Audio News for March 11th to March 17th, 2007  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 11th to March 17th, 2007.



DNA tests from headless burials may reveal ancient Pacific migration routes


Our first story is from the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, where archaeologists have discovered the region's oldest cemetery.  The unusual 3,000-year-old skeletons belong to the earliest known inhabitants, the Lapita people.  Their DNA may reveal how the many tiny islands surrounding Vanuatu were settled.  According to dig leader Matthew Spriggs, an archaeologist with the Australian National University, both Vanuatu and Western Polynesia were first settled by the Lapita culture; however, each island’s populations are somewhat different from one another genetically.  These Vanuatu burials comprise mismatched bodies and heads of individuals from different areas of the Pacific Islands.  A total of 70 headless bodies, seven skulls, and some rare pots have been unearthed at the site over several seasons.  In addition, the deceased were all first buried with their skulls firmly attached.  Spriggs explained that the head was believed to contain the soul.  Often the individual was dug up after burial following the decomposition process and kept either in skull shrines or in the house as a treasured memento of the person.  None of the skulls belonged to the bodies with which they were buried, tests showed.   According to the preliminary DNA testing, many of the skulls and bodies found already might belong to individuals from islands other than Vanuatu.   The team, which also included Stuart Bedford of the Australian National University and Ralph Regenvanu of the Vanuatu National Museum, reported that they currently lack the background data to enable them to pinpoint specific islands in the Pacific, only whether they were born on the island where they were found.  Four of about 18 individuals tested thus far exhibit evidence of having been born elsewhere.  Future DNA results will allow scientists to understand just how the Lapita people got to Vanuatu and what route they took from there to populate islands like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.  Many historians believe they originally made the journey from Southeast Asia, but the topic is disputed.

Archaeologists in Belgium uncover the remains of a secret WWI tunnel complex


Our next story is from Belgium, where a large complex of secret tunnels built by British Commonwealth soldiers during World War I has been discovered under a field near Ypres in Flanders.   Archaeologists searching for the underground headquarters of a British unit found a maze of flooded tunnels covering an area the size of three soccer fields.   Using radar technology, the team discovered a once-famous complex of corridors, mess rooms and sleeping quarters known as Vampire Dugout.   The dugout lies 40 feet below the surface and is named after the band of soldiers who came out at night to re-supply the front lines.   Historians expect to find a treasure trove of personal belongings, clothes, weapons, bedding, and newspapers.  Archaeologists first estimated the bunker would measure 600 feet by 450 feet, but tunnels have been located over an area 2400 feet by 1800 feet, and its outer limits have not yet been found.  Originally believed to have housed 50 British troops, the complex is now estimated to have been home to at least 300 soldiers.  After the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, when a quarter of a million soldiers died as troops advanced the few miles to Passchendaele Ridge, a brigade headquarters was built in this location.  Within a week of its completion in 1918, the Germans swept through during their spring offensive and recaptured all the territory the British previously gained.   They moved into the tunnels and extended them. As the war drew to a close they were finally abandoned as British Commonwealth troops advanced again in the autumn of 1918. The tunnels were ultimately sealed and flooded.   Peter Barton, historian, author and expert in underground warfare, is hoping to be able to get back into the tunnels.  Unfortunately, his dreams are a race against time. Excavations in a nearby clay-pit will result in the draining of the water inside the tunnel system that preserve the WWI remains.  Furthermore, excavation of the tunnels will be a dangerous and expensive process. For example, archaeologists will first need to find an entrance.  Moreover, the farmer wants his fields back to plant his next crop, which might delay the dig until next fall.  

Ancient burials in Mexico hint at regional contact outside Mesoamerica


In the Mexican state of Nayarit, archaeologists have found more than 100 bodies in 29 different pre-Hispanic tombs that date about 2,000 years.  According to Raúl Barrera, who leads the archaeological project for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, most of the remains belonged to women between the ages of 35 and 40.  Researchers have not yet determined which civilization the remains are from, but they know the find dates back to the period between 200 B.C.  and A.D. 600.  The tombs are located in vertical chambers—a type of burial ground found in Nayarit, Colima, Michoacán, Zacatecas, and parts of Jalisco—but they have not been found elsewhere in Mesoamerica.  Instead, this tomb style has been found in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, or areas considered outside what archaeologists typically designate as Mesoamerica.  However, Barrera noted that there might have been cultural and trade links between the regions. Furthermore, artifacts from these countries have been discovered on the coast of Nayarit.  Archaeologists theorize that this type of tomb may have signified some type of a return to the womb of Mother Earth.  Tomb contents varied depending on the social status of the individual.  The team found figurines of warriors, ball players, pregnant women, and animals in the tombs, as well as vessels and various types of jewelry.  Barrera reported that the sites contained only burial grounds and no dwellings.  Of the 29 tombs, 28 were found at the La Playa site and the other one was located at Las Lagunillas. Only 12 of the tombs were still intact, while the others have been looted at some point.

Watchtower from the Middle Ages found in Norway


Our final story is from Norway, where excavators in Trondheim have found the remains of a watchtower made of stone that likely dates to the time of King Sverre in the 1100s.  The tower, which would have been more than 60 feet high, is being hailed as a rare discovery that may shed new light on Trondheim's history.   Preservationists believe the tower ruins will be a new attraction in the city that's famed for its landmark Nidaros Cathedral.  It's also only the second non-church-related stone structure found from the early Middle Ages in Trondheim.  The tower is mentioned in a literary piece written about a 1206 massacre that occurred in the city.   According to archaeologist Ian Reed, the tower was located close to the mouth of the river Nidelven and featured a view over the fjord.  Fortunately, the structure floor is in excellent condition while the team has also found the sides of the tower's lower walls, which are about four-and-a-half feet thick.  Reed believes the tower was torn down in the late 1600s because residents needed its stone blocks for new house foundations built after a major fire.  An alternative explanation suggests that the structure would have provided material for repairs to Nidaros Cathedral.

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