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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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." 

Thursday, January 22

Derry’s Earliest Dated Building Unearthed

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND—An excavation carried out under a license from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has uncovered part of a building that is thought to have burned down in 1608, when the town of Derry was sacked by Cahir O’Doherty, whose lands had been confiscated for colonization during the reign of King James I. The timber walls and slate roof of the building collapsed into its stone cellar. Intact glass bottles were found, along with medieval pottery, musket balls, a small cannon ball, and clay pipes. “The building’s alignment is east-west and has been dated to the early 1600s. The east-west alignment is radically different to our present day Walled City street pattern. This clearly shows the building reflects the earlier street pattern based on the ecclesiastical settlement that pre-existed the plantation town of Londonderry,” Environment Minster Mark Durkan said in U TV. Derry’s city walls, which were constructed between 1613 and 1619, are intact. To read about the threat to one of the most important medieval settlements in the British Isles, go to "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."

Painted Red Numbers Found on Colosseum’s Walls

ROME, ITALY—Wanted in Rome reports that the restorers who have been carefully removing dirt and smog residue from the surface of the Colosseum have found traces of painted red numbers on its arches. Similar to today’s stadium seating systems, the numbers are thought to have directed visitors to their seats, assigned according to social class. Rossella Rea, director of the monument, says that the paint is an “exceptional discovery,”  since it had been thought that the painted numbers would not have survived. To read about the surprising uses of the Colosseum in the middle ages, go to "Colosseum Condos."

Police Raids Recover More Than 5,000 Artifacts

ROME, ITALY—A Switzerland-based art dealer and his wife have been accused of being part of an antiquities trafficking network involving tomb raiders in southern Italy; dealers; and buyers from Germany, Britain, the United States, Japan, and Australia. The looted works are thought to have been sent to Switzerland where they were restored and sold with counterfeit provenance papers. Italian police have seized more than 5,000 artifacts, including vases, jewelry, frescoes, and bronze statues dating from the eighth century B.C. to the third century A.D. The items are estimated to have been worth $64 million on the black market. “This is by a long shot the biggest recovery in history in terms of the quantity and quality of the archaeological treasures,” Carabineri General Mariano Mossa said at a news conference reported in The Columbian. Documents associated with the case could lead Italian authorities to artifacts now housed in top museums around the world. To read the dramatic story of an earlier effort to fight the illegal looting of Italy's ancient tombs, go to "Raiding the Tomb Raiders."

Arizona’s Jordan Cave Vandalized

SEDONA, ARIZONA—Jordan Cave, which was used as a dwelling by Native Americans some 800 years ago, has been vandalized, according to the U.S. Forest Department. Rocks from the dwelling were tossed over a nearby embankment. “Even just moving rocks around on the surface within the site, even if they don’t leave the site, still destroys that information,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Travis Bone told AZ Central. The department has released a photograph of three persons of interest in the case. The site is considered by many to be a sacred space. To read about how ancient farmers in Arizona brought water to the desert, go to "Early Irrigators."

Wednesday, January 21

2,000-Year-Old Roman Decoration Found in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Science Nordic reports that a tiny bronze sculpture discovered by a metal detectorist on the Danish island of Falster has been identified as an image of Silenus, the companion and tutor of the wine god Dionysus, by experts at the National Museum of Denmark. The finely detailed figure depicts an elderly, bearded, balding man with thick lips and a plump nose that was originally a fitting from the headrest of a Roman dining couch, or a lectus tricliniaris. Such a bust of Silenus would have been paired with a figure of a mule’s head, since Silenus was often shown inebriated and carried by others or hanging over the back of a mule. The fitting may have come to Denmark on a Roman lectus tricliniaris, but it probably arrived as a loose object through trade, as a war trophy, or a gift. To read about a depiction of the god Silenus in one of the most famous works of ancient Roman art, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Pre-Columbian Bones in Peru Show Signs of Surgery

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Peru This Week reports that two skeletons from the pre-Columbian site of Kuelap show signs of bone surgery. The skeletons, both of moderately healthy males that date between 800 and 1535 A.D., had holes drilled in the bones of their legs. According to J. Maria Toyne of the University of Florida, the holes may have been intended to drain fluid and relieve pressure caused by injury or infection, although it is unclear if the patients died during the surgery, or if they may have been recently deceased and their bodies used for training purposes. Toyne adds that the people of the Chachapoya region had developed advanced medical practices during this period. To read more about ancient surgical advances, go to "Artful Surgery." 

River Clean-Up Could Retrieve Civil War Weapons

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—A planned environmental clean-up of the Congaree River in South Carolina could recover Confederate munitions that Union troops, under the command of General William T. Sherman, captured in 1865. Sherman’s army burned a third of the city and captured 1.2 million ball cartridges; 100,000 percussion caps; 6,000 unfinished arms; 4,000 bayonet scabbards; and 3,100 sabers. The soldiers reportedly dumped what they couldn’t carry in the river. Since then, fishermen and swimmers have recovered some of the weapons. “I’m sure there will be some interesting items. I don’t anticipate huge volumes,” state underwater archaeologist James Spirek told The State. The artifacts are expected to be found under some 40,000 tons of coal tar discharged into the river from a power plant 60 years ago. To read about the excavations of a Civil War prison, see "Life on the Inside."