Audio News for September 20th to September 26th, 2009
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 20th to September 26th, 2009.
Skeletons may date to Trojan War
Our first story is from Turkey, where archaeologists in the ancient city of Troy have found the remains of a man and a woman who may have died at the time of the Trojan War. According to Ernst Pernicka, a University of Tübingen professor of archaeometry, who is leading excavations, the bodies are located near a defense line within the city built during the late Bronze Age. The discovery could show that Troy's lower area was bigger in the late Bronze Age than previously thought, changing scholars' perceptions about the city of the "Iliad."
Pernicka confirms that pottery found near the bodies is from 1200 BC, but added that someone could have reburied the couple as long as 400 years later in a different layer of ruins in what archaeologists call Troy VI or Troy VII. If tests confirm the bodies are from 1200 BC, they would correspond with the Trojan War period.
Ancient Troy, the steep and windy city described by Homer, is located in the northwest of modern-day Turkey at the mouth of the Dardanelles south of Istanbul. Heinrich Schliemann, the German industrialist and archaeologist, unearthed it in the 1870s.
Metal-detecting enthusiast finds Anglo-Saxon war booty
In Britain, an amateur metal-detecting enthusiast searching a farmer's field has unearthed a huge collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver artifacts. The find, whose size is unprecedented, offers new insight into the world of the Anglo-Saxons, who ruled England from the Fifth Century until the 1066 Norman invasion and whose cultural influence is still felt throughout the English-speaking world.
The cache includes elaborately designed helmet crests embossed with an ornamental band of running animals, enamel-studded sword fittings and a checkerboard piece inlaid with garnets and gold. One gold band bore a biblical inscription in Latin calling on God to drive away the bearer's enemies.
The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who invaded England in waves after the Roman Empire withdrew its troops. Their artisans made remarkable objects out of gold and enamel, and their language, Old English, was a precursor of modern English. The pieces discovered in what was once Mercia, one of five main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, date to between 675 and 725.
Terry Herbert made the discovery while scouring a friend's farm in the western region of Staffordshire. He spent five days searching the field alone before he realized he needed help and notified authorities. According to Leslie Webster, the former curator of Anglo-Saxon archaeology at the British Museum, the gold alone in the collection weighs 11 pounds, suggesting early medieval England was a wealthier place than previously believed. Webster said the crosses and other religious artifacts mixed in with military items might shed new light on the relationship between Christianity and warfare among the Anglo-Saxons.
Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who catalogued the find, reports that the hoard includes dozens of pommel caps, a decoration attached to the knobs of swords, which appeared to be war booty. He noted that "Beowulf," the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, contains a reference to warriors stripping the pommels of their enemies' weapons as souvenirs. Leahy did caution that while it looks like a collection of trophies, it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career.
Researchers have so far examined 1,345 items. However, they have also recovered 56 pieces of earth that X-ray analysis suggests contains more artifacts. If this is true, the total could rise to 1,500. It is not clear how the gold ended up in the field, although archaeologists suggest its owner might have buried it to hide the loot from wandering enemies, a common practice at the time. The site's location is unusual as well. Anglo-Saxon remains have, in the past, clustered in the country's south and east, while this find was in the west. In the meantime, archaeologists say they are likely to be busy for years finding the meaning of some of the collection's pieces that are more unusual, like five mysterious gold snakes or a strip of gold bearing a crudely written and misspelled Biblical inscription in Latin.
Ancient Syrian cellar reveals bounty and burials
Now we travel to Syria, where archaeological excavations at the royal palace in the ancient city of Qatna have located a rock tomb-cellar underneath the palace containing hundreds of artifacts as well as human bones from the period 1600-1400 BC. Archaeologists made the discovery during excavations of the north-west wing of the palace, which is located northeast of the modern city of Homs.
The team located a “slope basement” below ground floor level, with its walls intact. A chamber bearing a collapsed timber roof acted as an antechamber to the tomb-cellar, which was beneath the basement. A passage cut into the stone leads into the spacious cellar itself. Measuring 4.9 by 6.3 meters, and divided into two chambers by a wall hollowed out of the rock, the cellar is accessible from the palace and integrated architecturally into its structure as a whole.
