Audio News for July 25th to August 7th
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I’m Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 25th to August 7th
Genetic technology teaches about Native American Past
Our first story is from Southern California where human bones turned up by earthmovers grading for a housing development have produced a DNA link between living Native Americans and an ancestor who died some 800 to 1,000 years ago. It's been about 15 years since DNA matching was undertaken on remains found in ancient burial sites, but scientists say this discovery is unprecedented. Members of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, made up of three different groups, hope the find will bolster their claims to federal recognition as a
sovereign nation. In order for that goal to be achieved, they must first go through an arduous and expensive process. Besides the ancestral link, the dig in Palmdale has uncovered other new information about the Vanyumes, a Mojave Desert group who, with the Fernandeno and the Tataviam, make up the mission band. For scientists, the main attraction is the DNA discovery. According to Dorothy Lippert, a case officer with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, it is very significant for native people to find the kind of link that can be shown through that kind of scientific practice. And to have an absolute link like mitochondrial DNA is certainly even more rare. Besides providing a link between modern-day tribal members and an ancestor, the find provides insights into trading patterns for Mojave Desert Indians and sharpens the hazy picture of how they lived. The remains of six members of the Vanyume group were exhumed from the burial ground starting in July 2004. DNA extracted from the tooth of one individual was found to be a perfect match with the DNA of several members of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians. Tribal Vice Chairwoman Donna Yocum was one member of the Vanyume whose DNA matched the ancient individual's. She has also served as a tribal monitor at other Antelope Valley sites, working alongside earthmoving equipment watching for bones or artifacts to be unearthed. The test confirming Yocum's relationship to her exhumed ancestor was a mitochondrial DNA test performed in March 2005. Mitochondria are chemical-energy producing structures outside the nucleus of cells. Mitochondrial DNA is extracted from bones, where it may retain its integrity for ages. Scientists have found this type of DNA to be an ideal tool for intergenerational analysis. Lippert, who is a member of the Choctaw tribe and works in the Smithsonian's repatriation office, said cultural patterns and shared language are often the only tools available to specialists who resurrect the connection between distant tribe members and their modern relatives. Under state law, the San Fernando tribe will respectfully rebury the remains of the six individuals found. The exact age of the find cannot be fixed until radiocarbon dating is performed, but preliminary findings suggest the grave was dug between 800 and 1,000 years ago.
Evidence of the Roman emperor Constantine found in Forum
In Rome, archaeologists have unearthed a 1,700-year-old marble head of a Roman emperor in an ancient sewer. The 24 inch tall head of Emperor Constantine was discovered when a team cleared an ancient drainage system in the Roman Forum ruins. Eugenio La Rocca, head of Rome's artifacts, said the carved head could have been used to clear a blocked sewer or, perhaps, was thrown away during anti-Constantine riots by the Romans. La Rocca stated that they have concluded that the head did not fall by accident into the passage, but instead was put there on purpose. Recovery of a piece of this size and in this state of conservation is extraordinary. Constantine, who ruled from AD 306 to 337, is recognized for ending the persecution of Christians and for the founding Constantinople, known today as Istanbul. The emperor officially recognized Christianity and made it Rome's religion in AD 325. Specialists compared the head with coins and two other giant heads kept in Rome's Capitoline Museums to confirm it was a likeness of Constantine. It was probably carved around AD 312 when the emperor was at the peak of his power. Officials say the marble head will not require much restoration, as it was preserved in mud and bits of broken pottery. Constantine's head is the latest find at the Forum excavations, which have uncovered several archeological jewels since digging began a decade ago. Archeologists have unearthed mosaics from Roman baths and a vast palace with a central courtyard and intricate furnishings and ceramics.
X-Ray technology used to help read the illegible
At Cornell University in New York, a new technique promises to reveal what ancient texts carved in stone say by using X-ray technology. This technique specifically will help in the decipherment of incredibly eroded surfaces. Scientists figure there are at least half a million Greek and Latin inscriptions on stones in various states of decay and legibility. According to Kevin Clinton, a Cornell University professor of classics and co-author of a new paper on the technique, these inscriptions are invaluable sources for the historian, archaeologist, art historian and every student of institutions and life in the ancient world because of the information contained in them. Cornell researchers developed a process called X-ray fluorescence imaging to recover faded text on stone by "zapping and mapping" the inscriptions. The group built a machine that generates X-rays a million times more intense than what the doctor uses to image your bones. An X-ray beam is fired at a stone, scanning back and forth. Atoms on the stone's surface emit lower-energy fluorescent X-rays, and different wavelength emissions reveal zinc, iron and other elements in the stone. Historians know that iron chisels were commonly used to inscribe stone, and the letters were usually painted with pigments containing metal oxides and sulfides. So where letters and numbers are no longer visible to the eye, the newfound minerals trace their shapes. Tests conducted on stone tablets 100 generations old clearly reveal writing that was lost to the eye. According to Clinton, this means restoring thousands of stones, possibly including part of the law code of Draco. Draco was a rather severe politician who codified the laws of ancient Athens. The process applies to practically any kind of public document you can think of, including many laws, decrees, religious dedications and financial documents. The technique will be detailed in the German journal Papyrology and Epigraphy.
Our final story is from Mexico, where analysis of 3,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Olmec capital of San Lorenzo may contradict the belief among researchers that the Olmec civilization was the "mother culture" that laid the basis for the Maya and other civilizations of Meso- America. The Olmec, who lived between 1300 and 400 B.C. in the east Mexico lowlands, are often regarded as the mother culture of later Middle American civilizations. In a paper published in Science magazine this year, chemist Michael D. Glascock of the University of Missouri used a technique called neutron activation analysis to monitor the elemental composition of pottery shards from San Lorenzo and other sites in the region. Glascock concluded that all of the shards were produced at San Lorenzo. He and colleagues concluded that the containers were shipped to other cities, spreading culture in the process. In the new studies, geologist James B. Stoltman of the University of Wisconsin used a technique called petrography to study a similar set of shards. Stoltman says new evidence indicates that the Olmec imported pottery from other nearby cultures. Stoltman studied thin slices of the shards to determine what minerals were used in production. The minerals, usually from crushed local rock, were added to the pottery clay to provide plasticity and to help pots survive shrinking and drying. Stoltman concluded that the shards were produced at a variety of sites. Some, for example, contained sedimentary rock, such as limestone and sandstone, which underlies San Lorenzo. Others contained volcanic rock, such as that found at Oaxaca. Stoltman identified seven types of materials in the shards, suggesting a similar number of production sites. The Olmec people, who called themselves Xi (pronounced "shee"), were among the earliest urban cultures in the Americas, emerging around 1200 BC. Their capital was what is now San Lorenzo, near Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. There they built massive pyramids and plazas with ceremonial buildings and elite residences. Among their chief legacies are massive stone heads carved in the image of their rulers. For archeologists, pottery is a key factor in reaching conclusions. Where pottery was manufactured, who made it, the markings carried on it and how it traveled provide crucial clues to cultural influence.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I’m Laura Kelley and I’ll see you next week!