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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, June 20

Artifacts from Ur Discovered in Bristol

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—A wooden box filled with pottery, seeds, and animal bones that may have come from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur in the 1920s and ‘30s has been found in the University of Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, in an area slated for a new state-of-the-art radiocarbon dating facility. The items turned out to be the remains of food offerings left in a royal tomb at least 4,500 years ago. “The remaining mystery is how this material came to be at Bristol in the first place. The environmental remains themselves were published in 1978 in Journal of Archaeological Science. The authors of that study were based at the Institute of Archaeology, London, and at the University of Southampton, and none of them had any known connection to the University of Bristol that might explain how the material came to reside here. If anyone can shed light on this mystery, we’d would love to hear from them,” said archaeologist Tamar Hodos. The artifacts will be housed at the British Museum, one of the sponsors of the original excavation. 

3,000-Year-Old Levees Triggered China’s Massive Floods

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—Excavations at the Sanyangzhuang site and the Anshang site along China’s lower Yellow River flood plain, and analysis of sedimentary soils deposited along the Yellow River over thousands of years, indicate that people were changing the environment nearly 3,000 years ago. “Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early, and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow River,” archaeologist T.R. Kidder announced at Washington University. The large-scale levees and other flood-control systems, such as those at the Anshang site, are thought to have made periodic flooding much worse, including a catastrophic flood circa A.D. 14-17 that buried the Sanyangzhuang site and may have triggered the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty. “Our evidence suggests that the first levees were built to be about 6-7 feet high, but within a decade the one at Anshang was doubled in height and width. It’s easy to see the trap they fell into: building levees causes sediments to accumulate in the river bed, raising the river higher, and making it more vulnerable to flooding, which requires you to build the levee higher, which causes the sediments to accumulate, and the process repeats itself. The Yellow River has been an engineered river—entirely unnatural—for quite a long time,” Kidder explained.  

The Evolution of Neanderthals

  MADRID, SPAIN—An analysis of 17 skulls from Sima de los Huesos in the Atapuerca Mountains of northern Spain indicates that they have distinct Neanderthal traits, including robust lower jaws, small teeth at the rear of the jaw, and thick brow ridges with a distinctive double arch. Yet they also have relatively small brains and other primitive features. Paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of Complutense University and his colleagues report in Science that the fossils represent the “oldest reliably dated” specimens of proto-Neanderthals, at 430,000 years old. “It is now clear that the full suite of the Neanderthal characteristics did not evolve at the same pace,” he told Phys.org. The discovery also suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans developed their big brains independently.  

6,000-Year-Old Human Parasite Egg Found in Syria

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—An egg laid by the parasite Schistosoma has been found in the soils of a child’s grave at Tell Zeidan in Syria. This is the first confirmation that the infection existed in Mesopotamia, and is the oldest-known Schistosoma infection, occurring more than 6,000 years ago. Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge and his team collected sediments from the pelvic areas of 26 sets of skeletal remains that had been buried in a cemetery of the Ubaid people, who were farmers. “A lot of different parasites—pinworms, hookworms, tapeworms—cannot infect you if you are moving a lot of time,” Mitchell told Science. These parasites may have been living in freshwater snails, their temporary hosts, in the Ubaid’s innovative irrigation canals. 

Thursday, June 19

Gold Coin Unearthed at Vindolanda

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—A French volunteer excavator has unearthed an extremely rare gold coin from the fourth-century level of the Roman fort at Vindolanda. “I thought it can’t be true, it was just sitting there as I scraped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it,” Marcel Albert told Culture 24. The well-worn aureus was minted around A.D. 64 or 65 and bears Nero’s image, so it was in circulation for some 300 years before it was lost. Beads, brooches, rings, leather shoes, arrowheads, pottery, an iron spoon, and a gaming counter have also been recovered this year. 

Rare Genetic Trait Found in Bronze Age Skull

  SASKATOON, CANADA—An early Bronze Age skull unearthed in a cemetery northwest of Siberia’s Lake Baikal was analyzed by bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Saskatchewan and scientists at Canadian Light Source. The skull is missing the two front incisors of the lower jaw, although there is not a large gap between the existing teeth and the jaw appears normal at first glance. The tip of a stone projectile is also lodged just below where the two incisors should be. The man had been buried with a nephrite disk and four arrowheads, one of which was broken and found in his eye socket. The team reconstructed the arrowhead fragment using advanced imaging techniques. “We discovered that the missing teeth had nothing to do with the projectile. Turns out that this individual had a rare case of agenesis—where the two central incisors never formed—a genetic trait that affects less than half of a percent of all people,” Lieverse told Phys.org. And the projectile tip was a piece of the arrowhead that had been placed in the man’s eye socket. The point may have been removed from the wounded man’s face during a violent confrontation or before burial.   

