Audio news from December 5th to December 11th, 2010
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 5th to December 11th, 2010.
Skeleton of slain gladiator may show where Romans fought
Our first story is from England, where the skeleton of a murdered gladiator may point to the site of the city’s Roman amphitheater. The tall, muscular Roman was stabbed to death and buried only 30 centimeters below what is now the foundation of the Yorkshire Museum. Historians believe he could be a key clue in their long search for the site of the city’s Roman amphitheater. Analysis reveals that the skeleton, which was discovered during the museum’s renovation, is that of a powerful, athletic male who was stabbed to death, receiving at least six wounds, including a powerful sword blow to the back of the head. The museum location has long been thought one of the prime candidates for the amphitheater, built when York was the Roman capital of the north. Scientists believe it is possible that this Roman man could be a disgraced or defeated gladiator who was literally thrown out with the trash after his vicious death.
According to Andrew Morrison, head curator of the Yorkshire Museum, the physical evidence shows the man was a fighter by trade, and confirms that his body was not buried in any ceremonial way. Analysis by York Osteoarchaeology, Ltd., found that the skeleton is of a middle-aged man, aged between 36 and 45 years. He was very tall for a Roman, at just under 6 feet, and had a pronounced muscular build. Scarring on his vertebrae suggest spinal stress, possibly through lifting heavy loads. The bones of his arms are well developed, in a way that is similar to the skeletons of a group of gladiators found in Holgate in York earlier this year. All bear the characteristics of repetitive sword training. The most notable clues on the skeleton are the multiple blade injuries, which because there are no signs of healing, had to have been delivered at the time of death. These injuries include a cut to the lower vertebrae of the backbone, a slash to a lower right rib and two strokes that fractured the jaw. The skull had three blade injuries. One was a superficial wound to the top of the head, literally taking off a piece of his scalp, and a second that cut into the right side of the skull in two places. A third blow, probably the fatal one, was a powerful stab wound to the back of the head. The man’s skeleton was not found in a location associated with organized Roman burial, but with ordinary refuse like animal bones and broken pottery.
This area has long puzzled archaeologists because it is in very close proximity to the Roman fortress, on what was a very flat expanse of ground. But because the location is also the precinct of St Mary’s Abbey, a key medieval site, excavation has been limited. The Museum gardens remain one of the few untouched areas in historic York that may have been large enough to house the amphitheater.
Cache of Inca ancestor stones are first known examples
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a team of British archaeologists on expedition in the Peruvian Andes has discovered three of the most sacred objects in the Inca civilization, the ancestor stones that were revered as a precious link between the heavens and the underworld. The find has caused a ripple of excitement amongst Peruvianists, because it was thought that no examples of the stones had survived the Spanish invasion and its aftermath. Dr. Frank Meddens of Royal Holloway, along with Dr. Colin McEwan, the British Museum's head of the Americas section, made the find. The objects, which were previously only known from 16th Century Spanish documents, are conical-shaped stones that were hugely significant in Inca society and played a key role in religious rituals and beliefs. The Inca believed that the stones facilitated a connection between different realms of the world, the celestial and the underworld of the ancestors, with the Inca king, as the divine ruler, acting as go-between. The set of stones came to light beneath a recently excavated stone platform at Incapirca Waminan, one of 20 undocumented high-altitude Inca ceremonial platforms Meddens and McEwan have been exploring in the Ayacucho basin. The stones are made of red and white andesite, a very hard rock similar to granite. The platform below which they were buried would have been a conspicuous feature in the ancient landscape, marking the imperial control of conquered territories. Such sites were powerful imperial symbols of religious and political authority as the Incas expanded outwards along the Andes.
Ancestor stones represented deities, ancestors and the sun, and thus had supreme symbolic significance. To the Incas, these were more precious than gold, but the Spanish invaders greeted them with incomprehension and sacrilegiously likened their shape to sugar loaves and pineapples. According to Spanish records, the Inca employed the stones in public ceremonies celebrating the sun, sometimes draped in gold fabric as they were paraded for all to see. They also symbolized the ancestral spirit of the Inca king and were placed on exhibit when he was absent from Cuzco, the capital, as a demonstration of his perpetual presence and power. The Incas believed their king to be a living god ruling by divine right. As the Incas had no system of writing, the importance of the archaeologists' unprecedented find is confirmed by the depiction of ancestor stones on a large 16th-century Inca vessel called a cocha, now in the British Museum. The vase bears a scene showing a central solar disc and two kneeling figures with their hands clasped, honoring an ancestor stone, flanked on either side by an Inca king and queen and high-ranking lords.
