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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, June 01

Cemetery Unearthed at Medieval Priory

OXFORD, ENGLAND—A cemetery at Littlemore Priory in Oxford has been excavated ahead of the construction of a new hotel. “Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns, and prioresses. Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible,” Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services told Discovery News. Among the dead was a woman who had been buried face down. “This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins,” Murray said. She may have been one of the nuns Cardinal Wolsey accused of immoral behavior when he closed the convent in 1525. Other burials included a stillborn baby, two children who had developmental dysplasia of the hip, someone who may have had leprosy, and another individual who had suffered blunt-force trauma to the skull. These individuals may have been cared for by the nuns of the priory. To read more about archaeology in England, see "The Kings of Kent."

Bulgarian Police Recover Looted Krater

SUSAM, BULGARIA—A Thracian krater, or vessel made for mixing water and wine, was recovered by Bulgarian police officers from the car of a 33-year-old man accused of treasure hunting. The rare krater dates to the fifth century B.C. “Over the centuries, the baked clay has been severely cracked, and a botched attempt at restoration [of the vessel] appears to have been made,” archaeological consultants to the Bulgarian police told Archaeology in Bulgaria. The vessel is thought to have been taken from the burial of a Thracian aristocrat. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Prehistoric Cemetery Excavated in Northwest China

MOGOU, CHINA—An article in Chinese Cultural Relics describes a 4,000-year-old cemetery made up of hundreds of tombs that has been excavated by a team from the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Northwest University Silk Road Heritage Preservation and Archaeology Research Center near the village of Mogou in northwestern China. Live Science reports that the remains of sacrificed humans were found in some of the tombs, and some held the remains of entire families. There were also small chambers where finely made pottery, decorated with incised designs, had been placed near the tombs’ occupants. Jewelry and weapons such as bronze sabers, stone mace heads, axes, daggers, and knives were also recovered. Artifacts known as bone divination lots suggest that the people, most of whom belonged to the Qijia culture, attempted to predict the future. Some of the tombs had been covered with mounds of sediment, perhaps to mark them. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Friday, May 29

Sculpted Dragon Heads Hint at Xanadu’s Splendors

XANADU, MONGOLIA—A recent article published in English in Chinese Cultural Relics describes three “life-like and dramatic” dragon heads discovered at the palace constructed by the grandsons of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. The dragon heads, which had been fashioned from fine red clay that had been glazed in yellow, blue, white, and black, would have decorated the ends of beams. Other colorful artifacts from the palace, known as Shangdu in China, include a fish glazed with “bright and life-like scales” of yellow and green, and dripstones shaped like dragons and birds that deflected water from the palace roof. The Chinese team of archaeologists from Inner Mongolia Normal University, the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics, and the Archaeology and Inner Mongolian Institute for Cultural Relics Conservation also uncovered a type of ramp called a mandao that was used by horses and vehicles to enter the palace. The ramps “would have been strongly connected to the pastoral way of life of the Mongols,” Live Science reports. To read about spectacular medieval ruins in Siberia, see "Fortress of Solitude."

Genetic Study Suggests Humans Migrated North Out of Africa

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Luca Pagani of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge led a team of scientists who produced whole-genome sequences from 225 Egyptians and Ethiopians. They found that regions of the Egyptian samples were more similar to non-African samples, and were present in higher frequencies outside of Africa, than regions of the Ethiopian genome. This suggests that when early humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago, they traveled through Egypt to the rest of the world. The results also indicate that people outside Africa split from the Egyptian genomes about 10,000 years more recently than from the Ethiopian genomes. “While our results do not address controversies about the timing and possible complexities of the expansion out of Africa, they paint a clear picture in which the main migration out of Africa followed a Northern, rather than a Southern route,” Toomas Kivisild of the University of Cambridge said in a press release on Phys.org. To read about a competing hypothesis, that early modern humans migrated around 125,000 years ago through the Arabian Peninsula, go to "New Evidence for Mankind's Earliest Migrations."

Environmental Stresses Left Marks on Ancient Genes

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Chemical modifications, known as epigenetic marks, can be added to or removed from a person’s DNA in response to environmental factors such as diet, disease, and climate. These changes can influence which genes are turned on or off during a person’s life, shaping physical traits and health, and can even be passed on to offspring if the changes occur in sperm and egg DNA. Anthropologists from The University of Texas at Austin have shown that epigenetic marks on DNA can be detected in ancient human remains using techniques that are normally used to measure changes in modern DNA. They looked for an epigenetic mark known as cytosine methylation on the remains of 30 individuals who lived in five different places in North America between 230 to more than 4,500 years ago. They were able to identify methylation in 29 of the samples. “By studying methylation in ancient DNA from archaeological populations, not just isolated samples, we may gain insights into how past environments affected ancient societies. Future research in ancient epigenetics should open a new window into the lives and experiences of people who lived long ago,” anthropologist Deborah Bolnick explained in a press release. To read about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."

