Audio News for August 19th to August 25th, 2007.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for August 19th to August 25th, 2007.


From buried Mayan field, evidence that manioc was on the menu


Our first story is from El Salvador, where researchers have found the earliest direct evidence of manioc cultivation, preserved in volcanic ash.  The 1,400-year-old field was buried by volcanic activity shortly after it was harvested.  Manioc is a tuber also known as cassava.  It produces the highest amount of food energy of any cultivated crop.  Its widespread use by the Maya could help explain how they sustained high population densities.  The discovery was made by archaeologist Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado, in the village of Ceren (ser-EHN), just west of modern San Salvador.  Fifteen hundred years ago, Ceren was a village of about 200 people.  Archaeologists had strongly suspected that the people of Ceren did cultivate manioc, but there was no direct evidence of it.  The idea that manioc was used by the Maya was first proposed in 1966 by archaeologist Ben Bronson.  The manioc tuber provides 6 to 10 times more food energy per acre as corn, which means it can maintain much large populations.  Cooked much like a potato, or made into puddings, it is similar to other foods that are high in sugars.  At Ceren, the evidence for manioc cultivation was discovered in June when Sheets and his colleagues were excavating an underground anomaly revealed by ground-penetrating radar.  Beds about three feet wide and two feet high held the manioc crop.  The plants themselves had disintegrated long ago, leaving holes in the solidified ash.  The archaeologists carefully filled the holes with plaster of Paris, and then chipped away the ash to reveal the details of what had been there.  The manioc had apparently just been harvested and then replanted, with sections of stalks laid into the ground to take root and produce new plants.  Only a few tubers had been missed.  According to Sheets, the evidence indicates that the planting was done just hours before the eruption.   Ceren has been called the American Pompeii. When 17 feet of ash from the volcano known as Laguna Caldera buried the area in AD 590, the houses and all of their contents were preserved in detail along with many fields.   Sheets and his research team have been able to measure how high the ancient cornstalks stood in the fields, which shows that the catastrophe took place in late summer.  They also noted that it was late enough in the day that farming tools had been put away, but because bedding in the houses was not yet unrolled for sleeping, it shows the eruption must have occurred in the early evening.  An earthquake occurred before the eruption, and must have frightened the villagers out of their homes, as no bodies have been found.  The new discovery may help researchers trace evidence of manioc cultivation at other locations.  

Ancient Albanian fortress shows the unrest of the early Iron Age


Our next story is from Albania, where archaeologists are reporting that the northern mountains have been a hideout for an unexpectedly long time.  An expedition led by archaeologist Michael Galaty of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, has been working in the Shala Valley in northern Albania's mountains.   According to Galaty, it has long been known that five hundred years ago, people fleeing the brutalities of the Ottoman Empire came into the region to hide in its valleys and caves.  In 2006, the team had expected to find evidence of the life of these refugees.  On one rocky ridge near the village of Grunas (groo-NAS) are the remains of walls, which they initially assumed were from one such sixteenth-century hideout.  However, examination revealed that the walls were the style known as cyclopean, that is, made of large boulders roughly fitted together without any mortar.  This is typical of the Bronze Age period of the Greek Kingdom of Mycenae.  Instead of a medieval place of escape, the team had unearthed the remains of a fortress from the Bronze Age, some time around 800 BC.  The early age was confirmed by a radiocarbon date, chemical analysis of the potshards found, and the presence and style of stone tools.  The discovery is particularly interesting because it comes from a time of cultural change and upheaval.  Around 800 BC, the shift from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age had started in the region north of Greece.  The Greeks were emerging from a Dark Age that had lasted for several centuries, and beginning what would become perennial warfare with the Illyrian kingdoms that occupied the Adriatic coast just south of Albania.  Galaty's team, which includes Ols Lafe of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology and Zamir Tafilica of Albania's Historical Museum, went back this year to try to learn who owned the fortress.  They uncovered at least five buildings, two of which were stone, mud-plastered homes for more than a dozen people.   The fortress area also yielded foundations of a pair of lookout towers, a gate, and several huge terraces.  Galaty believes a few hundred people likely lived in the fortress.  The terrace walls, several feet thick and reaching more than 15 feet high in places, were carefully engineered in place, a typical practice in the Greek world, but unknown farther north.  Although the team members are still deciphering who lived in Grunas, much of the pottery they have uncovered appears to originate along the Illyrian coast, suggesting that even if the occupants of Grunas were hiding from the Illyrians, they may have been trading with them as well.

