Audio News for March 18th to March 24th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 18th to March 24th, 2007.



Balkan marsh yields remnants of ancient Illyrian ships

Our first story is from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where archaeologists have discovered the first remnants ever of the fabled ships of the ancient Illyrians.  According to team leader, Snjezana (snay-JAHN-a) Vasilj (vah-SEEL-ee), the ships were discovered about 24 feet under the water of Hutovo Blato (hoo-TOE-voh BLAH-toe), a marshland in southern Herzegovina.  The ships are believed to be more than 2,200 years old.  The Illyrians were a pre-Roman people of the Western Balkans.  Previous to this discovery, their powerful ships were known only through Greek and Roman myths and legends.  No trace of their existence, or firm details about their construction, had ever been found.  Vasilj believes that the Hutovo Blato marshland became their final destination after they sailed in from the Adriatic Sea that is connected with the marshland by the Neretva River.  The location will be excavated further, because researchers also discovered about 80 amphorae lids and more than 30 amphora fragments, some containing a hallmark.  Remains of an ancient Roman villa and an entire Roman spear were found at the same location, as well as seven graves, believed to date from the Bronze or Iron Age.  Illyrians were the earliest known inhabitants of the Western Balkans, including Bosnia, long before the Roman Empire took control over the region.

Archaeologists race to beat the flood from another Nile dam


Our next story is from Sudan, where international teams are working against the clock to rescue an entire swathe of Nile Valley heritage from the rising waters of a Chinese-built dam.  The Merowe dam is a controversial hydro-electric project, one of the largest in Africa, being built on the Nile's fourth cataract.  Flooding of the valley for more than 100 miles will start in mere months.  Archaeologists admit that an inestimable amount of information will be lost forever.  But the largest archaeological rescue project since the Nubian campaign launched in the 1960s during the construction of the Aswan dam has unearthed heritage that would likely have remained untapped.  According to antiquities chief Salah Ahmed, the area was completely unknown to archaeologists.  It was a missing chapter in Sudan's history, and nobody was planning to go there because of the difficult logistics.  Sudan's pre-Christian civilizations built more pyramids than the Egyptians but have received little attention since their ancient defeat by Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis I around the 15th century BC.   But for the past five years, teams of archaeologists from Britain, France, Germany, Poland, and a dozen other countries have been relentlessly searching the Nile riverbanks near Merowe, with some significant discoveries.   Some of the artifacts that have been found enabled archaeologists to expand knowledge of the borders of ancient kingdoms, such as Kerma, which ruled part of Nubia between 2,500 and 1,500 BC.  Also found for the first time in the fourth cataract area were the foundations of a pyramid, with Meroitic ceramics.  This gives political importance to the area, because it shows someone important was buried there.  Only a tiny fraction of the vast area has been excavated, however.  In addition to scorching heat and accessibility problems, tension exists between the government and local communities being evicted by the dam's growing reservoir.  The Manasir tribe, whose entire heartland will be submerged, has recently expelled foreign archaeologists, whom they accuse of helping put an acceptable face on the dam project.  The dam's completion will mark the end of an unprecedented period of intensively cooperative archaeology, but the lake will also swallow up countless early sites and major fortresses.   One more thing will haunt some archaeologists when the water covers the area: the thought that sitting under the dam's millions of tons of water and concrete may be a Sudanese Rosetta stone.  However unlikely, that kind of discovery would help unlock the mystery of Meroitic, one of the world's few undeciphered scripts, which appeared in the area around 25 centuries ago.  Ahmed explained that fourth cataract finds so far have made no significant contribution to understanding the Meroitic language.

