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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, January 27

Ancient Column Capital Unearthed in Cyprus

FAMAGUSTA, CYPRUS—The Famagusta Gazette reports that the top of an ancient column has been uncovered by construction workers at Ayia Thekla church on the eastern coast of Cyprus. The capital was reburied and the antiquities department was notified. Excavations are now being planned for the area around the church, which is being restored. It has been thought that ancient quarries may have been located near the site of the church. To read more about archaeology on the island, see "Bronze Age City Unearthed in Cyprus."

Stranding Site of the SS Great Britain Discovered

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Last year, during exceptionally low tides at Tyrella Beach in Northern Ireland, a team from the University of Bristol used advanced geophysical techniques to search for the spot where the SS Great Britain was grounded in 1846. Designed by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Britain had been built of iron with a screw propeller for trans-Atlantic voyages and was the longest passenger steamship in the world at the time. On the ship’s fifth voyage to New York, a navigational error resulted in the grounding in Dundrum Bay. The ship was unloaded in order to make it lighter for the salvage operation that lasted for nearly a year. “The results were far better than we could have dreamt of. We actually located a huge doughnut ring of debris that fitted exactly the shape of the ship, and faced the precise direction contemporary accounts said she lay,” said project leader Mark Horton. The team also found a linear feature that probably represents the breakwater built to protect the ship from storms. “The Dundrum Bay incident represented the birth of modern ship salvage methods. Anything that we can learn about how this was done will be immensely valuable to historians of the ship. Because they were able to rescue her in 1847, the ship survives today,” said Joanna Thomas, curator of the SS Great Britain. Some of the original parts of the ship may be found in the debris at the salvage site. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Site Offers Clues to Life in Pre-Columbian El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR—New excavations at the site of Nuevo Lourdes, in central El Salvador, have revealed evidence of everyday life in Mesoamerica during the late Classic period, from 650 to 950 A.D. Ceramic vessels and bowls, stone pestles for grinding corn, and two jade beads were found, in addition to a skull, teeth, and other bone fragments. “Many investigations in the Mesoamerican region have found, mostly, ceremonial sites with pyramids,” Shione Shibata, archaeological director at the Cultural Secretariat’s Cultural Heritage Directorate, told the EFE News Agency. The site was discovered by construction workers nearly two years ago, when a burial site, cooking pots, pottery fragments, and obsidian and stone artifacts dating from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. were unearthed. 

Coffin Fragment Bearing Cervantes’ Initials Found in Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN—Wooden planks bearing the initials “M.C.” have been discovered in the chapel crypt at the convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras, or Literary Quarter, where scientists have been looking for the remains of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The letters had been formed on the wooden casket, now in fragments, with metal tacks. Forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria told the Associated Press that the bones of at least ten people, including some children, were recovered from the niche where the coffin was found. The Don Quixote author was 69 at the time of his death in 1616, and it is known that he only had six teeth and had suffered several battle wounds earlier in his life. To read about similar searches, see "Lost Tombs."

Monday, January 26

Pirate Healthcare On Board the Queen Anne’s Revenge

BEAUFORT, NORTH CAROLINA—Archaeologist Linda Carnes-McNaughton of the Department of Defense has been studying the practice of medicine on the pirate ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, captured his flagship, a French slaver, in 1717. Carnes-McNaughton’s research suggests that Blackbeard released most of the French crew at the time, but kept the ship’s three surgeons to treat the illnesses, wounds, amputations, toothaches, and burns suffered by his pirate crew. “Treating the sick and injured of a sea-bound community on shipboard was challenging in the best of times,” Carnes-McNaughton wrote in a paper that she presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Among the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck, which was discovered off the coast of North Carolina in 1996, are a urethral syringe that was used for treating syphilis with mercury. “Eventually the mercury kills you,” she explained to Live Science. Other medical equipment from the wreck includes two pump clysters, used to pump fluid into the rectum, and a porringer, which may have been used in bloodletting treatments. A cast brass mortar and pestle, two sets of nesting weights, and pots that may have stored balms and salves were recovered. Scissors and a silver needle that may have been used during surgeries, and two pairs of brass set screws may have been part of a tourniquet for amputations, are among the possible surgical equipment. To read about the excavation of Queen Anne’s Revenge, see "Blackbeard Surfaces."

Ancient Male Lineages Recognized in Modern Asian Populations

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Nature News reports that geneticists Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester and Patricia Balaresque of Paul Sabatier University have found evidence for ten powerful men, in addition to Genghis Khan, who founded y-chromosome lineages in Asia. Jobling’s team analyzed the Y chromosomes of more than 5,000 modern men from 127 populations and identified 11 y-chromosome sequences that were each shared by more than 20 of them. By examining the mutations in the shared sequences, they were able to determine approximately when the founder of each lineage lived. (It was assumed that these founders lived in the regions where their genotypes were the most prevalent and diverse.) Genghis Khan’s lineage, first identified more than ten years ago by Chris Tyler-Smith, now of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, is shared by eight percent of men in 16 populations across Asia. The previously identified line that began in China with the ruler Giocangga, who died in 1582, also stood out in the new study. A third lineage has been dated to around 850 A.D., and further research could identify its founder. These three lineages expanded westward, possibly carried by sons of the founders who traveled along the Silk Road. The other lineages are estimated to date sometime between 2100 B.C. and 700 A.D., when hierarchical, authoritarian societies emerged in Asia. “Lots of men have lots of sons, by chance. But what normally doesn’t happen is the sons have a high probability of having lots of sons themselves. You have to have a reinforcing effect,” Jobling explained. To read about the search for the Mongol Emperor's tomb, see "Genghis Khan, Founder of the Mongol Empire."

