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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, June 15

Bulgarian Customs Officers Recover Ancient Silver Coins

SOFIA, BULGARIA—Eighty-two silver coins, some bearing an image of the head of King Philip II of Macedon, were recovered by Bulgaria’s customs agency at Sofia International Airport. The coins were hidden in three routers in a package headed for the United States. “Each of the coins is a cultural artifact as per [Bulgaria’s] Cultural Heritage Act. In addition to their extremely high financial and collectors’ worth, the coins are also priceless from a scientific point of view because they are completely unknown for the historical science,” read a statement from the Customs Agency in Sofia, reported in Archaeology in Bulgaria. Customs officers are continuing to investigate the case. They have not released any information about where the coins may have been unearthed. To read more about ancient coins, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."

New Evolutionary Theory Turns Disability Into Advantage

YORK, ENGLAND—The need to socialize, and the ability to experiment and learn, may have helped early humans to survive genetic bottlenecks, when the pool of potential mates was small or even crossed species boundaries. The father and daughter research team of Isabell Winder of the University of York and Nick Winder of Newcastle University speculates in their model of hominins as “Vulnerable Apes” that selection pressure would favor those who were able to cope with the challenges of hereditary disabilities such as weak jaws, hairless bodies, short, weak arms, and straight feet that might have emerged during times when the population dwindled. “In situations where the probability of producing disabled offspring was high, the ‘fittest’ individuals would be those that could help their offspring co-exist with this vulnerability. Those that were a little smarter, more flexible, and more compassionate would have been at an advantage,” Nick Winder said in a press release. To read more, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Well-Preserved Graffiti in Aphrodisias Is 1,500 Years Old

PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY—Many graffiti in the Greek-speaking ancient city of Aphrodisias, named for the goddess Aphrodite, depict battling gladiators, according to Angelos Chaniotis of the Institute for Advanced Study. “And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east,” Chaniotis said in a lecture given at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and reported in Live Science. The images, most of which date to between A.D. 350 and 500, may have been scratched into the rock by spectators who had seen gladiator battles in the arena. There are also sexual images, pictures that show chariot races, and religious graffiti, including Christian crosses, the double ax of Carian Zeus, and a depiction of a Jewish Hanukkah menorah. “This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times,” he said. The graffiti declined around the time that Justinian became emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in A.D. 527. Justinian restricted or banned polytheistic and Jewish practices, and renamed Aphrodite’s city Stauropolis. For more, go to "The Gladiator Diet."

Stone Tools Reflect Social Networks in Transition

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—Liv Nilsson Stutz and Jonas Aaron Stutz of Emory University suggest that the variety of stone tools from Mughr el-Hamamah, a cave overlooking the Jordan Valley, supports the idea that between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago, people were organizing themselves into more complex social groups. “These toolmakers appear to have achieved a division of labor that may have been part of an emerging pattern of more organized social structures,” Arron Stutz said in a press release. The cave sits midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and would have been in the path of migrating modern humans and Neanderthals. Prior to the Upper Paleolithic, tools in the Near East looked similar to each other and served many uses. Toolmakers at Mughr el-Hamamah, however, efficiently produced large quantities of different types of tools using different techniques. “They were investing in the kinds of activities that require maintaining relationships and group planning. They were gearing up for a clearly defined division of labor, including firewood gathering, plant gathering, hunting, and food foraging,” Stutz said. To read more about diverse Paleolithic stone tools, go to "Neanderthal Tool Time."

Friday, June 12

Lake Michigan Wreck Is Not 17th-Century Le Griffon

FRANKFORT, MICHIGAN—Michigan state archaeologist Dean Anderson and underwater archaeologist Wayne Lusardi, along with Michigan State Police divers, visited wreckage in Lake Michigan found by local enthusiasts who thought it could be Le Griffon, a ship built and lost by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1679. The wooden hull, which is 80 feet long, is too big to be the long-lost ship, however. Lusardi added that steam machinery on the ship suggests it was a tug boat dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. “We’re interested in what’s down there. We encourage people to report when they find a shipwreck,” State Historic Preservation Office spokeswoman Laura Ashlee told To read about and see some amazing pictures of some of the Greak Lakes' most fascinating wrecks, go to "Shipwreck Alley."

