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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, August 28

Mummified Head & Lungs Show Signs of Heart Disease

FLORENCE, ITALY—The 3,500-year-old mummified remains of Nebiri, an Egyptian “Chief of Stables,” are an example of the oldest case of acute decompensated heart failure, according to research presented by Raffaella Bianucci of the University Turin at an international congress of Egyptology. Nebiri’s head and internal organs, preserved in canopic jars, were discovered in a plundered tomb in Luxor in 1904. “The head is almost completely unwrapped, but in a good state of preservation. Since the canopic jar inscribed for Hapy, the guardian of the lungs, is partially broken, we were allowed direct access for sampling,” Bianucci told Discovery News. The international research team created a 3-D reconstruction of Nebiri’s skull and found that he suffered from severe periodontal disease, abscesses, and mild atherosclerosis in the right internal carotid artery. The head also contained dehydrated brain tissue. The lung tissue revealed fluid in the air sacs. “When the heart is not able to pump efficiently, blood can back up into the veins that take it through the lungs. As the pressure increases, fluid is pushed into the air spaces in the lungs,” Bianucci explained. To read about Egypt's animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Artifact Update from Virginia's James Fort

JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA—A sturgeon’s bone plate or scute and other food remains have been found in an area just outside of the original James Fort that is thought to have served as a cellar. The cellar has also yielded a piece of German stoneware bearing a coat of arms depicting two rampant lions that may have been a vessel for drinking ale. “We can safely say that this jug was made either in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, but knowing the meaning of that symbol will give us an even tighter date. We have yet to trace this particular one, but when we do we will learn when the jug was made,” senior archaeologist Danny Schmidt of Jamestown Rediscovery explained to The Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. The Jamestown team has also found pieces of an iron breastplate that had been cut up and reused. “When they started using armor that was lighter and easier to move in, they began reusing and recycling iron from these plates,” said conservator Dan Gamble of Historic Jamestown. For more, go to "Chilling Discovery at Jamestown."

Rethinking the Form and Structure of Hominid Fossils

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA—Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh argues in the latest issue of Science that the current system of categorizing the human fossil record into genus and species is too narrow for understanding our complex evolutionary history. He said in a press release that “the boundaries of both the species and the genus remain as fuzzy as ever, new fossils having been haphazardly assigned to species of Homo, with minimal attention to morphology.” Schwartz suggests that anthropologists begin again. “If we want to be objective, we shall almost certainly have to scrap the iconic list of (genus and species) names in which hominid fossil specimens have historically been trapped and start from the beginning,” he said. For more on hominid evolution, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Scientists Think Most of Those Sacrificed at Cahokia Were Locals

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—Phil Slater and Kristin Hedman of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, and Andrew Thompson of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, analyzed 203 teeth from 109 bodies found in Cahokia’s Mound 72. The mound, excavated in the 1960s, contained three large pits that held human remains laid out in neat rows. Most of the dead were young women who had been killed, perhaps by strangulation or blood-letting. However, a separate deposit held the bones of 39 men and women who had suffered fractures, had been shot with points, and even decapitated, then dumped into the burial site. “The initial interpretation of the burials of young women suggested they represented ‘tribute’ from outlying communities. Our analysis provides evidence that suggests the young women may have come from within the region, if not from Cahokia itself,” Slater told Western Digs. Those who suffered violent deaths were also locals, but their biology was more similar to each other than the other dead from the mound. “With the development of strontium analysis, there became a way to actually test the immigration hypothesis by looking at the bodies of the people buried at Cahokia,” explained Thomas Emerson, director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. To read more about Cahokia, go to "Mississippian Burning."

Thursday, August 27

Australia’s Fremantle Prison Excavated

FREMANTLE, WESTERN AUSTRALIA—Excavations of the parade ground, original bath house, and former engine house at Fremantle Prison have revealed information about the prison’s role in the region’s economy during the nineteenth century. Inmates learned to operate state-of-the art steam engines and boilers and left the prison with skills that were in demand in the local mining communities. But the prison housed Euro-Australian inmates only—Aboriginal convicts were sent to a prison at Wadjemup on Rottnest Island, where they received no skills training. “Fremantle Prison had boundaries that were explicit and enforced, but it also acted as a centerpiece of a spatially distributed system of labor control across Western Australia,” Thomas Whitely of the University of Western Australia told Science Network. “Those traveling to Wadjemup—a forbidden place to most Aboriginals—were not expected to return, much like the convicts transported to Australia from England,” Whitley added. For more, go to "Rogue's Gallery: The Convicts of Early Australia." 

Breeched Cannon Discovered at Revolutionary War Site

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—During the Battle of Red Bank, fought on October 22, 1777, American forces defending Fort Mercer and the Delaware River against an army of Hessian soldiers fired a cannon that exploded and killed 12 American soldiers. Archaeologists from John Milner Associates (JMA) were investigating the battlefield in National Park, Gloucester County, New Jersey, as an American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) project, when they found musket balls, shell fragments, buttons, buckles, ramrods, and possibly the massive cannon. “Everyone was surprised when the ground-penetrating radar picked up a large anomaly about two feet down. Maybe the force of the explosion rocketed it into the earth. Or maybe it was buried along with other artillery pieces before the Americans retreated,” Jennifer Janofsky, curator of the Red Bank Battlefield Park, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. The archaeological team also looked for remains of the hundreds of Hessians who died during the battle. “While they did find small bone fragments, as well as an eighteenth-century button, it will take lab analysis to determine if the bones are human. Given the sandy nature of the soil, the bones were quite soft and difficult to identify,” she added. To read more about the archaeology of the American Revolution, go to "Small Skirmish in the War for Freedom."

