Audio News for November 26th to December 2nd, 2006.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for November 19th to November 25th, 2006.

At 70,000 years, South African religious site may be world’s oldest


Our first story is from Botswana, where the discovery of carvings on a snake-shaped rock along with 70,000-year-old spearheads has dramatically pushed back the earliest evidence for ritual behavior, or what could be called religion.  The finding comes from a cave hidden in the Tsodilo Hills, an area the local people call the Mountain of the Gods.  Prior to the discovery, researchers had identified signs of ritual practice going back at most 40,000 years from sites in Europe.   But research shows that modern humans probably emerged from East Africa around 120,000 years ago.  According to Sheila Coulson, University of Oslo archaeologist and project leader, this time lag between the time of modern human emergence and the first appearance of more complex aspects of culture has always been the puzzle.  Although some carved ornaments and wall markings from another African site are as old as the new find, they seem to have had no obvious ritual significance.  When the local San (SAHN) people invited Coulson and her colleagues to study the cave in Tsodilo Hills, they were stunned by what they found: a six-meter-long rock that bore a striking resemblance to a snake, including a mouth-like gash at the end.  Hundreds of small notches covered the rock.  Entrants to the cave apparently made these markings to enhance the snake illusion by creating the impression of scales and movement.  Snakes feature prominently in the traditions and the mythology of the San (SAHN), sometimes called the Bushmen.  According to their creation myth, humankind is descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its unending search for water.  Although many of the carvings looked old, other markers of the site's long use lay buried in rock beneath the soft cave floor.  In an excavation next to the snake, more than 100 multicolored spear points were found among a total of 13,000 human-made artifacts.  The spear points closely resemble those found elsewhere in Africa that researchers have dated at up to 77,000 years old.  Due to the rare colors of the stone points and the pattern of fragments, Coulson theorizes that people from extended distances brought them to the cave partially made and finished working them there.  Some of the stone tips seem to have been burned or smashed in what may have been a type of sacrifice.  Of 22 tips made from red stone, all show cracks and faults consistent with exposure to high heat.  

London coffin dates to Roman times


In London, archaeologists discovered a rare Roman sarcophagus containing a headless skeleton at the site of the historic St. Martin-in-the-Fields church.  The limestone coffin, dating to about AD 410, was found 10 feet below the grounds of the church and outside the boundaries researchers had established for London's Roman city walls.  According to Taryn Nixon, director of the Museum of London Archaeology Service, the find has opened up a new area of Roman London for study and an extraordinary glimpse of parts of London we haven't seen before, particularly Roman London and Saxon London.  Research teams this summer discovered 24 medieval burial sites in the area over and around the Roman sarcophagus.  The sarcophagus was constructed from a single piece of limestone from Oxfordshire or Northamptonshire, about 60 miles northwest of London.  The skeleton, headless and missing its fingers, was a 5-foot, 6-inch tall man who died in his 40s.  Researchers hypothesize that Victorian workmen building a sewer stumbled upon the sarcophagus and took the skull.  According to Roman history expert Hedley Swain, the site is about a mile west of the boundary of Roman London established by researchers.  It is unclear if the burial was Christian.  Archaeologists made two similar finds in London during the 1970s and one at Westminster Abbey during the 19th century.  Other finds in the area  include a Roman tile kiln, Anglo-Saxon jewelry, false teeth, a copper bowl, and a green-blue glass cup.

Materials scientist claims concrete used in pyramids


In a new study, scientists believe they have found more to the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza than cut natural limestone.  According to their hypothesis, some original parts of the massive structures are made of concrete blocks.  If proven, this would be the earliest known application of concrete technology, 2,500 years before the Romans started using it widely in harbors, amphitheaters and other architecture.  Reporting the results of his study, Michel W. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, concluded that the use of limestone concrete could explain in part how the Egyptians were able to complete such massive monuments.  According to Barsoum, they used concrete blocks on the outer and inner casings and areas where it would have been difficult to lift carved stone.  Using X-rays, a plasma torch and electron microscopes to compare small fragments from pyramids with stone from the Toura and Maadi quarries, Dr. Barsoum and his team analyzed the mineralogy of samples from several parts of the Khufu pyramid.  They found mineral ratios that do not exist in any known limestone sources. From the geochemical mix of lime, sand and clay, they concluded, that it was cast concrete.  Opponents of the theory dispute the scientific evidence.  They also say that the diverse shapes of the stones show that molds were not used.  A huge amount of limestone chalk and burnt wood would have been needed to make the concrete, while the Egyptians had the manpower to hoist all the natural stone they wanted.  Most Egyptologists believe the pyramids were built with limestone blocks that were cut to shape at nearby quarries.  The blocks were then hauled to the sites, lifted up ramps and hoisted into place, possibly with the help of wedges and levers.  A geologist and another materials scientist familiar with the research urged serious consideration of the theory.  The use of concrete cannot be proven conclusively without more substantial samples.  In particular, the samples must be shown not to be from areas that have been restored in modern times, where concrete and other modern materials may have been used.

Pharoah’s hair pulled from Internet sale


In our final story, French police have arrested a man who tried to sell strands of hair from the head of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II on the Internet.  The man, who was not identified, was asking for between $2,700-$3,300 for the hair samples as well as for tiny pieces of resin and embalmed cloth taken from the pharaoh's mummy.  The suspect stated he had obtained the relics from his father, who had worked in a French laboratory entrusted with analysis and restoration of the body of Ramses during 1976-77.  A court official in the southeastern French city of Grenoble confirmed that it is Ramses' hair and they are investigating the possibility of fraudulent ownership.  Archaeologists and researchers who had worked on the project were horrified by the news.  Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, was born around 1304 BC and ruled Egypt for more than 60 years during the 19th Dynasty 3,200 years ago.   His mummy was discovered in 1881 and shortly afterwards removed to Cairo's Egyptian Museum.  In the early 1970s, authorities noticed that his body was deteriorating and sent it to Paris where it was treated for a fungal infection.  The Internet seller promised to provide certificates of authenticity to the eventual buyer of the relics.  The French foreign ministry said on Wednesday it was working closely with Egyptian authorities on the case.

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