Top 10 Discoveries of 2017-ARCHAEOLOGY’s editors reveal the year’s most compelling finds
Skull Cult at Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe is one of the world’s most significant, yet mysterious, archaeological sites. Between the tenth and eighth millennia B.C., people there erected a series of massive stone circles where groups gathered for religious or social purposes. This year, researchers revealed that microscopic analysis of bone fragments found at the site suggests that human skulls may once have hung there on prominent display. The fragments belong to three partially preserved skulls that were carved and altered after death. This is the first indication of how Göbekli Tepe’s inhabitants may have treated their dead, and archaeologists believe it may provide evidence of an Early Neolithic “skull cult” that exhibited the decapitated heads of either venerated ancestors or dispatched enemies at designated spots.
The discovery further underscores the complex ritual behavior exhibited at Göbekli Tepe. Marks on the three partial skulls indicate that they were de-fleshed, modified, and even painted. Deep incisions were repeatedly carved into the skulls with stone tools to create grooves that ran up the forehead and toward the back of the head. According to researcher Julia Gresky of the German Archaeological Institute, the skulls may have been suspended by a cord that wrapped around the head and passed through a small drill hole at the top. The incised grooves would have prevented the cord from slipping along the smooth surface of the bone as it dangled. “The three modified skulls attest to the special treatment of certain individuals and represent an entirely new category of find,” she says, “one which testifies to the interaction of the living with the dead at this important Early Neolithic ritual center.”
(Courtesy U.S. Navy)The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was photographed on July 10, 1945, just six days before she embarked on her final mission.
The sinking of USS Indianapolis is ranked as one of the greatest disasters in U.S. naval history. The much-decorated Portland-class heavy cruiser left San Francisco on July 16, 1945, with 1,196 crewmen aboard. Her final mission, as she raced to the naval base on the North Pacific island of Tinian, was to deliver components of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Mission completed, the ship set out along a prescribed course only to be hit by torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine on July 30. Indianapolis began to sink within a mere 12 to 15 minutes. Three and a half days passed before aircraft spotted survivors. The wreck of Indianapolis was lost for 72 years. Now, it has been found, some 18,000 feet under the North Pacific.
(Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen)A spare parts box found on the Pacific floor displays the name USS Indianapolis.
Because no distress call was received and her deck logs did not survive, the official Navy record of the ship’s location when she sank relied primarily on the testimony of her surviving captain, who confirmed that he had followed his assigned route from Tinian to the Philippines. By comparing this route with the position of LST-779, a tank-landing ship newly identified as having been the last known vessel to have had visual contact with the cruiser, 11 hours before she sank, naval historian Richard Hulver and archaeologist Robert Neyland suggested a new position for the wreckage of Indianapolis. Though there have been efforts to locate her before, “No one thought they would ever see Indianapolis again,” says Hulver. “But I was hopeful.” Using an autonomous undersea vehicle able to scan the remotest depths of the seafloor, a research team located the ship. Until now, Indianapolis’ 316 survivors, 18 of whom are still living, had provided the only evidence of her triumphs and tragedies.
The discovery of a 106-year-old fruitcake on Antarctica’s Cape Adare may help redeem the delicacy’s much-maligned reputation. The centenarian cake was found by a team from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in the continent’s oldest building, a hut erected in 1899, and is thought to have been left there in 1911 by members of the Northern Party, part of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. The tin holding the Huntley & Palmers fruitcake was somewhat rusty, but the cake itself was in fine shape—likely due to the cold, dry conditions. “It felt and looked like a new fruitcake,” says Lizzie Meek, the trust’s program manager. “It was only if you got quite close to it that you could smell that slightly off smell of butter that’s gone wrong.”
Aztec Warrior Wolf
Archaeologists excavating at the foot of the Aztecs’ Great Temple, in downtown Mexico City, discovered a dazzling collection of gold artifacts and the skeleton of a juvenile wolf. Occupying a stone box the size of a dishwasher, the gold artifacts are the finest yet excavated at the 40-year-old dig, says lead archaeologist Leonardo López Luján. They include ear and nose ornaments and a piece of body armor known as a pectoral—glittering, stylized versions of attire that were used to decorate the sacrificed wolf, as if the canine were symbolizing a human warrior. The wolf’s head faced west, signaling that it was “the companion of the sun, after the sunset, during its journey to the underworld,” says López Luján. The offering was buried during the reign of Ahuitzotl (1486–1502), a time of war and great imperial expansion for the Aztecs.
Dawn of Egyptian Writing
Archaeologists have discovered an oversized inscription that offers a new glimpse into the early development of the Egyptian writing system. A team led by Yale University Egyptologist John Darnell found the hieroglyphs on a cliff face within view of a desert road north of the ancient city of Elkab. Dating to around 3250 B.C., they were carved during Dynasty 0, a period when the Nile Valley was divided into competing kingdoms and scribes were just beginning to master writing. Previously discovered Dynasty 0 inscriptions are less than an inch in height and are largely confined to arcane administrative matters, but the newly discovered inscription is 27 inches tall, and is the earliest known set of large-scale, highly visible hieroglyphs by some 300 years.
