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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 08

Scythian Treasure Site Discovered in Poland

WARSAW, POLAND—A newly published book reveals that archaeologists from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Archaeology Affairs Office of Saxony found the secret site where a golden Scythian hoard was discovered 130 years ago. The “Witaszkowo Treasure,” which dates to the sixth century B.C., includes a shield-shaped ornament, a pendant, a fish-shaped bow and arrow case or gorytos, a Scythian short sword, a dagger, and scabbard fittings. It had been thought that the items belonged to a Scythian leader who had been killed while fighting in what is now western Poland, but the research team speculates that the items, which had never been used, may have been a gift from the Scythians to local chiefs. The site features a ceremonial spring walled with stones that contained hundreds of bowls similar to Greek libation vessels and glass beads that may have come from the Black Sea region. The ritual area around the spring had been paved with stones, and there are remains of a wooden bridge that connected the spring to a vast hearth. “The discovery allowed us to reject the previously prevailing belief that the Witaszkowo Treasure was the spoils of war captured by the local population during battle with Scythian invaders, or a Scythian chieftain’s grave,” team leader Zbigniew Kobyliński told Science & Scholarship in Poland. For a similar discovery made in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Fossils From Laos Reveal Early Human Diversity

  CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—A jawbone with both modern and archaic human traits has been found in a cave in the Annamite Mountains of northern Laos, where a skull—the oldest modern human fossil in Southeast Asia—was unearthed in 2009. Found in a cave known as Tam Pa Ling, the skull pushed back the date of modern human migration to the region to sometime between 46,000 and 63,000 years ago. The jaw, discovered in late 2010, is roughly the same age as the skull. “In addition to being incredibly small in overall size, this jaw has a mixture of traits that combine typical modern human anatomy, such as the presence of a protruding chin, with traits that are more common of our archaic ancestors like Neanderthals—for example, very thick bone to hold the molars in place,” Laura Shackelford of the University of Illinois said in a press release. She and Fabrice Demeter of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris led the new study of the fossils. “Tam Pa Ling is an exceptional site because it shows that very early modern humans migrating and settling in eastern Asia demonstrated a wide range of anatomy,” she explained. “This find supports an ‘Out-of-Africa’ theory of modern human origins rather than a multi-regionalism model,” Shackelford continued. “Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia. But it is also likely that mainland Southeast Asia was a crossroads leading to multiple migratory paths.” For more on evolutionary suprises in the archaeological record, see "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Vikings Survived Greenland’s Harsh Weather for Centuries

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Vikings in Greenland survived the Little Ice Age for much longer than previously thought, according to comprehensive studies of the landscape conducted by archaeologist Christian Koch Madsen of the National Museum of Denmark. “The stories we have heard so far about the climate getting worse and the Norsemen disappearing simply don’t hold water,” he told Science Nordic. He says that there were no more than 2,500 people living in Greenland in the middle of the thirteenth century. Earlier estimates have placed the population as high as 6,000. “When the harsh climatic changes began to set in, we can see that the outermost farms were gradually abandoned. This indicates a centralization of both power and resources, which are clear countermeasures against climate deteriorations—even though they were highly involuntary,” he explained. As the land became more barren, the population began to shrink, and the Norsemen gathered in larger settlements and centralized the economy. They eventually relied upon seafood and trapping for up to 80 percent of their diet. “They actually survived for a long time and were far better at adapting than we previously thought,” Madsen concluded. To read about another discovery upending conventional wisdom about the Norsemen, see "The Vikings in Ireland."

Multiple Strains of TB Found in 18th-C. Hungarian Mummies

WARWICK, ENGLAND—Fourteen tuberculosis genomes were detected in eight naturally mummified bodies from a 200-year-old Hungarian crypt. “Microbiological analyses of samples from contemporary TB patients usually report a single strain of tuberculosis per patient. By contrast, five of the eight bodies in our study yielded more than one type of tuberculosis—remarkably from one individual we obtained evidence of three distinct strains,” Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School said in a press release. The team, made up of additional scientists from the University of Birmingham, University College London, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, used a technique called “metagenomics” to identify the strains of TB DNA. They also dated the origin of the lineage of TB strains commonly found in Europe and America to the late Roman period. “By showing that historical strains can be accurately mapped to contemporary lineages, we have ruled out, for early modern Europe, the kind of scenario recently proposed for the Americas—that is wholesale replacement of one major lineage by another—and have confirmed the genotypic continuity of an infection that has ravaged the heart of Europe since prehistoric times,” he added. To read about how seals and sea lions spread TB to the New World, see "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."

Tuesday, April 07

Possible ID Found for Waterloo Skeleton

WATERLOO, BELGIUM—Amateur military historian Gareth Glover of the Waterloo Association thinks he may have identified the 200-year-old remains discovered at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in 2012 by archaeologist Dominique Bosquet of the public services department of Walloon. The skeleton, which shows a deformity of the spine, was mostly intact, and had been surrounded by personal effects, including German and French coins, a box lid bearing the letters F.C.B., and a French bullet in the area of the man’s lungs. The body was found 400 yards from the line of battle. Bosquet suggests that the soldier had been carried from the battlefield and was buried with his belongings under a thin layer of earth. “To help a comrade to go behind the lines is like an excuse for a soldier to quit the fight himself,” Bosquet told The Huffington Post. Glover found three soldiers with the initials F.C.B. in the records for the King’s German Legion, made up of German soldiers who fought with the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. One of them had fought on a different part of the battlefield, and one is known to have died of his battle wounds in Brussels. That left Friedrich Brandt. “I’m excited we’ve been able to identify him, though we’ll never be 100 percent certain it was this chap,” Glover said. For ARCHAEOLOGY's in-depth report on the discovery, see "A Soldier's Story."

