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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 02

Alaska Landslide Reveals Stone Hammer

SITKA, ALASKA—Landslides in the Starrigavan Valley last year brought a prehistoric stone tool that may have been used to drive wedges and split wood to the surface. Forest Service hydrologists Marty Becker and KK Prussian were assessing the damage in the slide area when Becker found the piece of rock. “And I noticed it felt real comfortable in my hand. Like it just fit perfectly. I brushed it off, took a closer look, and realized what it was,” he told KTOO News. The handmaul is missing one arm of its usual “T” shape. “My guess is that it would have been used for harvesting cedar. One of the many uses of cedar was as planks. And there was just a tremendous amount of cedar on that slope that came down,” explained Forest Service archaeologist Jay Kinsman. There are archaeological sites in the area that range in age from 300 to 1,200 years old, but archaeologists may never know when and where this particular tool was made. To read in-depth about prehistoric carpentry, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Mass Graves Discovered in Paris

PARIS, FRANCE—The skeletal remains of more than 200 people who may have been victims of the plagues that struck Paris in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries have been discovered at a construction site in central Paris. The site had been a cemetery hospital from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries, but it had been thought that all of the burials had been moved to the Paris Catacombs in the eighteenth century. So far, archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have uncovered seven graves that contain the remains of up to 20 individuals. An eighth grave holds the remains of more than 150 people. “What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals—men, women and children—were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” archaeologist Isabelle Abadie told The Telegraph. Further study and carbon dating could tell archaeologists more about the burials. To read about a similar discovery, see "Barcelona's Black Death Victims."

Wealthy Woman’s Medieval Grave Found at Grey Friars Site

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—A lead coffin enclosed in a larger limestone sarcophagus was unearthed at the site of the Grey Friars dig, which also yielded the grave of King Richard III. The coffin contained the skeletal remains of an elderly woman who may have been a benefactor of the friary since she had been buried inside the church, perhaps near the high altar. “The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche. Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact,” said Mathew Morris of the University of Leicester. Analysis of the bones shows that she ate a protein-rich diet rich that included large amounts of sea fish. “This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices. This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of people in medieval Leicester,” Morris added. To read about the discovery of Richard III's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

Friday, February 27

Unusual Medieval Burials Found in York

YORK, ENGLAND--Twelve skeletons dating to the time of the War of the Roses are thought to be the remains of soldiers or criminals executed at nearby Tyburn, where executions took place until 1802. All of the individuals were males between the ages of 24 and 40 at the time of death. Two of the men had suffered bone fractures that may be evidence of fighting. “We knew this was a fascinating find as, unlike fifteenth century Christian burial practice, the skeletons were all together and weren’t facing east-west,” Ruth Whyte, osteo-archaeologist for York Archaeological Trust, told The York Press. “They may have been captured in battle and brought to York for execution, possibly in the aftermath of the Battle of Towton during the Wars of the Roses, and their remains hastily buried near the gallows,” she said. To read about the recent discovery of a significant artifact dating to the war, see "War of the Roses Cannonball Recovered."

Fifth-Century Gorget Unearthed in Ohio

CINCINNATI, OHIO—Workers digging a trench earlier this month in Newtown, Ohio, uncovered a Native American burial that included a rare, fifth-century gorget. “A gorget is an ornamental item. These gorgets have three holes in them. They have two at the top for suspension and there’s one in the middle where they possibly could have been attached to clothing or something else,” Bob Genheimer, Rieveschl Curator for Archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, told WVXU Cincinnati. The image on this decorative shell resembles a half bird and half cat. “We believe that the bird may be a Carolina Parakeet. Which, as many people know, is now an extinct bird, but used to be prevalent in the southern United States and as far north as here,” he said. The shell is thought to have come to Ohio from the Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic region through trade, but it is unknown where the carving was done. The remains have been reported as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. To read about a massive archaeological site in Ohio that dates to the same time, see "The Newark Earthworks."

Noblewoman’s Grave Yields Anglo-Saxon Jewelry

NORFOLK, ENGLAND—Archaeology student Tom Lucking was exploring a private field with a metal detector when a large and deep signal led him to the top of a bronze bowl. He refilled the hole and called in the geophysics team from the Suffolk Archaeological Field Group and Norfolk County Council’s Heritage Environment Service. The excavation revealed that the bowl was at the foot of the grave of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who had been buried with a fine pendant made of gold and jewels. “It’s so beautifully made. The garnet cells even have scored gold ‘foil’ at the back of them to catch the light,” archaeologist Steven Ashley of the Historic Environment Service said of the pendant. She also had a chatelaine, and a necklace made of two gold beads and repurposed gold coins. One of the coins in the necklace dates to between 639 and 656, and was minted for the Frankish king, Sigebert III. The bronze bowl was probably also imported from France. “She’s going to have known the kings of East Anglia, and France,” archaeologist Helen Geake commented to EDP 24. The woman’s skeletal remains will be analyzed for information about her age, diet, and medical conditions. For more on Anglo-Saxon archaeology, see "The Kings of Kent.'

