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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, August 14

"Lover's Walk" Uncovered in Australia

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA—ABC News reports that a rare nineteenth-century stairway has been exposed in Darwin, a city with only five intact structures surviving from the Victorian era. Archaeologist Karen Martin-Stone was called in to investigate the site after workers building a fence discovered the edge of the steps. "The original staircase was quite decorative, and was capped with beautiful concrete," says Martin-Stone. "There is a moulded cavity in the concrete wall at the middle of the stairs, which may have been for the base of a lamp post." She also notes that metal railway sleepers and rail track were incoporated into the stairway's construction. Known as "Lover's Walk," the pathway was closed in 1918, apparently much to the dismay of some of the town's then tiny population, which stood at around 3,600 in 1911. "We very rarely see nineteenth century remains," says heritage official Michael Wells. His office is considering doing more digging around the site to locate a lime kiln that is known to have been somewhere near the staircase.

Mummification in Egypt Much Older Than Previously Thought

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Egyptologist Jana Jones and her colleagues have discovered that mummification was practiced in Egypt more than 6,000 years ago, or some 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. Experts had assumed that before about 2200 B.C. all mummification in Egypt was due to natural dessication. But when Jones and her colleagues studied funerary wrappings from late Neolithic cemeteries in Upper Egypt that had been scientifically excavated, they found traces of traditional Egyptian embalming agents like pine resin, plant gum, and natural petroleum. They also occured in similar proportions to ingredients that were used 3,000 years later during the heyday of Pharaonic mummification. “The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period,” said University of York researcher Stephen Buckley, the study's co-leader, in a Macquarie University press release

Pyramid-Shaped Tomb Revealed in Japan

ASUKA, JAPAN—The Asahi Shimbun reports that archaeologists excavating a sixth-century A.D. tomb mound in Japan's Nara Prefecture believe it was shaped like a step pyramid. The tomb, which stands more than fifteen feet at its highest, once probably held the remains of the powerful clan leader Soga no Iname, who was the grandfather of three emperors. Previous digs at the site had done little to clarify the construction of the tomb, but Kansai University Archaeological Research Institute researchers were able to expose stone-lined steps that would have given the monument an unusual pyramid-like appearance. “Archaeologists and experts checked to see if there are any similarly structured tombs in Japan, but there is nothing like it," an Asuka municipal official told the Wall Street Journal. "The tomb is unique.” The archaeologists were also able to determine the tomb had a stone-lined moat.

Wednesday, August 13

Neolithic Battlefield Unearthed in Wales

CARDIFF, WALES—While excavating Roman and Iron Age deposits at a hillfort outside Cardiff, archaeologists were surprised to discover ditches that contained Neolithic-period tools and weapons dating to around 3600 B.C. "Quite frankly, we were amazed,” Cardiff archaeologist Dave Wyatt, the excavation co-director, told Culture 24. "No-one realized the site had been occupied as far back as the Neolithic—predating the construction of the Iron Age hillfort by several thousand years." The number of broken flint arrowheads the team unearthed suggests that the site was a battleground at some point during the Neolithic. But according to team archaeologist Oliver Davis, events at the site were typically more peaceful. “The location and number of Neolithic finds indicate that we have discovered a causewayed enclosure – a special place where small communities gathered together at certain important times of the year to celebrate, feast, exchange things and possibly find marriage partners,”

Henge Discovered in England

SITTINGBOURNE, ENGLAND—Archaeologists excavating an area slated for development in North Kent have uncovered a 6,000-year-old Neolithic henge, reports the Canterbury Times. Consisting of two circular ditches, with the outermost reaching about 100 feet in diameter and featuring an entrance that faces northeast, the site was likely a ceremonial gathering place similar to Stonehenge. SWAT Archaeology's Paul Wilkinson, who led the project, believes the outer ring was made in the Neolithic, and the inner ring was added later, in the Bronze Age, when the henge became a funeral monument. A second, smaller ring discovered nearby may have also been used as a cemetery during the Bronze Age. There are signs that the monuments might have later been repurposed as livestock pens.  

Where Roman Soldiers Took a Bath

GONIO, GEORGIA—Polish archaeologists have made a surprising find of an ancient bath complex at the Roman fort of Asparos during their first excavation season. According to PAP, the team was greatly surprised by the quality of the building materials and techniques used, which were not typical for a soldiers’ bathhouse, as well as its decoration, including mosaic flooring, a luxury unusual for this type of bath. Equally surprising was the date of the complex, says excavation director Radosław Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski. The bath dates to the second half of the first century A.D., during the reign of the emperor Vespasian, at least a century or more earlier than other Roman structures found in this part of Georgia.