The Search for the Remains of Miguel de Cervantes

MADRID, SPAIN—Archaeologists and forensic scientists are looking for the exact location of the remains of the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who was buried in the chapel at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in 1616. The documents that would have recorded Cervantes’ burial place are thought to have been lost when the church was enlarged. The team has found three unidentified and unrecorded graves beneath the floor of the chapel’s crypt while using radar technology, and the scientists explored a wall niche with an endoscope camera. There are four additional areas of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians that could be searched for the lost grave, if necessary. “Were we to find remains that fulfill the characteristics we are looking for, we could possibly pass to a next stage. That would be to compare DNA similarities with his sister, but that is a very complex step,” Francisco Etxeberria of the University of the Basque Country told the Associated Press. Luisa de Cervantes, the Don Quixote author’s sister, is known to have been buried in a convent in Alcala de Henares in 1623. 

PTSD in the Ancient World

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Soldiers have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for at least 3,000 years, according to a paper written by Jamie Hacker Hughes, director of Anglia Ruskin University’s Veterans and Family Institute, and psychiatrist Walid Abdul-Hamid of North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust. Historians often cite Herodotus’ account of Epizelus, an Athenian spear carrier who experienced psychological problems after the Marathon Wars in 490 B.C., as the first recorded case of PTSD. But texts from Mesopotamia’s Assyrian Dynasty (1300-609 B.C.) record traumas suffered by soldiers who were called upon to fight every third year during their military service. The symptoms were thought to have been caused by the spirits of the enemies whom the patient had killed in battle. “Ancient soldiers facing the risk of injury and death must have been just as terrified of hardened and sharpened swords, showers of sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows and fire arrows. The risk of death and the witnessing of the death of fellow soldiers appears to have been a major source of psychological trauma,” the paper reads. “Moreover, the chance of death from injuries, which can nowadays be surgically treated, must have been much greater in those days. All these factors contributed to post-traumatic or other psychiatric stress disorders resulting from the experience on the ancient battlefield.”  To read about the dramatic consequences of a battle in the Iron Age, see "The Price of Plunder."

Friday, January 23

LEGO Pompeii Excites New Audiences

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Professional LEGO builder Ryan “The Brickman” McNaught has crafted a model of Pompeii at the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum, according to The Conversation. The project, which took more than 500 hours to complete and used more than 190,000 blocks, is one of the largest LEGO historical models ever built. The display shows three phases of the ancient city: as it looked in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted; as it appeared when it was rediscovered in the eighteenth century; and as the ruins stand today. Over the past two years, McNaught created a scale model of the Colosseum out of the colorful bricks, and the LEGO Acropolis, now on display at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. To read about the conservation of Pompeii's most famous paintings, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Buried Pots May Have Been Part of Purification Ritual

RITTO, JAPAN—Archaeologists in Shiga Prefecture have uncovered five pots that had been arranged in a cross shape, with points facing north, south, east, and west, and buried in a hole that also contained earthenware plates in its four corners. The lidded pots each contained five coins that date to 818. One of the pots also contained a peach pit. “They were likely buried in the hope of prosperity for the building owners and others, given that ancient coins bearing such words at ‘tomi’ (wealth) and ‘kotobuki’ (congratulations), as well as a peach seed believed to clear away bad vapors and bring perpetual youth and longevity, are encased,” Towao Sakaehara of the Osaka Museum of History told The Asahi Shimbun. The jars may have been a part of a Buddhist ritual intended to purify the site of a public office or the home of a local leader. This is thought to be the first time that such a discovery has been made in Japan. To read about the possible birthplace of Buddha, go to "Lumbini, Nepal."

Early Human Ancestors Had Tool-Using Hands

KENT, ENGLAND—Matthew Skinner and Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent, and their colleagues from University College London, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Vienna University of Technology, have found skeletal evidence that supports the archaeological evidence for tool use by Australopithecus africanus, an early human ancestor. The team members examined the internal spongey bone structure, called trabeculae, of modern human hands, and the trabecular bone structure in the hands of chimpanzees, and they found clear differences between the two. Chimpanzees are not capable of a forceful precision grip with their hands, which is necessary when turning a key, nor are they able to perform squeeze gripping, as when using a hammer. The team members also examined the hand bones of Australopithecus africanus, and found a human-like trabecular bone pattern in the thumb and palm, suggesting that these early human ancestors would have been capable of such tool-using hand postures between two and three million years ago. Neanderthals also have modern human-like trabecular bone structures. To read about Australopithecus africanus' teeth, go to "Toothsome Evidence."

New Technology Finds Additional Tattoos on the Iceman

BOLZANO, ITALY—New tattoos have been found on the ribcage of Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy discovered by hikers in the Alps in 1991. Marco Samadelli, Marcello Melis, Matteo Miccoli, Eduard Vigl, and Albert R. Zink slightly thawed Ötzi’s body before they photographed it with a modified 36 MP digital SLR camera outfitted with filters to capture images in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths. The images were processed using special software designed to detect color differences in the non-visible spectral range, and they found a group of unrecorded tattoos on the mummy’s lower right rib cage that are invisible to the naked eye. The four parallel lines are “the first tattoo … detected on the Iceman’s frontal part of the torso,” Samadelli told Red Orbit. It had been suggested in previous research that Ötzi’s tattoos may have been medicinal or therapeutic in nature, since most of the marks are said to correspond to classic Chinese acupuncture points. Ötzi is thought to have died at about 45 years of age after he was shot in the back with a stone-tipped arrow and bludgeoned. Research has also revealed that his last meal consisted of grains and ibex meat, and that he suffered from gum disease, gallbladder stones, Lyme disease, parasites, and atherosclerosis. To read more about tattoos in the ancient world, go to "Ancient Tattoos."