The inscription’s symbols—a bull’s head on a pole, followed by two storks and an ibis—are similar to those used in later Egyptian writing to equate a pharaoh’s authority with control over the cosmos. That led Darnell to conclude that the inscription was a royal boundary marker that asserted a king’s dominion over the area. “It was like a signpost,” says Darnell. “Travelers along that road would have known they were entering an area under official authority.” In addition, he believes the discovery suggests that Egyptian writing developed at a quicker pace than previously thought, and was being used to publicly project royal power at a very early date.
Remains of early humans such as Neanderthals and Denisovans have been discovered at just a limited number of sites in Europe and Asia. This has long frustrated archaeologists, who are confident that many more locations were occupied throughout these regions. This year, however, researchers announced a new way of detecting the hominins’ presence—through genetic traces in cave sediments. A team led by Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed sediments from seven sites in France, Belgium, Spain, Croatia, and Russia, and found Neanderthal DNA at three sites dating to up to 60,000 years ago, and Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in Russia’s Denisova Cave dating to around 100,000 years ago. In a number of cases, the genetic evidence was located at stratigraphic levels where no hominin remains have been found. “It was really exciting,” says Slon, “to see that even without the bones, we can still find the DNA of these people.”
The technique worked even with sediments that had been collected a number of years ago and stored in labs, Slon notes, “so we’re not only restricted to active excavations.” The researchers hypothesize that the DNA in the sediments comes from body fluids left behind by hominins as well as decomposition of their remains. So far, they have focused on mitochondrial DNA, but hope to be able to find nuclear DNA as well, which would provide additional genetic information about the hominins.
Iron Age Britain’s Oldest Gold
Four torcs uncovered in Leekfrith are the earliest Iron Age gold items ever found in Britain. They can be dated to between 400 and 250 B.C. based on their stylistic qualities, says Julia Farley of the British Museum, who notes they were most likely worn by women. The torcs’ age is remarkable because, for several hundred years starting around 800 B.C., people in Britain appear to have largely abandoned wearing and manufacturing gold jewelry. One explanation is that the trade networks that brought gold to England had broken down. Tin and copper, used to make bronze, which had been key imports, were no longer needed once locally produced iron became available. Societies became focused on community survival rather than individual status. “Communal identity might have been more important than things which emphasize an individual’s power, like wearing loads of bling,” Farley explains. She believes the torcs were likely made on the continent and show that personal adornment was coming back into vogue as Europe grew cosmopolitan again. “The simplest explanation,” Farley says, “is that they came across the channel as gifts or trade goods, or perhaps the women even came over wearing them.”
Rome’s Oldest Aqueduct
Construction workers on Rome’s new “C” metro line uncovered what is believed to have been part of the Aqua Appia, Rome’s oldest-known aqueduct, which dates back to 312 B.C. The remains were found near the Colosseum, at around 55 to 60 feet below Piazza Celimontana, a depth usually unreachable by archaeological excavation, says Simona Morretta of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome. The section of aqueduct measures 6.5 feet tall and is made up of large gray, granular tufa blocks arranged in five rows. “The total absence of any traces of limestone inside the duct suggests that its use over time has been limited,” says Morretta, “or that the structure was abandoned just after a maintenance intervention.” It stretches for more than 100 feet and continues beyond the investigation area bounded by concrete bulkheads.
The Square Inside Avebury’s Circles
Avebury, the Neolithic monument just north of Stonehenge, may be best known for its outer stone circle, the largest of its kind in Europe, which encompasses the entire site. Archaeologists have now discovered that within one of its inner circles, there was an earlier, square formation. Using radar technology, they have identified evidence of an arrangement of stones that they believe commemorated the footprint of a Neolithic house, a structure built as early as 3500 B.C. While past theories have postulated that Avebury was constructed from the outside in, these findings suggest the site instead sprang from a single building. “One interpretation is to see it like ripples on a pond,” says Mark Gillings of the University of Leicester. “The house decays, its position is marked with a huge standing stone, and its orientation and shape are marked by the square. It may have been 300 years after the house was built that they decided to memorialize it,” he explains. “By that stage it might have even been an ancestral place that had slipped into myth and legend.”
Homo sapiens, Earlier Still
(Jean-Jacques Hublin/MPI EVA Leipzig) This jawbone has been discovered with other remains of Homo sapiens dating back some 300,000 years. This group displays physical features that are similar to both modern humans and Neanderthals.
Excavations at Jebel Irhoud, near Morocco’s west coast, have uncovered the 300,000-year-old bones of some of the earliest members of the Homo sapiens lineage. Human bones were first discovered at the site in 1961, and their strange combination of archaic and modern features intrigued scientists, who guessed they belonged to Neanderthals and dated to about 40,000 years ago. In 2006, a team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reopened excavations at Jebel Irhoud. This year, they revealed their results, providing a glimpse of the earliest members of the ancestral line that led to modern humans.
The Jebel Irhoud hominins apparently lived 350,000 years after Neanderthals and Homo sapiens last shared a common ancestor, long enough for the two lineages to develop some obvious differences. The people of Jebel Irhoud had flat and short faces like modern humans, but their brains were more elongated and their teeth much larger. Their brow ridges were also more prominent than those of humans living today, but not as heavy as those of Neanderthals.