Archaeologists spend a lot of time not digging holes but in labs and analyzing unique artifacts. They also like to share their findings with the public.
You can find news from the field on sites like Current Archaeology, which bills itself as Britain’s Favorite History Magazine. It requires a subscription but does have an open access policy so non-subscribers can read research articles online.
Discoveries In 2022
This year, archaeology news revealed an array of lost treasures from the ancient world. They included an engraving on a lice comb that may be the oldest sentence ever written in the first alphabet, the earliest known limb amputation and ancient poop that contained new clues about feasts eaten during the construction of Stonehenge.
Some discoveries had a big impact on humanity, such as the “lost golden city” unearthed in Egypt or a new reading of an ancient text that could shed light on why one of the great Egyptian pharaohs tried to shift the focus of his country’s religion toward worshiping Aten, rather than the traditional pantheon of gods. Other finds were less grand in scale but still interesting, including a pair of 5,000-year-old earrings that belonged to a princess, the remains of the terracotta warriors discovered beneath a house and a trove of ancient pots that may have contained food like cheese.
Some of the most intriguing finds were those that came out of pure luck. Standouts include a Palestinian farmer who stumbled upon the ruins of a 4,500-year-old temple, an English couple whose home renovations turned up rare coins and even a badger that dug up a trove of Roman coins.
Other luck-driven finds included a fourth-century C.E. gladiator arena that may have been the last ever built; a 2,000-year-old yearbook-like tablet that celebrates a group of graduates in Athens; and traces of olives, nuts, meats, fruits and figs that were eaten by spectators at the Colosseum 1,900 years ago. Also this year, researchers in Belize made a fascinating discovery by uncovering four underwater pole-and-thatch huts, which scientists believe could have been used to harvest salt for use in cooking and trade.
A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
When fossilized bones are discovered, they often come with missing parts. But when a skeleton excavated in 2020 in a cave in Borneo, Indonesia, was unearthed to reveal part of a lower left leg, archaeologists were thrilled: it’s the oldest evidence of surgical amputation ever found. The discovery, made in a remote region known for its earliest rock art, “rewrites our understanding of early human health and medicine,” according to a study published in Nature today (September 7).
The researchers dated the remains—of a young person who suffered a broken lower leg from an animal attack—using radiocarbon dating and electron spin resonance on teeth and burial sediment. These tests, along with palaeopathological analysis of the skeleton, confirmed that the foot and lower leg had been surgically removed at least 31,000 years ago, a time period that predates previous findings of complex medical procedures in Eurasia by tens of thousands of years.
Bones show signs of healing that indicate the amputation was performed under controlled conditions, and that the person survived the operation. The researchers also found no signs of infection or disease. This makes it likely that the amputation took place when the person was still a child and that they went on to live six to nine more years as an amputee.
This finding suggests that humans developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills well before the transition to farming societies at the end of the Ice Age, says Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia who was not involved with the study. It also shows that hunter-gatherers had a grasp of basic anatomy, surgical hygiene, and pain management, he adds. Aubert and his colleagues plan to return to the site in 2023 to excavate further, and hope to find more evidence of amputations.
New Research Into Ancient Poop
Everybody poops, but when feces stick around for thousands of years they can reveal all kinds of secrets. Archaeologists study fossilized poop, known as coprolites, for clues about the health and diet of our ancient ancestors as well as their animal companions. A careful analysis can reveal details about obesity, diabetes, blood conditions, parasites and more.
One hiccup in this sort of research is that the remains from multiple species of animals can start to look alike over time. That’s why an artificial intelligence system developed by a team of researchers called corpoID may be a game-changer. It uses DNA to tell whether a coprolite is human or canine.
The team tested their system by analyzing eight coprolites – that’s archaeological speak for preserved poop – from caves in Mexico and the southwestern US. The samples dated back 1,000 to 2,000 years and were so well-preserved that they could be studied without fear of contamination by modern bacteria.
Using the poo-scanning technology, the scientists discovered intact eggs of a type of intestinal parasite that’s far more common among people living in modern industrialized societies. The team also determined that the ancient ancestors’ gut microbiomes differed from those of modern humans, reports CNN.