Rochester Cathedral May Be Older Than Previously Thought

ROCHESTER, ENGLAND—A skeleton, a Roman building, a gargoyle, and a Norman structure have been uncovered in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral. “The really important stuff we’ve found belongs to the Norman cathedral, so dating to around A.D. 1080 to 1120. We’ve been able to establish what the east end of the Norman cathedral looked like and also discovered stuff which no one has even thought might exist,” archaeologist Graham Keevill told Kent Online. The Norman structure, which was not on any of the building’s plans, suggests that the cathedral could be older than had been thought. Trash pits have been found near the Roman-era building, and the gargoyle appears to be a portrait of a face. The excavation has also unearthed what could be fragments of a shrine dedicated to William of Perth, a Scottish saint who was martyred in England. The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation. To read in-depth about a remarkable site that contains the sweep of English history, see "The Scientist's Garden."

Technology Recovers Marginalia From Medieval Manuscript

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—New research and imaging work has discovered erasures in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest surviving medieval manuscript written solely in Welsh. The book, which contains religious and secular poetry—including the earliest known poem about the adventures of Arthur, and two poems attributed to Merlin—dates to 1250. Myriah Williams and Paul Russell of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge used a combination of ultraviolet light and photo-editing software to examine the book’s 54 vellum pages. They found that additional verse, doodles, and marginalia, added to the manuscript as it changed hands, had been erased, perhaps in the sixteenth century by a man named Jaspar Gryffyth. “The margins of manuscripts often contain medieval and early modern reactions to the text, and these can cast light on what our ancestors thought about what they were reading. The Black Book was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the sixteenth century, and the recovery of erasure has much to tell us about what was already there and can change our understanding of it,” Williams said in a press release. For a look at an early Christian manuscript discovered in an Irish bog, see "The Faddan More Psalter."  

Monday, April 06

Canadian Archaeologists Prepare to Dive on HMS Erebus

NUNAVUT, CANADA—Parks Canada underwater archaeologists and Royal Canadian Navy divers will begin to map the wreckage of the HMS Erebus later this week, while ice cover protects the site from wave action. “Without the waves stirring up the seas, all the particulate settles down to the sea floor and it creates fairly ideal clarity conditions. It’s almost like diving in an aquarium,” Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archaeologist for Parks Canada, told CBC News. The clarity of the water will allow them to use a high-tech 3-D laser scanning tool to record the site in detail. The team members will drive holes in the ice cover, where they will be camping, to gain access to the ship. “We’ll go back with survey grade GPS mapping equipment and we’ll make sure we’re putting these holes precisely where we want them,” Harris said. A hole in the ice on the port side of the Erebus, one on the starboard side, and one near the stern are planned. Once accurate maps are made, the archaeological investigation can proceed. The Erebus was trapped in the ice in 1846 during Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition and eventually sank in an undisclosed location. The initial discovery of Erebus was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014

Genetic Study Offers Evidence of Recent Evolution in Europe

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Science has reported on a new genetic study from the team that recently found at least three ancient populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers in the ancestry of modern Europeans. In work presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the team, led by population geneticist Iain Mathieson of the Harvard University lab of David Reich, explained how five genes associated with changes in diet and skin pigmentation underwent strong natural selection and spread rapidly throughout Europe in the past 8,000 years. The first farmers, in addition to the hunter-gatherers, could not digest milk sugars 8,000 years ago. Lactose tolerance became common among Europeans only about 4,300 years ago. The team also tracked three separate genes that produce light skin. The new data confirm that about 8,500 years ago, hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary had darker skin, but people from the Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light-skin gene variants some 7,700 years ago, and a third gene that causes blue eyes and may contribute to light skin and blonde hair. The first farmers from the Near East also carried both genes for light skin, which they shared with the hunter-gatherers of central and southern Europe. Genes for tallness were favored in northern and central Europeans beginning 8,000 years ago, while selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain. To read more about recent evolutionary history, see "Evolution Overdrive."

Utah Site Yields Unique Points & Mammoth Residue

  CARSON CITY, NEVADA—More than 1,000 stone tools were recovered during a survey of a section of the Utah Test and Training Range. The tools belong to the Haskett tradition, which is rarely found in the Great Basin region, including a complete spear head thought to be the largest Haskett point every found. Another weapon had traces of elephant proteins on it, making it the first likely evidence of mammoth hunting in the Great Basin. The oldest of the artifacts were made between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, when the desert was a wetland. “Haskett is very rare, anywhere. Like Clovis, it relates to the earliest folks. They were probably moving around with a sort of condensed tool kit, and I guess you could say they were low visibility. There weren’t many people around, and they didn’t leave much of a record. But we just got lucky here,” Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group told Western Digs. He thinks the points were probably lost in action, during a hunt. His team also discovered 19 sharp, double-sided tools called rectangular bifaces that were fashioned from broken Haskett stems. “These are artifacts that are not recognized in any of the other Paleoindian assemblages,” he said. To read in-depth about the first humans to reach North America, see "America, in the Beginning."