Audio News for July 22nd to July 28th, 2007
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for July 22nd to July 28th, 2007.
Booming construction in Ukraine uncovers early Christian cemetery
Our first story is from the Ukraine, where a burial ground dating back to the 10th century was found on the construction site of new offices near the Dnipro (DNEE-pur) River in the capital of Kiev (KYEV). According to Mykhaylo Sahaydak, head of the district’s archaeological survey, twelve distinct burials have been uncovered in the last month from a cemetery that possesses significant Christian characteristics. Researchers began investigating the area about a year ago, but large underground bomb shelters prevented them from going deep enough. Construction crews at the site of a planned business center unearthed the most recent remains. The excavators believe that the 200 square yards they have thus far investigated may be part of a wider area where mass baptisms occurred. The baptism took place along the Dnipro River about 1,000 years ago as part of the conversion to Christianity of Kiev-Rus, an empire centered in Kiev that ruled over much of the current-day territory of Ukraine and Russia west of the Ural Mountains. Archaeologists suspect that the site could also reveal foundations of the St. Ilya Church, widely believed to be the first Christian church in the city. Elements of wooden construction and multiple family memorials have already been discovered. Under laws regulating construction, the developers are required to obtain clearance before continuing construction whenever artifacts are found. This area, the Podil district of Kiev, is of particular interest because it was the medieval city’s trade and commerce center. The director of the Kiev Institute of Archeology, Petro Tolochko, said that dozens of similar conflicts between developers and archeologists now occur every year. The problems began about 10 years ago, when construction in the city’s center began to boom. The situation has not improved in the last two to three years. In an agreement struck between the archaeologists and the construction company, the researchers have until September to complete their excavations. City officials backed the construction company’s right to continue building at the location, while the developer has pledged $60,000 to help investigate the site.
Medieval mummies in Korea reveal evidence of love and illness
In South Korea, many mummified, 500-year-old bodies are being unearthed in the process of modern construction. Among those are two that are particularly special for what they may reveal about ancient love and modern illness. One of the preserved bodies still contains traces of the hepatitis B virus, which scientists hope will provide clues to treating the modern version of the deadly liver disease. Another mummy, an out-of-favor nobleman, was discovered with more than a dozen poems and other signs of his widow's grief. Until recently, no one even knew there were mummies in South Korea. The country's recent construction boom, however, means that cemeteries are now being relocated and mummified bodies are turning up in droves. The finds are unusual because the region has had a long tradition of ancestor worship, which includes letting bodies decay without outside interference. However, a new burial process developed in the late 1300s may explain the mysterious survival of these remains. The method involved laying out a body on ice for up to 30 days during mourning, then placing it inside an inner and an outer pine coffin surrounded by the deceased's clothes, and covering the coffin in a lime soil mixture. In some cases, this inadvertently resulted in extremely good natural mummification. According to Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is known for his pioneering studies of ancient diseases found in mummies, the unusual Korean burial practice actually led to much better preserved DNA than the intentional mummification practiced in ancient Egypt. The absence of chemicals in the Korean mummification practice was less traumatic on the body. In addition, the laying of the deceased upon ice suppressed degeneration during the critical initial period in the bodies' decay. Spigelman was invited to Korea by Seoul National University to help examine the bodies. Of particular importance are the remains of a 500-year-old child that still harbor samples of the virus that causes hepatitis B. The intent is to study the virus's genome to determine if there have been any significant changes over the past 500 years. Such findings could help modern-day public health officials combat the severe liver disease. The other mummy was found buried with a love poem written by his bereaved wife. Dating to around the same time that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the verse bears unusual similarities to the well-known tragedy. Historical clan records identify the 32-year-old man as the second son of a senior figure involved in a revolt against the emperor. A total of 13 letters, as well as slippers woven from the wife's hair, were found with his preserved body. The Buddhists ruled Korea in the 1300s. Discontent ended in a bloody rebellion, with the neo-Confucianist Joseon Dynasty taking power in 1392. In order to rid their subjects of Buddhist influence, the neo-Confucianists imposed changes on Korean ritual behavior, including the important burial practices that had been in use prior to the rebellion. The elaborate system of burial was used for a few hundred years largely by the upper classes. Nearly all the Korean mummies being found date from this period. Such bodies are regarded as revered ancestors by the ancient clans who manage the cemeteries. When one turns up due to construction or archaeological excavations, it is examined and then returned to the clans for cremation or reburial in another location.
