Audio News for March 1st to March 7th, 2009
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 1st to March 7th, 2009.
Tonga petroglyphs show distant link
Our first story is from Tonga, where beach erosion on a remote island has revealed petroglyphs similar to those found in Hawaii, hinting at the possibility of early travel between the two archipelagos. Tonga, in the south Pacific, is a scatter of 171 islands, 48 of them inhabited, stretching over a distance of 500 miles. The Tongan archipelago lies northeast of New Zealand, about one-third of the way from there to Hawaii. More than 50 petroglyphs were found late last year on several slabs of beach rock at the northern end of Foa Island. Visitors spotted the carvings and notified amateur archaeologist Shane Egan, who in turn contacted archaeologist and ethnohistorian David Burley, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who has done extensive work on Tonga. According to Burley, the design similarity is stunning, considering the distance and difficult travel between the two groups of islands. However, the evidence is visual and difficult to explain as resulting from anything other than direct contact. Burley and Egan mapped the petroglyphs in December. The carvings average 8 to 12 inches across, making up two major panels and a number of smaller ones. The commonest forms are outlines of feet and male and female stick figures. Other images include cup shapes, dogs, turtles, a lizard, a turtle-like man and a fish with arms. According to Burley, the designs are identical to those catalogued in Hawaii. While some aspects of the form or features can be found elsewhere in east Polynesian rock art, the Tongan and Hawaiian ones have clear differences from the rest, including a stick figure with a closed triangular body, and a human wearing a headdress. Because the Tonga images are carved in beach rock within a tidal zone, any sheen typical of rock art is gone, making it impossible to radiocarbon-date the petroglyphs. However, Hawaiian petroglyphs of this style date from AD 1200 to 1500. Burley noted that if the Tonga carvings also originate from that period, they would correspond with two adjacent archaeological sites, a prehistoric village and a mound used by chiefs for pigeon snaring. More than 150 petroglyph sites have been identified in Hawaii. Petroglyphs are more common in eastern Polynesia, especially in the Marquesas (mar-KAYS-as), Tahiti and Hawaii, and less so in Samoa and Tonga, in western Polynesia. Previously reported rock art in Tonga has been limited to simple geometric engravings at royal burial structures. Burley is convinced the Foa petroglyphs pre-date the arrival of British explorer Capt. James Cook in the 1770s, and were not made by Hawaiians who visited Tonga during 19th-century whaling and trade, because Hawaiian petroglyphs of that period typically featured muscled images, ships, horses and other contemporary motifs not seen in the Foa carvings. Regardless of who created the petroglyphs, they are in danger of disappearing again, either from erosion or reburial under new layers of sand and gravel. Egan said there are plans to preserve them.
New Egyptian tomb was of Ramses-period noblewoman
In Egypt, a Japanese archaeology team has unearthed a noblewoman's 3,000 year-old tomb in the necropolis of Saqqara south of Cairo. The team believes the tomb belongs to Isisnofret, a granddaughter of Ramses II, the prominent 19th Dynasty pharaoh who reigned over Egypt for about 68 years from 1304 to 1237 BC, and who lived to the age of 90. The tomb contained a broken limestone sarcophagus inscribed in sunken relief and painted a brilliant blue, bearing the name of Isisnofret and the title "noble woman," a rare phrase in the New Kingdom. It also contained three mummies and fragments of funerary objects. The tomb structure itself consists of a pylon and a colonnaded courtyard leading to an antechamber with four pillars, and terminating in three cult chapels and the base of a small pyramid. Its plan is typical for a freestanding tomb-chapel of the New Kingdom, particularly the Ramessid Period. Isisnofret's last resting place is in an area of Saqqara where the team from Waseda (WAH-saduh) University was excavating the tomb of Prince Khaemwaset, a son of Ramses II. According to Japanese team leader Sakuji Yoshimura, Prince Khaemwaset had a daughter named Isisnofret, and because of the proximity of the newly discovered tomb to that of the prince, it is possible that the owner of the sarcophagus is that daughter. However, Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, who will be Keynote Speaker for The Archaeology Channel International Film Festival in May, believes the tomb dates from the 18th dynasty instead of the 19th, because of the style of construction. Hawass also dismissed the similarity in the name, saying that there were many women called Isisnofret in ancient Egypt.
Ancient Portuguese language still a mystery
Our next story is from Portugal, where archaeologists continue to struggle with translation of an extinct Iberian language called Southwest Script. On a dig in the southern region last year, researchers flipped over a heavy mass of slate and saw writing not used for more than 2,500 years. The mysterious pattern of inscribed symbols, carved symmetrically around the upper part of the rough-hewn stone tablet and into its center, was in a decorative style typical of Southwest Script. For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher this script, which is believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and one of Europe’s first, along with Etruscan. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found. About 90 slate tablets have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another looks like a bow tie. Carefully scored into the slate, the text is always a running script, with unseparated words reading right to left. Work to decipher this script began in the 18th century, and according to professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium, the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, but researchers continue to be handicapped for three reasons. This period of history is barely known, few texts exist, and so far there are no parallel documents from the same time and place showing other, readable, languages. The obscurity of Southwest Script has proved fertile ground for competing theories about the writers. Generally, it is agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most believe they belong to a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts but disappeared after a few centuries. Other candidates include local pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south. One major difficulty in translation is that the writing is not standardized. It seems that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their characters, but with tweaks to some of them as well as new ones. For now, researchers have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. However, eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, remain unknown. There is also the problem of figuring out what messages the slate tablets intend to communicate. Even if portions of the texts can be read as words, the meaning of those statements remains unknown. Nevertheless, there are clues. The symmetrical, twisting text gives the impression of a decorative flourish. Some stones also feature crudely rendered figures, such as a warrior carrying what appear to be spears. The lower part of the rectangular stones is blank as if they were meant to be stuck in the ground, perhaps as gravestones for elite members of local Iron Age society. Still, these are educated guesses. If all the Southwest Script found so far were transcribed onto paper, it would still barely fill a single sheet. Without an equivalent of the Rosetta stone, which helped unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, efforts to reconstruct the ancient language are doomed to slow progress.
New civilization in Malaysia may be earlier than Angkor
Our final story is from Malaysia, where archeologists have discovered the main site of an ancient kingdom that predates the Angkor temples of Cambodia. According to the team leader, professor Mokhtar Saidin (MOHK-tar SIGH-EE-din), it could be the oldest civilization in the region. The buildings were found on two palm oil plantations in northern Kedah State. They appear to be part of the ancient Hindu kingdom of Bujang that existed some time in the Third Century, nearly a thousand years before the Angkor civilization that flourished in the 12th to 14th centuries. Researchers have dated artifacts from what they believe is an administration building and an iron smelter, and have one date so far, of AD 250. With more dates, they will be able to verify whether it is the oldest civilization in the region. The iron smelter was a surprise find, as it shows an early civilization that was already quite advanced technologically. The team has 30 more mounds at the site to be excavated and is hoping to find the port area for the kingdom, since it was near the sea. Finding the port could provide clues as to how the civilization was influenced by trade with China and India, the two main powers in those days.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!