Audio news for February 28th to March 6th, 2010
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 28th to March 6th, 2010.
Small Stonehenge-like circles found in Syria
Our first story is from Syria, where an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum discovered what could be called a Middle Eastern version of Stonehenge. The ancient landscape of stone circles, stone alignments and what appear to be corbelled (KOR-bulled) roof tombs showed up within a larger site where Dr. Robert Mason, an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, was conducting work at the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi monastery in the Syrian Desert. When Mason went for a walk into the eastern perimeter of the monastery site, in an area not yet explored by archaeologists, he spotted the circles and tombs. Stone tools put the site at to some point within the Middle East’s Neolithic Period, a wide stretch of time from roughly 8500 to 4300 BC. In Western Europe, megalithic construction in stone dates back as far as 4500 BC, and is believed to post-date anything farther east in the Mediterranean, so the Syrian site could well be older than analogous sites in Europe. Mason spotted the remains of the first corbelled structures when he hiked up to a rock outcrop that would have been a good source of flint in ancient times. In the valley below, he saw another structure with a stone circle beside it, as well as stone alignments leading off in different directions. One of the stone lines snaked its way up a hill, and following it led Mason to the largest complex of all. This particular structure has three chambers and may have been the burial place for an important person. In front of it are the remains of a stone circle. Three apparent tombs at the southern end of the area are smaller, each about eight meters across, with one chamber in the middle and again with a stone circle beside each, about 2 meters in diameter. The corbelled roofs suggest that whatever was beneath them was originally sealed in. With his team having no time to do more than survey the area, Mason noted that the corbelled structures could also have had a purpose other than burial. More work is required to confirm that and develop an understanding of the precise date of construction. The lithics found in the area are also unusual, in that they do not appear to be made from local material. Virtually all the known burials from the Neolithic in that part of the world are from settlements and come from under floors and houses. If the new finds are confirmed as burial structures, then this site will represent something new. Mason plans to return to the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi site this summer with a team of Neolithic experts.
Stone Age ostrich eggshell canteens show early use of art as identification
In South Africa, researchers believe a collection of ostrich eggshells engraved with geometric designs demonstrates that African hunter-gatherers used a symbolic communication system around 60,000 years ago. The news comes from a team led by archaeologist Pierre-Jean Texier (tesh-ee-YAY) of the University of Bordeaux, who have excavated 270 engraved eggshell fragments over the past several years at Diepkloof (DEEP-clove) Rock Shelter. According to Texier, the shells display two standard design patterns, each one popular at a different time between approximately 65,000 and 55,000 years ago. Researchers are aware that the Howiesons Poort culture, which engraved the eggshells, engaged in other symbolic practices considered to have been crucial advances in human behavioral evolution. However, the Diepkloof finds represent the first archaeological sample large enough to establish that Stone Age people created design traditions, at least in their engravings. Texier believes the engraved patterns identify the eggshells as the property of certain groups or communities. The engravings were clearly made for visual display, and would have been recognized not only by the members of a local community, but perhaps by members of related communities as well. Another recent find of 13 pieces of engraved pigment at South Africa’s Blombos Cave, dated to between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago, confirms that these early modern humans expressed meanings visually through art. Equally significant is the evidence of drinking spouts and holes drilled in several Diepkloof eggshells, which points toward use as water canteens. The use of ostrich eggshell canteens is known from modern hunter-gatherers in the region. Water containers opened a new world of travel across arid regions for ancient people. The oldest eggshell fragments from the sediment layers at Diepkloof display a hatched-band motif with two long, parallel lines intersected by many short lines. Some specimens contain one hatched band, while others display remnants of two or three. Engravers always fashioned the parallel lines first, then inserted regularly spaced intersecting lines. Many Howiesons Poort sites in southern Africa have yielded ostrich eggshells, but only Diepkloof shows evidence of stylistic engraving traditions. The report of the analysis is published in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Tomb of early dynasty queen excavated in Egypt
Archaeologists In Egypt have unearthed the intact sarcophagus of Queen Behenu inside her 4,000-year-old burial chamber near her pyramid in Saqqara. According to antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, the Old Kingdom queen's chamber was badly damaged, except for two inner walls covered with spells meant to help her travel to the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that souls could fly to the heavens, or alternatively use stairs, ramps and ladders with the help of religious spells. Such engraved spells, known as pyramid texts, were common in royal tombs during the fifth and sixth Dynasties. The Fifth Dynasty spanned from 2465 to 2323 BC, while the Sixth Dynasty ran from 2323 to 2150 BC. The Old Kingdom collapsed soon after, in the midst of famine, social upheaval and a breakdown in centralized power. The hieroglyphics in Queen Behenu’s white stone tomb also record her funeral offering of one loaf of bread and a jug of beer. According to Philippe Collombert, who headed the French mission that excavated Behenu's remains, her well-preserved granite sarcophagus is engraved with the queen's different titles, but says nothing about the identity of her husband. Archaeologists are uncertain whether Behenu was the wife of Pepi I or Pepi II, both 6th Dynasty rulers. Behenu's 25-meter-long pyramid was found within the expansive necropolis of Pepi I at Saqqara in 2007, along with seven other queen pyramids belonging to Inenek, Nubunet, Meretites II, Ankhespepy III, Miha, and an unidentified queen.
New research planned for Florida’s Vero Man site
Our final story is from the United States, where four scientists from Florida and Colorado are urging full-scale excavations of the Vero Man site to understand the area’s Ice Age archaeology. The area around the city of Vero Beach, Florida, is one of a few places in the country where human skeletal remains are found with bones of now extinct animals, indicating they lived together in this location from 11,000 to 13,000 years ago. In addition, an amateur collector found a bone of the same age nearby with a carved picture of a mammoth, the oldest known art object of its type found in the New World. The scientists spoke as a group, the Old Vero Ice Age Committee, to launch a drive to raise $500,000 in donations for excavation and research. The excavation would center on a canal bank, where in 1915 dredging began to unearth human remains, including a skull, along with remains of now extinct animals including mammoths. The Vero site has a dense concentration of animal bones, representing a staggering 120 species. According to Richard Hulbert, a paleontologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History and Barbara Purdy, a retired University of Florida professor who specializes in Ice Age archaeology, the 1915 dig revealed about 66 human bone fragments from five individuals of undetermined sexes. The skull later disappeared, but all the other bones from the so-called Vero Man site are at the Florida Museum of Natural History. However, because the bones lost all their carbon while in the wet ground, they cannot be dated using modern radiocarbon dating. This leaves lingering doubts about their age, which the Vero team hopes to dispel through use of modern excavation techniques. Humans continued to live in Florida after the Ice Age, but many other animals vanished. Explanations for the cause range from human over-hunting to climate change from comets striking the earth. Regardless of the exact cause, it was catastrophic. Above the buried layers containing Ice Age animal remains lies an erosion zone, and above that is found no evidence of the extinct species. That stratigraphy helps date the etched bone, found a few miles away, to the earlier time, around 11,000 to 13,000 years old, because whoever etched the detailed figure into the bone with a shark tooth or flint tool had to have seen a live animal to draw it so well.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!