Audio News for July 1st to July 7th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for July 1st to July 7th, 2007.


Unusual chamber found in tomb of China’s first emperor


Our first story is from China, where archaeologists have found an unusual pyramid-shaped chamber while surveying the massive underground tomb of China's first emperor.  Researchers theorize it was built as a passageway for his soul.  Remote sensing equipment has revealed what appears to be a 100-foot-high room above Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb near the ancient capital of Xi'an in Shaanxi province.  Diagrams of the chamber are based on data gathered over five years of using radar and other remote sensing technologies.  According to Archaeologist Liu Qingzhu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the room is unlike any ever found in a Chinese tomb.  Archaeologists theorize that because the room was built on top of Qin's mausoleum with ladder-like steps leading up, it was intended as a passageway for his spirit.  Qin, who ruled from 221-210 BC, is credited with starting construction of the Great Wall and commissioning an army of terra cotta soldiers to guard his tomb. Immediately upon ascending the throne of his clan at the age of 13, Qin Shi Huang, who became the first Emperor of all China, began the project  for his mausoleum, which took 36 years to complete.

Large-scale DNA testing to solve Czech noble mystery

In the Czech Republic, DNA testing will be used in a unique project to solve a thousand year old mystery about the noble occupants of Dark Age graves in a Prague castle.  DNA from nineteen individuals who likely belonged to the Czech noble Premyslid family, the founders of the Bohemian kingdom who ruled the country for 400 years, will be used to establish their identities.  In a parallel comparison, 50 to70 tests will be carried out on remains from ordinary graves found around the ancient castle site.  According to DNA forensic expert Daniel Vanek, this is a unique project in terms of the scale of what is being done.  Nothing this big has ever been attempted in the world before.  His team of specialists had to prove the worth of their DNA testing.  They made use of a new cleaning technique allowing small amounts of very old human material to be used.  In this case 3,000-year-old remains from the Bronze Age were used to prove their method.  Then the tests were allowed on what are believed to be the remains of the Czech nobles, which were found in three different sites on the hill where the current castle is located.  One of the main mysteries to be solved is whether one skeleton, nicknamed "the warrior" because he was buried with his sword and battle equipment, is a member of the Czech royal house.  The DNA testing will be used to verify the dynastic history of the Premyslids, founded by Borivoj the First, around AD 872.  It will also be used to confirm Borivoj's burial place.  The project involves a 15-member multi-disciplinary team of scientists and archaeologists and is expected to last three to four years and producing results from the first tests next year.

Evidence of DeSoto’s camp in Apalachee settlement


In the United States, from October of 1539 to March of 1540, more than 60 years before the English settled Jamestown, Hernando de Soto and about 600 Spanish soldiers seized the town of Anhaica from the Apalachee Indians.  They moved in for the winter before resuming their search for riches they heard could be found in the New World.  However, the conquistador de Soto and his men left behind remnants of their time on a hilltop that is now almost in the shadow of the state capitol.  They also left behind a native culture that had thrived in this area, but was changed forever by contact with the Spaniards and the diseases they brought.  Historians have long known from journals of de Soto’s men that they spent the winter somewhere in the Tallahassee area. They didn’t know exactly where until the 1980s, when a state archaeologist asked some developers for permission to survey an area they were planning to turn into an office complex.  Archaeologist Calvin Jones was looking for signs of a Spanish mission from the more recent past.  Instead, he found chain mail armor fragments, coins and other artifacts that, because of their age, could have only been left by de Soto’s group.  They also found remnants of the Apalachee settlement that de Soto invaded.  The site has since been purchased by the state.  There is little to mark the significance of the site to history, but five centuries later it continues to yield clues.  Archaeology students from Florida State University continue to work at the site, where chain mail fragments, crossbow dart tips, glass beads, and pieces of pottery can still be unearthed.  The field school gives the students a chance to experience what draws most archaeologists into the field — being transported to another time and understanding what people did and how they lived.  While the site is perhaps more significant as the only definitive site associated archaeologically with Hernando de Soto, the clues to what life was like for the Indians are also remarkable.  According to Andrea White, an archaeologist with the State of Florida who oversees the students, many people tend to focus on de Soto’s occupation of the site, without trying to create a balanced view of what pre-contact Native American culture was like.  The Apalachee lost their homes and would see their culture dramatically diminished by European contact.  After wandering thousands of miles over four years through what is now 10 Southeastern states, de Soto died in the wilderness, never finding the gold he and his men were seeking.  Only a few members of his party survived, making their way to Spanish Mexico.

Early human toolkit found in India suggests resilient population


Our final story is from India, where a stash of ancient tools indicates that life went on as usual for those living in the fall-out of a massive volcanic eruption that occurred 74,000 years ago.  Michael Petraglia from the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have found stone tools at a site called Jwalapuram, in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, above and below a thick layer of ash from the eruption of the Toba volcano in Indonesia – an event known as the Youngest Toba Tuff eruption.  The tools from each layer were remarkably similar and, according to Petraglia, this shows that the huge dust clouds from the eruption didn't wipe out the population of tool-using people.  This is the first archaeological evidence associated with the Toba super-eruption, says Petraglia, and it contradicts theories that the eruption had a catastrophic effect on the area that its ash blanketed.  Petraglia thinks that modern humans — rather than Neanderthals or other hominins — are the only species that would have been able to persist through an event as dramatic as the Toba eruption.  This theory will spur much debate, he admits, because modern humans were not thought to have reached India from Africa, so long ago.  In this wee’s edition of the journal Science, Petraglia and his team compared the tools to others found in Africa from different periods.  The Indian tools look a lot like those from the African Middle Stone Age about 100,000 years ago, when modern humans were thought to have lived, he says.  Neanderthal toolkits found in Europe are very different, he says. This is more evidence that the ash-covered inhabitants of Jwalapuram were modern humans.  Stanley Ambrose, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disagrees with Petraglia's conclusions, which he says are highly speculative.  Ambrose argues that Petraglia's sample size of artifacts is too small to make proper comparisons with other tools. Also, he adds, stone artifacts are not enough to differentiate Neanderthals from modern humans.  Petraglia says he has plenty more stone tools to back up his suggestions, beyond the ones presented in Science.  He adds that much more work needs to be done on the Indian subcontinent, and much more needs to be learned from comparing archaeological evidence in Africa to that in India.  Both Ambrose and Petruglia agree that the best evidence for early modern humans in India will be human skeletal remains.  The search is now on for that kind of evidence.

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