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Archaeology's top 10 finds

Field Museum
A figurine head from Mexico, dating back roughly 1,200 years, bears traces of the mysterious Maya Blue pigment.

Archaeology magazine's top 10 finds of 2008 include Maya paint and ancient poop. And there are bonus finds as well, including a monumental discovery that the discoverers have been trying to keep under wraps.

Most of these revelations haven't gotten the kind of hype that we saw this year for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

"But as much as crystal skulls were the year's most prominent 'artifacts,' we're more likely to remember 2008 as the Year of the Earliest North American Coprolites (ancient human feces), or perhaps the Year of the Imperial Roman Marble Heads," Archaeology's editors wrote.

Read on for a rundown of the real-life discoveries that would make Indiana Jones jump on the next plane - plus the bonus discoveries and a sampling of other best-of-2008 lists in science and technology.

Archaeology's top 10 for 2008:

Mark Rose, Archaeology's online editor, is reluctant to call this list the "best of the year," but these are the reports from the past year that the magazine's editors regarded as relating to the most important discoveries: 

  • The secret of Maya Blue: Scientists analyzed bits of the sacred blue pigment the Maya used during human sacrifices and other ceremonies - and concluded that it was made through the ritual burning of a mix of ingredients, including indigo, minerals and copal incense.
  • Masked mummy of Peru: An intact 1,700-year-old mummy, bearing a wooden mask with seashell eyes, was discovered in a burial mound beneath a busy Lima neighborhood. Archaeologists suspect the remains were those of a master weaver from Peru's Wari culture, based on the knitting needles and balls of yarn that were buried along with the mummy.
  • The stone with soul: Researchers found a 2,800-year-old funerary monument in southeastern Turkey that provided a fresh perspective on ancient religious beliefs. A 13-line inscription was chiseled into the basalt stone, in which a high official refers to food offerings that were made "for my soul that is in this stele." This proves that the Iron Age culture believed the soul was separate from the body and could inhabit a monument.
  • Brown gold from Oregon: About that ancient poop ... the 14,300-year-old preserved feces found in eastern Oregon's cave provided the best evidence yet that humans had colonized the Americas that long ago. Researchers even extracted DNA from the coprolites - which could help clear up longstanding mysteries about the identity of the first Americans.  
  • Oldest oil paintings: Researchers discovered the world's oldest-known paintings in a maze of caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley - yes, the same place where the Taliban blew up two giant statues of Buddha in 2001. (You'll find more about Bamiyan below.)
  • The first European? An excavation in a cave in northern Spain turned up a chunk of a Homo erectus jawbone that has been dated back to 1.3 million years ago. That suggests that the ancestors of modern humans made their way into Europe about 500,000 years earlier than previously thought. 
  • The earliest shoes: An analysis of 42,000-year-old human toe bones from a dig in China provided evidence that the person, known as Tianyuan 1, wore some form of footwear.
  • Pristine Portuguese shipwreck: Geologists working on an underwater diamond-mining project off the coast of Namibia turned up something more scientifically valuable: a 16th-century cargo ship that was buried on the seafloor, safe from underwater treasure hunters. The find netted almost 50 pounds of gold coins, plus navigational instruments, elephant tusks and other treasures.
  • The colossal heads of the Roman Empire: Archaeologists are uncovering the monumental marble heads of Roman emperors at a dig in central Turkey, where a first-century metropolis once flourished. Last year, Hadrian's head was found at the site of Sagalassos' Roman baths. This year, the researchers recovered fragments of statues depicting Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Elder (wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius).
  • The origins of whaling: A 20-inch-long walrus tusk, found at an archaeological site on Russia's Chukotka Peninsula, bears the carvings of a seal, a bear and a boatful of people hunting a whale from a boat. The tusk dates back about 3,000 years, which would make the carving "the earliest evidence for whaling," said Daniel Odess, curator of archaeology at the University of Alaska Museum.

The bonus round:

Archaeology magazine's online editor, Mark Rose, told me that the list doesn't include several important discoveries that just didn't fit the year-in-review pattern (or came to light too late to make the top-10 list). One of the most important finds is a 60-foot-long (19-meter) reclining Buddha statue that was reportedly discovered at Afghanistan's Bamiyan site.

This discovery wouldn't measure up to the fabled 1,000-foot-long (300-meter-long) "sleeping Buddha" at Bamiyan, which was described by a 7th-century Chinese monk but has never been found. Nevertheless, there's "big, big news" out there about a monument that somehow survived the Taliban, Rose said.

The problem is that the head of the archaeological project is trying to keep the discovery under wraps, Rose said. "It ties into a funding organization that is well aware of the marketing value of this kind of thing, as well as the entertainment value," he said. (For what it's worth, the team is funded by National Geographic and the French Foreign Ministry.)

We'll probably hear more about the surviving Bamiyan Buddha next year. But in the meantime, Rose said, "To effectively censor is not really conscionable."

Here are two more of the bonus selections that will be posted to Archaeology's Web site next week:

  • Disappearing glaciers = reappearing artifacts: Climate change has caused glaciers around the world to recede. During a warm spell in the Swiss Alps, the ice shrank back from the Schnidejoch Pass, revealing shoes, leggings, arrowheads and other artifacts. Some of those artifacts have now been dated back to 4500 B.C., which would make them older than the famous Alpine iceman Oetzi. Rose said the find could shed light not only on ancient cultures, but also on "the ebb and flow of climate."
  • Stone Age figurines from Russia: Archaeologists excavating a site near Moscow have found figurines and carvings dating back to the Stone Age - somewhere around 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. The artifacts include two female-looking figurines, a mammoth rib inscribed with pictures of what appear to be mammoths, and a mysterious cone-shaped object.

Archaeology's Web site also offers year-end reviews focusing on endangered treasures and the rise of virtual archaeology.

Other year-end lists:

Finally, here's an initial sampling of other top-story lists from the world of science and technology. You can look forward to much, much more in the next couple of weeks, including the Scientific American 50 and Science's Breakthroughs of the Year, as well as our very own "Year in Space" roundup and Weird Science Awards:

Correction for 9:45 p.m. ET Dec. 13: A sharp-eyed commenter noted that the account mentioning the 1,000-foot (300-meter) "sleeping Buddha" is generally seen as dating back to the 7th century, not the 9th century. I've corrected the reference to go with the earlier date.