Top 10 Discoveries of 2015


Philipsburg (St. Martin): Tracing Slave Origins  By JASON URBANUS

Top ten zoutsteeg teethA skull displaying the filed teeth of a person of African origin discovered on the Caribbean island of St. Martin - Courtesy Hannes Schroeder, Photo: Jay B. Haviser, St Maarten Archaeological Centre

Researchers using a newly developed technique that permits the targeted retrieval of ancient genetic material were able to successfully identify the ethnic origins of three enslaved Africans found buried together on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, even though the surviving DNA was highly fragmented. Known locally as the Zoutsteeg Three, the two men and one woman (ages 25–40) had been found by construction workers in 2010. At that time, archaeologists were immediately struck by the condition of the individuals’ teeth, which had been intentionally filed down, a modification commonly associated with certain regions of Africa. While DNA does not survive well in tropical environments, experts from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University used whole-genome capture and next-generation sequencing to isolate the scant DNA remains of the Zoutsteeg Three. By comparing this evidence with the DNA of modern West African populations, they have learned that one of the slaves likely originated among the Bantu-speaking population of Cameroon, while the other two probably came from non-Bantu-speaking regions of Nigeria and Ghana. “We were able to show that we can use genome data to trace the genetic origins of enslaved Africans with far greater precision than previously thought possible,” says Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen. “This has important implications for the study of Caribbean slavery and the archaeology of the African diaspora.”

Regensburg (Allemagne): World’s Oldest Pretzels   By ERIC A. POWELL

Top ten pretzelPieces of a burned pretzel found in an 18th-century German privy, positioned atop an image of a complete, modern pretzel - Courtesy BLfD, Photo: Thomas Stöck

Archaeologists digging at the site of the future Museum of Bavarian History in Regensburg, Germany, expected their most exciting finds would date to the Roman era, but they were in for a surprise. In an eighteenth-century privy, they discovered the carbonized pieces of two pretzels. “We never have the opportunity to recover baked goods,” says government archaeologist Silvia Codreanu-Windauer. “Generally they were eaten, or, if burned, they were fed to dogs or chickens.” She speculates that in this case an absentminded baker or his apprentice forgot the pretzels in the oven and was so disgusted at burning them that he threw them in the toilet. It seems to have happened more than once. In the same privy, the team found the charred remains of three bread rolls and a fragment of a crescent-shaped local delicacy called a kipferl.

Springfield (USA): Baby Bobcat  By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Top ten hopewell necklaceA necklace of shell beads and carved bear teeth was discovered in a burial in Illinois with the remains of a juvenile bobcat. - Courtesy Ken Farnsworth

The native cultures of ancient North America expressed their close relationship to animals in their art and their rituals, none more so than the Hopewell Culture, which flourished along the rivers of the Northeast and Midwest between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500. When Angela Perri of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology opened a box in the Illinois State Museum’s collection labeled “puppy,” she expected to find the remains of a dog burial, common enough in the Hopewell Culture. The bones had come from a 1980s rescue excavation at the Elizabeth Mounds site in western Illinois. “As soon as I opened it, I said, ‘I think we have a problem,’” Perri recalls. “I knew right away from its distinctive teeth that it was a cat.” She determined that the nearly complete skeleton belonged to a juvenile bobcat, between four and seven months old. The bones show no signs of trauma, indicating the bobkitten likely died of natural causes, probably malnutrition. “It looks like they came across a baby that they tried to raise but failed,” says Perri. “When it died they had become close enough to it that it warranted this special burial.” Along with the bones, Perri found four shell beads and two carved effigies of bear teeth worn as a necklace—grave goods common to Hopewell human burials—making this the only decorated burial of a wild cat found in North America, as well as the only animal buried alone in its own mound. Though the Hopewell had had domesticated dogs for hundreds of years, Perri says that having a tamed bobcat would have been “a very uncommon experience.”

Lavau (France): Tomb of a Highborn Celt  By JASON URBANUS

Top ten cauldronAn ornate bronze wine cauldron excavated in an early Celtic tomb in north-central France - Courtesy © Denis Gliksman, Inrap

During a routine investigation of an area slated for construction in the village of Lavau in north-central France, archaeologists happened upon one of the most remarkable Iron Age discoveries of the past century. Beneath a mound measuring 130 feet in diameter, researchers from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research were stunned to find the burial of an early Celtic “prince” dating to the fifth century B.C. They were initially unable to determine the individual’s gender, and some of the accoutrements associated with dress found near the body suggested the skeleton belonged to a woman. But testing has now confirmed with certainty that the deceased was, in fact, male. This wealthy Iron Age prince was buried with an assortment of luxury items, including imported Mediterranean vessels, gold jewelry, and a chariot. A finely crafted bronze wine cauldron decorated with the heads of animals and mythological creatures, and a black-figure Greek wine pitcher, indicate that the Celts in this area had robust trade and political ties with the Greeks and Etruscans—and also distinguish this as the grave of a significant person. “He had to be at the top of the local aristocracy,” says archaeologist Bastien Dubuis. “All this wealth is a reflection of the central importance of the character buried here, who exercised economic and political power in the region.” Imported Mediterranean wine was a key commodity for the early Celts. This burial and others like it demonstrate that rituals and paraphernalia associated with the drinking and distribution of wine played a vital role in Celtic society.

Copenhagen (Danemark): Bronze Age Bride  By DANIEL WEISS

Top ten egtved girlIsotopic analysis of the remains of a young woman uncovered in a Danish burial nearly a century ago provides new details of Bronze Age life - Courtesy Robert Fortuna/The National Museum of Denmark

In 1921, the well-preserved remains of a young woman who died around 1370 B.C. were discovered in an elite burial near the town of Egtved, Denmark. For almost a century, she was thought to have been a local, and became known as the “Egtved Girl,” but new research has amended her story and what it may say about Bronze Age marriage alliances. A waterlogged, acidic environment had preserved the young woman’s clothing, hair, tooth enamel, fingernails, and parts of her brain and skin. Also preserved were the cremated remains of a young child. A team led by Karin Frei of the National Museum of Denmark analyzed strontium isotopes in the young woman’s tooth enamel and found she did not grow up on the Jutland Peninsula, where Egtved is located. Instead, she was most likely raised in the Black Forest region of southern Germany, around 500 miles away. The researchers believe she was sent from her home to marry a chieftain in Jutland. Further analysis of the young woman’s fingernails and hair shows that, in the final years of her life, she appears to have moved from the Black Forest to Jutland, back to the Black Forest, then back to Jutland again shortly before her death. The remains of the child found with the young woman may help explain these travels. “Dynastic marriages were often followed by an exchange of ‘foster brothers’ to secure the alliance,” says Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg. In such a scenario, after marrying the chieftain in Jutland, the young woman would have been sent back to the Black Forest along with a boy from Jutland, who would have been raised by her people. She would then have returned to Jutland with a young male relative, who would be raised there. The child’s cremated remains led Kristiansen to propose that the death occurred en route and the remains were buried later with the young woman when she, too, died after her return to Jutland.