Category: archaeology

Only archaeologists would get excited about finding a latrine. Underneath London’s Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House, a medieval cesspit has been found, which was used from the 1300s to the 1500s. Up to 100 objects have been retrieved from sticky, greenish sludge in the 4 meter (15 ft) deep pit.

Some items are bathroom-related, but there have also been a surprising number of ceramic finds. Surprisingly, some were not broken, which makes it curious why they were thrown away.

The variety of finds makes archaeologists suspect the cesspit was both a bathroom and occasional trashpit of the Chester Inn, a poorly-documented residence from the 1400s which stood where Somerset House is today. It is a little ironic that the pit was found when excavating the exact spot where the Courtauld is planning to install new toilets!

Aegina was a very important Greek city-state that is almost totally forgotten today. Partially because they were a big player in Greece before Athens, and most of what we know about Aegina is from Athenian records and archaeological studies.

As an island, Aegina was situated between Attica and the Peloponnese, making it a useful island for traders since prehistoric times. There is archaeological evidence of Minoan and Mycenaeans trading with or living on the island. It was really during Archaic Greek period (900s BCE – 480 BCE) that the city-state became a naval powerhouse. It was the first mainland European power to mint its own coins, within 30 or 40 years of the invention of coinage in Asia Minor by the Ionian Greeks or the Lydians (around 630 BCE). It was one of just three city-states, and the only mainland Greek one, trading at and owning a share of the mighty emporium of Naucratis in Egypt. It was a hub for grain from the Pontus region – food always wins, and Pontic grains was so important that Athens would later enforce a monopoly on it.

But to really understand how much of a big-time Aegina was, look at its weights system. The Aeginetic standard of weights and measures (developed during the mid-600s) was one of the two standards in general use in the Greek world. It is like the British Empire making other countries measure in pounds and miles.

In the 1300s, the Black Plague swept through Europe. To create a “family tree” of the plague, scientists conducted a genetic analysis of Yersinia pestis strains taken from 34 individuals who died in 10 different countries between 1300 and 1700.

The results suggest that over time, the bacteria Yersinia pestis mutated and diversified into multiple clades. All the clades
found in the study were related to back to one ancestral strain.  That suggests that the Black Plague entered Europe just once. And the oldest strain, the one that appeared to have been the others’ ancestor, was from remains found in a little Russian town named Laishevo.

Here’s where a caution must be added. Such analyses are always limited by the available bacteria strains – the family tree will be added to over time as more bodies are recovered and more bacteria strains isolated.

A covered drain paved with stones and topped with an arch lined with
thin, burnt clay bricks was discovered by members of the Archaeological
Survey of India at the Red Fort, a fortress built of red sandstone by
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 CE. You might know him as the builder
of the Taj Mahal.

The drain once connected the fort’s Delhi
Gate to the moat which surrounded nd protected the fort. Researchers are
now removing silt from the drain, and then will strengthen it, so that
it will once again be able to serve as a channel for rainwater.
Rainwater from within the Red Fort seems to have been directed to the
moat, whereas rainwater collected from the surrounding city was drained
away.

Forty years ago, a Buddhist monk found a human mandible bone at Baishiya Karst Cave, perched 10,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau. The bone they found has now been dated to 160,000 years ago. And analysis of the proteins caught in its teeth demonstrate that the mandible belonged to the Denisovan branch of the hominin family.

This is the first evidence for Denisovans found outside of southern Siberia’s Denisova Cave. That cave is just 2,300 feet above sea level. It is also about 1,750 miles northwest of Baishiya Karst Cave. The mandible therefore revealed the Denisovans were widely distributed, and able to adapt to extremely high altitudes.

This is likely related to the mutation, found in previous Denisovan genetic studies, that assists survival in low-oxygen environments such as the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau. The same mutation has been found in present-day Tibetans. And given that the Denisovans once lived in the area, perhaps a long-ago intermarriage introduced the gene to the Tibetans? It seems more likely than the exact same gene randomly mutating twice.

