Audio News for June 16th to June 22nd, 2013.
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 16th to June 22nd, 2013.
New Mayan city discovered in Campeche
Original Headline: Extensive Maya city discovered in Campeche
Our first story is from Mexico, where a team from Slovenia has announced the discovery of an ancient Maya city called Chactún (choc-TOON), meaning “Red Stone,” also known as Piedra Grande. Located in the southeast area of Campeche, it is one of the largest sites in the central lowlands.
The archaeologists, from the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and the Arts, believe that the city was the center of a sizable region thriving between AD 600 and 900. The city itself occupies an area of more than 54 acres and contains numerous monuments, with at least a dozen of them bearing inscriptions.
Through the centuries, Chactún remained hidden in the jungle of the northern Biosphere Reserve of Calakmul (call-ahk-MOOL), which is part of an area larger than a thousand square miles, between the Rio Bec (ree-oh beck) and Chenes (chay-nays) region. This area, until now, has been a total blank on the archaeological map of the Maya region.
Archaeological exploration of the region was enabled when it became part of the Biosphere Reserve in 1989. Starting in 1996, the Archaeological Survey Project of Southeastern Campeche (cam-PAY-che) used large-scale aerial photography to identify locations of as-yet unexplored Mayan cities.
Stereoscopic analysis of the air photos revealed many features that were obviously architectural remains. Researchers were able to use the coordinates and ancient routes used by trappers and loggers to reach the area. Chactún is one of over 80 Mayan urban sites found so far by the air photo guided survey.
According to team leader Ivan Sprajc, the newly found city contains buildings comparable in extent with those of Becan (be-CAHN), Nadzcaan (nods-kahn) and El Palmar (el pal-MAR) in Campeche. Curiously, despite its proximity to the Rio Bec region, Chactún’s building style appears to have closer associations with Petén (peh-TENN) architecture.
The site contains three monumental complexes, ranging up to 25 acres across. Scattered around these sacred areas are two ball game courts, numerous pyramid structures, and many plazas, sculptured monuments and residential areas. The tallest pyramid, 75 feet high, is located in the west complex. Steles and altars, some of which still have remains of stucco on them, show the splendor of the city in the Late Classic period.
Of the 19 stele recorded so far, three are well preserved. The inscription of one gives a name to the place, saying that the ruler K’inich B’ahlam (kih-NICH ba-a-LOM) fixed the Red Stone in 751, according to the preliminary interpretation.
A survey of the area has been conducted in order to create a three-dimensional map. Meanwhile, Octavio Esparza, archaeologist and epigraphist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is recording the stele and altars, several of which were reused in later times, possibly in the last stage of Late Classic or even Early Postclassic.
Rare gold figurine from medieval Denmark is naked woman
Original Headline: Unique gold figurine of naked woman found in Denmark
In Denmark, a field on the island of Bornholm has in recent years been the site of many surprising archaeological finds. The most recent one of these was of a golden figurine of a naked woman. The small figurine is only 4.2 cm tall, just over one and a half inches. It has many fine details and bears the mark of quality artisanship.
The woman has a long and slender body. Her head is elongated with a pronounced jaw and incised marks showing the hair. The breasts hang realistically, the arms are stretched out, with the thumbs pressed against one another, while the other fingers face downwards. Around her belly is a clearly incised belt decorated with a zig-zag pattern, and between short, thin legs the genitalia are clearly visible.
The golden woman appears to be either standing on her toes or jumping up athletically with the insteps of her feet stretched to support her or help her leap up. Above her elegantly shaped feet, the calves and knees are molded with realistic clarity.
When viewing the figurine from the front, it is tempting to associate the naked, athletic female figure with fertility and health. Remarkably, however, the backside has ten prominent projections like teeth, which has never been seen on previously found figurines.
The golden woman is the fifth in a series of small, golden human figurines from the Smørenge field on Bornholm. The first four all depict men, while there is no doubt about the gender of the last addition to the series. Naked female figurines are a rarity in Nordic Iron Age art, where male figurines dominated.
The first Bornholm figurine was found in the spring of 2009, together with a number of other finds, including several gold-foil figures, while the next three appeared in spring 2012.
The five figurines were probably buried in the same place, individually or collectively, at some point during the 6th century AD, known as the Migration Period.
Three of them were found within five meters of each other, while the other two were found 10-15 meters further away, perhaps scattered through modern plowing. This location may have been chosen due to the presence of one or more springs. Only an excavation would give more information about the characteristics of the place, and such plans have now become a high priority.
