Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, October 28

Pre-European Land Use in Amazonia Was Highly Variable

MELBOURNE, FLORIDA—Some scholars have argued that today’s Amazonian rainforests are the result of ancient managed landscapes, but a new study suggests that people who lived in Amazonian forests prior to the arrival of Europeans had dense settlements in areas near rivers and little impact at all on other areas. Dolores Piperno of the American Museum of Natural History and Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology examined plant fossils, estimates of mammal density, and information from remote sensing and human population modeling, and found that Amazonian forests in remote regions are slow-growing, fragile ecosystems that may be very vulnerable to logging, mining, and other disruptive enterprises. “Nobody doubts the importance of human actions along the major waterways. But whether humans had a greater impact on the ecosystem than any other large mammal has yet to be established in much of western Amazonia,” Bush explained in a press release. To read about work in Mesoamerican rainforests, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

Silver Viking-Era Coins Unearthed in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—A cache of Viking-era coins including some dating to the reign of Harald Bluetooth was found on the island of Omø by a Danish man with a metal detector. “A treasure like this is found once every ten to 15 years. It contains many items and is extremely well kept because it has been buried in sandy earth,” Hugo Hvid Sørensen, a curator from the Museum Vestsjælland, told The Copenhagen Post. The site was excavated by a team from the museum, where the treasure is now on display. “It’s very rare to have found so many Harald Bluetooth coins—one of the earliest coins of that era,” added Sørensen. To read more, go to "The First Vikings."

22 Ancient Shipwrecks Discovered in Greek Waters

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Twenty-two shipwrecks have been discovered and mapped in a 17-square-mile area near Greece’s Fourni archipelago. The islands are in the middle of high-traffic routes that connected the Aegean to the Levant, the Black Sea regions, and Egypt. “Surpassing all expectations, over only 13 days we added 12 percent to the total of known ancient shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters,” Peter Campbell of the University of Southampton and the RPM Nautical Foundation told Discovery News. The wrecks range in age from the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C) through the sixteenth century A.D. More than half of them date to the Late Roman Period (300-600 A.D.). “What is astonishing is not only the number of the shipwrecks but also the diversity of the cargoes, some of which have been found for the first time,” said underwater archaeologist George Koutsouflakis. Three of those cargoes include Archaic pots from the island of Samos, second-century A.D. amphoras from the Black Sea region, and carrot-shaped amphoras from Sinop, which is located on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. The team expects to find many more wrecks along the archipelago’s coastline next season. To read more about underwater archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Chickens Get a New Molecular Clock

OXFORD, ENGLAND—Twelve mitochondrial genomes from two lineages of the White Plymouth Rock chicken, which has a well-documented pedigree, have been sequenced by an international team of scientists. The researchers found that in one case, mitochondrial DNA was passed from a father to its offspring, and overall, the rate of mutation since the two lineages split is up to 30 times faster than had been thought. Two mutations occurred within the past 50 years, or a rate of four percent per million years, rather than one percent per million years. “If we use an incorrect mutation rate, then our estimates of the timing of chicken domestication will be very wrong,” Simon Ho of Sydney University told ABC News Australia. Chickens are thought to have been carried by the people who colonized the islands of the Pacific Ocean. “We may be able to apply this new rate to our data and see whether the dates for the original chickens in the islands and Southeast Asia and their movement out into the South Pacific correlates well with radiocarbon dating of human remains along that translocation route,” commented Jeremy Austin of the University of Adelaide. For more about archaeology and chickens, go to "Kon Tiki Fried Chicken?"

Tuesday, October 27

Scholars Examine Ancient Egyptian Temple at Gebelein

WARSAW, POLAND—Researchers from the University of Warsaw are studying the ancient temple at Gebelein in Upper Egypt, and they are employing new technology that will help to bring its damaged and faded decorations and inscriptions to life. The temple was dedicated to Hathor, and perhaps Amun-Ra, and it was constructed and first decorated during the reign of Hatshepsut, in the fifteenth century B.C. (Fragments of preserved inscriptions contain feminine word endings for the queen’s name.) “Perhaps, many years after her death, due to a complicated dynastic situation, Tuthmosis III was afraid that another ambitious queen might take over and push his own son away from power? This could lead to his decision to remove references to Hatshepsut as pharaoh, according to the principle—if it is not engraved in hieroglyphics, it never happened. But this is one of many theories. Why he wanted to erase her name is still a mystery,” expedition director Wojciech Ejsmond told Science & Scholarship in Poland. The team also plans to remove the debris from the floor of the temple and look for artifacts from the period. To read about another ancient Egyptian temple, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Study Suggests Hunters Killed Off New World’s Large Mammals

LARAMIE, WYOMING—A team of scientists from the University of Wyoming compiled radiocarbon dates from the fossils of now-extinct animals from North and South America, and looked at how those dates correspond to the evidence of human colonization of the New World. They found that, as geoscientist Paul Martin predicted in 1973, the decline and extinction of mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and ground sloths can be used to map the spread of the migrating humans who hunted them for food. Large mammals began to disappear from Alaska and the areas near the Bering Strait between 13,300 and 15,000 years ago; from the contiguous United States between 12,900 and 13,200 years ago; and from South America between 12,600 and 13,900 years ago. “The north to south time-transgressive pattern is striking, and, barring significant new data, it would be difficult to reconcile this pattern with the extinction hypotheses that invoke a single climatic, ecological or catastrophic extinction mechanism across the entirety of the Americas,” the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported in a press release. For more, go to "New Dates Link Humans to Australia's Megafauna Extinctions."