The reexamination of the Paisley Caves in Oregon was led by Dennis Jenkins, who had previously found evidence that people were in the area a thousand years before the Clovis culture was thought to have arrived in North America. He and his team used the new findings to rework a timeline of human arrival in the region. The results were published this week in Science Advances. The research also bolstered findings that the first settlers were farmers.
Full-Color Portraits Of Mummies
A mummy portrait is a painted portrait of the head and bust of a person that was placed in or wrapped around a body for burial in ancient Egypt. The portraits were usually made in tempera or encaustic (pigments mixed with liquid beeswax). They also often included decorative elements such as wreaths, fillets, and jewelry. The two types of mummy portraits can be distinguished by their technique and style: encaustic mummy portraits, which were created in the encaustic painting tradition; and tempera mummy portraits, which were painted with paints that adhered to the tempera painting tradition.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the first mummy portraits to come to light were discovered by archaeologists such as Flinders Petrie. However, it was another century before more were unearthed and brought to the attention of Europeans. Until then, the portraits were considered curiosities and mummy portraits were generally ignored by scholars of both Egyptian art and Greco-Roman art, since they were thought to fall outside their respective disciplines.
Mummy portraits were found throughout Egypt, but they were especially common in the Fayum region (the area that was once ruled by the Roman city of Al-Faiyum). The paintings are known as Fayum mummy portraits or Fayum panel paintings.
Two full mummy portraits have been unearthed by archaeologists working at the Gerza excavation site, about 75 miles southwest of Cairo. The Egyptian government called them “one of the most important archaeological discoveries” in a translated statement. The portraits, along with mummies, papyri, pottery, and coffins, date to the Ptolemaic era (305-30 BCE) through the Roman era (30 BCE-390 CE). They are the first unique examples of these artworks to be uncovered in over a century.
A shipwreck In The Mediterranean
Marine archaeologists use shipwrecks to better understand ancient civilizations, and the Mediterranean is home to a lot of them. The region was a popular trade route in the ancient world, and exploring the ships gives researchers insights into the travel, trade and even warfare that took place.
But for seven decades, a search along the easternmost Mediterranean Sea had yielded no results—until recently. A team from the Enigma Project, led by oceanographer Robert Ballard, has unearthed a handful of ancient vessels in that area—and they’re all spectacular.
The team scoured the continental shelves off of Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy, using multibeam sonar and Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles (ROVs) to map out the seafloor and any unfortunate vessels that sank there. They were specifically looking for shipwrecks that dated back to the Hellenistic era, which ran from Alexander the Great’s death until the end of his empire in 31 B.C.
Among the vessels the team discovered was this one, which was carrying wine. Based on the ribbed, conical amphoras it held, the vessel belonged to the archaic period of Greece, which was about two hundred years before Plato and Socrates started philosophizing. The archaeologists have since retrieved some of the amphoras and will send them for laboratory testing to see if there are any traces of wine left in them.
The team hopes to uncover a total of nine shipwrecks over the next five years. They also want to conduct a thorough survey of the surrounding waters, and they’re calling on all eight nations that border the Mediterranean Sea—Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Spain—to help fund it. The project could also help solve the mystery of what caused Heracleion, an ancient port city known as the “Egyptian Atlantis,” to slump into the sea thousands of years ago.
Archaeology continues to be a fascinating field, offering invaluable insights into our past civilizations. Through meticulous excavations and research, archaeologists uncover hidden histories, cultural practices, and technological advancements. These discoveries not only enrich our understanding of human evolution but also contribute to preserving and appreciating our diverse heritage for future generations.
- Why is archaeology important? Archaeology is essential because it helps us reconstruct and comprehend the past. By studying artifacts, structures, and ancient remains, we can learn about human history, cultural diversity, societal development, and technological achievements. This knowledge enables us to better understand ourselves, appreciate cultural legacies, and make informed decisions about the future.
- How are archaeological sites protected? Archaeological sites are protected through various means, including legal frameworks, national heritage laws, and international agreements. Governments and organizations work together to establish preservation measures, conduct excavations responsibly, and ensure public awareness about the importance of safeguarding these sites. Additionally, efforts are made to engage local communities to foster a sense of ownership and care for their cultural heritage.