Appalachian rock art sites add up to a single large map of the cosmos
Original Headline: University of Tennessee professor finds prehistoric rock art connected; maps cosmological belief
Moving on to the United States, it is likely some of the most widespread and oldest art in the country may relate to prehistoric beliefs about the universe and the early American’s place in it. Research by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, anthropology professor Jan Simek on rock art dotting the Appalachian Mountains suggests that each engraving or drawing was strategically placed to reveal part of a cosmological puzzle.
Discoveries of prehistoric rock art have been becoming more and more common. Based on his review of these finds, Simek has proposed one single giant discovery: that all these drawings and engravings map the prehistoric peoples' cosmological world.
Simek, president emeritus of the UT system and a distinguished professor of science, has published the results of research in this month's edition of the journal Antiquity, along with co-authors Nick Herrmann of Mississippi State University, Alan Cressler of the U.S. Geological Survey and Sarah Sherwood of The University of the South.
The team’s interpretation is that people used rock art to change the natural landscape to reflect a three-dimensional universe central to the religion of the prehistoric Mississippian period. This traces the beliefs of Native American societies beginning more than 6,000 years ago. The rock art shows us that the prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau, a section of the Appalachian Mountains, used the rather distinctive upland environment to map their conceptual universe onto the world in which they lived.
Simek and his team analyzed 44 open air art sites and 50 cave art sites in the plateau using nondestructive, high-tech tools, such as a high-resolution laser scanner. Through analysis of the depictions, colors, and spatial organization, they found that the sites mimic the Southeastern native people's cosmological principles.
The "upper world" included celestial bodies and weather forces personified in mythic characters that exerted influences on the human situation. These images are featured mostly at open-air art sites located in high elevations touched by the sun and stars. Many of the images are drawn in the color red, which was associated with life.
The "middle world" represented the natural world. A mixture of open air and cave art sites hug the middle of the plateau and feature images of people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.
The "lower world", characterized by darkness and danger, was associated with death, transformation and renewal. The art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls.
The inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that can be found in all three layers represents the belief that the boundaries were permeable. Many of these images were depicted in the color black, which was associated with death.
According to Simek, this layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels. Interestingly, weapons are rarely featured in any of the art sites.
Simek said the most impressive aspect of the art is the scale of the rendering, showing that the entire Cumberland Plateau was a sacred setting, spanning hundreds of miles, in which individual sites were only parts of a greater conceptual whole.
Chinese tomb murals show long departed occupants and their colorful world
Original Headline: Ancient Chinese Murals Saved From Tomb Robbers
Our final story is from China, where a colorful, well-preserved mural has been uncovered in a tomb that once held a military commander and his wife.
The domed tomb, which dates from nearly 1,500 years ago, was discovered in Shuozhou (shuh-joe) City, about 200 miles southwest of Beijing. Researchers estimate that the murals cover an area of about 260 square feet, with many of the original colors well preserved.
Most of the grave's goods have long since been looted, and the bodies are gone, but the murals, drawn on plaster, are still there. The thieves were preparing to steal the murals, too, but the authorities arrived just in time to stop the theft. In a passageway leading into the tomb, a door guard leans on his long sword. Across from him, also in the passageway, is a guard of honor, supported by men on horses with red-and-blue uniforms still vivid despite the passing of so many centuries.
Inside the tomb itself, the man and woman who were buried there are depicted enjoying a banquet while sitting under a canopy. A man plays a tall harp while two other musicians hold windpipe instruments. At the tomb's entrance, another mural shows four men blowing into long horns.
In addition to the commander's wife, there are a number of females depicted in the tomb. Some of them are attendants and a few appear to be musicians carrying instruments. The archaeologists note that all the females, including the wife, are depicted with their hair in the shape of a flying bird. Other scenes features a tall red horse ready to be mounted and a carriage driven by two men, each with black hair and curly beards, possibly foreigners.
Then there is the dome itself, which shows how the ancient Chinese viewed the heavens.
According to archaeologist Liu Yan, who reported the discovery in the most recent edition of the journal Chinese Archaeology, the domed ceiling is painted uniformly in dark gray color to signify the infinite space of the sky. The Silver River, representing the Milky Way, flows across the sky from the southwest to the northeast, and inside the river are fine fish-scale patterns representing waves in the celestial river water.
According to Yan, on either side of this Silver River in the sky are white dots representing the stars and representations of the moon and sun, with the sun bearing a gold crow at its center. Supernatural beings and zodiac animals are depicted below this sky map.
The tomb was uncovered in a salvage excavation in 2008. Based on the murals and the tomb design, along with a few remaining grave goods, the scientists determined the tomb dates back nearly 1,500 years, to the Northern Qi Dynasty.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!