Neanderthal Cave Featured Hot Water, One Bedroom

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—Some 10,000 Neanderthal artifacts, hearths, and a sleeping area have been found this month at Abric Romaní, an archaeological site in the Catalonia region of Spain. Archaeologists from The Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) found a hole among the hearths and heated rocks near a wall of the rockshelter that may have been used to heat water some 60,000 years ago. Other artifacts from this level of the cave suggests that the Neanderthal inhabitants used different parts of the cave for butchering game, tool knapping, and trash disposal. An area in the inner part of the rockshelter is thought to have been used for sleeping because it had a lower density of artifacts. The researchers say that this is the first time that a sleeping area has been identified at a Neanderthal site. To read more about Paleolithic domestic spaces, go to "Letter From France: Structural Integrity."

Blue Pigment Detected in Roman-Era Mummy Portraits

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS—The pigment Egyptian blue has been found hidden in Roman-era Egyptian mummy portraits by a team of scientists from Northwestern University and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In visible light, only the colors yellow, white, black, and red can be seen by the naked eye in the paintings, which were discovered at the turn of the twentieth century at the site of Tebtunis in the Fayum region of Egypt. “But when we started doing our analysis, all of a sudden we started to see strange occurrences of this blue pigment, which luminesces. We concluded that although the painters were trying hard not to show they were using this color, they were definitely using blue,” Marc Walton of Northwestern University said in a press release. Roman-era painters emulated Greek art by using the Greek palette of yellow, white, black, and red, and not the man-made blue pigment. “We are speculating that the blue has a shiny quality to it, that it glistens a little when the light hits the pigment in certain ways. The artists could be exploiting these other properties of the blue color that might not necessarily be intuitive to us at first glance,” he said. To read more, go to "From Egyptian Blue to Infrared."

Wednesday, August 26

1,500-Year-Old Remains of Newborn Found in Siberia

GORNO-ALTAISK, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that the partially mummified remains of an infant were discovered by a team from Gorno-Altaisk State University during the excavation of a burial mound near Kurai village in southern Siberia. “The child was buried in a separate small burial mound located between the mounds of two adults, probably the parents. [The baby] was buried in a tightly closed stone box, so the body was in an isolated air chamber for over 1,500 years. This partially preserved the soft body tissue and fragments of a leather shroud, in which the baby was wrapped. Sadly the head was not preserved at all,” said archaeologist Nikita Konstantinov. The burials are thought to belong to the Bulan-Kobinskaya culture. DNA analysis could provide more information about who these people were and how they lived. To read about another archaeological discovery in Siberia, go to "Fortress of Solitude." 

Conservators Restore Frescos in Stabiae Villa

WARSAW, POLAND—Murals dating to the first century B.C. in Stabiae’s Villa Arianna were conserved by a team from the Ethnographic Archaeological Monuments Conservation Laboratory of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. The wealthy town of Stabiae, like Pompeii and Herculaneum, was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The conservators, working as part of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia, removed layers of dirt and materials added during previous restoration projects from the wall paintings, which resemble marble cladding and architectural elements including columns, pilasters, and decorated cornices. “With our treatments, the rooms earlier closed because of the bad state of preservation of the frescoes, have now been made available to the public,” team member Krzysztof Chmielewski told Science & Scholarship in Poland. To read in-depth about a similar effort, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Scientists Test Hunter-Gatherers’ Conical Mortars

RAMAT GAN, ISRAEL—Researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Harvard University reconstructed the process of preparing wild barley into meal and flour some 12,500 years ago by experimenting with mortars carved into the bedrock at Huzuq Musa, a site in the Jordan Valley where as many as 100 hunter-gatherers once lived. “The conical, human-made hollows, found all over Southeast Asia, were noticed by archaeologists decades ago, but there was no agreement about their function,” Mordechai Kislev of Bar-Ilan University explained in a press release. The team members collected wild barley, separated the grains from the stalks, beat them on a threshing floor with a curved stick, sieved out the grains, and then turned to the ancient mortars. “Filled with a measure of the raw grain and beaten with a wooden pestle, the wider cones were used for hummeling—removal of the bristle that extends from the edge of the seed. The narrower cones came into play during the next stage, when the same wooden pestle was used to remove the grain husk,” added physicist Adiel Karty. Taking the husk off the grain makes it possible to grind it into flour and bake bread. For more on early agriculture, go to "Evidence of Trial Cultivation Found in Israel."

Neanderthal Spear Points Recovered From Spanish Cave

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—More than 20 spear points once used for hunting by Neanderthals, and the butchered and roasted bones of animals, have been recovered from Teixoneres Cave by scientists from The Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES). The 50,000-year-old weapons show signs of wear from hard surfaces, perhaps the bones of the horses, aurochs, red deer, wild asses, roe deer, goat, chamois, rhinos, and rabbits that have been recovered from the cave. Older layers in the cave show that Neanderthals displaced hyenas and other large carnivores from this cave. To read more about our extinct cousins, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"