ARIZONA: Geocaching is a hobby in which hikers leave small items or bundles in out-of-the-way places and then challenge others to find them using only GPS coordinates. A geocacher in Prescott National Forest found a much older cache, a thin-walled pot used by the Yavapai between 600 and 100 years ago. Knowing the importance of archaeological context, he did what came naturally—he marked the location with his GPS and notified authorities of the rare, fragile find.
(Courtesy The Daily Courier, Prescott, AZ)
NEW YORK: Despite its modern lack of either greenery or open space, downtown Manhattan was, as recently as the 19th century, part farmland. Construction workers stumbled across a site from that time—a wall and well that were once part of the farm of Stephanus van Cortlandt, the city's first native-born mayor, and his descendants. Among other artifacts, archaeologists found a pipestem, pottery and stoneware, and a yellow ceramic bird's head, all likely from the 18th century.
(Courtesy Alyssa Loorya, Chrysalis Archaeology)
WALES: In The Lord of the Rings, flaming hilltop beacons are used to communicate between distant kingdoms. But they might not just be fantasy. Iron Age hillforts could have had a similar purpose 2,500 years ago. To test it, a heritage group organized the "Hillfort Glow Experiment," getting 350 volunteers to communicate between 10 hillforts with flares and flashlights (no Middle Earth pyres, though—it is fragile habitat). In some cases, the glow connected hills 25 miles apart.
(Courtesy Cheshire West and Chester)
ENGLAND: The man was hanged and decapitated between 673 and 482 B.C. All his soft tissues then decomposed except—seemingly in defiance of biology and chemistry—his brain. A new analysis of the 2008 find suggests that rapid burial, cool and wet soil, isolation from oxygen, and separation from the body (and its gut bacteria) helped with preservation. But there's something more at work—the unique chemistry of the brain's lipids and proteins recombined to form a stronger, more stable material. Scientists are still trying to sort out what happened.
(Courtesy York Archaeological Trust)
ITALY: Three skeletons, dating from between A.D. 500 and 700 from Campochiaro, are providing a glimpse of medieval wartime medicine. Two of them, Lombard or Avar soldiers who resisted a Byzantine invasion, appear to have been successfully treated for serious head wounds. The third had a nonfatal but unhealed cranial wound, as well as leprosy—suggesting sick and healthy Avar men alike were called on for defense. Researchers hope to extract DNA from the pathogen for comparison with modern forms.
(Courtesy Mauro Rubini, Foggia University)
PANAMA: From a reef at the mouth of the Chagres River, underwater archaeologists have raised what they believe are cannons from the fleet of privateer and rum pitchman Captain Henry Morgan. Morgan's ship, Satisfaction, ran aground in 1671 on the way to raid Panama City in response to a Spanish attack on Jamaica. The cannons are the first known artifacts of his Panamanian excursion.
(Donnie Reid, Courtesy Fritz Hanselmann, Texas State University)
BRAZIL: Digs being conducted on Rio de Janeiro's waterfront in advance of the 2016 Olympics have revealed the remains of Valongo Wharf, where as many as a million African slaves were unloaded and traded in the early 19th century. Once considered a shameful blot on the city's history, the site will now be preserved. It has produced artifacts of both Rio's ruling classes and slaves, including cowrie shells and amulets representative of African spiritual practices.
(Courtesy Tania Andrade Lima, Museu Nacional/UFRJ)
SYRIA: At Tell Kuran there is a 6,000-year-old layer of bones from 100 Persian gazelles. The mound is near a "desert kite," or a stone trap used to drive wild animals together for hunting. Researchers have concluded the gazelles were killed en masse, perhaps an early example of overkill hunting, which wiped out herds, disrupted migration, and led to their local extinction. People at the time relied on livestock for food, so the gazelle slaughter might have had a ritual basis.
INDIA: The constantly evolving map of early human migration has another new path. Seventy Acheulean hand axes, early stone tools thought to have been made by Homo erectus, and hundreds of other tools found in southern India have been dated—using both paleomagnetic and cosmogenic nuclide burial dating—to between 1 and 1.5 million years ago, suggesting that early human species left Africa and the Near East more than 500,000 years earlier than previously thought.
(Courtesy Shanti Pappu, Sharma Centre for Heritage Education)
SOUTH AFRICA: Last year witnessed the announcement of a new member of the human family, Australopithecus sediba, who lived in South Africa nearly two million years ago. Paleoanthropologists have now found two more A. sediba individuals—an adult and infant—who fell in a cave "death trap." Combined with the older female and youth found previously, scientists are now able to study the development of these early hominins, who show a combination of primitive and modern skeletal traits, from cradle to grave.
(Brett Eloff, Courtesy Lee Berger, University of the Witwatersrand)