Audio news from August 1st to August 7th, 2010
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 1st to August 7th, 2010.
Callao Man or Woman’s single bone adds chapters to early human history
Our first story is from the Philippines, where archaeologists have found a foot bone that could prove the region was first settled by humans 67,000 years ago, thousands of years earlier than previously thought. The bone comes from digs in an extensive cave network, and predates the 47,000-year-old Tabon Man, who was the oldest previously known human to have lived in the islands. According to Taj Vitales, a researcher with the Philippines National Museum's archaeology department, this would make it the oldest human remains ever found in the Philippines. Archaeologists from the University of the Philippines and the National Museum found the third metatarsal bone of the right foot in 2007 in the Callao caves near Penablanca, 200 miles north of the capital, Manila. According to Professor Armand Mijares, the expedition leader, analytic tests carried out in France have established the fossil's age. The team’s report on "Callao Man" appears in the latest edition of the Journal of Human Evolution. Cut marks on bones of deer and wild boar found around the human bone suggest Callao Man could have hunted, and was skilled with tools, although no cutting or other implements were found during the dig. The owner of the toe bone was small-bodied and, based on the particular bone found, it is difficult to say whether the person was male or female. Mijares stressed that the hypothesis that Callao Man – or Woman – belongs to Homo sapiens is still only a provisional classification. Some of the bone's features were similar to those of Homo habilis and Homo floresiensi, which are species distinct from modern humans. Existing evidence suggests that Homo sapiens, the fully modern human, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Homo habilis is considered a predecessor to Homo sapiens, while Homo floresiensis is thought to be a short, human-like species that once existed on an Indonesian island in the Late Pleistocene stage. To determine whether the Callao person was a modern human, Mijares and his team are pursuing permits for further excavations in the Callao caves and hope to find other skeletal parts, tools, or fossils of other potential humans. The discovery suggests that raft- or boat-building crafts would have been around at that time. The hypothesis is that humans aboard rafts first reached the Philippines, which are surrounded by bodies of water. However, there is no consensus on whether the first settlers came from mainland Asia, neighboring Southeast Asian islands or elsewhere. Tabon Man, defined by fossilized skull and jawbone fragments from three individuals, was discovered along with stone flake tools by a National Museum team in a cave on the western Philippine island of Palawan in May 1962.
Buried chambers under Teotihuacan may end mystery of who once ruled the city
In Mexico, a 1,800-year-old tunnel under the ruins of Teotihuacan may have chambers branching off of it that could hold the tombs of some of the fabled city's early rulers. Researchers say a tomb discovery would be significant because the social structure of Teotihuacan remains a mystery after nearly 100 years of archaeological exploration there. The site is best known for the immense pyramids of the Moon and the Sun. No depiction of a ruler or the tomb of a ruler has ever been found, making the metropolis unique compared to other pre-Hispanic cultures that regularly portrayed their rulers. Archaeologists suspected the hidden tunnel after a heavy rainstorm in 2003 caused the ground to sink at the foot of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, in the central ceremonial area of the city. Last year they began excavating. After eight months, they reached the roof of the tunnel last month, more than 30 feet below the surface. The team lowered a small camera into the 12-foot- high corridor carved out of the rock. Because of the depth and construction, they knew the tunnel had been built early in Teotihuacan's history, and appears to have been intentionally closed off between AD 200 and 250. Archaeologist Sergio Gomez believes the tunnel was the central element, a sacred place and the main element around which the rest of the ceremonial center was built. The tunnel appears to extend about 37 meters, or 120 feet, before it is blocked by a wall or mound. Ground-penetrating scanner images found the tunnel extends beyond the blockage and ends in a large chamber that measures about 30 feet on each side, and which lies almost directly beneath the temple. Two smaller chambers appear on either side of the rough-hewn corridor. According to Gomez, all the signs point to it being a ruler's tomb, including the opulent offerings tossed into the tunnel at the moment it was closed up, which consist of almost 50,000 objects of jade, stone, shell and pottery, including ceramic beakers of a type never found before at the site. Gomez notes that there is a high possibility that in this place, in the central chamber, researchers can find the remains of those who ruled Teotihuacan. The central complex of pyramids, plazas, temples and avenues was once the center of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants and may have been the largest and most influential city in pre-Hispanic North America in its time. Nearly 2,500 years after Teotihuacan’s founding, about 2,100 years after its culture began to flourish and spread, the identity of its rulers remains a mystery. The city was built by a relatively little-known culture that reached its peak between 100 BC and AD 750. It was abandoned by the time the Aztecs arrived in the area in the 1300s and they gave it the name "Teotihuacan," which means "the place where men become gods." Gomez said it would take at least two more months of digging before archaeologists can actually enter the tunnel.
