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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, September 15

Study Suggests Children’s Medieval Burial Was Revered

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—In 1992, archaeologists recovered the remains of two children in a single coffin under Frankfurt Cathedral. A new report on the discovery reveals that the children were approximately four years old at the time of death, which occurred between A.D. 700 and 730. One of the children had been dressed in a tunic and shawl in the style of Merovingian nobility, with gold, silver, bronze, and precious stone jewelry, while the other had been cremated in a bearskin, according to Scandinavian customs of the time. This child had a necklace resembling a Scandinavian amulet. The grave had been placed near a small church, and was still being honored some 100 years later, when a palace chapel was constructed and aligned with it. “We don’t know exactly why they were honored, that’s the real question, Egon Wamers, director of the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, told The Local, Germany. For more, go to "Dark Age Necropolis Unearthed."

Poland’s Oldest Stone Wall Unearthed in the Carpathians

MASZKOWICE, POLAND—Beneath the remains of a Bronze Age settlement, a team from Jagiellonian University, led by Marcin S. Przybyla, has unearthed Poland’s oldest-known stone wall. “In the whole of Central Europe there are only a dozen sites dated so early with more or less well-preserved stone fortifications. At that time, the use of stone as a building material was typical of the Mediterranean areas. In the temperate zone of Europe, until the Middle Ages, fortifications were built with wood and clay,” Przybyla explained in Science & Scholarship in Poland. A figurine from the site resembles statuettes usually found in Mycenaean Greece and the northern Balkans and offers another link to Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean. The structure, which has been dated to between 1750 and 1690 B.C., was built on the top of a hill that had been flattened and expanded. The sandstone walls of the fortress, thought to have been nearly nine feet tall based upon the measurements of fallen rocks, were held together with clay. A deep, narrow trench and a narrow gate were also part of the site’s defense system. To read more about the Bronze Age, go to "The Minoans of Crete."

Early Humans Practiced Ambush Hunting

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND—An international team of anthropologists and earth scientists led by Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University has made a model of the ancient landscape of the Olorgesailie region of the Kenyan Rift. “By reconstructing the topographic setting in the area and examining the trace nutrients in soils there now and interviewing local Maasai leaders about current animal grazing activities, we were able to build up a picture of animal movements around one million years ago,” Reynolds said in a press release. She and the team of researchers found that the topography provided limited routes for large animals to travel through the grazing areas, and high ground for human ancestors to watch them. The placement of butchered remains and stone tool sites on the landscape suggest that the early humans exploited these limited pathways to practice ambush hunting. “These were fearsome, aggressive animals. From my perspective that tells us that the hominins were organized, they were able to communicate a plan to each other. These are not the sort of animals that you can hunt alone,” she said on a video clip. For more on prehistoric hunting practices, go to "Prehistoric Hunting Blinds." 

Monday, September 14

Seventh-Century Burials Discovered at Temple of Concordia

PALERMO, SICILY—The skeletons of two men thought to have been buried in the seventh-century A.D. have been unearthed by a team from the University of Palermo near the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. The valley is known for its seven well-preserved Greek temples. “The find is important because it shows a human presence in the city during the post-classical age,” Valentina Caminneci, an archaeologist at Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, told The Local, Italy. Further investigations could reveal if a Christian cemetery was placed in front of the temple after it was converted into a Christian basilica by the archbishop Gregory of Agrigento. For more, go to "The Fight for Ancient Sicily."

Early Christian Medallion Unearthed in Bulgaria

BURGAS, BULGARIA—A bronze medallion decorated with early Christian imagery has been found in the excavation of the sixth-century A.D. Burgos Fortress, located on Cape Foros in the Black Sea city of Burgas. On the obverse, a central cross covered with white enamel is surrounded by seven more crosses surrounded by yellow glass paste. On the reverse of the medallion, archaeologists have found traces of wood, indicating that it had been attached to a wooden object. “There is enough evidence that these kinds of medallions adorned boxes or wooden covers of liturgical books. That is why, at the present stage we assume that the medallion from Foros adorned the cover of a gospel book or a box used for keeping a liturgical item such as a book or a chalice,” the archaeological team from the Burgas Regional Museum of History said at a press conference reported in Archaeology in Bulgaria. The medallion resembles an altar decoration at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. To read about another example of early Christian imagery, go to "Artifact: Late Roman Amulet."

