Archaeology Magazine Archive

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from the trenches
World Roundup Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Samir S. Patel

Europe Asia and the Pacific Africa South America North America


The dark, rich patina or crust on many ceremonial wood artifacts from the Dogon and Bambara cultures contains evidence of how they were used. Confirming what archaeologists suspected, chemists found the coating includes blood, probably from sacrificed animals. Scientists used a new technique that can detect the chemical traces of blood, which might help illuminate ritual practices around the world.
(Courtesy C2RMF)

Asia & the Pacific

The Amazons--fierce female warriors of Greek myth--might have had real-life counterparts 5,000 miles away. Of 35 graves at the much-looted site of Phum Snay, dating from the 1st to the 5th century A.D., five contained women buried with metal or bronze swords, bracelets, and objects that resemble helmets. The women soldiers may have played an active role in defending their rice-farming communities.
(Courtesy Yoshinori Yasuda)

Marquesas Islands
Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin spent his later, syphilitic years on the island of Hiva Oa. Locals excavated the well by his home, which was filled after his 1903 death. In contrast to the beauty of his work, some of the finds, including four rotted teeth, a syringe, and two ampules of morphine, speak to his late-life suffering. Other discoveries include a beer bottle from New Zealand, liquor and perfume bottles, pigments and a coconut shell used to mix paint, and a jar of Bovril, a salty English beef extract.

By testing the elemental composition of jade artifacts, researchers have shown that 116 jade ear ornaments--as many as 5,000 years old, and found at 38 places around Southeast Asia--can be traced to a single site in Taiwan, called Fengtian. The study offers proof that prehistoric Asians interacted across a 2,000-mile-long sea-based trade network during the Neolithic period and Iron Age.
(Courtesy Marsha Miller)


While filming an episode of the Swedish TV program Vrakleterna (The Wreck Divers) in the Baltic Sea, the show's crew came across an immaculately preserved 17th-century sailing ship. The 65-foot-long, unidentified wooden vessel, found 410 feet down, may be the best-preserved of its type ever discovered.
(Courtesy Deep Sea Productions)
The earliest example of tuberculosis, a deadly infectious disease, was thought to date to just a few thousand years ago--until a 500,000-year-old Homo erectus bone was observed to have signs of the disease. The consumptive hominin's skull, found as a worker cut a slab of travertine stone into kitchen tiles, had lesions that form when tuberculosis infects the covering of the brain. Much later, another severe infectious disease, tularemia, may have been used as the first biological weapon. Based on two cuneiform tablets, a new theory posits that the Hittites and Arzawans, an ancient people from western Turkey, drove infected rams toward one another during wars in the 14th century B.C. Today, tularemia still ranks among the diseases most likely to be spread in a biological attack.
(Courtesy D. Vigears)

North America

New York
This 5,000-year-old limestone figure has an aura of ancient power. The Guennol lioness--at 3 1/4 inches tall--also just commanded the highest price ever paid for any antiquity or sculpture. An anonymous party bought the Mesopotamian statue, which had been on display at the Brooklyn Museum, at auction for $57.2 million. Some worry the price might inspire a new generation of looters, and rumors still swirl about the identity and intentions of the buyer or buyers.
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

Did the hunger of the Maya elite for meat and furs lead to overhunting of large mammals? Researchers sifting through deposits from 25 sites discovered that bones of large game, such as jaguar and deer, peaked in the Late Classic period and declined following the Maya "collapse" around A.D. 900. The finds suggest that wildlife populations dropped at that time. Researchers say there may be a lesson here about letting political motivations dictate animal exploitation.

South Carolina
Mystery shrouds the fate of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, which sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston harbor in 1864 and went down itself shortly after. Many thought the gold watch of its captain, Lt. George Dixon, might reveal when and how it sank. A new examination shows the watch stopped suddenly at 8:23, but historical accounts say the Housatonic sank around 9:00 p.m. Instead of a key puzzle piece, researchers have new mysteries on their hands. Was the watch running slow? Did it keep going until the next morning and suffer some trauma? Was it even working?
(Friends of the Hunley)
© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America