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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, January 27

Final Report Issued on Burials at Florida Reform School

TAMPA, FLORIDA—A team led by Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, has released its final report on archaeological work at the site of a reform school in the Florida panhandle that has been closed since 2011. Almost 100 boys aged six to 18 died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys between 1900 and 1973, according to NPR. Since 2012, the researchers have exhumed 51 sets of remains, many of which were unidentified and located in unmarked graves. Just 13 of the burials were in the school’s cemetery, while the others were found elsewhere on the school’s grounds. In all, the researchers have made seven positive DNA matches and 14 presumptive identifications. The remains of four individuals who have been positively identified have been returned to their families for burial. Those who attended the school say many were sent there simply because they were orphans or for minor infractions and that, once there, they were subjected to beatings and other mistreatment. The report includes evidence of a possible bullet wound as well as unequal treatment of African-American boys, who were three times as likely to be unnamed in records and to be buried in unmarked locations after they died. To read more about forensic archaeology, go to “The Journey to El Norte.”

Ancient Medicinal Clay Could Fight Bacterial Infections

VANCOUVER, CANADA—A team of microbiologists has found that clay from Kismet Bay, British Columbia, which has been used for centuries by indigenous people for medicinal purposes, seems to show promise in fighting drug-resistant pathogens. According to a press release from the University of British Columbia, the greenish gray clay is found in a five-acre granite basin in the territory of the Heiltsuk people, some 250 miles north of Vancouver. Traditionally the Heiltsuk used the clay to treat such ailments as arthritis, skin irritations, and burns. Kismet Glacial Clay, a business formed to explore uses for the clay, approached University of British Columbia microbiologist Julian Davies to test the clay's properties. He found that when suspended in water the clay killed 16 strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria that are prevalent in modern hospitals. The discovery could lead to the development of new antimicrobial agents. To read in-depth about archaeology in British Columbia, go to "The Edible Landscape." 

Numerous Children Unearthed in English Graveyard

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND—Archaeologists have uncovered around 800 bodies belonging to children younger than six years old at a future road construction site in Lancashire. They are among 1,967 bodies unearthed at St. Peter’s Burial Ground in Blackburn, which was first used in 1821. Bodies have been removed from around a third of the graveyard, which saw a great deal of use up to the 1860s. The high proportion of children in the graveyard is attributed to poor sanitation and medical care at the time. Analysis of the skeletons has only just begun, but according to Dave Henderson of Headland Archaeology, many of the children are likely to have died due to infection. “They would have died quite quickly so the signs may not turn up in their skeletons,” he told the BBC. Coins dating to the nineteenth century have also been found, as well as inexpensive brass wedding rings still on people’s hands and glass jewelry buried with children. Some burials continued at the graveyard until 1945, but St. Peter’s Church grew run-down in the twentieth century and was razed in 1976. For more on nineteenth-century English graveyards, go to “Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”

1,700-Year-Old Inscriptions in Galilee

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Archaeologists have uncovered three 1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions that seem to name rabbis at the Roman-era cemetery of the city of Tzippori, near the Sea of Galilee. The Jewish Press reports that two of the inscriptions were written in Aramaic, the language that was in widespread use in the region, and one in Greek. “The importance of the epitaphs lies in the fact that these reflect the everyday life of the Jews of Tzippori and their cultural world,” said archaeologist Moti Aviam of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology. Tzippori was the capital of Galilee during the Hasmonean Period, which lasted from 140 to 37 B.C., after which the capital was moved to the city of Tiberias. Interestingly, an inscription mentions that one of the dead is called "The Tiberian," which the researchers say could mean he was a resident of Tiberias who was brought to Tzippori to be buried by an important rabbi. To read in-depth about another excavation in Galilee, go to “Excavating Tel Kedesh.”  

Tuesday, January 26

Statues of Artemis and Apollo Unearthed at Aptera

CRETE, GREECE—Kathimerini reports that a pair of statues and their pedestals have been unearthed at the site of a villa in Aptera. The statues are thought to date to the second half of the first century or early second century A.D. The first statue, made of bronze, is an intact depiction of the hunting goddess Artemis. She is posed on a bronze base as if she had been shooting an arrow. The second statue, carved from marble, represents Artemis’s twin brother, Apollo. There are traces of red paint on this statue’s pedestal. To read more about Greek archaeology, go to "The Acropolis of Athens."

