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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, January 11

Chinese Tomb Yields Prosthetic Leg

TURPAN, CHINA—Live Science reports that a 2,200-year-old prosthetic leg was discovered in a tomb located near the Silk Road in western China. Archaeologists described the leg in the journal Chinese Archaeology as “made of poplar wood; it has seven holes along the two sides with leather tapes for attaching it to the deformed leg. The lower part of the prosthetic leg is rendered into a cylindrical shape, wrapped with a scrapped ox horn and tipped with a horse hoof, which is meant to augment its adhesion and abrasion.” The man who wore the leg was between 50 and 65 years old at the time of death. Wear at the top of the device suggests that it had been used for a long time. Studies of man’s remains, published in Bridging Eurasia and Quaternary International, show that the bones of his left knee had fused together, perhaps due to inflammation in the joint caused by rheumatism or trauma. He had also been buried with ceramic cups and a jar and wooden artifacts. To read about an artificial toe from ancient Egypt, go to "Artifact."

1,500-Year-Old Amputation Wound Studied

VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Bioarchaeologist Michaela Binder of the Austrian Archaeological Institute examined the bones of a middle-aged man who died in the sixth century A.D. He had been buried in a high-ranking area close to a church with a short sword, a brooch, and a prosthetic device for his missing left foot and ankle. The wood of the device had deteriorated, but excavators recovered an iron ring that stabilized the device. The leg bones are also stained, perhaps indicating the man had been buried with leather pieces that attached the prosthesis to his leg. “Losing a foot—and especially when it’s not cut through the joint but through the bone—would have lacerated a lot of blood vessels and caused an extensive amount of bleeding,” Binder told Atlas Obscura. This injury, however, had healed, and left no sawing marks. There was a difference in the bone density of the man’s legs, suggesting that his left leg had been immobilized for some time. Binder adds that wear on his hips and knees suggest that he rode horses often, so perhaps his left foot had to be amputated after a riding accident. To read about the remains of a Roman town in Austria, go to "Off the Grid."

New Labor-Saving Software Developed for Archaeologists

TRONDHEIM, NORWAY—New software has been developed by PRESIOUS, a project funded by the European Union, to help archaeologists work economically and efficiently. “We set out to address some of the challenges that archaeologists face in their everyday work,” project coordinator Theoharis Theoharis of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said in a press release from the European Commission Community Research and Development Information Service. The first tool simulates how a stone object will erode under certain conditions. The second allows archaeologists to find possible fits for fragmented objects. The third uses symmetry to predict how artifacts with missing pieces might have looked. “But in order to develop these technologies, we had to address a key bottleneck—the expense and labor-intensive nature of digitization,” Theoharis said. “We found that it took a trained operator two and a half hours to scan just one fragment. So the fourth thing we did was speed up the digitization process with our industrial partner.” The tools will be made available without cost to archaeologists this month. To read more about the role of technological tools in archaeology, go to "Peeping through the Leaves."

Medieval Fish Trap Discovered in Poland

TORUŃ, POLAND—Underwater archaeologist Krzysztof Radka of Nicolaus Copernicus University and his team were surveying the remains of one of two medieval bridges leading to the Ostrów Lednicki, an island in Lake Lednica, when they discovered a large, wicker fish trap. The oblong trap, found in the remains of the bridge to the east of the island, contained the remains of more than 4,000 fish. “Exploration required extreme caution because the wicker basket could disintegrate with every movement of water. [The] extraction operation was complicated because of the size, state of preservation, and delicacy of the object, but it seems that it was successful,” Radka told Science & Scholarship in Poland. “It is the only relic of the ninth-tenth century found during underwater research in Poland,” he explained. The bridges were destroyed in 1038 when Czech prince Bretislav invaded and captured the city of Poznań, on the western side of Lake Lednica, and sacked the city of Gniezno, on the eastern side. To read about the medieval fish trade in London, go to "Off With Their Heads."

Friday, January 08

5th Dynasty Tomb Discovered in Egypt

ABUSIR, EGYPT—Miroslav Barta of the Czech Institute of Egyptology and his team have discovered the Old Kingdom tomb of a previously unknown queen named Khentkaus III in a small cemetery to the southeast of King Neferefre’s pyramid complex. She had been buried with four copper tools and 23 limestone vessels. Inscriptions in the tomb list the queen’s titles as “Wife of the King” and “Mother of the King.” Barta thinks she may have been the wife of King Neferefre. “If we can assume that the queen was buried during the time of King Nyuserre (2445 B.C.-2421 B.C.), based on a seal that bears his name that was found on the tomb, we could say that Khentkaus III is the mother of King Menkauhore who was the successor of Nyuserre,” team member Jaromir Krejci told The Luxor Times. To read more about Egyptological discoveries, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Roman Sanitation Practices May Have Spread Parasites

