Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, September 03

3,000-Year-Old Pottery Discovered in Papua New Guinea

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—A piece of red, glossy pottery found in the rugged highlands of Papua New Guinea has been shown to be the oldest-known pottery in New Guinea. Tim Denham of Australian National University, working with researchers from Otago University, obtained precise dates for the pottery as part of a study to learn more about how the technology spread throughout the Pacific. People who lived on the coast of Papua New Guinea would have had contact with seafaring, pottery-making cultures such as the Lapita people. “It’s an example of how technology spread among cultures. Some pottery must have soon found its way into the highlands, which inspired the highlanders to try making it themselves,” Denham said in a press release. “And it shows human history is not always a smooth progression—later on pottery making was abandoned across most of the highlands of New Guinea. No one knows when or why,” he said. To read about smoked mummies in Papua New Guinea, go to the current issue's "World Roundup."

Roman Sarcophagus Recovered From Israel Construction Site

ASHKELON, ISRAEL—Construction workers in southern Israel have damaged a rare Roman sarcophagus, according to a statement made by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). IAA inspectors found the sarcophagus beneath a stack of sheet metal and boards. They also saw that concrete had been poured over the site where the artifact was unearthed in an attempt to conceal it. The eight-foot-long sarcophagus has a life-sized image of a person carved on the lid. “He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt decorated with embroidery on the front. A tunic is wrapped around his waist. The figure’s eyes were apparently inlaid with precious stones that have disappeared and the hair is arranged in curls, in a typical Roman hairstyle,” archaeologist Gaby Mazor told Discovery News. The sarcophagus also bears carvings of wreaths, bulls’ heads, cupids, and an image of Medusa. “In this case, the building contractors chose to hide the rare artifact and their action has caused painful damage to history. Legal proceedings will now be taken against those involved, thereby leading to a delay in construction and related expenditures,” Amir Ganor, head of the Inspection Department at the IAA, said in a statement. To read more about the period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."

Mummy Study Suggests Ancient Egyptians Bred Birds of Prey

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ancient Egyptians bred birds of prey and force-fed them before offering them to the gods, according to a study conducted by a team from the American University in Cairo, Stellenbosch University, and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. “The idea of birds of prey being bred to the extent of being kept and force-fed is new. Until now, the sheer number of raptor mummies had been a mystery—did they catch or trap them and kill them, raid nests, or find them dead? Our results explain why they had so many: we now think it was because of active breeding,” Salima Ikram told The International Business Times. A 3-D image of a mummified kestrel known as SACHM 2575 showed that it had the remains of a mouse and a small sparrow in its stomach, and had choked to death on a young house mouse. Ikram notes that this species of bird has a tendency to cache surplus food, so it is unlikely that the bird would have overeaten on its own. “Thus SACHM 2575 provides the first real evidence for keeping raptors in captivity…It also broaches the possibility that breeding programs for these animals were instituted, as was the case for other animal offerings, such as ibises, dogs, and cats,” she said. For more on ancient animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Neolithic Skeleton Shows Signs of Leukemia

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment and the University of Tübingen have examined the 7,000-year-old skeleton of a woman who died between the ages of 30 and 40 and determined that she suffered from leukemia. “We examined several bones of the skeleton with our high-resolution computed tomography system, and we found an unusual loosening of the interior bone tissue—the cancellous bone—in the upper right humerus and the sternum,” Heike Scherf of the Senckenberg Center said in a press release. Blood-forming stem cells are located at the ends of these bones, and at the ends of the vertebrae, ribs, skull, and pelvis, and so blood cancer can occur at these locations. Other diseases, including osteoporosis and hyperparathyroidism, which cause similar bone damage, were ruled out. None of the other ten individuals in the study, all buried in the Neolithic graveyard of Stuttgart-Mühlhausen, showed signs of this cancer. “However, we cannot determine whether the woman actually died from the disease,” Scherf added. For more, go to "Ancient Oncology."

Wednesday, September 02

English Civil War Mass Grave Identified

DURHAM, UK—Construction work for a new café uncovered the jumbled skeletons of between 17 and 28 male individuals which research now shows are the remains of Scottish soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, according to a press release from Durham University. The battle, one of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War, resulted in perhaps as many as 1,700 prisoners of war dying of malnutrition, disease, and cold on the 100-mile-march from southeastern Scotland to Durham in northeast England. Until now, it hasn’t been known what happened to the bodies of the victims of this forced march, but the new research shows that at least some—and perhaps many more—were buried on the grounds of Durham Castle. “It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now University buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-seventeenth century,” says Richard Annis, a senior archaeologists at Archaeological Services Durham University. To read about a mass grave of Viking-Age soldiers, go to “The First Vikings.”

3D Printer Produces Replica of Iron Age Instrument

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—The Iron Age artifact discovered in Ireland was originally thought to have been a spear-butt. However, Billy Ó Foghlú, a PhD student at the Australian National University, thought that it might have been part of a musical instrument, so he created a replica based on the object’s exact measurements using a 3D printer. When Ó Foghlú used the object as a horn mouthpiece, he found that it produced a rich, velvety tone. “These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers,” said Ó Foghlú in a press release. “They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture.” Horns dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages have been discovered throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, though according to Ó Foghlú no other mouthpieces are known to have been found in Ireland. To read about sculptures of musicians found in Peru, go to "Artifact."

