Audio News for January 11th, 2009 to January 17th, 2009
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news January 11th, 2009 to January 17th, 2009.
Medieval manuscripts may be traced by DNA
Our first story is from the United States, where a researcher from North Carolina State University is using advances in genetics to light on the origins of medieval manuscripts.
Thousands of meticulously handwritten books produced in medieval Europe still exist today, but scholars have long wondered when and where the majority of these works came from. Since many were written on parchment made from animal skin, Assistant Professor of English Timothy Stinson is working to perfect techniques for extracting and analyzing the DNA contained in these skins. His goal is to create a genetic database that can be used to determine when and where a manuscript was written.
According to Stinson, dating and determining the origin of manuscripts have presented continual problems because previous efforts have largely been based on the handwriting and dialect of the scribes who created the manuscripts. These methods have proven undependable for numerous reasons.
Stinson believes that genetic testing could resolve these issues by creating a baseline using the DNA of parchment found in the small number of manuscripts that can be reliably dated and localized. He explains that each manuscript can provide a wealth of genetic data because a typical medieval parchment book includes the skins of more than 100 animals. Once Stinson has created a baseline of DNA markers with known dates and locations, he can take samples from manuscripts of unknown origin. Then he can determine the degree of relationship between the animals whose skins were used in manuscripts of unknown origin and those used in the baseline.
Stinson hopes this DNA comparison will enable identification of genetic similarities that would indicate the general time and locale of the writings. On a larger scale, this research will also allow us to trace the trade route of parchments throughout the medieval world which would provide data on the evolution of the book industry during the Middle Ages.
Mayans paid a high price to look beautiful
We now know that the ancient Maya invested vast wealth and endured unspeakable pain to make themselves beautiful, including reshaping their children’s skulls and inlaying their own teeth with jade.
Professor Mary Miller, writing in the current issue of Archaeology, cites K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled the western Maya city of Palenque (pal EN kay) from AD 615 to 683, as an example. After his death at the age of 80, he was interred in a great carved sarcophagus below the Temple of the Inscriptions. His skeleton shows that soon after his birth, his head was strapped between two cradle-boards to compress it from back to front. This left a notch above his brow line that was emphasized by an artificial nasal bridge, made of clay or plaster, built up on his forehead. Although this feature does not survive in the burial, a stucco portrait head found below the sarcophagus shows it clearly.
The head also shows that Pakal’s hair was cut in a series of chunky trimmed locks, with longer strands on top flopping forward. Professor Miller interprets this as imitating the leaves and corn silk on a maize plant. At the site of Cacaxtla (ka-KAHSHT-lah) , Maya-style murals show maize cobs on the plant as human heads. Pakal was shown as ever-youthful, like the maize that springs up anew each year.
In addition, Pakal’s front teeth were filed into an inverted T-shape, marking him as being the Sun God, something shown on his jade burial mask as well.
For many Maya, particularly the elite, dental decoration was seen as highly attractive. Teeth were filed and notched in a variety of designs, sometimes resulting in a markedly crooked smile. Even more striking were the dental inlays. A shallow hole, which sometimes painfully reached the dentine, was drilled into the face of the tooth enamel using a reed or bone hollow drill and an abrasive such as sand or jade dust. Tiny rounds of jade, obsidian or hematite were cemented into the holes. The organic adhesive used was so strong that many skeletons today still have the inlays firmly in place. Up to three discs were inserted into a single tooth with jade and the other materials combined to give a flash of apple-green, dull red and shiny black across the mouth.
The Maya also painted their bodies, in life and in death. Narrative scenes on polychrome vases show pigments applied to face, chest and buttocks. After his death, Pakal’s corpse was treated with alternating layers of red and black pigments. To the Maya, red was the color of the sunrise and black of the sunset, with each alternating in the daily cycle.
Beauty was a way to display social, if not moral, value among the ancient Maya, Professor Miller concludes. They invested their wealth and endured pain to create bodies that reflected their social beliefs.
