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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, July 15

700-Year-Old Objects Recovered in Oxford, England

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Excavations ahead of the construction of a shopping center have uncovered hundreds of objects, including 50 medieval leather shoes, a leather bag, a wooden bowl, and timber posts that had been placed in muddy stream banks. “These finds are as rare as gold,” project director Ben Ford of Oxford Archaeology told BBC News. “It’s amazing to think these shoes were worn by people who walked the streets of medieval Oxford.” The excavation covers an area that was just outside the Oxford city walls at the time, where a friary for the Greyfriars religious order stood. To read about another medieval excavation in Oxford, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."

Intact Pot Unearthed at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—An intact pot has been unearthed for the first time at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. Its small size may have helped to keep it in one piece. “It was less than a meter below the surface of the ground but it still had weight on it. We’re fortunate,” executive director Cindy Gregg told The Mitchell Republic. Residues from the pot, which will be tested at the University of Exeter, could provide information on what the pot was used for. Gregg thinks the pot may have been held paints or served as a child’s toy. To read more about archaeology on the Great Plains, go to "Letter From Montana: The Buffalo Chasers."

Gold Coins Hidden During the Nazi Era Discovered in Germany

HAMBURG, GERMANY—A metal detectorist discovered a cache of gold coins dating between 1831 and 1910 in a field in northern Germany last fall. After recovering ten coins, Florian Bautsch alerted archaeologists who recovered 207 more during a two-week excavation. The coins had been minted in Belgium, France, Italy, but the team also recovered a piece of pasteboard with two seals bearing images of a swastika, an imperial eagle, and the stamp “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” The coins were probably placed in two separate pouches and buried during the last days of World War II under a tree, but were scattered when the tree was uprooted. Archaeologist Edgar Ring of the Lüneburg Museum told The Local that such limited edition coins belonged to the central bank during the Nazi era and had probably been stolen. To read about the study of military sites from this era, go to "Archaeology of WWII."

Human Hands Have Changed Little Over Time

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Sergio Almecija, Jeroen Smaers, and William Jungers of Stony Brook University measured the hand proportions of modern humans, living and fossil ape species, and human ancestors, including Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus sediba, in an effort to understand the evolution of the hand. They found that there has been relatively little change in the proportions of the human hand, which has a long thumb in relation to the fingers, since the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. This had been thought to be important to human success, but it could indicate that the structure of the human hand is largely primitive in nature, rather than the result of the selective pressures of making stone tools. The fingers of chimpanzee and orangutan hands, meanwhile, have gotten longer and more suited to living in trees. To read about the evolution of the throwing motion, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah." 

Tuesday, July 14

4,000-Year-Old Floored Structure Found in Ohio

SHEFFIELD, OHIO—A team led by Brian Redmond of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is excavating a 4,000-year-old site in northeastern Ohio. So far, they have uncovered a three-inch-thick floor made from layers of yellow clay that was carried to the site. A basin was built into the floor, along with cooking pits and storage holes that held hickory nuts. Post holes show where hickory saplings were placed and then tied together to create a framework covered with cattail mats. “A small family would be very comfortable. They were well insulated, and sheltered under the tree canopy of oaks. Unlike at other sites, they’re going to the trouble to make floors. They’re here for months at a time,” Redmond told Cleveland.com. He thinks that these hunter-gatherers migrated to the area from the southeast to spend the fall and winter for a period of some 200 to 300 years. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought. These are house structures. This was like a village site,” he added. For more on an ancient culture that occupied Ohio some 2,000 years ago, go to "Who Were the Hopewell?"

Maize Domestication Seen on a Molecular Level

MADISON, WISCONSIN—A genetic study of corn conducted by Huai Wang and John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers insight into the domestication of this crop in Mexico some 9,000 years ago. The seeds of the wild grass teosinte, the ancestor of modern corn, are protected by a hard casing. Over a period of a few thousand years, early farmers developed varieties in which the seed case turns into the cob, exposing the seed as a “naked kernel.” A series of experiments showed that only one mutation in the gene tga1, and the protein encoded by it, TGA1, is necessary to affect the structure of the seed case. “TGA1 acts a bit like an orchestra conductor coordinating the actions of many different musicians. The same orchestra can play in different ways, depending on the conductor’s signals,” Doebley said in a press release. “Humans completely reshaped the ancestor of corn, effectively turning the cob inside out. Our results show that a small genetic change has had a big effect on this remarkable transformation,” he said. For more, go to "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Viking Sword Discovered in Norway

OSLO, NORWAY—A sword from the late Viking Age has been discovered in a burial in Langeid, a village in southern Norway. “Although the iron blade has rusted, the handle is well preserved. It is wrapped with silver thread and the hilt and pommel at the top are covered in silver with details in gold, edged with a copper alloy thread,” project leader Zanette Glørstad said in a press release. Post holes in the four corners of the large grave once held a roof, and yielded charcoal dated to the year A.D. 1030, which coincides with coins found at the bottom of the grave. One of the coins, from England, was minted during the reign of Ethelred II, between 978 and 1016. A battle ax with a shaft coated with brass was also discovered in the same grave. Similar axes have been found in the River Thames in London, suggesting that the weapons in this burial might be linked to Viking battles along the Thames in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. “It’s quite possible that the dead man was one of King Canute’s hand-picked men for the battles with King Ethelred of England,” Glørstad added. To read more about the Viking era in England, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings."