At a Tallahassee golf course, near the 7th hole, has been found a cemetery dating to the days of the American Civil War. With a naked eye can be seen barely-there depressions in the grass. But thanks to continued local remembrance of a graveyard for enslaved persons in the area, and a report based on historical records made to the country club, an archaeological team from the National Park Service brought ground-penetration radar (GPR) to the site in 2019 to investigate.

The GPR detected roughly 40 graves. They were the right shape, and the right depth, to be graves. The finding was then confirmed by human remains detection dogs.

Based on historical records, the graveyard has been connected with a plantation owned by the family of Edward Houston. The Houstons were a prominent slave-owning family in Savannah, Georgia. When Tallahassee was being settled by white colonists, two Houston family members purchased a half square mile in 1826. The records demonstrate that this would not have been a graveyard for white residents of the plantation, for the family. It would have been a final resting place for the enslaved persons who worked the plantation.

At this time, there are no plans to excavate in the cemetery, and disturb the dead. Efforts are focused on finding descendants of those who might be buried there.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries, have been detected in the mummified remains of four Inuit adults who lived in Greenland about 500 years ago. The recent study used computerized tomography to examine the bodies of the two men, who are thought to have been between 18 and 22 and 25 and 30 at the time of death, and two women, who died sometime between the ages of 16 and 18 and 25 and 30, and one infant. Three of the four adults showed evidence of arterial calcification. Increased gunk in arteries can lead to life-threatening conditions such as strokes and heart attacks.

These Inuit’s atherosclerosis is a surprising find because current health theories suggest that a diet rich in marine foods and omega-3 fatty acids, such as that eaten by preindustrial-era Inuit peoples, would offer protection from arterial calcification. The individuals’ entire circulatory systems were not preserved, however, so the researchers were not able to determine the full extent of the damage to their arteries. The scientists also noted that heavy exposure to smoke from indoor fires may have outweighed the heart-health benefits of an active lifestyle and fatty-fish-based diet.

The the spring in Isokyrö, Finland, produces something unusual: human remains. Over 98 different peoples’ bones have been recovered from the spring since the 1800s. It used to be a full-sized lake, and when it was, it was the site of unusual water burials of mainly women and children.

One recent analysis looked at the remains of four individuals, and found that they were interred between 800 BCE and 400 CE. A second, separate analysis of other remains utilized DNA and dating methods and looked to see which modern populations they might be related to. Its findings suggests the Isokyrö region was inhabited by Sámi people in ancient times – according to carbon datings of the bones which belonged to individuals that had died from 500 to 700 CE. The lake was far from any human settlements at the time so why it was chosen, and why mainly women and children were buried there, remains unsolved.

Archaeologists have recently rediscovered remains of a trading and religious center of Aksum. Aksum, a kingdom principally located in today’s Ethiopia, thrived from the 1st to 8th centuries CE, and was the state which saw the region converted to Christianity. It traded with the Roman Empire and India, minted its own coins, and took over the declining kingdom of Kush which had long rivaled ancient Egypt. The newly found city lay between the capital (also called Aksum) and the Red Sea.

The city has been renamed Beta Samati, which means “house of audience” in the local Tigrinya language. It was discovered in 2011, hiding more than 10 feet below the surface, in Ethiopia’s Yeha region.

The remains are already changing what we think we know about Aksum. It had previously been believed that societies in the region collapsed in the period before the rise of the Aksum Kingdom. But Beta Samati continued through the period of supposed abandonment just fine, functioning as a major connection on trade routes linking the Mediterranean and other cities which would end up under Aksum control.

Merit Ptah, the ancient Egyptian often cited as the “first woman doctor,” was likely made-up in the 1930s. A historian confused some names, and their mistake ended up in a book that has gone on to be widely cited.

The good news? The doctor who was mistakenly called Merit Ptah does exist! Her name was Peseshet, she was an “Overseer of Healer Women,” and there is strong evidence thanks to the 2400 BCE tomb of her son.