Thousands of ancient wooden tablets discovered in Japan
Now we cross the Pacific Ocean to Japan, where archaeologists have unearthed tens of thousands of wooden tablets with written text in the remains of the Heijo Palace at Nara. The tablets date to the Nara period of AD 710 to 794. A survey by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties expects this to be the biggest single find of wooden tablets, or mokkan, in the remains of the palace. According to an institute representative, the tablets were found in a place where important government offices were located, and they may reveal important historical data. The previous largest find of mokkan within the palace remains happened in 1966, when some 13,000 pieces were unearthed. The latest find is expected to far exceed that figure, and it will reportedly take several years to wash the tablets and read them.
The research institute uncovered a hole containing a large number of wooden tablets while excavating the site last spring. The hole measured about 10 by 7 meters and was about one meter deep at its deepest point. It was the biggest waste disposal pit in the palace grounds. Most of the mokkan were in bits and pieces, but examination has uncovered writing relating to the imperial guard that protected the emperor, and the inscription "Hoki Period, Year 2," referring to the year 771. The wooden tablets may have been discarded when military-related facilities were set up. In 1989, around 74,000 wooden tablets, referred to as the Nijo Oji mokkan, were uncovered from a separate area of the Heijo capital, but until now, the total number of wooden tablets found within the remains of the palace itself had stood at about 50,000.
Chemical warfare not a modern concept
Our final story is from Syria, where the remains of a Roman garrison document a third-century battle and offer a glimpse of a gruesome tunnel fight. 2,000 years ago, inside a cramped tunnel beneath the site’s massive front wall, enemy fighters stacked up nearly two dozen dead or dying Romans and set them on fire, using substances that gave off toxic fumes and drove away Roman defenders outside the tunnel. According to Dr. Simon James of the University of Leicester, this is the earliest archaeological evidence of the use of chemical warfare that was later adopted by the ancient Greeks. The attackers, members of Persia’s Sasanian culture that controlled much of the region in and around the Middle East from the third to the seventh centuries, adopted this technique for penetrating the garrison wall.
The Roman garrison at Dura, now Dura-Europos, sat on a cliff overlooking the Euphrates River. The massive Sasanian siege of the garrison occurred in 256, plus or minus a few years. Archaeological work conducted since 1920 at the site has provided glimpses of the fierce conflict, although much remains unknown about precisely what happened, since no historical records exist of this battle.
James, who has conducted fieldwork in the area for 30 years, examined about 20 skeletons adorned with military equipment that lay in a tunnel the Romans had dug to intercept Sasanian invaders. Sasanian were digging underneath the garrison wall via another tunnel. James analyzed the positions of the Roman soldiers’ bodies in the tunnel and determined that they had been deliberately stacked into a pile, either when they were mortally wounded or after they had died. It appears the Sasanians wanted to create a human wall between them and approaching Romans. To obstruct the Romans, the Sasanians blocked the tunnel entrance with stones before stacking up the Roman victims. The Sasanians then threw a cloak and some straw on the Romans and set them on fire using a mix of pitch and sulfur. Signs of severe burning appear on the pile of skeletons and military equipment. Remains of pitch and sulfur crystals were found near the bodies, which had not been observed in earlier research, James reports.
Toxic fumes from the fire would have driven off any other Roman soldiers trying to enter the tunnel. One skeleton in the tunnel, lying by itself on the Sasanian side of the pile of bodies, is that of a helmeted Sasanian soldier carrying a sword. James suggests he had set the fire and failed to flee before giving in to the fumes.
Above-ground research indicates that, rather than surrendering, residents of the garrison engaged in street fighting as the city fell to the Persians. After that everyone, even the conquering Sasanians, abandoned the isolated site. The garrison sat in a desolate no-man’s-land that made it unappealing to the conquerors once the Romans had been vanquished. As a result, material evidence of the siege was preserved in place, including a massive assault ramp built up to the garrison’s wall. James suspects that the assault ramp was used to bring some type of battering apparatus up to the garrison wall.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!