The discovery of 30 skulls suggests an equal amount of burials. The fact that the bones are stacked in groups rather than lying in anatomical formation is significant. Particles of wood suggest that someone possibly used wooden crates or coffins for secondary burials.
The excavators also found containers of ceramic and Egyptian granite whose production dates to 1000 years before the tomb. Additionally, the archaeologists discovered alabaster containers that might also have originated in Egypt. They discovered an assortment of gold jewelry consisting of rings, rosettes and gold foils in one of these alabaster vessels. In addition, they found bronze artifacts, which include a heavy spearhead, a finely crafted dress pin made from gold, and a cylinder seal made from lapis lazuli. Of particular interest because of its fine craftsmanship and beauty is a stone sculpture of a monkey holding a container of facial cosmetics.
The lack of inscriptions makes identifying the bodies difficult. Most probably, the remains are from members of the royal family or royal household of Qatna. However, it is also possible that the remains originate from earlier royal burials placed in the cellar at a later point of time. Qatna was one of the most important kingdoms during Syria’s middle and late Bronze Age. It reached the height of its affluence between 1800 and 1600 BC and was among one of the most powerful states in the Middle East. The royal dynasty continued until its defeat by the Hittites in 1340 BC.
Gulf of Mexico may hold evidence of early human habitation
Our final story is from the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, where archeologists are diving for clues to early prehistoric settlement. As odd as it sounds, the depths of the Gulf of Mexico may reveal clues to human habitation of North America. About 22,000 years ago, a large part of Earth's fresh water was in the form of glacial ice atop the continents. Much shallower oceans meant coastlines extended hundreds of miles onto the continental shelves. Therefore, what once was dry coastline now is 300 feet or more under water. This means more than 9 million square miles of what used to be the coastlines of the world now are underwater.
James Adovasio, director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, and C. Andrew Hemmings, a research associate, plan next summer to dig for evidence of prehistoric humans about 130 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico sea bed. The research team has a 350,000-square-kilometer area of the gulf to locate target spots, where they could dig through sediment and silt to turn up evidence of prehistoric humans. Their finds could help answer questions that have lingered since 1492, such as when did Native Americans first venture to the Americas and what route did they take.
Decades ago, Dr. Adovasio and his team unearthed human artifacts at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter that revealed human artifacts dating back 14,000 to 16,000 years. However, Meadowcroft, considered by some to be the most ancient human site in North America, sits 380 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Settlement patterns in Australia suggest that people tend to live along coastlines, sometimes for millennia, before venturing inland. Thus, it is possible that humans settled along the coastline of North America long before they ventured inland to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter. Using a side-scan sonar device and a sub-bottom profiler aboard a research ship, the team traced the ancient riverbed of the Suwannee River from near Tampa, Florida, 100 miles into the gulf. Next, they located the ancient convergence of the Suwannee and St. Marks-Aucilla rivers. Such a confluence likely would attract prehistoric humans, particularly if it had an outcrop of chert, a hard stone that prehistoric people use to made tools and weapons.
Underwater archeology is a difficult task considering high costs, sizable dangers and the limited time available deep underwater to do any digging. Last summer, Hemmings and three other divers went down 130 feet to the target site and found chert. However, with only nine minutes of air available, they had neither the time nor a dredge necessary to dig for artifacts. Any artifacts older than 16,000 years would change the picture on the earliest human history in North America.
Excavation at the site could turn up leaves, shells, seeds, wood and cordage, bone, ivory and tools that early humans left behind. If so, the location could prove that humans lived in North America even earlier than Meadowcroft. Still, the Gulf of Mexico might seem an unlikely location for researchers to solve land-based mysteries of prehistory. But Dr. Hemmings says that we are missing the first chapter of the American story if we are not looking underwater and there are good reasons specifically to be in this place.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!