Audio News for June 4th to June 11th, 2006

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for June 4th to June 11th, 2006.

Slave trade researchers join to tell the story of Venture Smith


Our first story is from the United States, where scientists and historians are coming together to reconstruct the story of Venture Smith of Connecticut.  Smith was kidnapped from his African homeland at age 7 and sold into slavery in America.  He grew into a man of mythically large proportions who told his own story in later life.  While state and local historians know Smith's story well, they want to make it as well known to the rest of the world.  To do that, they have undertaken a large-scale international research project that will include scientists, archaeologists, historians and human rights activists.  In July, scientists and historians will open Smith's grave in the First United Congregational Church's cemetery and remove his remains in an effort to bring Smith, metaphorically, back to life.  According to Chandler B. Saint, president of the Connecticut group overseeing the project, documenting the world of Venture Smith offers a uniquely valuable means of grasping the totality of the slave trade.  The University of Connecticut's Center for Applied Genetics and Technology will be a partner in the research, along with the Connecticut State Forensic Sciences Lab, the state Office of Archaeology and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, which is in the United Kingdom.  Because of his prominence in the Connecticut River trade in the mid- to late-1700s, there is already much known about Smith. Although unable to read or write himself, in his later years Smith dictated his life story to a local writer.  The research will evaluate and corroborate the stories with science.  For instance, Smith was known to be a giant of a man and powerfully strong.  His shoulders were so broad, some written accounts have said, he had to walk sideways through the narrow doorways common in the 18th century.  By his own account, Smith, born in 1729, was the son of an African king or prince.  He was kidnapped and sold to European slavers.  He and 260 other slaves were crowded into the hold of a cargo ship on the western coast of Africa in 1737.  The slave ship then sailed the so-called Middle Passage.  His name came from various sources.  Venture was the name his first owner gave him, because his purchase represented a business venture.  He took the last name of the family that gave him his freedom.  Some of his descendants still live in Connecticut.  The Beecher House Society and University of Connecticut's agreed to undertake the genetic testing of Smith and his family after one of those descendants, Coralynn Jackson of Hartford, requested the tests.

Roman site in Basque region includes early crucifixion art


In Spain, archaeologists at the site of Iruña-Veleia have discovered inscriptions and drawings from the third century, including an ancient representation of a crucifixion.  The managers of the site, located near the town of Nanclares de Oca, recently revealed their findings.  Tools with the inscriptions and drawings, mostly on ceramics, were found in a room of a house called the "Domus de pompeia valentina," one of the urban residences of the old city of Veleia.  It was built in the first century and inhabited until the fifth century.  The room is 57 square meters.  It was found sealed like a time capsule, with its contents untouched.  Inside were food remains and different tools used for writing.  According to Montserrat Rius, an expert from the University of Barcelona, some of the Latin inscriptions refer to ancient Egyptian history and its divinities, and there are hieroglyphic inscriptions "with a perfect layout" that make experts think they were teaching tools for children.  The image of a Calvary, or a crucifixion scene, which measures between eight and ten square centimeters, is being considered the most ancient representation known.  Archaeologists also pointed out that this is one of the most important epigraphic sets found in the Roman world, equally as important as inscriptions found at Pompeii, Rome or Vindolanda of northern England.

U.S. rock art may record history’s brightest supernova


Just outside Phoenix, Arizona in the United States, researchers believe a rock carving might depict an ancient star explosion seen by Native Americans a thousand years ago.  If confirmed, the petroglyph would be the only known record in the Americas of the well-known supernova of the year 1006.  The carving was found in an area believed to have been occupied by the Hohokam from about AD 500 to 1100.  In the spring of 1006, stargazers in Asia, the Middle East and Europe recorded the birth of a "new star" above the southern horizon of the night sky, in the constellation Lupus, just south of Scorpio.  Unknown to them, they were actually witnessing the death of a star as it blew itself apart in a violent explosion called a supernova.  Nearly invisible today, the supernova of 1006 was perhaps the brightest astral event ever to occur in recorded human history. At its peak, the supernova was about the quarter the brightness of the moon, so bright that people could have read by its light at midnight.  The Hohokam petroglyph shows symbols of a scorpion and stars that match a model showing the relative positions of the supernova with respect to the constellation Scorpius. The model was created by John Barentine, an astronomer at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and Gilbert Esquerdo, a research assistant at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona.  Barentine believes the finding could help archeologists date other petroglyphs in the Southwest and elsewhere in the world. Dating art made by prehistoric Native Americans has been difficult because many did not have a written language and shared little in common with the culture and folklore of tribes that followed.  According to Barentine, quantitative methods such as carbon-14 dating are alternative means to assign ages to works of prehistoric art, but they lack the accuracy of more than a few decades, so any depiction in art that can be fixed to a specific year is extremely valuable.  A similar petroglyph discovered near Peñasco Blanco (pen-YAS-co BLAN-co) in Chaco Canyon National Monument, New Mexico is also believed to represent a supernova, but one that occurred later, on July 4, 1054.

Ancient Greek mechanical device finally reveals clues to its use


In our final story, a team of Greek and British scientists probing the artifact known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has managed to decipher ancient Greek inscriptions unseen for over 2,000 years.  The shoebox-sized bronze device was recovered from a Roman-era shipwreck in 1900 and has mystified scientists ever since.  According to researcher Yiannis Bitsakis, part of the text on the machine, over 1,000 characters had already been deciphered, but they have succeeded deciphering 95 percent, more than double, of the text.  Bitsakis is part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from universities in Athens, Salonika and Cardiff, the Athens National Archaeological Museum and the Hewlett-Packard Company.  Retrieved from the shipwreck by sponge divers near the southern Greek island of Antikythera, the mysterious mechanism has over 30 bronze wheels and dials, and is covered in astronomical inscriptions.  Astrophysicist Xenophon Moussas of Athens University said that the device could calculate the position of certain stars, at least the Sun and Moon, and perhaps predict astronomical phenomena.  Given the uniqueness of the Antikythera Mechanism, it was not removed from the museum for study.  Instead, an eight-ton "body scanner" was assembled onsite for the privately funded project, and three-dimensional tomography was used to expose the unseen inscriptions.  Bitsakis added that the challenge is to place this device into a scientific context, as it comes almost out of nowhere.  It also flies in the face of established theory that considers the ancient Greeks lacking in applied technical knowledge.  The researchers are also looking at the broader remains of the Roman ship for clues to the Mechanism's origin.  One theory presented is that the device was created in an academy founded by the ancient Stoic philosopher Poseidonios on the Greek island of Rhodes.  The writings of first century AD orator and philosopher Cicero, a former student of Poseidonios, cite a device with similarities to the Mechanism.

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