Rome Seeks Funds to Save Nero’s Domus Aurea

  ROME, ITALY—Italy is seeking funds to restore the Domus Aurea, Nero’s “Golden House,” before it collapses. The palace, which has been closed to visitors for the past ten years, sits beneath a park whose mature trees have roots in the palace’s vaulted roof. Water from the heavy layer of soil seeps into the bricks and damages the frescoes. Archaeologists from Italy’s cultural heritage ministry have suggested removing the trees and tons of the soil, in order to construct a new, lighter garden designed to protect the ancient structure. “The state has very limited resources unfortunately. This is an opportunity for a big company to sponsor an extraordinary project, which will capture the world’s attention. It would be scandalous if no one comes forward,” Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister for cultural heritage, told The Telegraph.   

Early Roman Military Encampment Detected in Austria

  VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Ground-penetrating radar and aerial photography have helped scientists from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology and the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics discover what is thought to be the earliest Roman military encampment at the Archaeological Park Carnuntum, located on the Danube River in lower Austria. The Austrian Times reports that while investigating the area outside the western gate of the Roman town, the team found the encampment, which was fortified with a ditch, beneath the traces of a large village along the Roman road to Vindobona (Vienna).   

Wednesday, June 18

Oil Boom Archaeology

TIOGA, NORTH DAKOTA—Archaeologists struggling to find jobs may have a surprising new place to look. According to the Great Falls Tribune, the oil boom in North Dakota has created an urgent need for professionals to fulfill the state’s requirements that the land be thoroughly surveyed and documented by trained archaeologists before oil drilling takes place. There are now more than 50 cultural resource management firms and several hundred archaeologists working in North Dakota looking for evidence of past human habitation in the region, which includes, among many types of sites, settler graveyards, Native American stone circles, and homesteader farms.

The Origins of Bronze Age Shell Beads

YORK, ENGLAND—Using a variety of non-destructive techniques, scientists have pinned down the species of shells used to make beads unearthed at the Early Bronze Age site of Great Cornard in southeastern England. Worked shells beads are notoriously difficult to identify by species, since most identifying features of the shells are destroyed while the beads are being made. There had been speculation that the Great Cornard beads were made of the Mediterranean thorny oyster, which would have been brought to Britain via extensive trade networks. But thanks to amino acid analysis and scanning electron microscopy, the team was able to identify the beads' raw material as dog whelks and tusk shells. "Dog whelks and tusk shells were likely to be available locally so these people did not have to travel far to get hold of the raw materials for their beads," said archaeologist Beatrice Demarchi in a University of York press release. 

Stonehenge’s Singing Stones

SALISBURY PLAIN, ENGLAND—Could the massive standing stones of Stonehenge also have made sounds? The New York Times reports that a team of researchers from London’s Royal College of Art hypothesizes that some of the dolmens make a loud, clanging noise when struck, producing a high–pitched sound similar to a large bell being rung. The stones’ sonorous qualities may be a result of the presence of magnesium and iron in the rocks. The study’s authors believe that the ancient inhabitants of the Salisbury Plain may have been aware of these properties, and chosen specific types of rocks to construct Stonehenge, some of which had to brought from as much as 200 miles away, a monumental undertaking four millennia ago.

Safeguarding Renegade Canyon’s Petroglyphs

CHINA LAKE, CALIFORNIA—Renegade Canyon in southern California has a striking juxtaposition of old and new—15,000 years of human habitation recorded on the canyon’s walls in some of the country’s most spectacular rock art at the heart of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station where the Navy tests advanced bomb and missile systems. Next year, reports the Los Angeles Times, the Navy will begin the first systematic efforts to document the images of hunters, animals, reptiles, and spirit deities that cover the canyon’s walls, a daunting task considering that there are more than one million known examples, and that archaeologists are always finding more. The Navy has taken its stewardship of the canyon’s artwork seriously since the base was established in 1943, protecting the petroglyphs from both weapons tests and vandalism, but this new program to document the works is a large step towards their continued preservation and survival.