A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, December 03

Massive Water Basin Unearthed in Rome

ROME, ITALY—What is being called the largest Roman water basin ever found has been unearthed during the excavation of Rome’s new metro line. “It’s so big that it goes beyond the perimeter of the [metro] work site and it has not been possible to uncover it completely. It was lined with hydraulic plaster and, on the basis the size that had been determined so far, it could hold more than four million liters of water,” archaeologist Rossella Rea told ANSA Italy. The basin was part of a water system that originally belonged to a farm dating to the third century B.C. In the first century A.D., structures were added to the basin that allowed it to distribute water over a greater area. "No other basin from ancient Roman agriculture is of comparable size," said Rea. To read more about Roman engineering, see "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."

Survey Reveals Medieval City in England

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A team from the University of Southampton has employed high-tech tools to map the remains of medieval buildings at Old Sarum. The city, founded in the Iron Age, eventually declined after the construction of a new cathedral and the rise of New Sarum, now known as Salisbury, in the thirteenth century. The survey shows where individual buildings had been located, including large structures that may have been for defense, and open areas that may have been used for gathering people and supplies. Residential and industrial areas with kilns or furnaces were also found. “Archaeologists and historians have known for centuries that there was a medieval city at Old Sarum, but until now there has been no proper plan of the site,” Kristian Strutt, director of the Old Sarum and Stratford-Sub-Castle Archaeological Survey Project, told BBC News. To read about how remote sensing is allowing archaeologists to map the ancient Maya landscape, see "Lasers in the Jungle."

Roman and Pictish Silver Hoard Discovered in Scotland

ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND—More than 100 pieces of silver, including coins and jewelry, have been unearthed in northeastern Scotland. “It is a hugely important discovery being Europe’s most northerly Late Roman hacksilver hoard, and also containing otherwise unique Pictish silver,” Martin Goldberg of the National Museums Scotland told The Herald Scotland. Silver objects that had been chopped up into bullion, called hacksilver, were used as payment, bribes, tribute, and rewards, according to Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen. “The new finds include late Roman coins, pieces of late Roman silver vessels, bracelet and brooch fragments, and other objects that would have been highly prized objects in their day,” he explained. The research team is investigating the interaction between the Picts and the Late Roman world. To read about a similar recent discovery, see "The Dovedale Hoard."

Shells Engraved by Homo erectus Found in Museum Collection

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—While photographing and cataloging hundreds of fossilized mollusk shells collected in the nineteenth century by Eugène Dubois in Java, Indonesia, where he discovered the first Homo erectus, Stephen Munro of Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia noticed that one of the specimens was engraved. “When I got to image number 298 I almost fell off my chair. It was one of those eureka moments where I thought, ‘this really does have the potential to rewrite what we know about human evolution,’” he told Australian Geographic. Munro and the other scientists wanted to know if the shells belonged to a natural or man-made assemblage. But they noticed that holes in the shells indicated that Homo erectus had identified the best way to open them and remove the food. Soon additional engraved shells and a polished shell that may have been used as a cutting or scraping tool were identified. These engraved and worked shells are at least 300,000 years old than the previously oldest confirmed engravings, which were created by modern humans, and discovered in South Africa. “The find simply shows that half a million years ago, Homo erectus was capable of producing a puzzling zigzag pattern. This is just one piece, but the fact that hundreds of thousands of years ago hominins were capable of producing this zigzag probably means that in due time, more such finds will turn up,” said research-team member Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University. To read about shell beads in the Paleolithic, see "In Style in the Stone Age."

Tuesday, December 02

Excavation Continues at James Fort

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA—Post holes and a pit suggest that a structure with a cellar was built into an outside wall of James Fort sometime after 1608, when the three-sided fort was expanded to five sides. Mary Anna Richardson, a staff archaeologist with Preservation Virginia, thinks the cellar was used between 1610 and 1620, but the excavation team is still removing layers of trash from the post-James Fort period and has not yet reached the occupation layer. The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reports that a small copper jetton, or sixteenth-century counting tool, has been found among the debris, along with fragments of a wine bottle. To read about the "Starving Time" the colonists endured, see "Chilling Discovery at Jamestown."

“Biggest Boulder” Unearthed in Lebanon

BERLIN, GERMANY—A limestone block weighing an estimated 1,650 tons has been discovered at the site of Baalbek by a team of Lebanese archaeologists and scientists from the German Archaeological Institute. The site, a stone quarry, is located about a quarter of a mile from a temple complex in the ancient city of Heliopolis. “The level of smoothness indicates the block was meant to be transported and used without being cut,” the German Archaeological Institute said in a statement reported by Discovery News. Such massive blocks were used in the sanctuary of the Temple of Jupiter. The block was perhaps left in the quarry because of a flaw that could have caused it to crack during the trip to the temple. To read more about discoveries in the region, see "Rebuilding Beirut."

