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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, July 09

Building in Reykjavik May Have Been Viking Chieftain’s Home

  REYKJAVIK, ICELAND—Traces of a Viking longhouse dating between A.D. 870 and 930, the first years of settlement in Iceland, were discovered in central Reykjavik while archaeologists were looking for a house built in the late eighteenth-century. “We have no records of any building on this spot other than the cottage built in 1799. The cottage was built on a meadow with no remnants of anything else,” Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir of the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology told The Iceland Monitor. The building was at least 60 feet long, and its “long fire,” a hearth that stretched down the middle of the structure, was more than 15 feet long. The excavation team has also uncovered weaving implements within the building and a silver ring and a pearl near it. “The find came as a great surprise for everybody. This rewrites the history of Reykjavik,” said preservationist Þorsteinn Bergsson of Minjavernd. To read more, go to "The First Vikings."

New Dates for Prehistoric Scotland

ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND—Stone artifacts have been found in Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, suggesting that people were in the Cairngorm Mountains as early as 8,000 years ago, or thousands of years earlier than had been previously thought. At this time after the last ice age, there were permanent snow fields in the region and glaciers may have even been reforming. “It is incredible to think that what we have discovered at this one spot in a vast landscape may represent a small group of people stopping for only a night or two, repairing their hunting equipment and then moving on,” Shannon Fraser of the National Trust for Scotland said in a press release. “Glen Geldie is a very chilly place today, even with all our modern outdoor clothing—it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in the much harsher climate 8,000 years ago,” he added. To read in-depth about archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Corn Cobs Unearthed at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Charred corncobs, kernels of corn, and sunflowers have been unearthed by students from Augustana College and England’s University of Exeter at a 1,000-year-old site along Lake Mitchell in southern South Dakota. “This village isn’t the origin of prehistoric agriculture, but it is one of the key sites in understanding what was done here,” professor Adrien Hannus of Augustana College told The Mitchell Republic. The corn cobs are about the size of an adult finger and were probably roasted or boiled whole. “You can see that the corn kernels are about the same size, but the cobs were a lot smaller and there were a lot fewer kernels on the cobs,” added Alan Outram from the University of Exeter. The storage pits, where the cobs and seeds were found, were eventually used for trash and capped with clay and ash. For more, go to "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."

Did the Ancient Athenians Store Wealth in the Parthenon’s Attic?

HAMILTON, ONTARIO—Spencer Pope of McMaster University, Peter Schultz of Concordia College, and David Scahill of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens think that the city-state of ancient Athens may have stored reserves of coins in the Parthenon’s attic. Writers in antiquity noted that the Athenian reserves sometimes reached 10,000 talents—a staggering sum of silver coins that could have potentially weighed 260 metric tons. However, the ancient records do not mention exactly where on the Acropolis the coins were stored. Very little of the Parthenon’s attic still exists, but estimates suggest that it was 62 feet wide by 164 long, with a floor made of thick beams of wood from cypress trees. There are also remnants of a utilitarian staircase that could have been used to move money to and from the attic, where coins could have been spread across the floor space to distribute their weight. “The attic of the Parthenon is the only suitable space large enough to hold all of the coins in the Treasury. While we cannot rule out the possibility that coins were distributed across numerous buildings, we should recall that the attic is the most secure space,” Pope told Live Science. To read more about money from this period, go to "Mysterious Greek Coins Studied."

Wednesday, July 08

Four Pre-Dynastic Tombs Excavated in Egypt

DAQAHLIYAH, EGYPT—Polish archaeologists digging at Tel Al-Farkha have unearthed four Pre-Dynastic tombs, according to a report in Ahram Online. Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced that three of the tombs are in poor condition, but that the fourth, a small mastaba with two chambers, is well preserved. It contained pottery such as beer jars and bowls, stone vessels of different shapes and sizes, and carnelian beads, in addition to human remains. Marek Chlodnicki, head of the Polish team, added that two buildings were also found near the tomb. One of them is rectangular in shape, had thick walls, and was located along a courtyard. The second building was built during the second half of the First Dynasty, and had double mud-brick walls. A brewery with the remnants of two vats was also unearthed at the site. To read more about the Pre-Dynastic period, go to "Mummification Before the Pharaohs." 

Scientists Reconstruct Ice-Core Timescales

RENO, NEVADA—An international team of scientists has analyzed more than 20 ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica and reconstructed the climate timeline for the first millennium. “Ice-core timescales had been misdated previously by five to ten years during the first millennium leading to inconsistencies in the proposed timing of volcanic eruptions relative to written documentary and tree-ring evidence recording the climatic responses to the same eruptions,” Francis Ludlow of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute told The Telegraph. The new study of ice cores, combined with historic records from around the world, suggests that two huge volcanic eruptions in North America could have caused the sixth-century dust clouds that led to widespread famine and disease in Europe, and even the fall of the Roman Empire. “Our new dating allowed us to clarify long-standing debates concerning the origin and consequences of the severe and global climate anomalies which began with the mystery cloud in A.D. 536 observed in the Mediterranean basin,” said Michael Sigl of the Desert Research Institute and the Paul Scherrer Institute. 

