Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, June 04

New Dates Push Back the Occupation of Mid-West Australia

CRAWLEY, AUSTRALIA—Dates obtained from charcoal associated with stone artifacts at the Yalibirri Mindi rock shelter in the Mid-West region of Western Australia indicate that the ancestors of the Wajarri Traditional Owners and other cultural groups have lived in the area for 30,000 years. “The history of Aboriginal occupation to the north in the Pilbara, south at places like Devil’s Lair and to the east in the Western Desert has been well established for many years but the handful of excavated sites in the Mid-West are all relatively young,” Viviene Brown of The University of Western Australia said in a press release. “This new date from Yalibirri Mindi rock shelter pushes regional occupation by 20,000 years and is enormously important for the archaeological community,” she added. For more on Australian archaeology, see "The Rock Art of Djulirri." 

Sealed Lead Coffin Contained French Noblewoman

RENNES, FRANCE—The well-preserved remains of Louise de Quengo and the heart of her husband, Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, were found in a sealed lead coffin in a stone tomb at a convent chapel in western France. The noblewoman, who died in 1656 and was identified through inscriptions on the reliquary containing the heart, is thought to have entered the convent after the death of her spouse in 1649. “We saw at once there was not just a well-preserved corpse but a mass of material that was still supple and humid, and shoes. Because the coffin was completely sealed it had kept everything preserved. But we had to move quickly because once the coffin was opened it sets off the decomposition process again after 350 years. We had 72 hours to bring the body down to four degrees to preserve everything,” Rozenn Colleter of the Institute National Recherches Archaeologiques Préventive (INRAP) told The Guardian. Medical tests showed that De Quengo suffered from kidney stones and that she had lung adhesions. She will be reburied later this year, but her clothing, made up of simple religious vestments, will be preserved. To read about a purported relic of the French Revolution, see "French Revolution Forgeries?"

Jamaica’s Port Royal Mapped With 3-D Images

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Preliminary high-resolution images of Port Royal have been made by an international marine robotics team at the invitation of Jamaica’s National Heritage Trust. Port Royal, now off the coast of Jamaica, was submerged 300 years ago after an earthquake. “In the seventeenth century, Port Royal was the English mercantile capital of the New World—a bustling sea port that was a haven for privateers and pirates due to its excellent geographic location in the middle of the Caribbean,” Andrew Durrant of the University of Sydney said in a press release. The team will create a detailed map of the site, which has intact buildings and streets, while developing new practices for marine archaeological survey. “The city remains are widely dispersed, often covered in soft sediments and re-deposited coral, conditions which have challenged existing approaches to mapping the sunken area,” Durrant explained. The new survey will be part of Jamaica’s application to have Port Royal included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. To read more about underwater archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Amphora Fragments Reveal Rome’s Trade Secrets

ROME, ITALY—Archaeologists are examining the inscriptions on some of the millions of shards of broken amphoras that compose Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill that accumulated over about three centuries as amphoras that could no longer be used for the transport of wine, olive oil, and garum were smashed and stacked on the top of the pile. The huge amphorae weighed more than 60 pounds when empty, and more than 200 pounds when full of oil or wine. They could no longer be used when oil had seeped into the clay. “The inscriptions are like a sort of ancient Roman bar code. They tell us the year in which the shipment arrived in Rome, the import duty that was paid, and where the product came from,” Francesco Pacetti of Rome’s cultural heritage department told The Telegraph. Officials known as “curatores” supervised the process and sprinkled lime over the top of new deposits to reduce the smell of rancid oil. “It is helping us understand how Roman trade evolved. Important discoveries are being made,” Pacetti said. To read more in-depth about Monte Testaccio, go to "Trash Talk."

Wednesday, June 03

New York’s 19th-Century Forests Reflected Human Habitation

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—New research suggests that a higher than expected number of fire-tolerant, large-nut-bearing trees such as hickory, chestnut, and oak were present near the sites of Native American villages in Western New York in the early nineteenth century. In contrast, beech and sugar maples, which burn readily in forest fires, appeared in smaller numbers than expected. Steve Tulowiecki, who conducted the study while a student at the University at Buffalo with Chris Larsen, used data on trees that was collected in a survey of Chautauqua County between 1799 and 1814, and mapped it along with temperature, precipitation, and soil conditions, to predict what types of trees would have been growing if environmental conditions were the only variables at work. “Our results contribute to the conversation about how natural or humanized the landscape of America was when Europeans first arrived,” Tulowiecki said in a press release. According to the analysis, as much as 20 percent of the land in modern-day Chautauqua County may have been modified. For more about early New York, go to "The Hidden History of New York's Harbor."

Khirbat Al-Minya Will Be Restored

MAINZ, GERMANY—The Cultural Preservation Program of the German Federal Foreign Office has provided Johannes Gutenberg University with a grant for the restoration of Khirbat Al-Minya. The early Islamic caliph’s palace, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was built by Caliph Walid I (ruled A.D. 705-715), with white limestone on a lower course of black basalt. The complex includes one of the oldest mosques in the region, which was damaged by a severe earthquake a few years after construction began. “Every year we have been witness to the gradual deterioration of the palace. By backing the project financially, Germany is assuming responsibility for an important archaeological site that would not have been excavated without the German initiative in the 1930s. At the same time, we are supporting the work of the Israel National Parks management, our students have the chance to gather practical experience in archaeological conservation, and we are also setting an example within the archaeological community for a dialog with Islam,” Hans-Peter Kuhnen of Johannes Gutenberg University said in a EurekAlert press release. To read more about archaeology in the region, go to "Rebuilding Beirut."

