Audio News for March 28th to April 3rd, 2010.
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news March 28th to April 3rd, 2010.
Unusual lead wrap-around coffin poses challenge for investigation
Our first story is from Italy, where a 1,700-year-old sarcophagus found in an abandoned city near Rome could contain the body of a gladiator or a Christian dignitary. Found in the ancient city of Gabii (GOB-ee-yee), the lead coffin has an unusual shape. According to archaeologist Jeffrey Becker, the 800 pounds of lead are folded over the corpse to enclose it, whereas most lead sarcophagi are rectangular box shapes with a lid. The coffin, in storage since last year, is at the American Academy in Rome for testing. Discovering any details about the person inside the lead coffin will be complicated. The tomb was undisturbed, but contained no grave goods, which would normally provide some clues about the owner. X-ray and CT scans, the preferred methods of coffin analysis, cannot penetrate the thick lead, leaving researchers to brainstorm other ways to examine the contents without damaging them, or exposing the researchers to risks from the lead. Becker, who is the managing director of the University of Michigan's Gabii Project, calls it both exciting and frustrating, because the record has no known matches. Unlocking the lead coffin's secrets could offer new insights into a powerful civilization forgotten for centuries. Located 11 miles from Rome, Gabii was founded in the tenth century BC, and flourished for centuries alongside its growing neighbor under a treaty of friendship and alliance. By the Second or Third Century AD, however, Gabii had dwindled dramatically, and it ceased to exist by the Ninth century AD. The lack of information about this independent, non-Roman society makes the lead coffin an intriguing mystery. Lead was a high-value metal; thus, a sarcophagus made entirely out of lead is evidence of a person of special status. Past lead coffins found in Europe have contained soldiers, women gladiators, and elite members of the Christian church. Many lead coffins contain high-ranking women or adolescents instead of men. The sarcophagus' tentative age may make the gladiator scenario unlikely. The coffin dates back to the Fourth or Fifth century AD, while the glory days of the gladiatorial contests were several centuries earlier. Also intriguing is the sarcophagus's location, in the middle of a city block. Burying the dead inside city limits was a deep-rooted taboo for Romans of the time. Becker’s hypothesis is that some major event may have led to the burial within a busy part of town. To test that, however, requires finding out more about the person inside the sarcophagus. Lead burials sometimes allow for astonishing preservation of human tissue and hair. The only hint here, however, is a small foot bone protruding through a hole in one end of the coffin. Nevertheless, the team may not get bones to work with, because cutting into the coffin holds dangers for both the living and the dead. Cutting into the lead will produce cancer-causing lead dust, which could harm the scientists, while exposure to airborne bacteria could damage the corpse. The team will perform preliminary experiments on the sarcophagus, including an endoscopic exam that would feed a small fiber optic camera into the hole at the foot end. If the experiments show that lead dust from cutting can be easily contained, the next step would be to find a clean room in which to open the coffin.
Yellowstone region a destination resort for 10,000 years
In the United States, a four-year project is showing that the Yellowstone area has been a destination resort for at least 10,000 years. Thousands of years before Euro-Americans discovered the bubbling mudpots and geysers of what is now Yellowstone National Park, early Americans were spending part of their summer camping in the Yellowstone Lake area. Excavations around Yellowstone Lake last summer by University of Montana archaeology professor Douglas MacDonald and 13 graduate and undergraduate students are providing a broader picture of early human use of the lake area. According to MacDonald, several reasons may have made the lake a crossroads for Native Americans from multiple regions. Obsidian, a valued rock used to create razor-sharp points for weapons and tools, is abundant about 20 miles to the northwest. Varied flora in the lake area, everything from camas to wild onions, would have been excellent for both food and medicines. In addition, there was plenty of wildlife in the region. One archaeological site turned up blood residue from bear, wolf and deer as well as rabbit sinew.
The lake area was clearly an important warm-weather hunting and gathering grounds for Native Americans from all over the northwestern Great Plains, northern Great Basin and northern Rocky Mountains, MacDonald notes. His group’s research is part of the university’s partnership with Yellowstone, in which students get the opportunity to polish their field techniques, while Yellowstone receives inexpensive research help. This past summer, MacDonald’s crew made several unique finds. Along the northeast shore, they found the park’s first hearth from the Early Archaic period, 5,800 years ago. This shows that prehistoric Americans used the park during the hot and dry altithermal climate period following the last ice age, after large mammals such as woolly mammoths had become extinct. Yellowstone Lake, during that time, would have been a huge oasis drawing people, and wildlife, from throughout the region.