Neolithic Feast Recreated

PAPHOS, CYPRUS—Live Science reports that University of Edinburgh archaeologists working at the site of Prastio Mesorotsos have built and tested a replica of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic pit oven. Over the course of three years, the team excavated a large stone-lined pit at the site measuring eight feet across and three feet deep that they believed could be an ancient oven. But its size led excavation director Andrew McCarthy to suspect cooking would not be feasible in it. As a test, before they began excavating this summer they dug a pit with similar dimensions near a local restaurant and lined it with the same type of stones used in the Neolithic pit. In a painstaking process, the team managed to cook a feast of goat and pig meat for nearly 200 guests. To read about a similar experiment testing ancient Irish brewing, go to “Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh.” 

New Zealand’s Prehistoric “Wildlife Sanctuaries”

OTAGO, NEW ZEALAND—Researchers using a range of techniques, including radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis, have modeled the population histories of ancient seabirds in New Zealand and found that human hunting had a profound impact on them. According to a University of Otago press release, the study shows that populations of shag seabirds on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island, had a stable population history, while their counterparts on the two other major islands suffered a massive decline in numbers. "There was a loss of more than ninety-nine percent of their population size within 100 years of human arrival,” says University of Otago geneticist Nic Rawlence. “These once heavily-hunted mainland populations now occupy only a fraction of their prehistoric range, having never really recovered.” The human population on Stewart Island dwindled around 1500 A.D., which might help explain why wildlife populations there did not go into decline. While some scholars believe climatic changes were responsible for the die off, the researchers point out that Stewart Island shared the same climate history as New Zealand’s two major islands, and believe the new findings show prehistoric humans shoulder most of the blame. To read about hunting technology among Australia's Aborigines, go to "What's the Point?"

Tuesday, September 01

Divers Find Missing Military Tanker in Hawaii

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII—A U.S. Naval tanker that served in both World War II and the Korean War has been found in the protected waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. “This is a ship that wasn’t a glamourous part of World War II history, but was an important part,” Kelly Keogh, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, told Hawaii News Now. The USNS Mission San Miguel transported fuel for military vessels, and was traveling from Guam to Seattle in 1957 when it hit a reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and sank. The crew survived the incident, but the wreckage, hidden by the reef, was lost. To read more about underwater discoveries, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

More on Artifacts From Jamestown Graves

ITHACA, NEW YORK—Two artifacts recovered from the graves of high-status people buried in the chancel of Virginia’s James Fort church were scanned by Mark Riccio, director of the Cornell Biotechnology Resource Center’s computed tomography scanning facilities. Jamestown Rediscovery senior conservator Michael Lavin and senior staff archaeologist David Givens took a small, sealed silver box and a block of earth containing silver threads to Riccio, who developed protocols to scan the objects. Together, the scientists were able to establish that the block of earth contained silver and silk threads and silver spangles that came from a captain’s sash, leading to the identification of Captain William West. “If you had given me the object, I could interpret the X-ray dataset but I wouldn’t have known enough about the object. But sitting with archaeologists, they could ask specific questions, and working together, we could answer those questions,” Riccio said in a press release. The silver box was examined and sent on to General Electric for even higher energy CT scans, which revealed small bones and a lead ampulla traditionally used for holding blood in a Roman Catholic reliquary. This item is thought to have belonged to Captain Gabriel Archer, whose Catholic parents had refused to join the Anglican Church. Finer scans may reveal an insignia on the ampulla. “But it’s still not clear that it was a Catholic artifact,” Lavin said. For more, go to "Burials of High-Status Leaders Indentified at Jamestown."

Scientists See Four Main Stages of Human Evolution

BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—The human body has gone through four main stages of evolution, according to an international team of scientists who studied fossils from the Sima de los Huesos in Spain’s Sierra de Atapuerca. The site of Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” dates back some 430,000 years and contains more human fossils than have been found anywhere else in the world. The researchers then compared the Atapuerca individuals to the rest of the human fossil record and found that they fit into the third stage of evolution, and shared many anatomical features with later Neanderthals. They were relatively tall, with wide, muscular bodies and less brain mass relative to body mass compared to Neanderthals. “This is really interesting since it suggests that the evolutionary process in our genus is largely characterized by stasis (i.e. little to no evolutionary change) in body form for most of our evolutionary history,” Rolf Quam of Binghamton University said in a press release. Such tall, wide, robust walkers seem to have been present in the genus Homo for more than a million years. Taller, lighter, narrower bodies emerged later with modern humans. To read more about Sima de los Huesos, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."

2,500-Year-Old Reused Tomb Discovered in Luxor

LUXOR, EGYPT—The 26th Dynasty tomb of Padibastet, the vizier of Upper Egypt, has been discovered within the tomb of Karabasken, who was ruler of Thebes and the fourth priest of Amun during the 25th Dynasty. The tomb contained paintings and architectural features that had been made especially for Padibastet. The members of the South Assassif Conservation Project expect to learn more as the survey continues and the tomb is excavated and cleaned. “Padibastet could be buried in a shaft inside the court or in a main burial chamber of Karabasken tomb,” Elena Pischikova, head of the mission, told Ahram Online. To read more about a recently discovered Egyptian burial, see "Tomb of the Chantress."