Audio News for June 12th to June 18th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 12th to June 18th, 2011.


Sculpture of Mayan ball player dates back more than 1000 years


Travel with us to Mexico, where archaeologists have found a new ballplayer sculpture dating from between AD 900 and 1000 in the north-central state of Zacatecas. Researchers from the National Anthropology and History Institute excavated the pre-Columbian sculpture from a depth of 1.5 meters. Excavators note that they located another sculpture depicting a ballplayer at the end of last year at the same complex, known as El Teul. This complex was one of the few settlements in the Americas to be continuously inhabited from 200 BC to the time of the Spanish conquest in the first half of the 16th century. It was a high quality ceremonial center of the Caxcanes, a somewhat nomadic group that resisted the Spanish conquistadors and came close to defeating them in the 1540-1542 Mixton War.

The two ballplayer monoliths, one initially designed as headless and the other with both head and body, possibly allude to a story from the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas, in which one of a pair of divine twins was decapitated before being saved by his brother. The more recently discovered sculpture is an almost complete cylindrical figure measuring 1.75 meters tall and 56 centimeters in diameter. Archaeologists in charge of the excavation work, Peter Jimenez and Laura Solar, said the sculpture fell to the ground after the collapse of one of the ballcourt’s walls, adding the piece was decapitated and only a fragment of one of the ears has been recovered.

Archaeologist Luis Martinez Mendez reveals that a map drawn in the mid-19th century by German geodesic engineer Carl de Berghes showed the existence of several pre-Columbian constructions at El Teul, including a ball court whose four corners featured an equal number of sculptures. Researchers have found pieces of one of the other two sculptures, possibly part of a shoulder, during excavation work in the court’s northwest corner. Archaeologists still need to excavate another 15 percent of the ball court, which measures 24 meters by 44 meters before its scheduled opening to the public in 2012  


Referee error caused gladiator’s death


Our second story originated in Turkey and now comes to us via Canada. A new study from Brock University in St. Catharine's, Canada has deciphered an enigmatic message on a Roman gladiator's 1,800-year-old tombstone. The epitaph and art on the tombstone suggest the gladiator, named Diodorus, lost the battle and his life due to a referee's error. Professor Michael Carter examined the tombstone, which researchers discovered a century ago in Turkey, to try to determine what the drawing and inscription meant.

The tombstone shows an image of a gladiator holding what appear to be two swords, standing above his opponent who is gesturing his surrender. The inscription indicates that the stone marks the burial spot of Diodorus. The epitaph indicates that after Diodorus defeated his opponent Demetrius, he did not kill him immediately, but through a turn of fate and the treachery of the summa rudis, Demetrius ended up killing Diodorus instead. The summa rudis is a referee, who may have had past experience as a gladiator. The inscription also indicates Diodorus was born in and fought in Amisus, on the south coast of the Black Sea in Turkey.

The tale on the tombstone took place about 1,800 years ago when the Roman Empire was at its height, its borders stretching from Hadrian's Wall in England to the Euphrates River in Syria. Gladiator games were popular spectacles, and although deaths from wounds were common, the battles were not the unrestrained fights to the death depicted by Hollywood. Carter believes there are a number of very detailed rules involved in regulating gladiatorial combat. Though the exact rules are not completely understood, some information is harvested from references in surviving texts and art.

For starters, the summa rudis or referees oversaw most if not all of the fights. Among the rules he enforced was one in which a defeated gladiator could request submission, and if the munerarius or wealthy individual paying for the show agreed, the contestant could leave the arena without further harm. Another rule that appears to have been in place is that a gladiator who fell by accident, without the help of his opponent, would be allowed to get back up, gather his equipment and resume combat. This last rule appears to be the cause of Diodorus’s untimely demise.

