Science & Environment

Year in digs: How 2013 looked in archaeology

Richard III bones
Image caption The scoliosis in Richard's spine can be seen clearly as archaeologist Jo Appleby lays out the bones

It has been another bumper year for scientific research and discovery, and plenty of it occurred in the field of archaeology.

Here is a selection of some highlights of the archaeological year.

The king in the car park

The most high profile archaeology story this year came out of a Leicester car park. The human remains that were excavated in 2012 have now been confirmed as none other than those of Richard III.

Image caption This reconstruction of the king was made by forensic artist Prof Caroline Wilkinson

The public imagination has been captured not by glittering artefacts, but by tantalising personal information about the familiar yet controversial 15th century king.

The discovery has so far provided details about Richard III's rich diet, roundworms, oral hygiene, battle injuries and hasty burial, giving us insights into the life of a king that history may otherwise have omitted.

But the story is not over yet, with the ongoing debate about the reburial of his remains not likely to be settled before the new year.

Ancient ailments

It was not only the nobility whose medical record has been brought into the public eye.

This year has seen the launch of the Digitised Diseases website, where thousands of historical and archaeological bones have been laser scanned to form an open access database of pathological specimens for researchers and the public alike.

The resource will open up a world of infectious and metabolic diseases, fractures and deformations that would otherwise be hidden from view, buried in the vaults of archaeological collections. Where else would you be able to examine injuries sustained during the War of the Roses?

The secret life of Neanderthals

Image caption Neanderthals had large faces with massive brow ridges and no chin

This year's research also gave us a glimpse into the private lives of our hominid cousins, reopening debates that might shed light on the evolution of our species.

The first complete Neanderthal genome was published, at the same time showing inbreeding within Neanderthal groups as well as reports of interbreeding between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans.

Further clues were also found about the complexity of Neanderthals' everyday lives, including their use of bone tools, their living arrangements, their burials and their occasional cannibalism.

Surviving the 'Starving Time'

Image caption Four shallow cuts can be seen on part of a skull (L) from Jamestown, alongside a forensic reconstruction (R)

Cannibalism also made the news in a much more recent context. 17th century English settlers in Jamestown, North America struggled to survive during the devastating winter of 1609 - the "Starving Time" - when 80% of the colonists died from starvation and disease.

During excavation of a rubbish dump, the discarded bones of a teenage girl were found. Chop marks and cut marks on their surfaces showed that she had been butchered, providing the first physical evidence that the settlers had been pushed to extreme measures.

And it confirmed historical accounts that the settlers had been forced to eat their compatriots.

Archaeology from above

Archaeology doesn't always have to involve digging in the ground. Some of the most dramatic research of 2013 has been carried out from the air.

Airborne laser scanning technology - Lidar - is capable of detecting archaeological remains that are otherwise concealed in the undergrowth, and it has revealed ancient hidden landscapes at Angkor Wat, and in Central America, the New Forest and Scotland.

Iron from space

Image caption The beads predate the earliest smelting of iron by a millennium or more

The oldest known iron artefacts - a handful of beads excavated from a pre-dynastic cemetery in Egypt - date to between 3400-3100 BC. But this predates the earliest known smelting of iron from one millennium or perhaps two.

Two independent research teams have recently proved that these iron objects instead originated in space, falling from the sky as meteorites.

Meteorite fragments were then hammered and shaped into beads using sophisticated "smithing" techniques, kick-starting the development of our enduring relationship with iron and steel.

London's Pompeii

The first few centuries of the Roman city of Londinium have been revealed as never before, with archaeological remains of wood, textiles and leather exceptionally well-preserved in the waterlogged conditions at a site on the banks of the lost Walbrook River.

Wooden buildings remained standing to shoulder height, with personal items, clothing and writing tablets revealing details about some of London's earliest citizens, as they went about their daily lives just metres beneath where Londoners walk today.

Another fantastic find is the Roman Eagle unearthed near Aldgate, which adds a new dimension to our understanding of London's place in the Roman Empire.

The sculpture, which depicts the eagle with a serpent in its beak, was discovered during building works at the site of a hotel near the tube station.

Redrawing gender

A recent study of Palaeolithic hand stencils painted on the walls of caves in Spain and France has suggested that the majority of them were made by women.

By comparing the dimensions of the 20-40,000 year old hands to modern male and female examples, the genders of the artists were identified.

This innovative research overturns the assumption that the paintings - usually associated with hunting scenes - were the domain of men, and gives us a tangible connection with women in the Stone Age.

Image caption The Lycurgus Cup: A dichroic glass cup from the 4th Century AD

Trendsetting research

Archaeological analysis of the Lycurgus Cup has played a role this year in cutting-edge nanotechnology research.

The beautiful Roman chalice is made of glass impregnated with microscopic particles of silver and gold, which make it appear to change colour from green to red when held up to the light.

This 1,700-year-old technology is now being utilised by researchers developing methods that could revolutionise the detection of disease and biohazards.

Fashionable finds

Not only is archaeology inspiring scientific research, it's inspiring fashionistas.

The stunning Cheapside Hoard - a cache of Elizabethan jewels found during building works in 1912 - not only went on display for the first time in a century, but was also featured in Vogue, proving that archaeology continues to break new ground.

Mick Aston

As well as the successes of 2013, British archaeology also suffered a great loss with the death of Time Team's Mick Aston, an influential force in making archaeology accessible to everyone.

Image caption The Cheapside Hoard - a cache of precious items from Elizabethan times - went on display in 2013

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