DURHAM, ENGLAND—The skeletons of 18 people who may have died of disease and buried in a hurry during the medieval period have been uncovered near Durham Cathedral. “The bodies have been tipped into the earth, one on top of each other, without elaborate ceremony and they are tightly packed together and jumbled,” said Richard Annis of Durham University. The excavation team is waiting for permission to remove the bones for testing. “It is too early to say what they may be,” Annis added.
BEIJING, CHINA—At the Neolithic site of Shimao Ruins in northern China, archaeologists have unearthed the skulls of more than 80 young women who may have been sacrificed before they were buried in a mass grave. The skulls show signs of “being hit and burned,” according to Sun Zhouyong, deputy head of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. The women may have been captives that were killed in a ceremony at the construction of the city’s wall some 4,000 years ago. The rest of their bodies have not been found.
BEIJING, CHINA—The government of China has asserted its ownership of shipwrecks in an area covering most of the South China Sea, which it claims as its territorial waters. “We want to find more evidence that can prove Chinese people went there and lived there, historical evidence that can help prove China is the sovereign owner of the South China Sea,” said Liu Shuguang, head of the government’s Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Chinese archaeologists are planning a comprehensive underwater survey of areas of the South China Sea that are in dispute with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. But UNESCO encourages countries to share the excavation of underwater cultural heritage sites, since a ship and its owner, cargo, and crew may have been assembled from international sources in antiquity. “If you look around the world now, the majority of projects are multinational ones,” said Ulrike Guerin of UNESCO.
CARDIFF, WALES—In advance of restoration of the western moat at Cardiff Castle, archaeologists carried out excavations of the former defensive watercourse, also known as Mill Leat. The team recovered some 3,000 artifacts, mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, including a pewter spoon and Venetian glass that would have belonged to individuals of high status. The moat also once served as a millpond that supplied water to corn mills outside the castle, which was originally built by Norman invaders in the 11th century. The moat has now been reflooded to return it to its medieval appearance.
LONDON, ENGLAND—While digging a Neolithic temple complex some 15 miles from Stonehenge, archaeologists led by Kingston University's Helen Wickstead discovered a massive sand and clay sinkhole that could hold 6,000-year-old plant material. The site, known as Damerham, sits on chalk land, so the discovery of sand and clay, which preserve plant life better than chalk, was unexpected. "We don't often find materials like this that capture and preserve the plant remains-pollen or phytoliths-from a specific time period," said Wickstead in a statement. "We are very hopeful that, within this material, there will be evidence of plant life that will help us continue to piece together the puzzle of human habitation on this significant site."
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Archaeologists digging at a 6,000-year-old site on Papua New Guinea's New Britain Island have discovered a cache of obsidian tools that were deliberately shaped as phalluses. The researchers, led by the Australian Museum's Robin Torrence, speculate that the stones played an important social or ritual role, since they would have been difficult to make and their thin edges show no evidence that they were ever actually used as tools. “It could indicate that the tools were used in an initiation ritual for boys or girls,” says Torrence. “Another theory is that the shape could refer to the power and status of the person who owned this object.” She points out that the tools were probably made by highly skilled craftspeople who used obsidian that came from outcrops more than 60 miles away from the site, suggesting these ritual objects may have been traded over a large area.
LONDON, ENGLAND—Estonian engineers have unveiled a new underwater robot, called U-CAT, designed specifically to operate inside shipwrecks. The robot is propelled by four flippers that mimic the locomotion of sea turtles."Conventional underwater robots use propellers for locomotion," explains Taavi Salumäe, a designer at the Tallinn University of Technology's Centre for Biorobotics."[The] fin propulsors of U-CAT can drive the robot in all directions without disturbing water and beating up silt from the bottom, which would decrease visibility inside the shipwreck” The robot was built as part of a European Union-funded research project called ARROWS that develops technology for use in underwater archaeology.
TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN—Tests on a wooden beam discovered on the bottom of Lake Michigan have so far failed to prove that the timber is from the Griffin, a ship built by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1679 and lost in a storm on her maiden voyage. Dean Anderson, Michigan’s state archaeologist, thinks the beam is a pound net stake, used for fishing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “I’m not seeing any evidence of a vessel element here,” he said. Steve Libert, who has been looking for the lost ship for 30 years, and French archaeologists, think that the beam’s beveled end resembles a bowsprit. Results of carbon-14 analysis are due soon.
BEIJING, CHINA—The clothing has been removed from four 2,200-year-old mummies that were discovered in northwest China in 2007, at a site where more than 30 tombs have yielded mummies, silk, wool, and an artificial leg. The four bodies, which normally dry out in the dry climate, had been badly damaged by floods and mudslides. “We have to separate the outfits from the mummies before there is nothing left,” said Xu Dongliang of the Academia Turfanica. The man, two women, and a child had been buried wearing woolen pants, knitted mantles, fabric coats, silk scarves, and sheepskin boots.
TAMPA, FLORIDA—The dredging and cleaning of a spring on the Chassahowitzka River has yielded “an amazing array of artifacts that basically represent every period of human occupation in Florida,” according to archaeologist Michael Arbuthnot. Among the prehistoric artifacts found in the oxygen-free muck were a Suwannee projectile point estimated to be 10,000 years old; a bone fish hook that may have been used hunt alligators; bone pins; and a 2,000-year-old intact bowl. Later artifacts include a piece of a seventeenth-century Spanish plate; eighteenth-century Seminole pottery; a tool made of antler; and a mid-twentieth-century cap gun.