Study Links Population Collapse and Ecological Changes

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—A team of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Arizona, and Southern Methodist University used airborne remote sensing LiDAR technology to estimate the number of people who once lived in Ancestral Jemez village ruins. They think that the population of Native Americans living in what is now northern New Mexico dropped from 6,500 in the 1620s, to less than 900 after Spanish priests established missions in their communities. “Think of what that means for their social structure, if they’re losing the people who know the traditional medicine, their social and religious leaders, think of the huge impact it would have on their culture and history,” Matt Liebmann of Harvard University said in a press release. The team members also collected tree-ring data to assess the impact of the population collapse on forest fires in the region. “When people are living in these villages, they need timber for their roofs, and for heating and cooking. In addition, they’re clearing the land for farming, so trees weren’t growing there when these archaeological sites were inhabited. But as people died off, the forests started re-growing and we start to see more forest fires,” he explained. To read more about archaeology in New Mexico, go to "Searching for the Comanche Empire."  

China’s First Farmers Also Domesticated Cats

PARIS, FRANCE—A study of cat remains dating to the fourth millennium B.C. suggests that the animals were domesticated in China, in addition to the Near East and Egypt. According to a press release, a team of scientists from France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), the French Natural History Museum (MNHN), the University of Aberdeen, the Chinese Academy of Social Science, and the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology analyzed the mandibles of five cats unearthed at archaeological sites in Shaanxi and Henan provinces. The bones, which all dated to between 3500 and 2900 B.C., belonged to the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis—a wild cat that still lives in Eastern Asia at the edge of human settlements. Prionailurus bengalensis was a distant relative of Felis silvestris lybica, the ancestor of all of today’s domestic cats. Felis silvestris lybica is thought to have replaced the domesticated descendants of the leopard cat in China at the end of the Neolithic period with the opening of the Silk Road and trade with the West. To read about Egyptian animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Monday, January 25

Hundreds of Skeletons Discovered Under English Parking Lot

GODALMING, ENGLAND—A total of 300 human skeletons have been excavated from a former parking lot in the English town of Godalming, according to Get Surrey. It is not yet clear what century the remains date to, and archaeologists have requested more time to analyze them along with a range of other findings, including animal bones, flint objects, and pottery fragments. The first skeletons were discovered at the site in March 2013 during a routine pre-construction survey. At that point, experts conjectured that the site was used as a burial ground between the ninth and thirteenth centuries in association with the nearby Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Once analysis of the finds is completed, the skeletons will be reburied at another nearby church. To read about a particularly notable discovery under an English parking lot, go to “Richard III’s Last Act.”

Who Did the Aztecs Sacrifice?

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Scholars have long assumed that the people the Aztecs sacrificed at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán were prisoners of war who were killed soon after being captured. But EFE reports that a new strontium isotope analysis of remains belonging to several sacrificed individuals who lived between 1469 and 1521 is challenging that view. The study, led by National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Allan Barrera, shows that some of the victims were foreigners who lived in the Valley of Mexico among the Aztecs for at least six years. It's possible the remains belong not to captured warriors, but prisoners of high rank who served the Aztec elite for some time before eventually being sacrificed. To read more about Aztec archaeology, go to “Under Mexico City.”

New Discoveries Reported at Peru’s El Paraiso

LIMA, PERU—A team of archaeologists from Peru’s Culture Ministry excavating at El Paraiso, the oldest known site in Lima, has discovered the head of a ceramic figure and the tomb of a woman. The presence of the ceramic fragment, which dates to around 4,000 years ago, is notable, says project director Joaquin Narvaez. “That a ceramic object should turn up among remains from the Late Preceramic Period shows us one of the earliest attempts by the first inhabitants of this complex to fire clay in order to harden it,” he told EFE. The team estimates that the woman was aged around 30 when she died around 3,500 years ago of blunt trauma to the head, according to Peru Reports. Based on the presence of knitting implements, seashells, and seafood residues in her tomb, they believe that she was a textile weaver and that her diet was largely made up of fish and seafood. To read more about archaeology in Peru, go to “Peru’s Mummy Bundles.”

Clues to the Great Plague of Marseille

MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Researchers have reconstructed the genome of the Yersinia pestis pathogen that caused the Great Plague of Marseille, which lasted from 1720 to 1722. According to a press release from Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, the team was able to isolate the pathogen's DNA from teeth excavated from mass burials dating to the time of the plague. To their surprise, the eighteenth-century plague was a form that is no longer circulating, and seems to descend directly from the Black Death, the disease that wiped out up to 50 percent of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. At this point the team has not pinpointed the geographical source of the Marseille plague, but they suspect the disease was lurking in Europe for several hundred years. “It’s a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet,” says Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the MPI in Jena. “Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range, and the reason for its disappearance.” To read about another plague outbreak in France, go to “A Parisian Plague.” 

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