Mitochondrial DNA Recovered From Alaska’s Ancient Infants

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—Archaeologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and geneticists Dennis O’Rourke and Justin Tackney of the University of Utah have analyzed mitochondrial DNA recovered from the remains of two infants found at the Upward Sun River site in Interior Alaska. The cremated remains of a three-year-old child were also recovered at the site, but they did not yield any genetic material. “These infants are the earliest human remains in northern North America and they carry distinctly Native American lineages. These genetic variations had not previously been known to have existed this far north and speak to the early genetic diversity of the time,” O’Rourke said in a press release. O’Rourke adds that “there had to be a period of isolation for these distinctive Native American lineages to have evolved away from their Asian ancestors. We believe that was in Beringia.” Human remains older than 8,000 years have been found at only eight sites in North America, and all five major Native American lineages have been found in them. “That indicates they were present in the early population in Beringia that gave rise to all modern Native Americans,” Tackney explained. To read more, go to "America, in the Beginning." 

Bronze Age Warrior’s Tomb Discovered in Pylos, Greece

CINCINNATI, OHIO—The tomb of a wealthy warrior who had been buried with more than 1,400 artifacts, including jewels and beads made from precious stones, ivory objects, weapons, armor, and vessels made from precious metals has been discovered in southwestern Greece by a team of archaeologists led by researchers from the University of Cincinnati. Many of the objects are in the Minoan style and may have been brought from Crete. The tomb dates to 1500 B.C. and was originally thought to be the corner of a house located in the area of the Palace of Nestor, but the excavators soon realized that they had found an undisturbed grave shaft. “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior predates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization,” team co-leader Sharon Stocker said in the University of Cincinnati Magazine. To read more about the period, go to "The Minoans of Crete."

Monday, October 26

Physician Offers Diagnoses of Oliver Cromwell

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—At this year’s meeting of the Historical Clinicopathological Conference, Dr. Sanjay Saint of the University of Michigan attempted to diagnose the illness that killed Oliver Cromwell, the controversial Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in 1658. According to Live Science, Cromwell’s symptoms included sharp bowel and back pains, insomnia, cold and hot fits, sore throat, cough, confusion, diarrhea, and vomiting. “I think that Oliver Cromwell had two diseases. I think that he had malaria, and I think that on top of that, he had typhoid fever, which ended up killing him,” said Saint. Typhoid fever, a common ailment in the seventeenth century, is transmitted through fecal matter contaminated with Salmonella typhi. Saint reviewed the records made by the examiners who embalmed Cromwell after his death. They noted his overheated brain, engorged lungs, and deposits of oil in his spleen. Saint thinks these symptoms are consistent with typhoid fever. “It makes it more challenging to understand why someone died when you cannot examine them or ask questions or perform any tests on them,” he explained. To read about the study of medieval English churches, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."

New Project Will Scan Egypt’s Pyramids

CAIRO, EGYPT—Mamdouh Eldamaty, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, announced that researchers from Cairo University, Université Laval, and Nagoya University will use radiographic muons, infrared thermography, and photogrammetry to conduct a non-invasive survey of Egypt’s pyramids. “Their goal is to probe Egypt’s largest pyramids, without touching them or drilling the slightest opening,” Eldamaty told Ahram Online. The first phase of the Scan Pyramids Project will focus on the Bent and Red pyramids at the Dahshur necropolis, and Khufu and Khafre’s pyramids on the Giza plateau. “With this mission we, perhaps, will not be able to resolve the mystery of the pyramids, but we are making progress, testing new processes, and without a doubt we will have a better understanding of what these pyramids hide within their massive walls,” explained Hany Helal, head of the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University. The technology will also be applied to the search for the possible burial of Queen Nefertiti in a hidden chamber in King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, as proposed by British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves. To read about a theory concerning the construction of the pyramids, go to "How to Build a Pyramid."

Neolithic Farmers in Britain Crossed Domestic Cattle with Aurochs

DUBLIN, IRELAND—David MacHugh of University College Dublin and a team of scientists extracted nuclear DNA from the 6,750-year-old bone of a wild aurochs discovered in a cave in Derbyshire, England. They then compared the genome to the genomes of domesticated B. taurus and B. indicus cattle, two major groups of cattle known to have descended from the aurochs, and DNA marker information from more than 1,200 modern cows. “Our results show the ancestors of modern British and Irish breeds share more genetic similarities with this ancient specimen than other European cattle. This suggests that early British farmers may have restocked their domesticated herds with wild aurochs,” MacHugh told The genes also showed early farmers selected for behavioral and meat traits. To read in-depth about the Neolithic in Britain, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart." 

The Evolution of the Human Fist

  SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—David Carrier and his colleagues and the University of Utah think the human hand evolved not only for improved manual dexterity, but as a club for fighting over females. He argues that the heavy faces and flat noses of early human ancestors evolved to resist punching, and that as humans became less violent, facial features became more delicate and noses more prominent. To test this idea, the researchers controlled the muscles in the hands of eight male cadaver arms with fishing line attached to the tendons of the forearm muscles and inserted guitar-tuner knobs to regulate the tension on the lines. Gauges measured stress on the metacarpals during punches and slaps on padded-dumbbell targets created with a pendulum-like device. “Our results suggest that humans can safely strike with 55 percent more force with a fully buttressed fist than with an unbuttressed fist, and with twofold more force with a buttressed fist than with an open hand slap,” Carrier said in a press release. “The idea that aggressive behavior played a role in the evolution of the human hand is controversial. Many skeptics suggest that the human fist is simply a coincidence of natural selection for improved manual dexterity.” To read more about Carrier's work, go to "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel?"