WASHINGTON: Contractors cleaning up a dump at the Department of Energy's Hanford site found the oldest-known reactor-produced plutonium. Using techniques they call "nuclear archaeology," scientists determined that the sample, about the weight of 15 grains of rice and found in a concrete-lined safe, was created at a Tennessee reactor in 1944 before going to Hanford for processing. Plutonium from Hanford was used in the first atomic bomb test and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
(Photo: Courtesy Washington Closure Hanford)
NEW MEXICO: Thousand-year-old cylindrical jars from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon once held a chocolate brew, according to a new analysis of residue on sherds. The discovery is the first-known record of cacao north of Mexico--at least 1,200 miles from where it grew. Because the vessels were placed in caches and not burials, they were probably owned by the community and used for ritual purposes.
(Photo: Courtesy Patricia Crown, from the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, photograph by Marianne Tyndall)
MEXICO: A 16th-century Aztec mass grave in Mexico City is puzzling archaeologists. Mysteriously, the 50 bodies were buried following Christian custom--on their backs, with arms over their chests--but the placement of the burials at the center of a building suggests deep knowledge of Aztec ceremonial spaces. The search is on for evidence to determine why they were buried this way and whether they had rebelled against conquistador Hernán Cortés, were sacrificed, or fell victim to an epidemic.
UK: Deep below the Nottingham Galleries of Justice, now a tourist attraction, workers uncovered what may be a medieval oubliette (French for "forgotten place"), a bottle-shaped dungeon where prisoners were left to be consumed by hunger, madness, or both. Excavating the dungeon--perhaps used by one of the notorious sheriffs of Nottingham--could either cement the site's reputation as one of the country's most haunted places or merely reveal it as an 18th-century cellar.
(Photo: Nottingham Galleries of Justice)
ITALY: Beneath the crypt of the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia, archaeologists found a startling fourth-century A.D. pagan mosaic floor.
In addition to geometric designs and images of birds, the mosaic depicts three puzzling scenes of naked individuals. In one, a man and a woman, both wearing jewels and footwear, carry two ducks and a fish on a line, respectively. The quality suggests the floor was part of a wealthy residence. (Photo: Courtesy Soprintendenza per i beni Archeologici dell'Emilia-Romagna)
SPAIN: The medieval Moors sometimes used burnt bone to strengthen their walls. At a 14th-century rampart in Granada, scientists unearthed the remains of a particularly hot-burning oven (~1800*F) next to a pile of black ash and animal bone. Testing confirmed that the rampart walls were coated with bone ash to make the patina more durable. The finding will help with restoration efforts. (Photo: Courtesy Carolina Cardell Fernández)
SOUTH AFRICA: The oldest human hairs--in fact, the oldest non-bone human remains--ever found were identified in a hunk of hyena feces from more than 200,000 years ago. The 10-inch block of fossilized waste contained about 40 tiny casts of hair that most closely matched that of humans. The discovery suggests that hyenas scavenged the remains of Homo heidelbergensis. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
KENYA: Recently discovered foot-prints are the earliest-known evidence of anatomically modern feet. The 24 prints, dated to 1.5 million years ago and found in two separate sedimentary layers near Lake Turkana, show parallel big toes (unlike grasping, ape-like toes), pronounced arches, robust heels, and short toes--all suggesting an upright, bipedal walker with an essentially modern gait. Based on their size and shape, researchers believe they belong to Homo ergaster/erectus. (Photo: Courtesy Matthew Bennett/Bournemouth University, UK)
How did 20 Roman soldiers, still carrying their weapons, die in a narrow tunnel under the city of Dura-Europos? They may have been victims of deliberate chemical warfare, according to a new analysis. Persians, who laid siege to the city around A.D. 256, may have filled the tunnel with noxious smoke by burning sulfur and pitch, killing the soldiers in minutes. The bodies were then stacked as a macabre defensive wall. A lone Persian (above) in the tunnel may have set one of the fires but was overcome before he could escape. This could be the earliest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare.
(Photo: Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Excavation Archive)
KAZAKHSTAN: Researchers have established three separate lines of evidence for the earliest domestication of horses, 5,500 years ago, by the Botai culture. Analysis of foot bones shows that Botai horses were more like later, domestic varieties than local wild ones; the horses' teeth (right) show evidence of them having been bridled and perhaps ridden; and fragments of Botai pottery contain traces of horse milk, suggesting they weren't tamed just for riding. (Photo: Courtesy of Science/AAAS)