—A large, solid gold torque, or neck ornament, has been partially excavated from a hoard of coins and other jewelry discovered on the island of Jersey. The torque has a massive decoration where it probably locked around the wearer’s neck. The conservation team from Jersey Heritage does not know yet if the ring is complete because it is still covered with coins. “We did see some gold jewelry on the surface of the hoard, but since we’ve started looking at this shoe-box sized area, we’ve uncovered a total of six torques, five of which are gold and one of which we believe to be gold-plated. This is the only one that we think is whole, though,” Neil Mahrer of the Jersey Museum told Culture 24. To read about an ornament that combined Celtic and Roman styles, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."