World news

Cooking curries in Vietnam 2,000 years ago

Microscopic analysis of plant remains from 12 grinding stone tools found at the site of Óc Eo, in southern Vietnam, has provided new insight into the spice trade in the region between 2,000 and 1,300 years ago.

Between the 1st and 8th centuries AD, Óc Eo was an important trading port for the kingdom of Funan, and evidence for this was found by the analysis, which identified eight different spices: turmeric, ginger, fingerroot, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. While some of these plants are indigenous to the region, others (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove) originated in south Asia and eastern Indonesia, suggesting that either the spices, or the plants they came from, were imported to the site. The incorporation of these spices into local cuisine shows the impact that these trade networks had on local culture – and continue to have: they remain in the culinary tradition today, with many of these ingredients still used in curries across south-east Asia. This research was recently published in Science Advances (

Nero’s lost theatre found?

Excavations in the Palazzo della Rovere, near the entrance to the Vatican and St Peter’s Square, have uncovered the remains of a theatre, dating to between 27 BC-AD 69. The structures found, including a semi-circular cavea (seating section) and scence frons (the stage’s architectural backdrop), appear to match perfectly the descriptions in ancient texts of the Theatrum Neronis, which was built by Nero in the 1st century AD.

Image: Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma © Fabio_Cariccia

During antiquity, the site was part of the Horti di Agrippina, an estate belonging to Agrippina the Elder that was later inherited by her grandson, Nero. Elements of the theatre found during the excavations, including marble columns and stucco decorated with gold leaf, suggest that the theatre was once very grand. They are similar to features found in Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea. The complex appears to have been dismantled sometime in the early 2nd century AD.

Neolithic plumbing in China

A set of ceramic pipes and drainage ditches, which might represent the oldest water-drainage system ever found in China, were discovered during excavations at Pingliangtai, carried out between 2014 and 2019, in what is now the Huaiyang District of Zhoukou City. The settlement, which was occupied between 4,200 and 3,900 years ago, is enclosed by earthen walls and features a central road with multi-roomed houses on either side. It is estimated that it would have once been home to some 500 or 600 residents.

Living during a time of significant climate shifts, including intense summer monsoons, the people of Pingliangtai may have built these pipes and ditches – which would have carried water away from the houses and into a moat surrounding the settlement – as part of an innovative water-management system to handle flooding. The results were published in Nature Water ( 023-00114-4).