Proclamation by King Cyrus of Persia identified in China
In London, a British Museum curator has identified extracts apparently copied from an ancient Persian carved cylinder inscribed on horse bones in China. The two fossilized horse bones with cuneiform inscriptions were found in China and donated to the Palace Museum in Beijing in 1985 by a Chinese physician. Scholars initially dismissed them as fakes because of the improbability of ancient Persian texts turning up in Beijing. However, after carrying out detailed research, British Museum specialist Irving Finkel is convinced of their authenticity. This discovery could transform our knowledge about what is possibly the most important surviving cuneiform text, written in the world’s earliest script. Dating from 539 BC, the Cyrus Cylinder, ceremonially buried in the walls of Babylon, celebrates the achievements of Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire. The clay cylinder was discovered in 1879. The shape of a slender barrel, about 9 inches long and 4 inches in diameter, its surface bears hundreds of cuneiform characters describing Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and many achievements of his reign. The texts found in China inexplicably have less than one in every 20 of the Cyrus text’s cuneiform signs transcribed, although they are in the correct order. Until this year, the general belief was that the Cyrus Cylinder was a unique object, created for ceremonial burial, and that the text had not been circulated. Thus, the Chinese horse bone copies necessarily would have been fakes. But in January of this year, two fragments of an inscribed clay tablet in the museum’s collection were discovered to contain part of the proclamation, suggesting that it might have been widely copied. Finkel thus returned to the pair of Chinese bones to reconsider their authenticity. The deciding factor, he noted in pronouncing them genuine, is that the partial text on the bones differs slightly from that on the Cyrus Cylinder in the character form, although it is correct in linguistic terms. Cuneiform evolved over the centuries, and the signs on the bones are in a less evolved form than that of the cylinder. The individual wedge-like strokes of the signs are also different and have a slightly v-shaped top, a form not used in Babylon but used by scribes in Persia. According to Finkel, the text used by the copyist on the bones was not the Cyrus Cylinder, but another version, which would originally have been written in Persia, rather than Babylon. It could have been a version carved on stone, written with ink on leather, or inscribed on a clay tablet. Most likely, the original object was sent during the reign of Cyrus to the far east of his empire, which extended into present-day China. Scholars at a recent museum workshop had little time to digest the new evidence, and inevitably, there was some skepticism. Nevertheless, Finkel concludes that the evidence is compelling and he is convinced that the bones have been copied from an authentic version of the Cyrus proclamation, although it is unclear just when in the past 2,500 years the copying was done.
New X-ray technique offers non-destructive way to pinpoint origins of many artifacts
In our final story, the Tel Aviv University in Israel developed a new tool for non-destructive x-ray scanning of archaeological finds. When ancient kings sent letters to each other, their post offices did not record the sender' return address. It takes quite a bit of deep research by archaeologists to determine the geographical origin of the correspondence, but the labor has been worthwhile as such letters can be major troves of information on ancient rulers and civilizations. Now Professor Yuval Goren, of the university’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, has adapted an off-the-shelf portable x-ray lab tool that analyzes the composition of chemicals to reveal hidden information about a tablet's composition without damaging the ancient find. These x-rays reveal the soil and clay composition of a tablet or artifact, determining its precise origin. Goren's process goes even farther, however. Over the years, he has collected extensive comparative data through the conventional, but physically destructive, sampling of artifacts. By comparing these data to outputs produced by the new x-ray fluorescence or XRF spectrometry device, he has built a table of results so that he can now scan a tablet, touching the surface of it gently with the machine, and immediately assess its clay type and the geographical origin of its minerals. The apparatus can also be applied to coins, ancient plasters, and glass, and it is portable.
In a recent study published in the Israel Exploration Journal, Prof. Goren and his team investigated a Late Bronze Age letter written in the Akkadian language and found among the Ophel excavations in Jerusalem. Its style suggests that it is a rough and contemporary tablet of the Amarna letters, letters written from officials throughout the Middle East to the Pharaohs in Egypt around 3,500 years ago. Using his device, Goren was able to determine that the letter was written on raw material typical of the Terra Rossa soils of the Central Hill Country around Jerusalem. This determination helped to confirm both the origin of the letter and possibly its sender. This is a local product, written by Jerusalem scribes, on clay made of locally available soil. Found close to an acropolis, it is also possible that the letter fragment does in fact come from a king of Jerusalem and it may well be an archival copy of a letter from King Abdi-Heba, a Jesubite king in Jerusalem, to the Pharaoh in nearby Egypt. Other explanations are possible as well.
Traditionally, archaeological scientists have had to remove and crush small samples of an artifact in order to analyze its soil, clay or chemical composition. As more and more museums and archaeology sites ban these destructive means of investigating archaeological finds, Goren’s new tool and other like it that are becoming available worldwide, may help save archaeological structures while solving some of its deepest mysteries.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!