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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 02

Statues Stolen From Museum in Sudan

KHARTOUM, SUDAN—Three statues dating to 450 B.C. have been stolen from a remote museum near the World Heritage site of Jebel Barkal in northern Sudan. “They are small statues, about 10 to 15 centimeters high but it’s very significant because the Napatan kingdom is one of the important periods in Sudanese history,” Abdurrahman Ali, head of Sudan’s museums, told News 24.  

First Traces of Colonial St. Louis Unearthed

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Archaeologists from the Missouri Department of Transportation have recovered the first physical evidence of a French colonial home in St. Louis beneath layers of concrete and bricks. It had been thought that all traces of the city’s early, fur-trading days had been wiped out by nineteenth-century construction. The home had been built with vertical wood posts, rather than the horizontal logs used by Anglo-Americans, according to principal investigator Michael Meyer. And, French documents confirm that the house was built in 1769 by Joseph Bouchard, then later owned by Philip Riviére, a member of a prominent local family. Another house nearby contained a piece of tin-enameled Spanish majolica. “They’ve actually found remnants of this exciting period of time that lasted for 40 years in the early history of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase,” National Park Service historian Bob Moore commented to St. Louis Public Radio.

Contested Artifacts Will Be Returned

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—BBC News reports that two artifacts thought to have been smuggled out of Italy have been withdrawn from auctions in London. A Greek glass jug dating to the second or first century B.C., and a third century B.C. pottery vessel, were identified by Christos Tsirogiannis of the University of Cambridge as items that had been traded by art dealers convicted of trafficking in antiquities. And, according to India West, the National Gallery of Australia has agreed to return a 900-year-old bronze Shiva Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva, believed to have been stolen from a temple in India’s state of Tamil Nadu. The museum had purchased the statue in 2008 from a New York art dealer currently on trial in Chennai for allegedly organizing the theft of 28 objects from two temples in India. 

Byzantine Mosaics Uncovered in Israel

  HURA, ISRAEL—A Byzantine monastery with intact mosaics on the floors of the prayer hall and dining room was discovered during salvage excavations in the Negev Desert. The mosaics, made up of blue, red, yellow, and green tiles, depict leaves, flowers, baskets, jars, birds, and geometric patterns. The names of four of the monastery’s abbots, and the sixth-century dates that the floors were laid, are recorded in tiles. “It seems that this monastery, located near the Byzantine settlement of Horbat Hur, is one monastery in a series of monasteries situated alongside a road that linked Transjordan with the Be’er Sheva Valley,” Daniel Varga of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Live Science. Four other rooms had been paved with white mosaic tiles, and ceramic jars, cooking pots, kraters, bowls, glass vessels, and coins were found. The monastery and mosaics will be moved away from the road construction and preserved.

Tuesday, April 01

Byzantine Monks Used Asbestos in Wall Paintings

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—While examining the changes in building materials over time at the monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, investigators discovered white asbestos beneath some areas of the twelfth-century wall paintings. The fibrous material, added to the finish coating of plaster, produced a smooth finish. The monks “probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer. It definitely wasn’t a casual decision—they must have understood the properties of the material,” archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli of UCLA told Live Science. The main deposits of asbestos in Cyprus are located some 38 miles away from the monastery, suggesting that the monks may have traded for it. 

Could the Pharaohs Read and Write?

POZNAŃ, POLAND—Little is known about the education of royal children in ancient Egypt, so Filip Taterka of Adam Mickiewicz University examined Egyptian texts for clues to the literacy of the pharaohs. He found references to medical documents, letters, and wisdom literature written by the kings, and adds that the writing implements found in the tomb of Tutankhamun suggests that the boy king had been educated. “For administrative documents and literary texts, ancient Egyptians used mainly hieratic, which was a simplified form of writing used since the Old Kingdom, the time of the builders of the pyramids in the third millennium B.C. In the middle of the first millennium B.C., even more simplified demotic appeared,” Taterka explained to Science & Scholarship in Poland. Taterka thinks that Egyptian royal children were probably taught hieratic, and that classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood. Pharaohs would also need to know how to read hieroglyphs so that they could recite sacred texts. 

Camp Asylum Excavation Continues in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Rescue excavations continue at the site of “Camp Asylum,” a Civil War prisoner of war camp for 1,250 Union officers located in what was an exercise yard for patients at the state’s mental health asylum. Archaeologist Chester DePratter of the University of South Carolina has brought in machinery to look for shebangs—the holes that the officers dug in the ground for shelter during the winter of 1864. “We didn’t want to leave important features in the ground if we could get them using machinery judiciously,” he told WFAE. Combs, buttons, and lead seals from bales of cotton have also been found. The site will be handed over to developers at the end of April.

Monday, March 31

Mausoleum of Augustus to Be Restored

ROME, ITALY—Restoration of the mausoleum of Augustus, built in 28 B.C., is scheduled to begin. The cylindrical monument once stood 120 feet high, and was topped with a bronze statue of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. The structure held his ashes, as well as the ashes of his successors, Tiberius and Claudius. “It’s incredible the mausoleum is still standing despite what it has been through,” archaeologist Elisabetta Carnabuci told The Guardian. The tomb was pillaged by the Visigoths, converted to a castle in the twelfth century, fired on with cannons, turned into a garden, and used for bullfights, fireworks, and concerts. The mausoleum is expected to reopen to the public in 2016.

Tomb With Pyramid Entrance Excavated in Egypt

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—A 3,300-year-old tomb that had a 23-foot-tall pyramid at its entrance has been excavated at an ancient cemetery in Abydos. The underground burial chambers of the elaborate tomb, which was looted as least twice in antiquity, still held a red-painted sandstone sarcophagus for a scribe named Horemheb in one chamber, and Shabti figurines for a man named Ramesu in another. The disarticulated skeletal remains of three to four men, 10 to 12 women, and at least two children were also recovered. Radiocarbon dates of the bones should help Kevin Cahail of the University of Pennsylvania determine if the women had been wives of the men, or if the tomb had been used over multiple generations by the same family. It is even possible that the tomb was reused without permission at a later date. Cahail and his team also discovered a broken heart amulet carved from red and green jasper. “It’s a beautiful object and possibly one of the best carved examples of these very rare type of amulets. It was probably on the chest of one of the deceased individuals and there probably would have been some sort of necklaces and gold and things like that,” he told Live Science

Looted Bone Boxes Recovered in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Eleven ossuaries containing bone fragments and pottery were recovered last week in a joint operation between officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Shefet police, who interrupted a clandestine transaction and arrested several suspects. Some of the 2,000-year-old bone boxes are elaborately carved with Jewish symbols and text in Hebrew and Greek, and two were inscribed with names. The ossuaries are thought to have been recently looted from a burial cave in Jerusalem that may have been uncovered during a construction project. “We can learn from each ossuary about a different aspect of language, art and burial practice,” Eitan Klein, deputy director of the IAA, told Haaretz

Was the Black Death Airborne?

LONDON, ENGLAND—The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century was not spread by fleas on rats, according to a new study of plague DNA extracted from 25 skeletons unearthed in London last year. Tim Brooks of Public Health England thinks that the Yersinia pestis bacterium must have been transmitted through coughs and sneezes in order for it to have spread through the population so quickly. Archaeologist Don Walker and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London add that the skeletons show that the people were in poor health when the plague struck—they suffered from rickets, anemia, malnutrition, and bad teeth. A study of the wills registered at the Court of Hustings by archaeologist Barney Sloane estimates that as many as 60 percent of Londoners succumbed to the Black Death. “As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,” Brooks told The Guardian.