Analysis of campsites shows that some visitors were small parties of male hunters, while others were families staying for longer periods. Sites along the lake saw extensive processing of hides and work on freshly quarried obsidian cobbles transported into the area. Another campsite held about a dozen shaft abraders, used to smooth arrows and spears. One large obsidian spear point was one and a half times the size of the normal point of the time, and made in the style of the Hopewell Tradition of the American Midwest, which flourished about 1,500 years ago. The Hopewell were one of the first groups in North America to lead a more settled life, which included farming, metal working, extensive trade, and the creation of burial mounds along river valleys. It is clear from many finds that obsidian from the Yellowstone area was traded eastward to the Ohio and Mississippi river areas. Some archaeologists suspect that Hopewell Native Americans actually traveled to the region to collect obsidian. The new research indicates that most Native Americans using the northern end of the lake traded and traveled primarily to the north, east and west, rather than to the south. Other work at sites along the south shore of the lake indicated that Native Americans in that area focused more southward. Previous excavations have turned up evidence of occupation dating back 10,000 to 12,000 before present. MacDonald and a crew of 22 graduate and undergraduate students will continue working in the park this summer, surveying other parts of the lake’s shore. By identifying important cultural resource sites, park officials can plan any development to exclude and protect those areas. Four of the five sites uncovered last summer are under consideration for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Scottish stone carvings identified as language of the Picts
In Scotland, new research identifies petroglyphs as a newly discovered written language, belonging to the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from AD 300 to 843. Once thought to be art, the carved depictions of soldiers, horses and other figures are in fact part of a written language left by the ancestors of modern Scottish people. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, concludes that the highly stylized rock engravings represent the long lost language of the Picts, an alliance of Celtic tribes that lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland. Lead author Rob Lee, a professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Exeter, notes that it was already known that the Picts had a spoken language, as Bede, a monk and historian who died in 735, wrote that there were four languages in Britain during his time: British, Pictish, Scottish, and English.
Lee and his colleagues analyzed the engravings found on the few hundred known Pictish Stones using a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy to compare the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of each engraving to that of a number of diverse written languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish, and Old Welsh. The Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, but they displayed the characteristics of writing based on a spoken language. Pictish was clearly one of the early written languages that are described as semasiographic, rather than lexigraphic. Lexigraphic writing uses symbols to represent parts of speech, such as words, or sounds like syllables or letters, all of which are written in a linear manner mimicking the flow of speech. In semasiography, by contrast, the symbols represent not speech, but situations, being more like the cartoon symbols that might show how to assemble a piece of furniture. They are also, in general, not linear in their placement.
The as-yet-untranslated Pictish symbols include images that look like horses, trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, a dog’s head, weapons and crosses. Later Pictish Stones contain images like Celtic knots that are similar to those found in the Book of Kells and other early works from nearby regions. These decorative-looking images frame what Lee and his team believe is the written Pictish language. Paul Bouissac, a leading authority on signs and symbols at the University of Toronto, agrees that it is more than plausible that the Pictish symbols are examples of a script, in the sense that they encoded some information, which also had a spoken form. However, knowing about a writing system does not amount to deciphering the script. For this, we may need to discover the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, and this may not ever happen.
Inca burials show the brutality of death during the Conquest
Our final story is from Peru, where skeletons in a 500-year-old cemetery are providing the first direct evidence of Inca fatalities caused by Spanish conquerors. A report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology relates that European newcomers killed some Inca individuals with guns, steel lances or hammers, and possibly light cannons. According to team leader Melissa Murphy of the University of Wyoming, the bones are surprisingly devoid of incisions or other marks characteristic of sword injuries. Spanish documents from the 16th Century emphasize steel swords as a favored military weapon. Many Spaniards who helped Francisco Pizarro conquer the Incas were fortune-seekers, not soldiers, so the absence of sword injuries makes some sense, Murphy explains. Skeletons in the Inca cemetery, as well as at another gravesite nearby, display a grisly collection of violent injuries, many caused by maces, clubs and other Inca weapons. Those weapons may have been brandished by Inca from communities known to have teamed up with the Spanish, or might have been borrowed by the Spanish. The brutality and extent of these skeletal injuries were unlike anything the scientists had seen before.
According to one of the anthropologists, Haagen Klaus, of Utah Valley University, little is known about early European dealings with the Inca. Murphy’s data show the types of violence that materialized from the initial moments of contact between Spaniards and the Inca. Pottery and artifacts at the sites date between 1470 and 1540, placing the deaths from a time soon after the invasion up to the decade when Spaniards captured the Inca emperor, around 1532. Murphy’s team assessed skeletons of 258 Inca individuals, age 15 or older, excavated several years ago at the two cemeteries. One cemetery contained bodies hastily deposited in shallow graves. One-quarter of the 120 skeletons had head and body injuries inflicted at the time of death, indicated by a lack of healed bone and other clues. Murphy notes this is a conservative estimate, since soft-tissue damage does not show up on bones. Her colleague, Steven Wernke of Vanderbilt University, described the severity of violence in certain individual cases, where the skull was essentially crushed, repeatedly stabbed or struck, or shot through by gunshot. Whoever killed these individuals wanted to intimidate survivors as well, he asserts. One man’s skull contained two holes and radiating fractures consistent with damage produced by early guns that shot ammunition at low velocities. Another had three small rectangular openings in the back of the head similar to skulls from a 1461 battlefield cemetery in England. Murphy proposes that medieval weapons tipped with steel spikes probably caused these wounds. Individuals placed in this cemetery may have been slain in a documented 1536 Inca uprising against Spanish rulers in nearby Lima. Family members collected their bodies and buried them quickly near previously deceased relatives. At the second Inca cemetery, 18 of 138 skeletons showed definite signs of violent death, all from Inca weapons, supporting a scenario in which social turmoil around the time Spaniards arrived triggered conflicts between Inca communities.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!