Domestic Grain DNA Discovered in Mesolithic Britain

COVENTRY, ENGLAND—A submerged archaeological site off the southern coast of England has yielded DNA from 8,000-year-old wheat. At the time, Mesolithic Britons were hunter-gatherers, but the DNA, collected from the sediments of the Solent, the strait separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England, suggests that they maintained social and trade networks with the Neolithic farmers of mainland Europe. “Common throughout Neolithic Southern Europe, einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff. For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe. The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact. As such, far from being insular Mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe,” said Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, who co-led the research team with Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford and Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, the University of Birmingham, and the University of St. Andrews. “The use of ancient DNA from sediments also opens the door to new research on the older landscapes off the British Isles and coastal shelves across the world,” Gaffney added. To read more about early domestication, see "The Origins of Staple Foods Studied."

Thursday, February 26

High-Tech Tools Map Baptistery of St. John

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—Using Lidar technology, ultra-high-resolution photography, and thermal imaging techniques, Mike Hess and Mike Yeager of the University of California, San Diego, created a 3-D digital model of the interior, exterior, and façade of the Baptistery of St. John, which sits in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo. “The point cloud data—taken from 80 Lidar scans—becomes the geometric scaffold for the high-resolution thermal imagery. The data can be projected into 3-D space so we know exactly what we’re looking at spatially. The drawings are spatially accurate and we can now pull a measurement for any part of the building we want to look at, down to the millimeter,” Yeager said in a University of California, San Diego press release. The construction of the Baptistery was completed in 1128 on the site of a Roman temple dating to the fourth or fifth century A.D. Yeager and Hess were joined by cultural heritage engineer Maurizio Seracini, Gianfranco Morelli of Geostudi Astier, and Vid Petrovic of IGERT-TEECH to examine an unexcavated area of the ancient site beneath the Baptistery with ground-penetrating radar. The team found what could be a staircase, two vaulted rooms, and a series of walls and hallways. “Now we’re able to use this technology to reference that data in space and ‘fly’ from the domed ceiling of the Baptistery down into the dirt to the ancient rooms beyond,” Yeager said. For more on how archaeologists use Lidar, read "Lasers in the Jungle."

A History of Pollution

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA—Geologists led by Aubrey L. Hillman of the University of Pittsburgh used sediment cores from Erhai Lake to examine levels of heavy metal pollution in southwestern China over the past 4,500 years. According to a report in Science, they found a rise in copper contaminants at the start of China’s Bronze Age, but those levels remained stable until the Mongols conquered China in the late thirteenth century A.D. The sediment cores show that heavy metal pollution during the reign of Kublai Khan and the Mongols, who mined and processed silver for coins, jewelry, art, and taxes, was three to four times higher than modern industrialized mining. To read about a similar study, see "Colonial-Era Air Quality Recorded in Andean Ice." 

4,000-Year-Old Barrow Yields Intact Burials

KRAKOW, POLAND—A Bronze-Age burial mound found in a forest in southeastern Poland through the use of Lidar technology has yielded five burials and a World War I firing post. “Importantly, the mound is the first known structure of this type in the Lublin Upland, as well as throughout [southern Poland], probably dating back to the turn of the third and second millennium B.C.,” Piotr Wlodarczak of the Polish Academy of Sciences told Science & Scholarship in Poland. Four graves of the Strzyżów culture were excavated. “The burial rite is slightly different than in the earlier period, the late Neolithic. The mound we examined had not been raised a single grave of a chosen person, but a few graves,” he added. The largest grave had been placed in the center of the mound. All of them contained hundreds of beads made from clam shells, copper jewelry, animal fang pendants, and flint tools. Rifle shells, shrapnel, and an iron fitting from an ammunition basket suggest that the top of the mound had been used as a firing post during the First World War. For more on Bronze Age Poland, see "4,000-Year-Old Ritual Site Discovered in Poland."

Room Discovered at Bronze Age Temple in Sidon

SIDON, LEBANON—An underground room of the Temple of Sidon has been discovered by a team from the British Museum and the Directorate General of Antiquities of Lebanon at the Frères archaeological site. “Sealed by the imposition of a Persian period building constructed on top of it, this new room is of the highest importance in terms of its monumentality and untouched pottery material, both [domestically produced] and imported from Cyprus and Mycenae,” read a statement from the delegation that was reported in The Daily Star. Wooden artifacts, pottery, and utensils were found within the room, built with monumental stones. The site will be preserved in situ, next to the new national archaeology museum now under construction. For more on archaeology in Lebanon, see "Rebuilding Beirut."