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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, November 07

The Arrival of People Doomed New Zealand’s Moa

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—The extinction of the moa, New Zealand’s large, flightless bird, occurred shortly after the arrival of humans, according to a study of more than 600 radiocarbon dates conducted by a team including George Perry of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment and School of Biological Sciences. “This is the first time we have been able to show that extinction was both rapid and synchronous across New Zealand,” he told Stuff. Radiocarbon dates of moa eggshells at archaeological sites in the South Island show that people began hunting and eating moa after the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in about 1314 A.D. Radiocarbon dates of moa bones from non-archaeological sites show that they died out in the lowlands of the South Island by the end of the fourteenth century, and total extinction probably occurred by 1425. “Our results demonstrate how rapidly megafauna were exterminated from even large, topographically and ecologically diverse islands such as New Zealand, and highlight the fragility of such ecosystems in the face of human impacts,” Perry and his team wrote in Quaternary Science Reviews.

The Earliest Europeans

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—DNA from the ulna of a modern human skeleton discovered in 1954 at an archaeological site at Kostenki-Borshchevo, located in southwest Russia, has been mapped by a team of scientists led by evolutionary biologist Eske Wilerslev of the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen. The skeleton has been dated to between 36,200 and 38,700 years old, making the genome the second oldest to be sequenced. This new data suggests that this man, who had dark skin and dark eyes, had DNA from Europe’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, people from the Middle East who later became early farmers, and western Asians. It had been thought that these three groups only mixed in the past 5,000 years. “What is surprising is this guy represents one of the earliest Europeans, but at the same time he basically contains all the genetic components that you find in contemporary Europeans—at 37,000 years ago,” Willerslev told Science. The man, known as Kostenki XIV and as Markina Gora, also had about one percent more Neanderthal DNA than today’s Europeans and Asians, from modern human and Neanderthal contact more than 45,000 years ago. “In principle, you just have sex with your neighbor and they have it with their next neighbor—you don’t need to have these armies of people moving around to spread the genes,” Willerslev explained. To read more about paleogenetics, see "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."

Bell from HMS Erebus Revealed

OTTAWA, CANADA—According to The Globe and Mail, a bronze bell has been recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of two ships lost during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic to search for the Northwest Passage. The bell, dated 1845, was found on the ship’s upper deck, where it would have been struck every half hour, day and night, to keep time and signal the changing of the crew’s watches. The bell is also marked with a “broad arrow,” a symbol of the Royal Navy and the British Government. It is being kept in fresh water and will be carefully cleaned over the next 18 months to remove the salt from its surface. HMS Erebus was discovered in the Queen Maud Gulf earlier this fall. Further exploration of the wreck site will resume in the spring. To read about the discovery of HMS Investigator, the doomed vessel dispatched to search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature "Saga of the Northwest Passage." 

Thursday, November 06

Drill Hits Nineteenth-Century Shipwreck in New Jersey

BRICK, NEW JERSEY—Workers discovered a nineteenth-century shipwreck while building a 3.5-mile-long steel wall to protect a highway and oceanfront homes in an area of coastal New Jersey that was hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “They hit something. It broke the head on the machine. They decided to replace the head. They replaced the head, and it also broke,” Brick Deputy Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Joe Pawlowicz told CBS New York. The ship, which was made entirely of wood, is thought to be the Scottish brig Ayrshire, which ran aground during a storm in 1850. All but one of the passengers, who were immigrating from England and Ireland, were rescued with a newly developed life-car from a life-saving station on shore. “In the case of a near-shore disaster, you would set up a line between ship and shore. And in clothesline style, you would run this little metal cart out there, fill it with people, and then bring them back,” explained Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Shipwreck Museum. The wall-building project will continue around the wreckage until archaeologists determine if it should be excavated.

Joseon-Period Shipwreck Discovered Off Korea’s Coast

TAEAN, SOUTH KOREA—The Korea Herald reports that the wreckage of a ship thought to have been carrying a cargo of ceramics has been discovered off the coast of South Korea’s Mado Island. The National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage announced that the stern of the vessel and some wooden beams had been found, along with buncheong ware, which is characterized by a gray or bluish green body covered with a white slip. Such pottery is associated with the earlier part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). More than 100 pieces of white porcelain, thought to date to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, have also been recovered. Excavation of the site is scheduled for next spring. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Bronze Age Children’s Burial Unearthed in Buckinghamshire

MARLOW, ENGLAND—Hundreds of bone fragments from the skeletons of two children have been discovered in a pit behind an antiques shop in Buckinghamshire. The children’s teeth suggest they were between ten and twelve years old at the time of death, which occurred sometime between 2140 and 1950 B.C., according to radiocarbon dates. “Among the remains was a piece of Bronze Age beaker pottery which was probably from a pot buried with the bones, as well as medieval finds from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries,” John Laker of Archaeology in Marlow told Culture 24. The early Bronze Age barrow or burial mound was disturbed during the medieval period. “It looks like people lived in Marlow well before Anglo-Saxon times and that Marlow was a desirable residence around 4,500 years ago,” Laker added. To read more about Bronze Age Britain, see "The World of Stonehenge."

