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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, December 25

Geologist Speculates on Disappearance of Sanxingdui

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Niannian Fan, a river sciences researcher at Tsinghua University in Chengdu, China, presented new thoughts on the disappearance of the Sanxingdui culture from a walled city on the banks of China’s Minjiang River some 3,000 years ago, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. “The current explanations for why it disappeared are war and flood, but both are not very convincing,” Fan told Live Science. In the 1980s, scientists found two pits of broken Bronze Age jades, elephant tusks, and bronze sculptures. Similar artifacts have been found nearby at another ancient city known as Jinsha. Did the people of Sanxingdui relocate to Jinsha? Fan thinks that the epicenter of an earthquake recorded to have occurred in 1099 B.C. some 250 miles away may have actually been close to Sanxingdui. Geological clues in the mountains suggest that a major earthquake triggered a landslide that dammed the river, reduced the water to Sanxingdui, and rerouted its flow to Jinsha. Later documents tell of floods that support the idea that the flow was rerouted. To read about efforts to save China's sites from looters, see "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Imported Weapon Fragments Unearthed in Wales

CARDIFF, WALES—Archaeologists at the National Museum Wales have dated a hoard made up of two blade fragments, a scabbard fitting, a multi-edged knife, and six copper ingot fragments to between 2,800 and 3,000 years ago. The sword blade fragments, scabbard, and knife are not typical of the region, while similar ingot fragments have been found in hoards in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. “The combination of objects found in this hoard hints at the long-distance sea travel of finished objects during the Late Bronze Age, from southern England and northern France to west Wales,” Adam Gwilt, Principal Curator for Prehistory at National Museum Wales, told Culture 24. The objects were discovered by a metal detectorist last year in a well-plowed field. To read about an extraordinary Roman-period hoard discovered this year, see "Top 10 Discovery: Seaton Down Hoard."

Wednesday, December 24

Early Bronze Age Village Found in Northern Vietnam

HANOI, VIETNAM—Traces of a village estimated to be between 3,500 and 4,000 years old have been discovered on the banks of the Pho Day River in northern Vietnam, according to Trinh Nang Chung of the Institute of Archaeology. Tuoi Tre News reports that more than 400 artifacts, including pottery and stone tools from the Phung Nguyen Culture, were unearthed. The artifacts could help scholars shed additional light on Phung Nguyen Culture and the establishment of Vietnam. 

Artifacts and Apologies Arrive in Pompeii

POMPEII, ITALY—Fragments of tiles, painted plaster, bricks, and stone stolen from Pompeii are being returned by the hundreds, often with a letter of apology. “People write expressing regret, having realized they have made a terrible mistake and that they would never do it again and for this reason they are sending the stolen pieces back,” Massimo Osanna, director of the World Heritage site, told The Local. In particular, the return of one fragment has been crucial to the restoration of the Casa del Futteto, or house of the orchard keeper. The piece was taken in the 1980s and sent back last spring. Alessandro Pintucci, president of the Italian Confederation of Archaeologists, recommends additional security for cultural sites all over Italy. To read in-depth about the restoration of one of Pompeii's most dramatic structures, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Tuesday, December 23

Glass Bracelet Stamped With Menorah Motif Unearthed in Israel

MOUNT CARMEL NATIONAL PARK, ISRAEL—A refuse pit in an industrial area dating to the late Roman and early Byzantine periods has yielded a fragment of a glass bracelet. “Stamped impressions of two menorahs survived on the small fragment that was found—one a plain seven-branched menorah, of which only the surface of the menorah is visible and the other one consisting of a seven-branched menorah with flames depicted above its branches,” excavation co-directors Limor Talmi and Dan Kirzne for the Israel Antiquities Authority told The Jerusalem Post. Glass bracelets are usually found in the region as funerary offerings. This bracelet may indicate that Jews lived in the settlement, or that the bracelet had been made in a local workshop for export. “The refuse that was discovered in the pit included numerous glass vessels and fragments of glass window panes, as well as a selection of jewelry, indicative of a population that lived a life of comfort and affluence,” they said. To read about other depictions of menorahs found in Israel, see "First Century Focus."

Turkey’s Oldest Tool Is 1.2 Million Years Old

LONDON, ENGLAND—The oldest stone tool ever found in Turkey has been dated to approximately 1.2 million years ago. Danielle Schreve of Royal Holloway, University of London, found the quartzite flake in ancient deposits of the River Gediz in western Turkey. “I had been studying the sediments in the meander bend and my eye was drawn to a pinkish stone on the surface. When I turned it over for a better look, the features of a humanly-struck artifact were immediately apparent,” she recalled. An international team of researchers then used high-precision radioisotopic dating and palaeomagnetic measurements from lava flows, which both pre-date and post-date the meander, to date the artifact to between approximately 1.24 and 1.17 million years ago. “This discovery is critical for establishing the timing and route of early human dispersal into Europe,” Schreve said. To read about the oldest tools made by modern humans found in Europe, see "43,000-year-old Aurignacian tools found at Willendorf."

Active Hunter-Gatherers Had Strong Skeletons

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Activity throughout life is the key to building strong bones, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge. Colin Shaw of the Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution (PAVE) Research Group and his colleagues x-rayed samples of the heads of human femur bones taken from four archaeological populations, all from the state of Illinois, including 7,000-year-old mobile hunter-gatherers, and 700-year-old sedentary agriculturalists. They found that the hunter-gatherers had more “spongy” bone, which can change shape and direction depending on the loads placed on it, and resist fracture. The thickening of the bone was caused by the constant physical activity required of hunter-gatherers. “We’ve shown that hunter-gatherers fall right in line with primates of a similar body size. Modern human skeletons are not systemically fragile; we are not constrained by our anatomy,” Shaw explained. Hominids that lived 150,000 years ago had even stronger skeletons than the hunter-gatherers. “Something is going on in the distant past to create bone strength that outguns anything in the last 10,000 years,” he said. To read about how hunter-gatherers fared in Sweden, see "Neolithic Farmers Assimilated Scandinavian Hunter-Gatherers."