Intact Wine Jug Discovered in Scandinavia’s Oldest City

RIBE, DENMARK—An intact trefoil jug, or wine pitcher, has been unearthed in a cemetery in Ribe, Denmark, by students from the University of Aarhus. The jug was produced in a workshop in France or Belgium, and is estimated to be 1,000 years old. “The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era,” Morten Søvsø of the Sydvestjyske Museum told The Copenhagen Post. To read about an even older Egyptian vintage, go to "Wine for Eternity." 

Cause of Athens Infant Deaths Discovered

WATERLOO, CANADA—Newsweek reports that the remains of hundreds of dogs and human infants that were discovered in a well in the Athenian agora in the 1930s have been examined by biological anthropologist Maria Liston of the University of Waterloo and her team, who determined that all but three of the 450 infants were less than a week old at the time of death, and as many as one third of the babies died of bacterial meningitis, a disease that can be transmitted by cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterile object. The rest of the babies are likely to have died from other natural causes that did not leave marks on the bones. Archaeologist Susan Rotroff of Washington University in St. Louis dated the deposits to between 165 and 50 B.C., a time when babies in Greece and Rome may not have been considered to be full individuals until they were named in a ceremony conducted a week to ten days after birth. Babies who died before the ceremony may have ended up in a well. Zooarchaeologist Lynn Snyder adds that the dogs may have been killed as sacrifices. There are no signs of fatal trauma on their bones, but some of them have healed fractures. To read about another mass grave in Athens, go to "Plague Victims Found."

Thursday, June 11

Study Suggests Human Ancestors Smiled

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND—A study of the smile types displayed by chimpanzees in the wild suggests that their communication is more similar to that of humans than had been previously recognized. Humans and chimpanzees have the same types of smiles when laughing, and they can produce those smiles silently. “Humans have the flexibility to show their smile with and without talking or laughing. This ability to flexibly use our facial expressions allows us to communicate in more explicit and versatile ways, but until now we didn’t know chimps could also flexibly produce facial expressions free from their vocalizations,” Marina Davila-Ross of the University of Portsmouth said in a press release. This suggests that positive facial expressions and flexibility in facial expressions were present in our common ancestor. There are still differences between the laughter of humans and chimps, however. “Chimps only rarely display crow’s feet when laughing, but this trait is often shown by laughing humans. Then, it is called Duchenne laughter, which has a particularly positive impact on human listeners,” she said. To read about a very different way scientists are looking at the evolution of the human face, go to "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel?"

Medieval Wall Unearthed in England’s East Midlands

LINCOLN, ENGLAND—Road construction in England’s East Midlands uncovered part of a medieval wall. “You can see pieces of pottery and bone through the layers allowing us to date them. Although we have what looks like a medieval dwelling, we do not know at this stage its purpose—whether it was residential or if a trade was carried out here,” archaeologist Leigh Brocklehurst said in a press release from the Lincolnshire County Council. The wall is thought to date to the twelfth century, when it would have been set back, behind buildings that faced the High Street. Its rough construction could indicate that it had been a home for daily wage workers who had moved into the growing town, then known as Wigford. To read about how chess was played in medieval England, go to "Artifact."

Cross-Sections of Roman Aqueduct Reveal Water Supply

URBANA, ILLINOIS—Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied the limestone deposits within the Anio Novus aqueduct in order to estimate the rate of water flow from the Apennine Mountains to Rome. They determined that the aqueduct, which was built between A.D. 38 and 52, would have delivered 370 gallons of Aniene River water to the city each second. The buildup of limestone, or travertine, indicates that the 54-mile-long aqueduct channel was almost always full of water. But as the deposits got larger, they eventually reduced the water flow by 25 percent. Earlier estimates of the amount of water carried into Rome were taken from historical accounts and average velocity based upon the slope of the aqueduct. However, this new study has found variations in the slope across the aqueduct that could dramatically change those estimates. “Regardless of the different estimates, researchers agree that these aqueducts were the core piece of infrastructure that permitted large-scale urbanization. With this reliable water supply, Rome’s population was able to grow between 600,000 to a million people during the first century A.D.,” geologist and microbiologist Bruce Fouke said in a press release. To read about the search for the source of one of the most famous ancient aqueducts, go to "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."