Corinth’s Submerged Port Mapped

ATHENS, GREECE—A submerged port has been mapped at the site of Lechaion, the western harbor of ancient Corinth, according to an announcement made by the Greek Ministry of Culture and published in The Greek Reporter. A team made up of members of the Underwater Antiquities Ephorate of the ministry, the SAXO Institute of the University of Copenhagen, the Danish Institute in Athens, and the University of Patras used a 3-D parametric sub-bottom profiler to examine an entrance channel, a pier, and eight caissons filled with pebbles mixed with mortar. The caissons, found nowhere else in Greece, may have been intended for the construction of another pier. To read about the excavation of a similar site, see "Diving Into History: Liman Tepe Harbor."

Wednesday, November 05

Medieval Chess Pieces Unearthed in England

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Two medieval chess pieces carved from antler have been unearthed at a construction site in England’s East Midlands. The larger of the two twelfth-century game pieces was probably a bishop. The other artifact is thought to be the top part of a king. They were found among pieces of bone and antler, and may have been discarded during the manufacturing process. “They provide us with clear evidence of antler and bone working in the town, making something which is effectively a leisure product. It took quite a lot of effort to hand carve and finish these kind of things, so it’s going to be something that you’re paying the craftsman for,” archaeologist Jim Brown of the Museum of London Archaeology told BBC News. To read about another discovery from the same era in Northampton, see "Scraps of Medieval Linen Unearthed."

Did Climate Change Contribute to the Fall of the Assyrian Empire?

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—Adam Schneider of the University of California-San Diego and Selim Adali of the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Turkey argue in the journal Climatic Change that drought and population expansion contributed to the decline of the Assyrian Empire. Located in northern Iraq, the Assyrian Empire reached its height in the early seventh century B.C., but then experienced a quick decline, including civil wars, political unrest, and the destruction of Nineveh, the capital, by the end of the century. Paleoclimate data show that the region became more arid during the latter half of the seventh century B.C., at the same time that peoples conquered by the Assyrians were resettled there. “What we are proposing is that these demographic and climatic factors played an indirect but significant role in the demise of the Assyrian Empire,” Schneider told Phys.org.

Documents Tell of Childhood in Roman Egypt

OSLO, NORWAY—Ville Vuolanto of the University of Oslo and April Pudsey of the University of Newcastle are systematically examining papyri from the site of Oxyrhynchus, images and texts from pottery, and toys and other objects to learn more about the experience of childhood in Roman Egypt. The lives of young children generally are not reflected in the documents, which were discovered 100 years ago at the site of the ancient town. They have learned, however, that the teen sons of prosperous free-born citizens enrolled in a gymnasium, where they were taught the lessons of good citizenship. Some 20 apprenticeship contracts reflect the options of the sons of the less well-to-do. “We have found only one contract where the apprentice was a girl. But her situation was a little unusual—she was not only an orphan but also had her deceased father’s debts to pay,” Vuolanto told Science Daily. Enslaved children could also become apprentices, and their contracts were of the same type as those written for free-born boys. Other documents record the sale of the children of slaves. “We are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt,” Vuolanto said. To read about an unusual Roman depiction of a child, see "Statuette of a Charioteer."

17th-Century Markings Were Intended to Protect King James I

KENT, ENGLAND—Scorch marks and gouges have been found on the oak beams of a bedroom built at Knole House for King James I shortly after the failed attempt on his life in the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. The house was owned by Thomas Sackville, treasurer to James I, who probably would have died with the king if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded. Tree ring dating shows that the beams were cut from an oak felled in early 1606. The marks, made while the wood was still green, are thought to have been made in the room’s joists and around the fireplace by craftsmen to protect the king from witchcraft. “The workmen may never have consulted the owner about this, they just knew what had to be done,” James Wright of the Museum of London Archaeology told The Guardian. The royal renovations were completed by 1608, but Sackville died and King James never visited Knole House. To read about a royal Anglo-Saxon feasting hall discovered in the same part of England, see "The Kings of Kent."