A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
CANADA: It was supposed to be a rescue. The HMS Investigator left England in 1850 to find the HMS Erebus and Terror, ships that had been seeking the fabled Northwest Passage. But in 1851, in Mercy Bay, the Investigator ran aground and was eventually trapped in pack ice and abandoned. A Canadian expedition has now found its remains—upright and intact under 33 feet of clear water. Like the crew of the Investigator, archaeologists are also seeking the other two ships.
(Courtesy Parks Canada)
PENNSYLVANIA: The Irish-immigrant railroad workers were all but forgotten, buried in a mass, unmarked grave in 1832. Railroad documents state that all 57 young men died of cholera, but now a team of historians and other researchers has found the grave—along with evidence that the story of these deaths might not be on the up-and-up. Some of the first bodies excavated show signs of having met extremely violent ends at a time when anti-Irish sentiment was high.
(Courtesy William Watson, Immaculata University)
ENGLAND: In a courtyard of Stafford Castle, amid the bones of cats and dogs from the late 19th century, was a lone tortoise bone—the first evidence of one of the small reptiles being kept as a pet. Prior to the 17th century, keeping pets for anything other than practical reasons was considered morally suspect in England. Fondness for household animals developed later, and by the 20th century thousands of land tortoises were shipped into the country wholesale. They ultimately became so popular that they were given away as prizes at fairs.
SPAIN: Neanderthals surely needed places to rest their weary bones. Anthropologists think they've found one in Esquilleu Cave, which has a hearth and evidence—in the form of phytoliths, tiny silicate particles that naturally occur in certain plants—of beds of grass. The repeatedly refreshed grass piles could have been both beds and sofas—comfortable places for sleeping, preparing food, making stone tools, or just lounging in front of a fire.
(Courtesy Dan Cabanes and Javier Baena)
ITALY: The thousands of Copper Age sites at Valcamonica that feature engravings, depicting everything from houses to animals to shamanic figures, might be more like cinemas than museums. Researchers note that some carvings seem to tell stories, are visible only in morning or evening, and are in places where echoes would have made for engaging audiovisual performances. There may also have been a kind of ratings board—they rarely feature women and never show death.
(Courtesy Hamish Park, Prehistoric Picture Project)
JORDAN: Maybe they were a little taste of home in the far-off desert. At the site of Wuheida, camp-base for Prince Feisal's Northern Army, archaeologists have discovered tobacco tins that once held Wills cigarettes for British and Arab troops during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia, that is) was attached to Feisal's army and probably visited the site many times.
(Courtesy Great Arab Revolt Project)
JAPAN: Long before the age of the yen, Japan's first circulated currency was the wadokaichin. It is thought the coins were used sometime in the 8th century A.D., but until now there's been little archaeological evidence to date their production. At a foundry site in Yamaguchi prefecture, archaeologists discovered a fragment of a coin, pieces of molds and tools for coin production, and a collection of wood tablets—one of which bears a date corresponding to A.D. 730. The find opens new avenues for the study of Japan's ancient economy.
FRENCH POLYNESIA: A precise technique for dating coral shows that Polynesians made a rapid leap from building small temples to erecting monumental structures. After studying 22 temple sites and platforms constructed with coral on the island of Moorea, anthropologists found this architectural evolution took place over just 140 years, from A.D. 1620 to 1760, rather than the four to five centuries previously thought. The largest sites—one is 350 feet long, with multiple terraces—were built by chiefs to assert their power, prestige, and connection to the gods.
(Courtesy Patrick V. Kirch, University of California Berkeley)
TIMOR-LESTE: Humans shared this island with the world's largest known rat—weighing in at an eek-inducing 13 pounds. Though people are known to have hunted rats there for 40,000 years, this giant rodent probably became extinct only 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. Extinctions, then, may not always be a direct result of human arrival. In this case, the introduction of metal tools and the clearing of forests for agriculture probably doomed the giant rats.
(Courtesy Ken Aplin, CSIRO)
GUATEMALA: An Early Classic Maya tomb in the city of El Zotz had been so well sealed that it still smelled of decay when it was opened 1,600 years later. Its primary occupant, dressed in the costume of a ritual dancer and buried with a variety of ceramics and textiles, was most likely a king, maybe the founder of a dynasty. The newly discovered tomb also held the remains of six children, perhaps sacrifice victims, and bowls buried outside it contained human fingers and teeth, which might have been symbolic food offerings.
(Courtesy Brown University, Photo by Arturo Godoy)