Science & Environment

The year 2014 in archaeology

It's been a fascinating year for ground-breaking archaeology around the globe, with cholera-stricken "vampires", armour made of bone, and the invention of trousers. Here's just a selection of what has made an impact this year.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption It's been a fantastic year for understanding one of the UK's most enigmatic monuments

Challenging climates

While world leaders were formulating an international response to modern climate change, archaeologists were discussing a serious shift in climate that happened 2,500 years ago.

Population collapse at the end of the European Bronze Age is thought to have been caused by rapid climate change. However, new research shows that the decline in population began over a century before climate change set in. Researchers now think that it was the increasing demand for iron towards the start of the Iron Age that was to blame, which undermined local economies and disrupted trade.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sophisticated craftsmanship went into creating the gold objects found among the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard

Inventive technologies

A new study of 325,000-year-old artefacts has forced archaeologists to re-think the development of very early technologies. A revolutionary stone tool technology called Levallois was thought to have been invented only in Africa, spreading through Europe and Asia as populations expanded. However, archaeologists looking at stone tools from a site in Armenia think that the specialised technology also developed independently there, highlighting the creativity of these early groups.

Another shrewd innovation has been uncovered during analysis of the Staffordshire hoard. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths used a sophisticated technique to remove copper and silver from the surfaces of gold objects, making them appear more "golden". Not only did this give the impression that the gold was more valuable than it was, the different colours of gold made the delicate filigree designs more striking.

Vampires, bone armour and early trousers

Some eye-catching odds and ends from the world of archaeology in 2014:

Image copyright Other
Image caption The sickle across the throat marks this individual out as a presumed vampire
  • Further light was shed on medieval skeletons from Poland whose manner of burial - with sickles across their necks, for example - suggest villagers feared they would rise again as vampires. The burials coincide with cholera outbreaks, hinting that they may be victims of the disease.
  • In September, researchers in Siberia reported finding a suit of armour made from animal bones which they believe could date to between 3,500 and 3,900 years ago. The experts believe the armour may have been manufactured for an elite warrior.
  • Two men whose remains were excavated from graves in western China were buried with the earliest known examples of trousers. With straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch, the Bronze Age slacks resemble those worn today for horse riding.

Ancient mariners

Links between seafaring nations of the southern hemisphere have been explored this year, with Tonga revealed to be at the centre of an extensive island empire from 1200 AD. Tonga interacted with far groups of islands via long-distance voyages, with stone tools traded over distances of up to 2,500km.

Image copyright TIM MACKRELL, U OF AUCKLAND
Image caption Discoveries like this early canoe from New Zealand shed light on the seafaring capabilities of the Polynesians

New genetics research shows just how far this seafaring prowess might have stretched. DNA analysis of Easter Islanders found that they had Native American ancestry as well as Polynesian and European genetic heritage. While the European ancestry dates from the 18th century, the American connection occurred 200-400 years earlier. It is likely that Polynesians made the challenging journey from Easter Island to the South American mainland and back - a round trip of almost 8000km. This might also explain how the sweet potato - native to South America - became established in Polynesia before European contact.

The discovery in New Zealand of a beautifully constructed 15th century canoe, plus details of the prevailing winds that helped them on their way, sheds more light on how Polynesians travelled so widely. Eyes will also be on the replica canoes that set sail on a worldwide voyage with no navigational equipment, to demonstrate the capacity of such vessels to traverse extreme distances over the oceans.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Physicists may have shed light on how the ancient Egyptians shifted such large stone blocks

Megastructures

In another attempt to replicate early engineering, a team of physicists have joined the quest to explain how ancient Egyptians pulled heavy stone blocks on sledges across the desert. They found a simple solution: wetting the sand in front of the sledges can halve the pulling force required - as can be seen in murals on the walls of a 4000-year-old tomb.

Closer to home, it's been a fantastic year for understanding one of the UK's most enigmatic monuments. As well as the chance appearance of parch-marks that located some of Stonehenge's missing stones, 2014 saw the completion of an impressive survey to map the hidden landscape of the Salisbury plain. Stonehenge has long been known to be part of a wider complex of monuments, but the area still holds surprises, and this research provides a glimpse into just how intensively that landscape was used over a period of about 11,000 years.

Similar methods spectacularly revealed a hidden Medieval city at Old Sarum.

Megafauna, and not-so-mega-fauna

The origins of the relationship between us and our most faithful friend have also been in the spotlight this year, as archaeologists pushed back the earliest evidence for dog domestication.

Previously thought to have occurred 14,000 years ago, some now suggest - somewhat controversially - that the domestication process began much earlier, around 36,000 years ago. This might be the key to understanding the vast kill sites where hundreds of mammoths were slaughtered. The sudden success of hunting methods to kill such large numbers of megafauna could be linked to our emerging relationship with semi-domesticated wolves.

A separate study found that people were feeding these animals meat that they themselves didn't like. Whereas humans were mostly eating mammoth, the "dogs" were fed reindeer. The fact that they consumed no mammoth at all suggests that they were kept tied up, making them unable to scavenge for scraps.

Image copyright AP
Image caption This portrait of Richard III, owned by the Society of Antiquaries, is the earliest known depiction of the Plantagenet king

Teeth, ancient and modern

Archaeological teeth also hit the headlines, casting doubts on the health of our modern diets and lifestyles. The gums of Roman Britons were shown to have been healthier than modern-day adults' gums, probably because of the prevalence of smoking and diabetes in today's population.

The benefits of the "palaeodiet" were also called into question, with the revelation that hunter-gatherers also suffered tooth decay. Rotting teeth were thought to have only become a problem with the advent of agriculture, but new research exposed the cavity-filled teeth of hunter-gatherers from around 14,000 years ago.

Finally, analysis of Richard III's teeth has been able to pinpoint where he lived throughout his childhood. Growing up in the east of England, he moved west by the age of seven. Analysis of his bones also confirmed the kingly lifestyle of his later life, feasting on rich foods and - perhaps unsurprisingly - an increasing amount of wine.