Carter interprets the picture of the gladiator holding two swords to be a moment in his final fight, when Demetrius is knocked down and Diodorus had grabbed hold of his sword. Demetrius signals surrender. Diodorus does not kill him; instead, he backs off expecting that he is going to win the fight since the battle appears to be over. However, the summa rudis, perhaps interpreting Demetrius' fall as accidental, or perhaps with some ulterior motive, thought otherwise. The referee steps in, stops the fight, allows Demetrius to get back up again, take back his shield and sword, and resume the fight. This time Diodorus lost and died in the arena. This event would have happened before a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a theater or in part of an athletic stadium converted into a sort of mini-Colosseum. Apparently, after Diodorus’s death, the people who created his tombstone were so upset that they decided to include some final words on the epitaph. To quote:  "Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."

Prehistoric Native Americans assembled copper artifacts with fire and hard work


In the United States, researchers are revealing how prehistoric Native Americans of Cahokia made copper artifacts. Northwestern University researchers ditched many of their high-tech tools and turned to large stones, fire, and some old-fashioned hard work to recreate techniques used by Native American coppersmiths who lived more than 600 years ago. This prehistoric approach to metalworking was part of a metallurgical analysis of copper artifacts left behind by the Mississippians of the Cahokia Mounds, who lived in southeastern Illinois from AD 700 until 1400.

The researchers were able to identify how the coppersmiths of Cahokia probably set up their workshop and the methods and tools used to work copper nuggets into sacred jewelry, headdresses, breastplates, and other regalia. According to Professor David Dunand of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, metals store clues within their structure that can help explain how they were processed.

Researchers analyzed small, discarded pieces of copper found on the ground of the workshop to determine how the Cahokians worked the metal. From the size, shape and features of the grains inside the copper, the analysts determined that the coppersmiths were likely hammering the copper, probably with a heavy rock, then putting the copper in the hot coals of a wood fire for five to 10 minutes to soften it and repeating the cycle until they had created a thin sheet of copper. After using basic metallurgical science to better understand the methods the Cahokians used to create copper sheets, the researchers recreated the metalworking process in the lab with natural copper nuggets, fire, and a heavy stone.

In addition, the researchers attempted to determine how the Cahokians cut the metal by testing four different methods on their replicated sheets: grinding an embossed ridge, shearing with scissors, hammering against a sharp corner, and bending the sheet back and forth. Only the bent edge looked similar to the edge of the historical artifacts, indicating that the Cahokians most likely used that method to cut their copper.

Villa of ancient Roman emperors excavated just outside Rome


Our final story is from Italy, where the ruins of an ancient Roman villa retreat for the family and guests of four Roman emperors remained unnoticed for centuries. Now, the villa is the focus of new excavations by archaeologists. Located near a town 18 miles from present-day Rome, the remains may reveal new details about emperors Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus who ruled during ancient Rome's famous Antonine Dynasty.

The Antonine Dynasty, dating to AD 138-192, was a period of great prosperity and stability. It has been said that the emperors, especially Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, skillfully administered the empire without the vicious tyranny and corruption often attributed to other emperors. Like other emperors and royal families, they constructed impressive retreats, known as villas, for the comfort and entertainment of family members and invited guests and friends.
The only clearly visible features of this Antonine villa today are the remains of structures associated with its bathhouse. Much of the rest of its remains still lie beneath the landscape or have been destroyed by the sprawl of past urban development. Site investigators indicate that approximately 3 hectares still remains to be unearthed.

Investigations focused on exploration of a curvilinear structure adjacent to the baths, possibly a monumental fountain, along with geophysical investigations that revealed probable additional wall structures. The discovery of brick stamp inscriptions further supports the view the structure was associated with the period of the Antonine dynasty. According to one of the researchers, the study of the brick stamps is not yet complete, but the preliminary results, as well as the types of pottery, fit well into the second half of the second century. Moreover, the great number of glass tesserae –tiles used in mosaics– reinforces the idea excavators have found a possible hydraulic structure such as a fountain.

The team also explored the remains of what may have been an amphitheater incorporated into the villa's grounds. The structure's features are similar to another amphitheater not far away and built by Commodus, the last emperor of the Antonine Dynasty.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!