Audio News for July 27th to August 2nd, 2008
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news July 27th to August 2nd, 2008.
Long-forgotten castle rediscovered in Scotland
Our first story is from Scotland, where archaeologists have uncovered ancient traces of a forgotten prince’s palace. The team discovered remains of Maiden Castle, ranging from tiny bead ornaments to massive walls. Close to one of the most important Pictish carved monuments in the country, the two-week dig confirmed the importance of the 2,000-year-old fort area.
The hillside fort stands on a rocky outcrop that would have provided early inhabitants with a panoramic view. Archaeologist Murray Cook notes that the fort was a home to the elite, probably an ancient prince or king.
A few hundreds yards away from the palace stands the Maiden Stone, erected by the Picts in the 8th century as an important religious site. The Picts were a confederation of tribes in what later was to become central and northern Scotland from Roman times until the 10th century.
The outline of the Pictish fort is now clearly defined by a circle of ancient trees. Excavations at the site, which was surrounded by an ancient ditch, have also confirmed settlement of the area from 7,000 BC through medieval times. The dig revealed a rare Iron Age cobbled road, a stone pendant, and a 1,000-year-old sparkling glass bead.
The lost palace has now disappeared again as the team filled in their excavations to preserve the site. Its national significance has been safeguarded, because the site soon will be classified as an ancient monument.
Ancient computer’s secrets examined
In a study of ancient but remarkably sophisticated technology, new findings are answering questions on a mechanical gadget discovered more than a century ago in a 2,100-year-old shipwreck. The Antikythera (ahn-dee-kee-THEE-rah) Mechanism, sometimes called the first analog computer, was discovered over a century ago in the wreckage of a ship that sank off a small island, north of Crete. On close examination of the Mechanism, scientists have found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.
As reported in the current issue of Nature, researchers believe that the mechanism’s concept originated in the city states colonized by Corinth on Sicily, possibly in Syracuse specifically. Previous research showed the device was most likely built between 140 and 100 BC. Because of the Syracuse connections, scientists believe this suggests the influence of Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 BC. He invented a planetarium by calculating movements of the Moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.
Using 3-D X-ray imaging to reveal more of the inscriptions on the device, scientists have been able to decipher the inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears. The research reveals details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. According to team leader mathematician and filmmaker Tony Freeth , the month names are unexpectedly of Corinthian origin. The researchers noted that the mechanism’s connection with the Corinthians was unexpected because other cargo in the shipwreck appeared to be from the eastern Mediterranean, places like Kos, Rhodes and Pergamon The newly revealed inscriptions also identify 12 calendar month names on the back of the mechanism, showing a sophisticated 19-year calendar. No month names of what is called the Metonic calendar were previously known. Such a calendar, as well as other knowledge displayed on the mechanism, illustrated the influence of Babylonian astronomy on the Greeks. The calendar was used by Babylonians from at least the early fifth century BC.
Dr. Freeth explained that the Metonic calendar was designed to reconcile the lengths of the lunar month with the solar year. Twelve lunar months are about 11 days short of a year, but 235 lunar months fit well into 19 years. Inscriptions also showed that one of the instrument’s dials was used to record the timing of the pan-Hellenic games, a four-year cycle that was a common framework for chronology by the Greeks.
The mechanism still contains many mysteries. Several references to similar instruments appear in classical literature, including Cicero’s description of one made by Archimedes. This one is the sole surviving example.
Stone dock in Greenland may be northern Viking outpost
Our next story comes from Greenland, where recently discovered ruins may mark the Vikings' most northerly year-round hunting outpost. According to Knut Espen Solberg, leader of “The Melting Arctic'”project mapping changes in the north, the remains uncovered in west Greenland may also be new evidence that the climate was less chilly about 1,000 years ago than it is today.
Far to the north of the Norse settlements of west Greenland, scientists found the remains of what is most likely was a dock, made of rocks, for large ships up to 60-90 feet long. Espen noted further study and carbon dating were needed to pinpoint the site's age.
Viking accounts speak of hunting stations for walrus, seals and polar bears in west Greenland. Inuit hunters also lived in the area. This is the furthest north on Greenland that possible evidence of year-round Viking activity has been found. At the time the Vikings were living here it was warmer than today. In a Medieval warm period, trees and crops grew on parts of Greenland. Coinciding with a little-understood shift to a cooler climate, the Vikings disappeared in the 14th century.
Solberg commented that the expedition team surmised the dock was possibly built by Vikings because the Inuit only used small kayaks and had no need for a large wharf. The team also found remains of several small stone buildings nearby. The Inuit and Norse had similar building styles. Christian Keller, a professor of archaeology at Oslo University, says that the buildings were similar to Viking structures in west Norway but that the dock was unlike known Viking quays. Any carbon dating placing the site between 900-1400 would make it a find from the Vikings. A later date could mean it was built by European whalers in the 16th century. Vikings in Greenland were unlikely to have built with wood, traditionally used in Scandinavia for docks. A wooden structure would not have survived thick winter ice.
Ancient canoe at center of controversy
Our final story is from Canada, where an incredibly well-preserved, possibly prehistoric, dugout canoe has sparked debate among archaeologists since its discovery on the bottom of a lake more than 20 years ago. Named after Lac Gour, a lake 30 miles north of Montreal where it was found in 1986, the Lac Gour dugout is one of only 11 dugouts ever found in Quebec and the only one potentially prehistoric.
The debate is whether the vessel was hollowed out of an immense white pine by Amerindians using stone tools and fire in the 1400s, or was made later, in the 1500s to 1600s by Amerindians, using technology and metal tools belonging to French colonists who had a history with dugouts in Europe.
If prehistoric, the 15 foot-long canoe would a rare example of dugout technology in the St. Lawrence River valley before the European conquest. Now two Montreal archaeologists are banking on carbon-14 dating at a laboratory in Toronto this fall to settle the debate. According to Brad Loewen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Montréal, the whole issue is whether it is of European inspiration or an indigenous technology. Since 1949, carbon-14 dating has been used as an accurate tool for dating archaeological findings ranging from cave drawings in southern France to bog bodies in Scandinavia and prehistoric skeletal remains around the world.
While the birch bark canoe and its use for long trips is well documented in Amerindian culture into antiquity, less is know about the dugout canoe, a heavier, less agile craft more suited for shorter trips.
According to Amélie Sénécal, the chief archaeologist of the Pointe du Buisson Archaeological Park, where the dugout is on permanent display, the Lac Gour dugout underwent a first round of carbon-dating in the late 1980s that fixed its age to the 1400s, making it the oldest ever found in Quebec. But the reliability of the 600-year-old date of the Lac Gour dugout is questioned by some because the carbon-dating was done on a section of the boat that was made with the oldest part of the tree, the core. The criticism was that the carbon-dating results said more about the tree's age than the date of the dugout's manufacture.
Loewen noted that there's another issue with the Lac Gour dugout that needs to be addressed. Markings have been found on the inside walls of the dugout that appear to be evidence of the use of an adze, an axe-like metal tool used to sculpt wood and available only after the arrival of Europeans. A new round of dating done with different samples could confirm the dugout dates from the 1400s, thereby, placing it in the pre-European period. However the markings still need to be explained. If the canoe proves to be prehistoric, it would suggest the spread of native technology to Europeans rather than the other way around.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!