Audio News for October 22nd to October 28th, 2006.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for October 22nd to October 28th, 2006.

Early Bronze Age tomb complex unearthed in Syria


Our first story is from Syria where an ancient, untouched tomb discovered six years ago led archaeologists to a similar find.  The original tomb, filled with human and animal remains as well as gold and silver treasures dating back to the third millennium BC, is actually one of at least eight located near each other.  According to Glenn Schwartz, Whiting Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, the newly discovered tombs contain signs of the ritual sacrifice of humans and animals, including the skeletons of infants and decapitated donkeys.  Given these discoveries, he believes the tomb complex is a royal cemetery.  The tomb complex is located in Umm el-Marra, about 35 miles east of the site of Aleppo, the main city and dominant center in the region dating at least as far back as 2000 BC.  Umm el-Marra is in the Jabbul plain of northern Syria, just west of the Euphrates River. It is situated on what was a vital east-west trade route connecting Mesopotamia with Aleppo and ultimately the Mediterranean Sea. According to Schwartz, Umm el-Marra's close proximity to one of Syria's largest salt lakes would have added to its economic importance.  The new tombs were identified and excavated by the Johns Hopkins team in the summers of 2002, 2004 and 2006. Given differences in ceramic objects found in the tombs, Schwartz and his team have concluded that they were built sequentially over three centuries, from about 2500 to about 2200 BC. The tombs were built next to each other, with the complex expanding horizontally. Since they found no more than eight skeletons per tomb, the archaeologists theorize that these are tombs of different families or dynasties.  Most of the tombs had been damaged to varying degrees. Schwartz does not believe that the damage was the work of modern grave robbers, but more likely occurred near the time when they were built.  Some tombs, like Tomb 4, remained entirely intact until their discovery.  A previously unseen variety of non-cuneiform writing carved into four small clay cylinders was also found in the proximity of these tombs and requires further evaluation.  Much is yet to be explored and analyzed before archaeologists fully understand the tomb complex and all it can teach them about rulership and ritual in early urban Syria.

Ancient Mexican footprints may be oldest in the Americas


In northern Mexico, a trail of 13 fossilized footprints running through a desert valley could be among the oldest in the Americas.  According to archaeologist Yuri de la Rosa Gutierrez of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the footprints were made by hunter gatherers who lived thousands of years ago in the Coahuila valley of Cuatro Cienegas, 190 miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas.  De la Rosa said in a news release that they believe the footprints are between 10,000 and 15,000 years old.  Only initial tests to find the age of the prints have been conducted and more tests will be carried out both in Mexico and at a laboratory in Bristol in Great Britain.  The footprints were embedded in a white rock called travertine.  Each measured 10 inches long and under an inch deep, covering a distance of over 30 feet.  The oldest discovered footprints in the Western hemisphere are in Chile, and are believed to be 13,000 years old.  There are also 6,000-year old footprints in California, in Brazil and in Nicaragua. The age of the Mexican footprints is dwarfed by those found in Africa. The oldest known hominid footmarks are in Laetoli, in Tanzania, and are believed to have been made 3.5 million years ago.

Archaeological finds in Australia reveal details about the Battle of Vinegar Hill


In Australia, the country’s bloodiest convict uprising, the Battle of Vinegar Hill, has taken on new life thanks to the discovery of the stone barracks in Castle Hill from which the Irish convicts escaped.  This important piece in the historical puzzle has led researchers to the likely location of the barn and other structures on the government farm, where in 1804 the subjugated men plotted their rebellion.  According to Sydney archaeologist, Matthew Kelly, after years of searching for the barracks, an aerial shot of the district taken in 1943 by road authorities was crucial in pinpointing the location of its foundations earlier this year.  He said the Castle Hill Heritage Park, where the prison farm was created in 1801, is a nationally significant site because of the artifacts unearthed there and its links with the fight for Irish independence.  An unsigned watercolor of the farm painted before the two-story barracks was built in 1803 reveals the position of the barn.  On the evening of March 4, 1804, hundreds of convicts escaped with cries of "death or liberty," intending to march on nearby Parramatta, west of Sydney.  They met a bloody end the next morning, at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, when government troops killed 15 rebels.  The barracks were converted into a lunatic asylum in 1811 and then into a church, before being demolished by 1866.  Two years ago the team unearthed the remains of a kitchen from the asylum period.  The 1943 aerial photo gave the team the confidence to demolish a cottage, which was on top of the foundations, and begin excavations in April. The stone footings have since been covered over again for protection.  A plan is being developed to protect the site and educate people about its cultural significance.

Tomb robbers lead archaeologists to Egyptian dentists’ tombs


Our final story is from Egypt, where the arrest of tomb robbers has led archaeologists to the graves of three royal dentists.  Protected by a curse and hidden in the desert sands for thousands of years, the graves were found in the shadow of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser — believed to be Egypt's oldest pyramid.  The thieves launched their own dig one summer night but were apprehended.  The criminal incident led archaeologists to the three tombs, one of which included an inscription warning that anyone who violated the sanctity of the grave would be eaten by a crocodile and a snake.  The tombs date back more than 4,000 years ago to the 5th Dynasty and were meant to honor a chief dentist and two others who cared for the teeth of the pharaohs and their families.  Their location near the pyramid indicates the respect given to the dentists by Egypt's ancient kings.  The tombs, which did not contain their mummies, were built of mud-brick and limestone, not the pure limestone preferred by ancient Egypt's upper class.  According to Carol Redmount, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley, eternal life was the main goal of the tomb builders and whoever commissioned it. Therefore, tomb construction required permanent raw materials.  Figures covering the pillars in the doorway of the chief dentist's tomb reveal much information about his life and habits.  Just around the corner of the doorway is a false door, its face painstakingly inscribed with miniature hieroglyphics.  A shallow basin located below it would have acted as a place where the dead in the tomb would come up and interact with the living.  Though archaeologists have been exploring Egypt's ruins intensively for more than 150 years, Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, believes only 30 percent of what lies hidden beneath the sands has been uncovered.  Excavation continues at Saqqara and the research team expects to find more tombs in the area.  The Step Pyramid is the forerunner of the more familiar straight-sided pyramids in Giza on the outskirts of Cairo, which were built about a century later.

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