Audio News for June 25th to July 1st, 2006

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for June 25th to July 1st, 2006.

Expert on Etruscan religion announces new temple find


Our first story is from Italy, where a Florida State University classics professor and her students have unearthed artifacts that radically rewrite our understanding of the religious practices of the ancient Etruscans.  Professor Nancy Thomson de Grummond and her team are excavating a monumental Etruscan building dating to the final years of Etruscan civilization.  Within the building, they have located what appears to be a sacrificial pit, a sanctuary and finds that appear to have been used in religious rituals.  De Grummond has been digging since 1983 at Cetamura del Chianti (CHE-tah-MOOR-ah del key-AHN-tee), in the Tuscany region.  The Etruscans once inhabited the site, before being conquered and absorbed by the Romans in the second and first century BC.  The Etruscans had a highly advanced civilization, with an infrastructure of roads, buildings and sewer systems and the first true cities in Europe. They also built large, complex religious sanctuaries.  According to de Grummond, the building just uncovered has an irregular plan, with stone foundations 3 or 4 feet thick.  Some of the foundations are large enough to have supported multistoried elements.  Within the building's courtyard is a freestanding sandstone platform that likely served as an altar.  A few feet away was the most fascinating find of the 23 years of work - a pit filled with burnt offerings for the gods.  The pit contained approximately 10 vessels.  Some are miniature and thus clearly intended only as offerings.  Conversely, several of the vessels are large, including one storage vessel and a huge pitcher, probably for wine.  There were little cups for drinking and a bowl for eating, as well as a small beaker that holds oil or spices.  All of these vessels were ceramic, some ritually broken and with most or all of the fragments buried together in the pit. Most of the pots seem to be locally made rather than imported.   Also found in the pit were 10 iron nails, in an excellent state of preservation.  Ancient texts note that to the Etruscans, nails symbolized unalterable fate.  In one ritual for the deity Nurtia, they would hammer a nail into the wall of the temple each year as a tribute to the goddess.  The cultic significance of the nails of Cetamura (CHE-tah-MOOR-ah) is not yet certain, but they may well relate to the passage of time and thus to the sacred calendar of the Etruscans.  De Grummond is a leading scholar on the religious practices of the Etruscans, a people whose culture profoundly influenced the ancient Romans and Greeks.  She hopes to continue excavating the Cetamura sacred area, and building on the nearly quarter-century of knowledge she has gathered.

DNA reveals a foreigner among workers at famous Chinese tomb of Terracotta Army


In China, archaeologists have unearthed evidence that a foreign worker helped build the Terracotta Army burial chamber.  The chamber is the resting place of the country's first emperor, who died more than 2,200 years ago.  The remains of the worker, described as a foreign man in his 20s, were found among 121 shattered skeletons in a laborers' tomb 500 yards from the mausoleum in the city of Xian.  It is unclear whether the man served as an employee or a slave of emperor Qin Shi Huang, who unified China and built the first Great Wall.  An estimated 700,000 laborers worked on the imperial tomb and placed within it 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses.  DNA tests have succeeded in identifying the ethnicity of 15 sets of remains in a worker cemetery.  According to Tan Jingze, an anthropologist with Fudan University, one sample has typical DNA features commonly owned by the Parsi in India and Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkmenistan and the Persians in Iran.  Experts on the excavation said the find meant that contacts between the people in east Asia and those in what is now central Asia actually began a century earlier than believed.  Earlier studies suggested the first contact occurred later in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).  It is possible more foreigners may be found among the 200 other workers' tombs in the area, but Chinese scientists have suspended excavations and DNA sample collections to help prevent environmental deterioration.

Stones along the Amazon may be ancient solstice markers


From Brazil, a collection of granite blocks along a hilltop above the Amazon may be the ruins of a 2,000-year-old astronomical observatory.   Consisting of 127 blocks, some as high as 9 feet and measuring 100 feet in diameter, they are spaced at regular intervals around the hill.  Experts say that this find indicates the early rain forest inhabitants were more sophisticated than previously believed.   On the shortest day of the year, the shadow of one of the blocks disappears when the sun is directly above it.  According to Mariana Petry Cabral, archaeologist at the Amapa State Scientific Research Institute, this block's alignment with the winter solstice supports the belief that was an ancient astronomical observatory.  Anthropologists have long known that local aboriginal populations were keen observers of the heavens.  The discovery of a physical structure that appears to incorporate this knowledge suggests pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon rain forest may have been more sophisticated than previously assumed.  Cabral believes it was once inhabited by the ancestors of the Palikur Indians, and while the blocks have not yet been submitted to carbon dating, she reported that pottery shards near the site indicate they are pre-Columbian and maybe as much as 2,000 years old.  According to archaeologists, the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs built large cities and huge rock structures, but pre-Columbian Amazon societies built smaller settlements of wood and clay that quickly deteriorated in the hot, humid Amazon climate, disappearing centuries ago.  Researchers got involved last year after the site was noticed by geographers doing a socio-economic survey of the area by foot and helicopter.  Scientists commenting on the discovery said it could prove valuable to understanding pre-Columbian societies in the Amazon.  According to Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida's Department of Anthropology, while carbon dating and further excavation must be carried out, the find adds to a growing body of thought among archaeologists that prehistory in the Amazon region was more varied than had been believed.  Brazilian archaeologists will return in August, when the rainy season ends, to carry out further excavations and gather samples for carbon dating.

Golden breastplates from Bulgaria encode the ancient Thracian calendar


Our final story is from a recent conference in Bulgaria where researchers described the gold Thracian breastplates that have helped reconstruct the ancient Thracian Calendar.  The most recent of them comes from near Veliko Turnovo (vuh-LEE-koh TURN-oh-vo).   This and other breastplates have been studied by Ventseslav Tsonev (VEN-ci-slav TSOH-neff), of the Regional Historical Museum in Veliko Turnovo.   According to Tsonev (TSOH-neff), the Thracians’ calendar had three seasons and 60 holy days. A year consisted of 12 months with 360 days, five days being added to the last month every year.  There are no written records dealing with the Thracians’ concept of time, but this calendar was reconstructed based on the symbols on the ceremonial gold metal adornments worn by the Thracians.  Tsonev (TSOH-neff) has studied seven out of 40 of these Thracian breastplates found in Bulgaria.  The inscriptions on the breastplates consist mainly of serpents, geometrical figures and lines.  Using a mathematical model, the number of serpents and lines are fixed to correspond to the numbers considered holy by the Thracians.  According to Tsonev, the Thracians’ calendar resembles very closely the one used by Egyptians for thousands of years.  Mainstream knowledge of the Thracians has tended to rely solely upon ancient Greek depictions of them as a savage, tribal society that had no politics and no alphabet of its own.   However, in July 2004, Bulgarian archeologist Georgi Kitov (YOR-gy KIH-toff) excavated an ancient tomb near Kazanluk (KAH-zan-LUKE) and found over 130 pieces of magnificent jewelry, weaponry and ritual artifacts that show Thracian culture rivaling the Greeks.  Kitov also discovered gold breastplates of the kind studied by Tsonev (TSOH-neff).  Thrace was an ancient geographical and political area ruled by the Byzantine Empire until early in the ninth century when most of the region was incorporated into Bulgaria.  The region formerly known as Thrace has been fought over by Bulgaria, Byzantium, Turkey and Greece.  The Thracians were known as great warriors; Spartacus, the gladiator slave who led a rebel war against the Romans, was a Thracian.  You can see more about ancient Thrace in the film, Pages from the Perpetual Chronicle of Plovdiv, right here at

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