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Archaeological evidence suggests that Europeans conquered by the Roman Empire experienced a gradual increase in intestinal parasites and ectoparasites, such as lice and fleas, in spite of Roman sanitation technologies. “Modern research has shown that toilets, clean drinking water and removing feces from the streets all decrease risk of infectious disease and parasites. So we might expect the prevalence of fecal oral parasites such as whipworm and roundworm to drop in Roman times—yet we find a gradual increase. The question is why?” Piers Mitchell of Cambridge University asked in a press release. He thinks that the warm communal waters of the bathhouses, which may have been changed infrequently, could have contributed to the spread of parasitic worms. The Romans also used human excrement from the public latrines as a crop fertilizer. And the widespread use of garum, a condiment made from uncooked, fermented fish parts, may have contributed to the increase of fish tapeworm eggs during the Roman period. “It seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelt better,” Mitchell said. To read about the Roman Empire's rise to power, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Scientists Recommend Naming New Geological Epoch

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—An international group of scientists known as the Anthropocene Working Group argues the Earth entered a new geological epoch characterized by the spread of novel materials in the mid-twentieth century. These materials are measurable in geological strata and are different from the signals of the Holocene Epoch of the last 11,700 years. During the Holocene, humans gradually built urban settlements and increased food production while using water, mineral, and energy resources. The proposed Anthropocene Epoch, however, is marked by increased consumption and rapid environmental change brought on by a population surge. “Humans have long affected the environment, but recently there has been a rapid global spread of novel materials including aluminum, concrete, and plastics, which are leaving their mark in sediments. Fossil-fuel combustion has dispersed fly ash particles worldwide, pretty well coincident with the peak distribution of the ‘bomb spike’ of radionuclides generated by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons,” Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey said in a University of Leicester press release. The Anthropocene Working Group will continue to gather evidence to define and characterize this proposed new epoch. To read about the archaeology of the Nuclear Age, go to "Dawn of a Thousand Suns."

Thursday, January 07

Ötzi the Iceman Carried Ulcer-Causing Bacteria

BOLZANO, ITALY—Paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner of the European Academy in Bozen/Bolzano have identified the presence of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach contents of Ötzi, the frozen human remains discovered in the Alps in 1991. As many as half of people today are infected with Helicobacter pylori, which can cause gastritis or stomach ulcers. Ötzi’s stomach mucosa is no longer present, so scientists did not expect to be able to recover any traces of the bacterium. “We were able to solve the problem once we hit upon the idea of extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents. After this was successfully done, we were able to tease out the individual Helicobacter sequences and reconstruct a 5,300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome,” Maixner explained in a press release. And Ötzi’s immune system had reacted to the potentially virulent strain of bacteria. “We showed the presence of marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter,” Maixner added. The genetic makeup of the bacteria has raised more questions, however, and further research is being planned. The study of bacteria living inside the human body may eventually be able to help us understand how humans developed. To read more about Ötzi, go to "Ancient Tattoos."

Interspecies Relations Boosted Modern Human Immunity

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Studies have shown that one to six percent of modern Eurasian genomes were inherited from ancient humans. Now two independent studies suggest that interbreeding may have given some modern humans an increased ability to ward off infections. “We found that interbreeding with archaic humans, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, has influenced the genetic diversity in present-day genomes at three innate immunity genes belonging to the human Toll-like-receptor family,” Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said in a press release. The archaic variants of these genes make modern human cells more reactive to invading bacteria, fungi, and parasites. But this increased sensitivity could also result in allergies. “These, and other, innate immunity genes present higher levels of Neanderthal ancestry than the remainder of the coding genome,” added Lluis Quintana-Murci of the Institut Pasteur and the CNRS in Paris. Kelso explains that Neanderthals had lived in Europe and Western Asia for some 200,000 years before interbreeding with the newly arrived modern humans, who benefited from Neanderthal adaptations to local climate, foods, and pathogens. To read more about our extinct cousins, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Did Panamanian Islanders Hunt Dolphins?

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA—Eight percent of the mammal remains found in a 6,000-year-old midden on Pedro González Island, located more than 30 miles from mainland Panama, came from dolphins. People living at the same time in Japan, Mexico, and Chile hunted dolphins, but this is the first time that evidence of systematic dolphin consumption has been found in Central America. “Were the island’s first known inhabitants dolphin hunters or did they merely scavenge beached animals?” asked archaeologist Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The excavation has not uncovered evidence of nets or spears, but the researchers have found a dolphin skull with a puncture wound inflicted by a blunt-pointed tool. Cooke and his colleagues argue that the residents of Pedro González Island may have waited for the seasonal arrival of dolphins into the Gulf of Panama in their canoes at the entrance to the u-shaped Don Bernardo Beach, then driven them to shore where they were harvested. “I would argue, though it’s speculative, that the retention of dolphin hunting is probably due to an early circum-Pacific maritime adaptation by humans,” Cooke said in a press release. To read more in-depth about archaeology in the region, go to "Pirates of the Original Panama Canal."

Climate Data Suggests Famine Worsened Black Death

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Volcanic particles discovered in an ice core taken in 2013 from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Alps have been chemically matched to the 1875 Askja eruption in Iceland by Matthew Luongo, a junior at Harvard University. This information helped researchers to align the data from the ice core with written records, including information about famine conditions in Europe in the years leading up to the arrival of the Black Death in 1347. “The evidence indicates that the famine was a broader phenomenon, geographically and chronologically,” Alexander More of Harvard’s History Department told The Harvard Gazette. If the famine had lasted decades, the population would have been weak and could explain the Black Death’s high mortality rate—between one-third and one-half of the European population are thought to have died over a period of five years.