Audio News for April 15th to April 21st, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 15th to April 21st, 2007.


Major Australian rock art find shows gathering of supreme beings

Our first story is from Australia, where last spring, archaeologists discovered a rock platform in the Wollemi National Park that may be the closest thing Australia has to Mount Olympus.  Measuring 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, the massive slab of sandstone is covered in ancient art, depicting an extraordinary collection of powerful ancestral beings from aboriginal mythology.  Last week, the same archaeologists who found the platform, Dr. Matthew Kelleher and Michael Jackson, returned with a rock art expert from Griffith University, Professor Paul Tacon, Wayne Brennan, and several other colleagues. Two senior members of the Aboriginal community joined the expedition.  For the better part of the day, the engravings are almost invisible.  In the low light of dawn and dusk, the images are briefly revealed.  The team had five days to document 42 figurative themes, and by the first evening they had recognized a gathering of the gods.  The Supreme Being Baiame and his son Daramulan are both present.  Near them is an evil and powerful club-footed being.  Several ancestral emu women are also depicted, and perhaps the most powerful of the images, an eagle man in various manifestations.  According to Professor Tacon, the site is the Aboriginal equivalent of the palace on Mount Olympus where the Olympians, the 12 immortals of ancient Greece, were believed to have lived.   It is extremely rare to see large gatherings of ancestral beings represented together, even in famous rock art regions in the north.  The Wollemi is dissected by deep canyons and in places almost impassable.  And yet archaeologists have found hundreds of sites in the past five years.  It seems almost certain that the engravings are part of a much larger network of song lines and stories, the full meaning of which is all but lost.  David Pross, one of the senior members of the Aboriginal community, was struck by the complexity of the tale that the drawings must once have told.  In many cases, the figures seem to point to other important geographical features or major cultural sites, and possibly to patterns in the stars.  The team also found evidence of everyday existence, such as shelters that still bear signs of hand stencils, a partial stone axe head, flakes from stone tools and, at the back of a cave, timber stacked by ancient people to await their use.

Mexican site suggests prehistoric child sacrifice


In Mexico, at the ancient city of Tula, archaeologists have discovered the remains of two dozen children who appear to have been sacrificed to a rain god nearly a thousand years ago. It may be the first evidence that the ancient Toltec civilization sacrificed children.  According to archaeologist Luis Gamboa, the way the bodies were placed in the grave, and the fact they were buried with a figurine of Tlaloc, the God of rain, points to a group sacrifice.  The bodies were found in a single pit discovered by accident during construction just outside the archaeological site.  The Toltecs were a war-like pre-Aztec civilization known for sacrificing adult humans, mainly prisoners of war, to the gods. Based in the ancient city of Tula, they thrived until the late 12th century, influencing much of Mexico until the Aztecs rose to prominence.  Tula is best known today for its fearsome 15-foot-high stone warrior figures.

Ancient building technology revealed at Buddhist site


In Bangladesh, researchers recently found a cement-like ancient building material, known as vajralepa, dating back to the Gupta era of AD 320 to 600.   The material was found during an excavation at the Bhair Dhap site in Bogra.  According to Regional Director Abdul Khalaque, this is the first time that building material from such an ancient time has been found.  It was used and still visible in the construction of the walls of the two Buddhist temples from the 5th-6th century AD recently discovered at the site.  Vajralepa is similar to cement and was made from bananas, grains, and a broth prepared from boiling buffalo hide.  Indian authors mentioned vajralepa and its use in books like "Bharat Samhita" and "Visnudharmotantra".  Meanwhile, artifacts including terracotta plaques with Brahmi inscriptions were found in huge numbers at the site.  The Brahmi inscriptions show ancient formation of some Bangla letters.  The other items found at the site include terracotta balls, decorated terracotta, arch panels, and ornamental bricks.

Analysis of lake mud contaminants in Andes sheds light on metalworking history


Our final story is from Peru, where metals found in lake mud in the central Andes have revealed the first evidence for pre-Colonial metal smithing.  To recreate a metallurgical history, the scientists measured the strength of copper, lead, zinc, antimony, bismuth, silver, and titanium in sediments from Laguna Pirhuacocha that were contaminated by metal pollutants from ancient furnace smoke.   Colin Cooke, an environmental scientist at the University of Alberta, reports that these findings can help archaeologists recreate the history of how artifacts were made, even when looters have destroyed the artifacts themselves, which could normally be relied upon to reveal historical secrets. Pre-Colonial bronze artifacts have previously been found dating back to about AD 1000, after the fall of the Wari or Huari civilization, the largest empire before the Incas.  However, it has been unclear how metallurgy developed, or whether or not these artifacts even came from the Andes. The trace metals that Cooke and his colleagues focused on are each linked with certain metallurgical practices.  A large rise in zinc and copper levels relative to lead concentrations suggest copper smelting, while increases in lead, antimony and bismuth point to silver metallurgy.  They used carbon dating and lead isotope dating to figure out when the metals inside the mud samples were deposited.  The scientists found the earliest evidence for metallurgy dated to between AD 1000 and 1200, after the fall of the Wari but well before the rise of the Inca.  Metallurgy at that time seemed aimed toward copper and copper alloys.   Interestingly, Cooke noted, even though we normally associate metals and technological development with large states and empires, the onset of metallurgy seems to have occurred just as the Wari Empire was disappearing from the scene.  The Wari collapsed due possibly to a massive drought that dropped Lake Titicaca by 20 feet.   After 1450, the villages switched from copper to silver, according to these research findings.  The researchers noted that this coincided with Inca control, when rulers imposed a tax, payable in silver. The precious metal had ceremonial status among the Inca.  The team has so far collected additional samples from some 30 other sites throughout the Andes for further analysis.  Cooke and his group hope to reconstruct the history of metallurgy in the New World through this kind of detailed analysis.

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