Late Roman Fortress Wall Unearthed at Bulgaria’s Durostorum

SILISTRA, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that rescue excavations in the ancient city of Durostorum, the headquarters of the elite Roman 11th Legion, have revealed a fortress wall thought to have been built in the beginning of the fourth century A.D. According to archaeologist Georgi Atanasov of the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the well-preserved wall was held together with very strong red mortar. It encircled the city, strategically located on the Danube River, and had rectangular towers. Ioan Piso of Babes Bolyai University thinks that the wall could indicate that the city was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior, instead of Tomis, which is located in Romania. In fact, earlier excavations at Durostorum have uncovered Roman inscriptions bearing the names of the governors of the province of Moesia Inferior. The team has also found a second-century building that had been decorated with murals painted with the color Pompeian red, deep blue, green, and yellow. To read about how the construction of a port fueled the Roman Empire's rise, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Thursday, May 28

More on Bodicacia’s Tombstone

CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—It had been thought that a finely carved tombstone unearthed in western England was the first in Roman Britain to have remained with its intended grave, but researchers have found that even though the dedication on the tombstone named Bodicacia, a woman, the skeleton in the grave was male. In addition, the gravestone dates to the second century A.D., while the skeleton dates to the fourth century A.D. The five-foot-long stone, which has a roughly carved back, may have originally hung on a mausoleum wall. “We believe the tombstone to have been reused as a grave cover perhaps as long as two centuries after it was first erected,” Ed McSloy of Cotswold Archaeology told Discovery News. Even so, the gravestone is notable because it is the first time that the name Bodicacia has been found. And the limestone pediment is decorated with a unique image that depicts the Roman god Oceanus, which according to McSloy “is also hitherto unknown in funerary sculpture.” To read about the search for the great leader Boudicca's tomb, see "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."

Chinese Police Arrest 175 Suspected Looters

BEIJING, CHINA—China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that 175 people were arrested for looting tombs in Niuheliang, a Neolithic site in northeastern Liaoning province. According to the South China Morning Post, the pillagers had been divided into ten gangs that specialized in tasks such as digging, retrieval, and keeping watch. Four archaeologists are suspected of assisting the well-organized, well-equipped gang and trafficking the stolen antiquities. More than 1,000 police officers participated in the operation, and they reportedly recovered 1,168 artifacts, including a coiled jade dragon thought to be one of the earliest of its kind. For more on looting in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Bronze Mirrors Made in Japan Earlier Than Previously Thought

FUKUOKA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—A fragment of a mold used to cast bronze mirrors in 200 B.C. has been unearthed at the Sugu Takauta ruins in northern Kyushu. It had been thought that such tachukyo, or mirrors with knobs, had been imported from the Korean Peninsula at this time. The mold shows indentations to create knobs on the back of the mirror, which was circular in shape, and markings known as “rough patterns.” This mold may have been an early attempt to make mirrors with markings known as “detailed patterns” in Japan. Twelve mirrors with detailed patterns dating between the fourth and second centuries B.C. have been found in the tombs of powerful people in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kyushu, and the Kinki region of the island of Honshu. “This has added a new chapter in uncovering the situation of early bronze tool production in Japan,” Junichi Takesue of Fukuoka University told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about Roman glass discovered in Japan, go to "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."

New Early Human Ancestor Lived Alongside “Lucy”

CLEVELAND, OHIO—Fossils of the upper and lower jaw of a new early human ancestor were discovered in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia by an international team of scientists led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The Australopithecus deyiremeda fossils are 3.3 to 3.5 million years old, overlapping with Australopithecus afarensis, who lived from 2.9 to 3.8 million years ago. Australopithecus deyiremeda differs from the famous “Lucy” fossils in the size and shape of its thick-enameled teeth and its robust lower jaws, suggesting that the two closely related species had different diets. “Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity,” Haile-Salassie said in a press release. The name of the new species, deyiremeda, (day-ihreme-dah) means “close relative” in the language spoken by the Afar people. To read about more recent evolutionary history, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."