Whalebone mask adds depth to Aleutian prehistory
In Alaska, archaeologists unearthing an ancient village from an Unalaska hillside believe they have found the oldest Aleut whalebone mask yet known. Dating back 3,000 years, much of the mask is missing. Stained brown by soil, cracked in two at the left temple, it is mostly intact above the cheekbones. According to Mike Yarborough, lead archaeologist at the dig, it is about 2,000 years older than any known Aleut mask. It was created around the time Mayan civilization began and Homer was producing the Iliad and Odyssey. At that time, the Earth had briefly cooled, and ice surrounded the Aleutian Islands nearly year-round. The ancient people at the site lived in an expansive village marked by a new style of stone houses and made delicate ivory carvings. They ate polar bears, as well as ice seals, which no longer visit the island, and a species of whale that has never been documented in North American waters. The mask would have been about six inches wide when new. It is thought to have been worn and broken at a funeral, following a custom documented by the late cultural anthropologist Lydia Black, in which members of Aleut burial parties wore and then shattered tiny masks as one part of the funeral rites. The village was occupied between 2,400 and 3,400 years ago, but materials found near the mask indicate it is 3,000 years old. It is similar in appearance to its next oldest cousin, a 1,000-year-old mask found at Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula. The ancient village where the mask came from has yielded several important discoveries, including the remains of dozens of homes with stone walls and sub-floor heating ducts. Archaeologists have also found well-preserved human remains from ceremonial burials and elaborate jewelry such as an ivory hairpin with decorative faces carved on both sides. The dig has touched off a controversy because Yarborough agreed to excavate with backhoes and truck the dirt to a fenced area, where it would sifted later. The heavy machinery was meant to speed the excavation so a bridge could be built more quickly. The dig was originally supposed to take only a month last spring, but the village has turned out to be much larger than anyone expected. The state extended the deadline to August 15th. Opponents, including some local Aleut residents, argue that the heavy equipment could smash clues to the past and shatter ancestors' bones as it punches through the earth. The tribal government, which called the old bridge unsafe and voted to support the quick excavation along with the local Native corporation, hailed the mask as one sign that archaeologists are working carefully.
Undersea drilling off Egypt brings up evidence of a city preceding Alexandria
Our final story is from Egypt, where a Smithsonian team has uncovered the first underwater evidence pointing to an urban settlement dating back seven centuries before Alexander the Great showed up at Alexandria in 331 BC. The city he founded is well known for its library, once the largest in the world, and the 396-foot tall lighthouse on the island of Pharos, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, little is known about the site in times before Alexander, other than that a fishing village by the name of Rhakotis was located there. Now, work by a geoarchaeologist and his colleagues from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History suggests a much larger community than had previously been believed. The discoveries came by accident when Jean-Daniel Stanley and his team drilled underwater in Alexandria’s harbor. Their project was part of a 2007 Smithsonian-funded study of the subsiding Nile Delta and involved extracting 3-inch-wide sticks of core sediment some 18 feet long, from up to 20 feet under the seabed. The goal was to understand what happened to cause later structures, from the Greek and Roman eras, to become submerged. When his team opened the cores, what they saw were little ceramic fragments that were indicative of human activity. However, there was no immediate cause for excitement. Then, however, more and more rock fragments, ceramic shards from Middle and Upper Egypt, a lot of organic matter plant matter and heavy minerals were found. All the materials found were radiocarbon dated to around 1000 BC. The scientists then analyzed concentration of lead isotopes found in the cores and saw that they too matched the dates of around 3,000 years ago. Stanley believes this is proof that there was significant metallurgy and human activity going on at 1,000 BC. Thus, Alexandria did not just grow from nothing, but was built atop an active town. Stanley could not say how big the community was, but only that it appeared more developed than the small fishing village long believed to be at the site. Stanley hopes that a study of Rhakotis may one day prove as stimulating as other recent offshore discoveries, such as finds by marine archaeologists of the 2,500-year-old ruins of the cities of Herakleion, Canopus and Menouthis, three Pharaonic cities built on different parts of the coast near present-day Alexandria. He added that geologists would have to drill more intensely on land around the shores and in Alexandria itself to shed more light on the ancient settlement.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!