Maya Pyramid at Tonina Is One of the Biggest

CHIAPAS, MEXICO—News.com Australia reports that recent excavations at Tonina by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have shown the Maya city to be twice as large as predicted, with clearly defined districts, including areas of palaces, temples, housing, and administration. It had been thought that the Tonina acropolis had been built on a hill, but the excavations have shown that the mound covers a pyramid more than 240 feet tall, with 208 stone steps from its base to its apex. “It’s a big surprise to see that the pyramid was done almost entirely by the architects and therefore is more artificial than natural. This is because it was believed that almost every hill was a natural mound, but recent evidence has revealed that it was almost entirely built by the ancient inhabitants,” said Emiliano Gallaga, director of the site. More than 300 hieroglyphic texts have also been found. Some of them reveal the names of city rulers. The texts could eventually help scholars understand the decline of the ancient Maya civilization. To read in-depth about another ancinet Maya discovery, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Monday, July 13

Unique Images Uncovered in Fifth-Century Synagogue

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA—Additional portions of the floor mosaics in the east aisle of a fifth-century synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq have been uncovered by a team led by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Previous excavations in the synagogue, which is located in the Lower Galilee, unearthed pictures of Samson and an image that may depict Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest—the first non-biblical story to be found in an ancient synagogue, according to Magness. This summer’s excavations have revealed images surrounding a dedicatory inscription that include animals, male figures supporting a garland, a rooster, and male and female faces in a wreath. There are also winged putti, or cupids, holding roundels with theater masks. The team also uncovered columns inside the synagogue that had been covered in plaster and painted ivy leaf designs. “The images in these mosaics—as well as their high level of artistic quality—and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue. These are unique discoveries,” Magness said in a press release. To read about the previously unearthed portions, go to "Mosaics of Huqoq."

Open Settlement in Southern Britain Predates Roman Arrival

DORSET, ENGLAND—A geophysical survey conducted by a team from the University of Bournemouth has located 150 roundhouses and other features in a prehistoric town named Duropolis, after the Durotriges, a local Iron Age tribe. Sixteen roundhouses in the settlement have been excavated so far. “What we’ve discovered is extremely significant for the whole of Southern Britain because in the past archaeologists have tended to look at really obvious sites, like the big hill-fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester. What we have here is an extensive open settlement, not a hillfort, so it wasn’t visible as a settlement from the earthwork on the landscape. What we’ve discovered is one of the earliest and largest open settlements in Britain,” archaeologist Miles Russell said in a press release. It had been thought that before the arrival of the Romans, most people in Britain lived in protected hillforts. The team also uncovered the bones of animals whose body parts had been rearranged to form hybrid beasts, grinding stones, spindle whorls, and metal working debris. To read about recent work at England's largest hillfort, go to "Ham Hill's Violent History."

Middle Stone Age Tools Reveal Cultural Differences, Similarities

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A new study of 71,000-year-old stone tools from Sibudu and Blombos, two South African archaeological sites that are more than 600 miles apart, shows that these two groups of people used similar types of tools, but made them differently and from different materials. Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand and an international team of scientists examined two types of Middle Stone Age tools—Still Bay and Howiesons Poort—from the two sites. The two sets of Howiesons Poort tools were crafted in a similar pattern that may have been socially transmitted by teaching and verbal instruction. But the team concluded that although similar, the differences between the Still Bay-type tools from Sibudu and Blombos suggest that the toolmakers from the two sites did not share the same rules and traditions. “This was not the case at 65,000 years ago when similarities in stone tool making suggest that similar cultural traditions spread across South Africa,” Wadley said in a press release. To read about the oldest stone tools yet discovered, go to "The First Toolkit."

Stolen Stones Returned to Museum in Israel

BE’ER SHEVA, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority reports that two sling stones were returned to the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva. A museum employee found the stones in a bag in the museum’s courtyard with a note that read, “These are two roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995 and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!” The museum handed over the stones, which were chiseled by Roman soldiers or their prisoners, to the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Almost 2,000 such stones were found during the archaeological excavations in the Gamla Nature Reserve, and this is the site where there is the largest number of ballista stones from the Early Roman period. The Romans shot these stones at the defenders of the city in order to keep them away from the wall, and in that way they could approach the wall and break it with a battering ram,” explained archaeologist Danny Syon, who excavated at Gamla for many years. To read more about this period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."

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