Massive Hellenistic Tomb Discovered in Northern Greece

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—A massive tomb has been unearthed in northeastern Greece, just 65 away from Thessaloniki, reports the Guardian. Over the past two years, archaeologists have been slowly excavating the giant structure, which dates to the fourth century B.C. The tomb is encircled by a 1500-foot marble wall and approached by an almost 20-foot-wide road lined with fresco-covered walls. Archaeologists have also discovered the tomb’s entrance guarded by two large sphinxes. A 15-foot-tall sculpture of a lion that may once have been placed on top of the tomb was discovered more than a century ago near the site. The tomb’s opulence and enormous size surely mark it as having belonged to an important Macedonian official, says a minister from the Ministry of Culture, and may rank it as the largest tomb ever found in Greece. Within the next weeks, archaeologists hope to enter the tomb’s interior, perhaps enabling them to identify who was buried inside.   

Tuesday, August 12

Conservators Begin New Work on H.L. Hunley

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—The Post and Courier reports that conservators have begun to scrape away the layer of sand and shell encasing the hull of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which went down in Charleston Harbor in 1864 just minutes after it sank the Union warship USS Housatonic. The layer, known as concretion, has obscured many of the specific features of the vessel that scientists are interested in studying, especially evidence of bullet holes or other damage that might reveal clues about why the submarine sank. "We have been waiting for this a long time," says Nestor Gonzalez, associate director Warren Lasch Conservation Center, which is responsible for the project. "We will know if there was any damage to the submarine pre-sinking or post-sinking." The painstaking work, carried out using dental chisels and small hammers to remove concretion that is in some places a couple of inches thick, could take up to a year to complete.      

Traces of Ancient Painkiller Found in Colorado

DENVER, COLORADO—Western Digs reports that Durham University archaeochemist Denise Regan has discovered traces of salicylic acid, a precursor compound of aspirin, on an unassuming, 1,300-year-old ceramic sherd unearthed in a rock shelter in eastern Colorado. The discovery could be the earliest proven use of the chemical in North America, and offers a unique glimpse at prehistoric medicinal practices. Derived from willow bark, salicylic acid is still used by some Native groups today to cure aches. “If you talk to the Arapahoe or the Cheyenne, they’ll use willow bark either as a tea with the leaves or they will soften the bark in boiling water and chew on it for toothaches and as a pain reliever,” says Regan. She believes the sherd itself could have come from a vessel that was reserved for preparing poultices or tea. "I think it’s reasonable to infer that this pot was used for medicinal purposes and not to cook food. If it was used to cook food we would’ve more than likely found something else in there.” 

Can Barley Tell the Tale of Civilization?

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT—Researchers have long argued about the role of climate change in the rise, development, and collapse of societies. According to NBC news, a newly released paper helps to clarify this relationship. A team of scientists led by Frank Hole of Yale University sampled both modern and ancient grains of barley from sites across the Near East and examined the effects of the large droughts that are known to have occurred in the region for the last ten millennia. Variations in the prevalence and health of the barley, which can be detected by the varying levels of carbon isotopes in the grains, are a key to understanding how, for example, the lack of water forced some farmers, especially those inland, to develop more sophisticated irrigation systems and even to turn to other crops, while those on the coast where water was more plentiful continued to cultivate barley for beer, bread, and other foodstuffs. 

Kushite Cemetery in Sudan

DANGEIL, SUDAN—A new book covering more than a decade of excavations by the Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project shares the story of a stunning site and an extraordinary collection of exotic artifacts, reports Livescience. The site’s cemetery, which was first discovered in 2002, dates to about 2,000 years ago, a period when the Kushite Kingdom controlled a large amount of territory and exerted a great deal of power in the area. Although the Kushites often built pyramids to bury their dead, these graves are entirely underground and contain such impressive artifacts as a silver ring depicting the god Amun and a faience box decorated with prominent eyes—perhaps to protect against the evil eye—as well as several artifacts associated with archery buried with a man who had clearly been an archer in his life. The work of the project continues and the researchers hope to find the full extent of the cemetery in the future.