Llama Geoglyphs Found in Nazca, Peru

YAMAGATA, JAPAN—A team from Yamagata University has found an additional 24 images etched into the dust in urban areas of Nazca, Peru, using a 3-D scanner. The geoglyphs, many of which are heavily eroded, date from 400 to 200 B.C., and are thought to be older than other Nazca Line images such as the hummingbird. Most of the newly found drawings depict llamas. “There are no other areas concentrated with this many examples. Yet with both urban areas and farmland encroaching on the drawings, they are under the threat of being destroyed without being recognized as geoglyphs,” Masato Sakai of Yamagata University told The Asahi Shimbun. To read more, go to "Rituals of the Nasca Lines."

Bronze Age Gold Spirals Discovered in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Some 2,000 spirals made of gold have been unearthed in a field in southwestern Zealand, where four gold bracelets and six gold bowls have been found in the past. The spirals date to the Bronze Age, between 900 and 700 B.C. “Maybe the spirals were fastened to the threads lining a hat or parasol. Maybe they were woven into hair or embroidered on a ceremonial garb. The fact is that we do not know, but I am inclined to believe that they were part of a priest-king’s garb or part of some headwear,” Flemming Kaul of the Danish National Museum said in a Danish-language press release reported in The Local. The site has now yielded the most gold jewelry and other artifacts by weight from the northern European Bronze Age. “The sun was one of the holy symbols in the Bronze Age and gold was presumably seen as having some sort of particular magic power. It is colored like the sun, it shines like the sun, and because gold lasts forever, it was also seen as containing some of the sun’s power,” Kaul said. To read more in-depth about the Bronze Age, go to "Wolf Rites of Winter."

Tuesday, July 07

Imperial Roman Army Camp Excavated in Israel

MEGIDDO, ISRAEL—The second and third century A.D. permanent headquarters of Rome’s Sixth Legion Ferrata have been discovered at the site of Legio, located near Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. One of two imperial legions sent to the region, the Sixth Legion Ferrata helped keep order in Galilee during the Bar Kochba Revolt between A.D. 132 and 135. Conducted by the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research as part of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, the excavations have uncovered ceramic roofing tiles marked with the sign of the Sixth Ironclad Legion, clay pipes, sewer channels, streets, and several buildings, including one that may have been the residence of the commander. “We’re talking about a large camp, an imperial camp, one of about 5,000 soldiers, about 984 feet by 1,640 feet,” Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority told The Times of Israel. “Our entire understanding about Roman military architecture, and especially Roman legionary bases for this particular period…comes from the western empire—Germany, Britain, and Gaul,” added Matthew J. Adams of the Albright Institute. To read more about Roman military fortifications, go to "Rome's Earliest Fort."

Ancient Monkey Skull Hints at Primate Brain Complexity

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—For the first time, scientists have visualized the brain within a 15 million-year-old monkey skull that was discovered in 1997 on an island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria. Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Lauren Gonzales of Duke University used high resolution x-ray imaging and created a 3-D computer model of Victoriapithecus’s tiny brain, and determined that it was more complex than they had expected. The brain has numerous wrinkles and folds, and its olfactory bulb is three times larger than anticipated. “It probably had a better sense of smell than many monkeys and apes living today,” Gonzales said in a press release. It had been thought that early primate brains evolved to be larger first and then more folded and complex. “But this study is some of the hardest proof that in monkeys, the order of events was reversed—complexity came first and bigger brains came later,” she said. 

Genetic Study Examines Sense of Smell in Early Humans

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—A team of scientists from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the University of Manchester examined DNA samples from more than 2,200 people from 43 populations around the world and found that different populations tend to have different gene sequences for OR7D4, a receptor on human smell cells that allows people to detect androstenone, a smell produced by pigs and found in boar meat. Androstenone makes the pork from uncastrated boars taste unpleasant to people who can smell it. Statistical analysis of the frequencies of the different forms of the gene in different populations suggests that it might have been subject to natural selection. Populations from Africa tend to be able to smell androstenone, suggesting that human ancestors were able to as well. Pigs were originally domesticated in Asia, where many people now have a reduced sensitivity to androstenone. The team, led by Kara Hoover of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also examined DNA for OR7D4 from Neanderthal and Denisovans from Siberia. Neanderthals would have been able to smell androstenone, but Denisovans had a unique mutation that changed the structure of the OR7D4 receptor. Hiroaki Matsunami of Duke University found that the Denisovan sense of smell was not changed by this mutation, however, and that these early humans would have been able to smell the compound. For more on Neanderthals and Denisovans, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Unusual Neolithic Burials Unearthed in Egypt

POZNAŃ, POLAND—At a cemetery in Gebel Ramlah, an area of Egypt’s Western Desert near the border of Sudan, archaeologists led by Jacek Kabaciński of the Polish Academy of Sciences unearthed the 6,500-year-old burials of 60 adults. One of the graves contained the remains of two individuals. Deliberate cuts on the femur, which have not been seen in other Neolithic burials in North Africa, were found on one of these skeletons. Another unusual grave had been lined with stone slabs, and in a third burial, the team found the remains of a man whose body had been covered with pottery fragments, stones, and lumps of red dye. A fragment of a Dorcas gazelle skull with horns found near his head may have been a ceremonial headdress. This skeleton also showed signs of abnormal bone adhesions and fractures. According to a report in Science & Scholarship in Poland, Kabaciński and his team think this man may have performed rites associated with hunting. To read more about this period, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."