Persian Gulf may hold ancient sunken center of early civilization
A new article in Current Anthropology documents a long-lost landmass now submerged beneath the Persian Gulf, which may have been home to some of the earliest human populations outside Africa. According to Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist and researcher with the University of Birmingham, in England, the area in and around this Persian Gulf oasis may have been home to humans for over 100,000 years before being swallowed up by the Indian Ocean approximately 8,000 years ago. Rose's hypothesis is a substantially new angle on the human history of the Near East with its suggestion that humans may have established permanent settlements in the region thousands of years before current migration models propose. In recent years, archaeologists have found evidence of a wave of human settlements along the shores of the Gulf dating to about 7,500 years ago. Rose notes that where before just a handful of scattered hunting camps existed, suddenly, over 60 new archaeological sites appear virtually overnight. Additionally, these settlements contain well-built, permanent stone houses, long-distance trade networks, ornately decorated pottery, domesticated animals, and even evidence for one of the oldest boats in the world.
The mystery was how such highly developed settlements could appear so quickly, with no previous examples leading up to them. Rose believes that evidence of those preceding populations is missing because it is under the Gulf. According to Rose, it is no coincidence that the founding of such remarkably well developed communities along the shoreline corresponds with the flooding of the Persian Gulf basin around 8,000 years ago. He hypothesizes that the new settlers came from the heart of the Gulf, pushed out by rising water levels that slowly swallowed their former home in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Historical sea level data show that, prior to the flood, the Gulf basin would have been above water beginning about 75,000 years ago. Moreover, it would have been an ideal safe haven from the unforgiving deserts surrounding it, with fresh water supplied by the Tigris, Euphrates, and several other rivers, as well as by underground springs. When conditions were at their toughest in the surrounding regions, the Gulf Oasis would have been at its largest in terms of exposed land area. At its peak, the exposed basin would have been about the size of Great Britain.
Evidence is also developing that modern humans could have been in the region even before the oasis was above water. Recently discovered archaeological sites in Yemen and Oman have yielded a stone tool style distinct from the East African tradition. This raises the possibility that humans colonized the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula beginning as far back as 100,000 years ago or more. This is far earlier than estimates generated by several recent migration models, which place the first successful migration into Arabia between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The Gulf Oasis would have been available to these early migrants, and would have provided a sanctuary throughout the Ice Ages when much of the region was uninhabitable due to extreme aridity. Rose argues that the presence of human groups in this now-submerged oasis substantially alters our understanding of cultural evolution in the ancient Near East, and also hints that crucial pieces of the human evolutionary puzzle may be hidden in the depths of the Persian Gulf.
New understanding of ancient Greek outpost in Egypt
In our final story, Naukratis (now-KRAH-tis), a city of Greek traders in ancient Egypt, is being hailed for its demonstration that the Greeks of the 7th and 6th centuries BC lived there in harmony, despite hailing from several Greek city-states that traditionally warred amongst themselves. Dr. Alexander Fantalkin of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology is probing deeper into this distinctive piece of ancient history to come up with a new explanation for how Naukratis developed, and especially how its populace managed to operate on foreign soil and create a new sense of common identity. According to Dr. Fantalkin, one key factor was that the Greeks who inhabited Naukratis formed their trade settlement in Egypt under the protection of powerful Eastern empires. This not only brought them together as a culture, but also clarifies how they were allowed to operate in the center of Egyptian territory.
Naukratis is unusual for two reasons. First, the Egyptian state allowed Greeks to operate a rewarding trade emporium at the delta of the Nile, complete with special privileges. Second, the Greeks who lived there, though from different city-states, lived and worshipped together, pointing to the emergence of a national Greek identity. The city also acted as a symbiotic center for the exchange of Greek and Egyptian art and culture. During this time, powerful Eastern empires such as Lydia, located in modern day Turkey, held sway over the eastern Greeks, forcing them to operate under the Lydian regime and pay tribute to their overlords. Despite this, the eastern Greeks continued to advance in both material culture and intellectual achievements.
They were also politically perceptive when it came to economics. At the time Naukratis was created, Lydia had a formal coalition with Egypt. A select group of Greek businessmen used this connection to set up a trading outpost and emporium in the Nile delta. They paid tribute to their Lydian benefactors and were guaranteed rights and freedoms as Greek representatives of the Lydian empire thereby making the best of an oppressive regime. Previous thinking was that the Greek traders settled in Naukratis independently, creating a fellowship of merchants in the process, indifferent to interstate rivalries at home and united only by a common interest in trade. In contrast, Fantalkin suggests they may have operated as formal representatives of the Lydian power. Naukratis should thus be considered a particularly important example of contact zones in antiquity, in which Greek trade, although controlled by the Egyptians and mediated to an extant by the Lydians, contributed to and profited from the imperial ambitions of others.
Fantalkin's conclusions were recently presented at the Cultural Contexts in Antiquity conference in Innsbruck, Austria, and will be published in the conference proceedings.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!