Early Human Ancestors Benefited From Fermenting Fruit

GAINSEVILLE, FLORIDA—The gene that produces the ADH4 enzyme, which allows humans to digest alcohol, could be ten million years old, according to a new study conducted by biologist Matthew Carrigan of Santa Fe College. “Our ape ancestors gained a digestive enzyme capable of metabolizing ethanol near the time they began using the forest floor about ten million years ago. Because fruit collected from the forest floor is expected to contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on trees this transition may also be the first time our ancestors were exposed to—and adapted to—substantial amounts of dietary ethanol,” Carrigan told The Telegraph. It had been thought that the enzyme first appeared when Neolithic farmers in northern China began fermenting foods some 9,000 years ago. To read more on alcohol in the archaeological record, see "Europe's Earliest Wine."

Team Says DNA Results Confirm Identification of Richard III

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—“The evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of Richard III,” geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester announced at a press conference reported in Live Science. An analysis of the archaeological, genetic, and genealogical evidence produced a 6.7 million to 1, or 99.99 percent chance, that the remains recovered from a parking lot in 2012 belong to the last king of the House of York. Historical records indicate that he was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth and buried at a monastery in Leicester. The remains show signs of scoliosis and battle wounds, matching accounts of Richard’s appearance and death. Samples of mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton were compared to mitochondrial DNA from two descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. One sample was a perfect match; the other had a one-letter difference. “That is perfectly what we would expect. The mitochondrial DNA has to be copied to be passed down through generations, and you get little typos,” King said. In addition, this particular sequence of mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the female line, seems to be rare. A study of the skeleton’s Y chromosome, which is passed down virtually unchanged through the male line, was compared to samples taken from five living men whose family trees suggest a relationship to Richard III. The researchers found, however, that none of the men shared the same Y chromosome as Richard III, indicating that there had been a “false paternity event.” Richard III’s Y chromosome could eventually be compared to remains of two children, thought to be the nephews the king has been accused of murdering, that were recovered from the Tower of London in the seventeenth century. “We don’t know for sure whether or not those remains are those of the princes. We now have the Y chromosome of Richard III, and that should be identical to both of the princes since they shared the same paternal line,” University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer explained. To read about the original discovery of the remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

Monday, December 01

Stonehenge Tunnel Proposed

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A new proposal to tunnel under Stonehenge was called “the biggest single investment ever by government in this country’s heritage” by Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. But archaeologist Kate Fielden, a member of Stonehenge Alliance, says that the current plan to bury the A303, a crucial route to the southwest, will harm the monument’s surroundings. “The short tunnel plan will create serious damage to the landscape on each side, within the world heritage site which the government is ignoring its commitment to protect,” she told The Guardian. The Stonehenge Alliance wants a tunnel at least twice as long as the one proposed by the government. To read more about some of the most recent work at Stonehenge, see "New Discoveries at Stonehenge."

New Dates Calculated for Greece’s Antikythera Mechanism

TACOMA, WASHINGTON—The Antikythera Mechanism was timed to begin at 205 B.C., making the clock-like device of bronze gears 50 to 100 years older than previously thought, according to a study conducted by James Evans of the University of Puget Sound and Christián Carman of the University of Quilmes in Argentina. The device, which has been called the world’s oldest computer, was recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Evans and Carman studied Babylonian records of eclipses, reconstructed by John Steele of Brown University, and eliminated possible start dates based upon astronomical phenomena. The highly complex machine may have been based on Babylonian arithmetical methods, and not Greek trigonometry, which didn’t exist in 205 B.C. To read about a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism made entirely of Legos, go to "Artifact."

Dental Calculus Offers Direct Evidence of Milk-Drinking

YORK, ENGLAND—An international team of researchers has analyzed ancient human dental calculus in order to look for direct evidence of milk consumption. They were able to identify a milk protein, beta-lactoglobulin, in the calcified plaque, which has also been found in modern plaque samples. And, variants in the milk protein indicate what animal produced the milk. “The study has far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between human diet and evolution. Dairy products are a very recent, post-Neolithic dietary innovation, and most of the world’s population is unable to digest lactose, often developing the symptoms of lactose intolerance,” lead author Christina Warinner of the University of Oklahoma told Science Daily. Previous investigations have identified dairy products in residues on ancient ceramics. “While pot residues can tell you that people are using dairy products, it can’t tell you which individuals in the group are actually consuming the milk. This study is very exciting, because for the first time, we can link milk consumption to specific skeletons, and figure out who has access to this important nutritional resource,” added team member Camilla Speller of the University of York. To learn about the evolutionary advantages milk drinking offers, go to "Why Do Adults Drink Milk?"

Southeast Asia’s Ancient Rock Art

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA—The oldest surviving rock art in Southeast Asia suggests that the earliest inhabitants of the region brought the practice of painting naturalistic images of wild animals and hand stencils with them some 40,000 years ago. “As with the early art of Europe, the oldest Southeast Asian images often incorporated or were placed in relation to natural features of rock surfaces. This shows purposeful engagement with the new places early peoples arrived in for both symbolic and practical reasons,” Paul Taçon of Griffith University told Science Daily. Taçon and international teams of scientists examined paintings in rugged areas from southwest China to Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia. The paintings were often found in rock shelters rather than deep caves, where early artworks are often found in Europe. “This significantly shifts debates about the origins of art-making and supports ideas that this fundamental human behavior began with our most ancient ancestors in Africa rather than Europe,” he explained. To read about prehistoric art in Australia, see "Reading the Rocks."