Australia’s Population Changes Studied With Campfires & Climate

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Occupation patterns in prehistoric Australia are closely linked to climate trends, according to a study conducted by Alan Williams of Australia National University and Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia. They used radiocarbon dates from more than 1,000 prehistoric campfire sites to track Australia’s ancient population levels. “Demographic models suggest populations may have been quite high before the last ice age,” Veth told Science Network: Western Australia. They then compared these results with the climate change profiles from a recent study of Australia’s palaeoclimate conducted by the OZ-INTIMATE (Australasian INTegration of Ice core, Marine, and TErrestrial records) Project. They found that the population remained steady or perhaps even declined from 25,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, when temperatures were about ten degrees cooler. “Then with the restructure in population and possibly lower carrying capacity for large portions of the continent that became more arid, population levels of demography may actually have become more negative,” he explained. When the wet season returned in the north some 13,000 years ago, campfire numbers began to grow again. For more on prehistoric Australia, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Toppled Tree in Ireland Reveals Medieval Burial

COLLOONEY, IRELAND—Heavy rains and winds in County Sligo toppled a beech tree and exposed the Christian burial of a teenage boy who lived during the early medieval period, sometime between A.D. 1030 and 1200. “The upper part of the skeleton was raised into the air trapped within the root system. The lower leg bones, however, remained intact in the ground. Effectively as the tree collapsed, it snapped the skeleton in two,” archaeologist Marion Dowd of Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services said in a statement reported in Discovery News. The teen once stood more than 5’ 10” tall, making him taller than average for the time. He had mild spinal joint disease, probably from a life of physical labor. The skeleton also showed evidence of two stab wounds. “Whether he died in battle or was killed during a personal dispute, we will never know for sure,” Dowd said. No other skeletons have been found in the area. To read about a medieval mass grave found in England, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."

Friday, September 11

Nuclear DNA Obtained From Sima de los Huesos Fossils

LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports that paleogeneticist Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has sequenced nuclear DNA from fossils recovered from the Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” in Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains. The 300,000 to 400,000-year-old fossils had been classified as members of Homo heidelbergensis, which resemble primitive Neanderthals, by paleontologist Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid, but a study of their mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the maternal line, showed that it more closely matched the mitochondrial DNA of Denisovans. Now Meyer and his team have been able to generate enough base pairs from the ancient nuclear DNA to see that the Sima fossils share a close affinity with Neanderthals. “Indeed, the Sima de los Huesos specimens are early Neanderthals or related to early Neanderthals,” Meyer said at the annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution. The results also suggest that the lineage that gave rise to Neanderthals split from other archaic humans earlier than had been thought. The Denisovan mitochondrial DNA found in the Simos fossils may thus have been the result of interbreeding between species. To read more about discoveries at Sima de los Huesos, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."

Geophysical Survey Reveals Eighteenth-Century Burial Pit

CORNWALL, ENGLAND—Geophysical surveys “seem to be showing a very large mass burial pit” on the Cornish coast, archaeologist Jim Parry from the National Trust told BBC News. The pit may hold the remains of 207 sailors who died when HMS Royal Anne sank at Lizard Point in 1721. The ship had been sailing to Barbados when it was caught in a storm and crashed on the rocks. Planned excavations at the site, located in a valley at Pistil Meadow where the shore can be accessed, could reveal “the preservation of skeletal material,” Parry said. To read about maritime archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks." 

Seventeenth-Century Mission Church Excavated in Florida

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—WUFT-FM reports that archaeologists from the University of Florida have traveled to St. Augustine, where they relocated a 1677 mission church, first discovered by a Catholic mission priest in 1951. The church is thought to have been part of the Nombre De Dios Mission, which dates to 1587. According to Gifford Waters of the Florida Museum of Natural History, the church was built of coquina stone and tabby foundations, and was one of the largest churches in colonial Spanish Florida. Inside the buildings at the mission, the research team has recovered Spanish artifacts such as nails and pottery, and Native American artifacts. “So we’re looking at the interior of these buildings to get a better idea of the daily activities and what’s going on inside the structure. There’s not much written about the daily lives of the Native Americans that were here,” Waters said in a video clip. To read about another mission in northern Florida, go to "Off the Grid: Mission San Luis."