Audio News for July 23rd to July 29th, 2006.
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for July 23rd to July 29th, 2006.
At Buddhist site attacked by Taliban, griffin-like bird shows mixing of early religions
In Afghanistan, a sacred Buddhist cave has revealed faded seventh-century paintings of a sacred bird that reveals religious influence even older than Buddhism and Islam. Japanese researchers found the seventh-century painting of a colorful winged bird in Afghanistan's Bamiyan ruins. The image appears to be a Simorgh, the giant and powerful bird that figures prominently in Zoroastrian-era Iranian legends. The faded painting emerged after Japanese researchers removed soot from a Buddhist cave in Bamiyan, the region where Taliban Islamic extremists dynamited the world's tallest standing Buddha statues in 2001. The mythological Persian bird shows that the region's Buddhism was influenced by the mythology and religion of Iran, in its own pre-Islamic age. This is the first time a vivid image of this creature was found in Bamiyan, said an expert involved in the project, led by Japan's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. The Persian influence would have come from people from the areas north of Afghanistan, in what are now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, there is a possibility that the image comes from a culture that is even older, and farther away. The Japanese team has called for more research to determine whether the image could be a griffin from Greek mythology. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in the fourth century BC. The picture portrays the creature with an eagle's head, wings and a lion's torso of gold, silver, blue, and red facing off with a bull. Other images found include a design of a boar and a lion facing each other. Previously, only fragments of similar images have been found in the area’s caves. The Japanese team used a special chemical to remove the soot without harming the mural in June and July. It also used the project to train Afghan workers. Japanese researchers have spearheaded the drive to preserve what is left of Bamiyan.
Rare medieval book spotted in bog and saved by quick-thinking workman
In Ireland, archaeologists heralded the discovery of an ancient book of psalms by a construction worker while driving the shovel of his backhoe into a bog. The approximately 20-page book has been dated to the years 800-1000. Trinity College manuscripts expert Bernard Meehan said it was the first discovery of an Irish early medieval document in two centuries. It was hailed as a miracle find by Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, which has the book stored in refrigeration. Researchers will conduct years of painstaking analysis before putting the book on public display. Two things make the discovery astounding, said Wallace. First, it's unlikely that something this fragile could survive buried in a bog at all. Then, for it to be spotted before it was destroyed is even more wonderful. A worker was digging up bogland to create commercial potting soil in Ireland's midlands when he spotted the unusual object just past the bucket of his machine. Most critically, the owner of the bog, who has dealt with the museum’s archaeologists before, covered the book with damp soil immediately, before reporting it. Otherwise, it could have dried out and vanished within hours. Archaeologists have not revealed the location of the site because a team is still exploring it. The book was found open to a page describing, in Latin script, Psalm 83, in which God hears complaints of other nations' attempts to wipe out the name of Israel. According to the National Museum, several experts have so far analyzed just that page alone. It could take months of study just to identify the safest way to pry open the pages without damaging or destroying them. The use of X-rays to investigate without moving the pages has been ruled out. Covered in leather vellum, the book is the size and shape of a very thick wallet. Ireland already has several other holy books from the early medieval period, including the ornately illustrated Book of Kells, which has been on display at Trinity College in Dublin since the 19th century.