KATMANDU, NEPAL—Excavations at the Maya Devi temple, the legendary birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, have revealed wooden structures beneath the brick temple built by the Indian emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C. Postholes suggest that the earlier shrine consisted of a wooden railing surrounding a tree whose mineralized roots were also uncovered. The structure had clay floors and was open to the sky. Known as bodhigara, similar tree shrines are found in older Indian traditions as places for sacrifices, but this site lacked any signs of offerings. Charcoal from the postholes and optically stimulated luminescence dating of the soil indicate that the wooden shrine dates to 550 B.C. “What we have got is the earliest Buddhist shrine in the world,” said Robin Coningham of Durham University.
AKROTIRI, CYPRUS—Members of the Cyprus Antiquities Department and injured servicemen and women, working through Britain’s Operation Nightingale, have been excavating a seventh-century basilica. The large building was decorated with mosaics, marble, gold leaf, and bronze statues. “This literally helps us understand and re-write the history of the seven century in Cyprus. We estimate that after its construction, it had a very short life-span of approximately 30 years before it was abandoned and destroyed. This was a very important place and house the relics of some very important people,” explained Eleni Procopiou of the Cyprus Antiquities Department.
ROME, ITALY—A leaky roof and heavy rains have led to unwanted water in the museum housing the Ara Pacis, dedicated in 9 B.C. to the Roman goddess of peace after Augustus’ victorious return to Rome. Staff members used buckets to remove water from the top of the altar and cloths and vacuum cleaners to dry the floors. They then covered the monument with tarpaulins to protect it. The controversial museum was designed by American architect Richard Meier and opened in 2006. A lack of maintenance has been blamed for the leaks.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Two German men described as amateur archaeologists have been accused of entering the pyramid of Khufu without permission and stealing samples of the king’s cartouche from a compartment near his burial chamber. The two men reportedly smuggled the artifacts out of Egypt and conducted tests on them at Dresden University. The case has been referred to Egypt’s prosecutor-general and the names of the two men have been handed over to Interpol. The German embassy in Cairo has denounced the actions of the men, who were not affiliated with the German Archaeological Institute.
BEIT SHEMESH, ISRAEL—Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have uncovered evidence of a 10,000-year-old settlement in the Shfela region of the Judean Hills, where a dangerous road is being widened. The site had been occupied for thousands of years, and shows the transition from living in temporary structures and hunting and gathering to living in permanent dwellings and farming and domesticating animals. “We can clearly trace the urban planning and see the guiding hand of the settlement’s leadership, which chose to regulate the construction in the crowded regions in the center of the settlement while allowing less planning along its periphery,” said archaeologist Amir Golani. One of the structures has the oldest known plaster floor in the region, and near it, the team unearthed a cluster of flint and limestone axes.
KENT, ENGLAND—A seventh-century gaming piece has been recovered from an Anglo-Saxon royal side hall in the village of Lyminge. Gabor Thomas of Reading University said that the beautifully crafted piece, made of a hollow piece of bone closed with a wooden cap held in place with a bronze pin, may have been imported from the Lombard kingdom. “It is very probably a stray loss, perhaps cast away in disgust by a king with a reputation for being a very bad loser,” Thomas speculated. This is the first Anglo-Saxon gaming piece to have been found in a residence—they are usually discovered in men’s graves. Pottery, animal bones, bronze horse harness pieces, and jewelry made from Roman glass have also been unearthed at the site.
PRESELI HILLS, PEMBROKESHIRE-- Geologist Richard Bevins of the National Museum of Wales and his colleagues compared samples of rock and debris from Stonehenge with samples from the Preseli Hills in Wales. His data suggests that the Stonehenge bluestones came from Carn Goedog, a mile away from Carn Meini, where archaeologists have been looking for evidence of a Stonehenge quarry since the 1920s, when geologist Herbert Henry Thomas chose the spot as a likely source. “I hope that our recent scientific findings will influence the continually debated question of how the bluestones were transported to the Salisbury Plain,” he said.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—At the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Eric Cline of The George Washington University, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, and Andrew Koh of Brandeis University announced their discovery of the oldest known wine cellar in the Middle East. The palace storage room at Israel’s site of Tel Kabri contained at least 40 of the 3,700-year-old vessels of wine, or about 500 gallons worth. Chemical analysis of residues samples taken from the all of the pots show that the wine had been preserved with resin and flavored with juniper, mint, myrtle, honey, and cinnamon. “If you take retsina and you pour a bit of cough syrup inside, I guess you get something quite similar,” said Yasur-Landau. The Canaanite palace was destroyed, possibly by an earthquake, around 1600 B.C.
PUEBLA, MEXICO—The only shrine ever found dedicated to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, has been discovered near the site of Tehuacan. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have called the fifteenth-century structure, built by the Popoloca people, the Temple of Skulls because on the west and north walls, they found two niches containing four femurs each and human skulls held in place with stucco. Traces of red paint on the mouth of one of the skulls resembles an image of Mictlantecuhtli in the Codex Borgia, and two ceramic heads and an effigy of the god of the dead were found on top of the temple. Remains of human sacrifices were also recovered.
OLMOS, PERU—As much as 60 percent of the 800-year-old Ficuar archaeological complex has reportedly been destroyed in Lambayeque. The damage appears to have been done with heavy machinery. “This space [with platforms and a patio] was a control center for everything, particularly in terms of agriculture and irrigation," said archaeologist Juan Ugáz Moro. "We have to band together to preserve, promote, and protect our cultural-historical heritage.”