The Evolutionary Origins of Cooking

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—When did cooking emerge in human evolution? Felix Warneken of Harvard University and Alexandra Rosati of Yale University investigated whether or not chimpanzees have the cognitive capacities necessary for cooking as a way to approach this question. “If our closest evolutionary relative possesses these skills, it suggests that once early humans were able to use and control fire they could also use it for cooking,” Warneken said in a press release. Beyond the control of fire, cooking requires planning and the causal understanding that putting raw food on a fire changes it. Warneken and Rosati traveled to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo in order to work with wild-born chimpanzees. They found that the chimps preferred cooked food, and they have the necessary cognitive abilities to produce it. “Why would early humans be motivated to control fire? I think cooking might give you a reason. We know wild chimps will observe natural fire, and they even sometimes seek out and eat cooked food left behind by it. The evidence from our cognitive studies suggests that, even before controlling fire, early hominins understood its benefits and could reason about the outcomes of putting food on fire,” Rosati said. To read more, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Rare Natural Pearl Recovered from Australian Shell Midden

NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA—A 2,000-year-old natural marine pearl was discovered at the Brremangurey Rockshelter during excavations conducted by researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW), the University of New England, and the Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation. Located on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia, the Brremangurey Rockshelter was in use for 12,000 years. The nearly round pearl was found in a shell midden among large numbers of pearl oyster shells. “Pearls have not been recovered before from ancient sites in Australia. Since the find is unique, analysis could not damage or take samples from any portion of the pearl, so researchers from UOW developed a range of non-destructive analyses to gather more information,” Kat Szabó of UOW said in a press release. The pearl was dated through radiocarbon analysis of the surrounding shell midden material, and micro-computed tomography showed that the pearl was indeed naturally formed, and not a modern cultured pearl that worked its way into the deposit. “The analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” explained Brent Koppel of UOW. To read about historical archaeology in Australia, go to "Final Resting Place of an Outlaw."

Tuesday, June 02

New Dates Suggest First Europeans Traveled Through the Levant

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—An international team of scientists led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has developed a technique for dating shells from the Ksâr ‘Akil site in Lebanon, where the fossils of two modern human individuals, nicknamed Ethelruda and Egbert, have been found, along with their Upper Palaeolithic toolkit. The people who lived at Ksâr ‘Akil gathered these newly dated molluscs and often cut off the tops of their shells to extract the flesh. “Our analyses show that Egbert lived around 43,000 years ago and Ethelruda at least 45,900 years ago, possibly earlier. Therefore, Ethelruda pre-dates all European modern humans,” Johannes van der Plicht of Groningen University said in a press release. “Toolkits similar to those associated with Ethelruda and Egbert are also found in other sites in the Levant as well as in Europe. These similar toolkits and the earlier ages in the Near East suggest population dispersals from the Near East to Europe between 55,000 and 40,000 years ago,” explained Marjolein Bosch of the Max Planck Institute. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art discovered in Europe, go to "A New Life for the Lion Man."

Slave Ship Sank With Human Cargo On Board

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—The discovery of a slave ship that sank off the coast of Cape Town in 1794 was announced today at Iziko Museums of South Africa. Identified as the São José-Paquete de Africa, the Portuguese ship was carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique to Brazil when it struck submerged rocks some 300 feet from shore and sank between two reefs. More than half of the enslaved people were killed, and those who survived were resold into slavery. “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), said in a press release. NMAAHC is one of six partners in the United States and Africa working on the Slave Wrecks Project, which identified the site through the captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José and other documents. Iron ballast to compensate for the lighter human cargo, shackles, and copper fastenings and sheathing have been recovered. To read more about great underwater discoveries, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

3,000-Year-Old Axes Found in Vietnam

DA NANG, VIETNAM—A team of archaeologists from the Vietnam Archaeology Institute uncovered five stone axes near the Ngu Hanh Son Mountains. The axes are believed to date to the Sa Huynh Culture. “The excavation…provides more details on the appearance of the Sa Huynh Culture and the early Cham in the area,” Ho Tan Tuan, director of Da Nang’s Heritage Management Center, told Vietnam News. Earlier excavations at the site have revealed coins, ceramics, and stone fragments from the Sa Huynh Culture and the Cham. Coins dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suggest that Chinese traders eventually did business in the region. To read more about archaeology in Southeast Asia, go to "Letter From Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."

Figurine of Roman God Mercury Unearthed in England

YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—A 2,000-year-old figurine of the Roman god Mercury was discovered in a field in north Yorkshire by a metal-detecting enthusiast. “Mercury was the god of commerce and so merchants would sprinkle their heads and merchandise with water from Mercury’s well, near the Porta Capena [in Rome], to appeal to the god for luck in their endeavors,” Rebecca Griffiths, the Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the York Museums Trust, told Culture 24. The worn copper alloy figurine has lost the wings to its cap. To read about a spectacular piece of Roman-era sculpture found in England, go to "Artifact: Sculpture of an Eagle Carrying a Snake."