Colonial Jamestown find is rare historic pistol
At the site of colonial Jamestown in the United States, a rare but perfectly preserved early 17th-century Scottish pistol is one of the oldest artifacts of European origin ever discovered in North America. The weapon probably belonged to one of the first settlers to arrive at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and was recovered from an abandoned well along with other significant household artifacts. “On a scale of one to ten, this is an 11,” reported William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery museum. The pistol is a type called snaphaunce and was probably made by a manufacturer in the Scottish Lowlands. Its lock is encrusted but it had a brass barrel, common for Scottish pistols of the time, which came out untarnished and gleaming. Also recovered from the well were leather shoes, a ceremonial axe known as a halberd and a small lead tag engraved with the archaic spelling "Yames Towne." These are some of the earliest European artifacts to be discovered in the United States, according to Kelso. His team has spent 12 years excavating parts of the 22.5-acre Jamestown site, where three boats carrying 107 colonists, under the command of Captain John Smith, landed on May 14, 1607, to begin construction of Britain's first permanent colony in North America. Also recovered from the well was the first completely intact Bartmann water jug. Segments of other such jugs have been recovered and replicas are best sellers in Jamestown's gift shop. It is not known whether the pistol was thrown into the abandoned well along with other household trash because it was broken, or accidentally knocked in during the well’s time of use, perhaps when the gun owner placed the weapon on the well's rim as he prepared to take a drink. Jamestown experts say the gun almost certainly belonged to a civilian. The snaphaunce pistol was the preferred personal weapon of a gentleman, and was too unwieldy to be used as regular arms by the colony’s soldiers. The first recorded use of a snaphaunce pistol was on an early English raid to the New World in 1584. Like all Scottish-made firearms of the period, they were muzzle-loaded and featured a simple lock firing mechanism. If it is like other such weapons, it should have manufacturers stamps or markings that help identify it further. According to Dr. David Caldwell, curator of the National Museum of Scotland and an expert on medieval weapons, there are maybe only about 30 or 40 of these 17th-century Scottish pistols remaining anywhere in the world, mainly in foreign collections where they were originally given as gifts by traders or dignitaries. To have one turn up in the context of somewhere like Jamestown is evidence of a weapon actually being used by the people of that time. Next year will be the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Jamestown settlement. A replica of the galleon Godspeed, which first transported the settlers to Virginia, is currently on a six-month tour of historic east coast ports.
Newest tomb in ancient Chinese burial ground is grandmother of famed early emperor
After more than a year's excavation and research in a large tomb in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, Chinese archaeologists have concluded that the tomb belonged to the grandmother of Qinshihuang, the country's first emperor. Located in the southern outskirts of Xi'an, provincial capital of Shaanxi, this is the second largest ancient tomb excavated in China. Only the tomb of King Jinggong of the State of Qin is bigger, said Zhang Tian-en, of the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute. The tomb is on the new campus of the Xi'an Business College, about 30 kilometers southwest of Qinshihuang's famous mausoleum. Qinshihuang united seven warring states and founded the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. Zhang said the archaeologists hope that the excavation of the tomb of the grandmother of this famous emperor will help unravel the mystery about the first emperor's mausoleum, which still cannot be excavated. The tomb precinct covers 17.3 hectares. Finds like two carriages designed to be driven by six horses, which could only be used by kings and queens, and the seals of court officials responsible for running errands on behalf of queens, queen mothers and princes, led to the conclusion that the tomb belonged to Qinshihuang's grandmother, Queen Mother Xia. The queen’s tomb measures 140 meters in length, 113 meters wide, and 15 meters deep, with the tomb chamber covering an area of more than 100 square meters. The tomb was raided and burned several times, and only fragments of coins and clay vases were found inside it, along with shards of decorative and ritual jade objects and pieces of bronze. China's survey of the 2,200-year-old Qinshihuang tomb precinct has lasted nearly 40 years. What has been discovered is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg. The site remains a mystery, even if the terra cotta warrior underground army has long been unearthed and hailed as the world's eighth wonder. The vast and complex tomb of the great emperor himself has been left untouched, to avoid the possibility of harming it during excavation or even worse, doing something that would prevent its preservation after excavation. According to historical records, some 720,000 workers labored 38 years to build the mausoleum for the emperor, who ruled the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of a unified China, beginning in 221 BC. Remote sensing has identified symmetrical staircases leading down into the tomb and wooden structures inside it, as well as a drainage system that has prevented ground water from seeping inside. Legends maintain that a huge underground palace was modeled on the emperor's realm with rivers flowing with mercury and the ceiling studded with pearls and diamonds representing the stars and sun. Surveys show that the mercury density in Qinshihuang's cemetery area is in fact vastly higher than that in the surrounding area, and confirms that the mercury comes from the mausoleum. The mausoleum was also said to have architectural designs that archaeologists believe have successfully kept out tomb robbers.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!