Peruvian necropolis reveals differences in wealth and power


In Peru, an expedition to the province of Nazca (NAH-sca) has concluded that 2000 years ago, a new political power based on violence emerged to rule the country's south coast.  This was one finding by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (OO-nee-vair-see-dad ow-TOH-no-ma deh BAR-the-loh-na) and the University of Almería (all-meh-REE-ah) on completing the second part of their "Proyecto La Puntilla” (pro-YEC-toh la poon-TEE-ya).   The ancient state based in Cahuachi (ca-WAH-chee) was led by an aristocracy that exercised dominion over other, poorer communities in the Nazca Valley.  Excavations at the necropolis of El Trigal (el tree-GALL) have now uncovered new information on the consequences of the emergence of the State.  Researchers found that El Trigal graves are very simple, in contrast with the extravagant tombs of the aristocracy around Nazca.  This shows the poverty that slowly overtook the community of El Trigal after the rise of Cahuachi.  The original settlement of El Trigal, about 3000 years ago, was economically strong and had a vast network of trade relations, as shown by finds of valuable Spondylus shells coming from distant coasts and obsidian from the mountains.  But by the first century AD, when the necropolis of El Trigal was built, decline and poverty had set in.  It coincides with the emergence of Cahuachi.  One noteworthy finding at the necropolis was that some of the bodies found in the tombs have undergone physical manipulations.  One such manipulation was cranial deformation of one individual that produced an elongated skull.  This type of manipulation is characteristic of the aristocracy buried in the tombs in Paracas (pah-RAH-cas), and a number of studies suggest that this was a way of distinguishing dominant groups and families.  It is very significant that this has been found in an individual buried at the necropolis of a poor community.  This discovery poses new questions, such as whether this was the member of a family belonging to the dominant group or is a practice unrelated to social status.  The fieldwork for this season ended in December.  The artifacts and human remains uncovered are now being studied, and one aspect of study will be analysis of DNA in order to find affiliations of those individuals buried at the necropolis.

Physics answers the riddle of ancient Greek theater’s acoustics


Our final story is about ancient Greek theaters.  New research shows that the wonderful acoustics that make the ancient theatre of Epidaurus famous may come from exploiting intricate acoustic physics.   The acoustics are so excellent, a performer standing on the open-air stage can be heard by the back rows almost 200 feet away.  Architects and archaeologists have long speculated about what makes the sound transmit so well.  The theatre was discovered in 1881 under a layer of earth on the Peloponnese peninsula.  It has the classic semicircular shape of a Greek amphitheatre, with 34 rows of stone seats.  The Romans added 21 at a later date.  According to Nico Declercq and Cindy Dekeyser from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, the key is the arrangement of the stepped rows of seats.  They calculate that this structure is perfectly shaped to act as an acoustic filter, suppressing low-frequency sound while passing on the high frequencies of performers’ voices.   It's not clear whether this property comes from chance or design.  But either way, the Greeks and Romans valued the acoustics at Epidaurus as something special, and copied them elsewhere.  A first century BC Roman authority on architecture, Vitruvius, implied that his predecessors knew very well how to design a theatre to emphasize the human voice.  According to Vitruvius, it was by the rules of mathematics and the method of music, that they sought to make the voices from the stage rise more clearly and sweetly to the audience’s ears, and by the arrangement of theatres in accordance with the science of harmony, the ancients increased the power of the voice.  Later writers have speculated that the excellent acoustics of Epidaurus, built in the fourth century BC, might be due to the prevailing direction of the wind.  But none of this explains why a modern performer at Epidaurus, which is still sometimes used for performances, can be heard so well even on a windless day.   Declercq and Dekeyser alleged that the answer might be connected to the way sound reflects off corrugated surfaces.  It has been known for several years now that these can filter sound waves to emphasize certain frequencies.   Declercq has shown previously that the stepped surface of a Mayan ziggurat in Mexico can make handclaps or footsteps sound like bird chirps or rainfall.  Now he and Dekeyser have calculated how the rows of stone benches at Epidaurus affect sound bouncing off them, and find that frequencies lower than 500 hertz are more damped than higher ones.  The researchers say that most of the noise produced in and around the theatre was probably low-frequency noise.  So filtering out the low frequencies improves the audibility of the performers' voices, which are rich in higher frequencies, at the expense of the noise.   Declercq cautions that the presence of a seated audience would alter the effect, however, in ways that are hard to gauge.   Filtering out the low frequencies means that these are less audible in the spoken voice as well as in background noise.  But this isn’t a problem, because the human auditory system can 'put back' some of the missing low frequencies in high-frequency sound.  There is a neurological phenomenon called virtual pitch that enables the human brain to reconstruct a sound source even in the absence of the lower tones.

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