Israeli wall reveals the footprint where a Roman soldier stepped


In Israel, archaeologists have discovered a footprint left by the sandal of a Roman soldier.  It is well-known that thousands of Roman soldiers marched across the classical world in their characteristic sturdy, hobnailed sandals.   But the find of an actual physical trace of their footsteps is extremely rare. Prior to this finding, the sandal prints of Roman legionnaires had been discovered only in Hadrian's Wall in Britain.   The newest footprint from the past comes from a wall surrounding the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine city of Sussita (SOO-si-ta).  The city is on the top of a flat hill that rises on the east side of Yam Kinneret (YAHM KINN-a-RETT), the Biblical Sea of Galilee.  The soldier’s footprint clearly showed the impressions of a hobnailed sandal, the kind used by the Roman legions during the time when Rome ruled the region.  This might suggest that legionnaires participated in the construction of walls like the one in which the footprint was found.  However, according to Professor Arthur Segal of Haifa University, the head of the excavation, it is known that urban construction projects in Israel were run by the cities themselves.   The Roman imperial system wasn’t involved, nor was their army.  In last year’s work, the archaeologists did find an inscription made by two Sussita residents to mark the completion of their Roman military service.   This leads to the theory that the sandal print might belong to a soldier no longer in active service, but still in possession of his uniform.   The city lasted for about 1,000 years after its founding by the Greek successors of Alexander.  The Greek name for the city was Hippos (HEE-pos), which means horse, and its other name, Sussita, means the same thing in Aramaic.   Most of the construction in Sussita took place during the Roman period, when Beit She'an (BAYT SHAY-ahn), Caesarea and other ancient cities also did well.  Sussita, or Hippos, continued to thrive into the Byzantine period, during which most of the city residents became Christians.  An earthquake hit the region in 749, causing the destruction of Sussita, which lies on the Syrian-African rift between two major tectonic plates.  Its residents never returned.  Yet it is because of the earthquake that the remnants of the city were preserved particularly well.  Since there was no subsequent settlement in Sussita, there was no one to use the stones of the Roman-era city for rebuilding.  The dig is being carried out by the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, in conjunction with researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences and Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Stone Age wad of gum is modern student’s favorite find


Our final story is from Finland, where an archaeology student has found a piece of Stone Age chewing gum -- one of the oldest lumps of old gum ever discovered.  According to Sarah Pickin, the student from England who found it, the 5000-year-old blob still bears tooth impressions and was made from birch bark tar.  Pickin made the discovery while on a six-week volunteer program at the Kierikki (kee-eh-REEK-ki) Center, an archaeological and exhibition site on the west coast of Finland.  The unflavored birch bark contains an antiseptic compound, which would have proved useful in treating mouth infections.  According to Professor Trevor Brown, Pickin's tutor at the University of Derby, Neolithic people might have chewed this stuff to gain some relief from gum and throat infections.  The prehistoric chewing gum was made simply by heating the birch bark.  It was also used as glue for fixing arrowheads to their wooden shafts.  Sticky materials have been chewed for various reasons in Europe since ancient times, long before modern chewing gums were developed in the US in the last century.  The ancient Greeks chewed mastic, a tree resin that gives us one word for chewing.  The Mayas had chicle (CHEEK-lay), the coagulated sap of the sapodilla tree, North American Indians munched on lumps of resin cut from the black spruce tree, and many peoples around the world chewed beeswax.  By the late 18th Century, spruce gum was being sold commercially, to be replaced later by paraffin gums.  Modern chewing gums, developed in the last third of the 1900s, went back to the Mayan chicle for their main ingredient, and most are still based on chicle and related tropical tree saps.  Some of the oldest European examples of lumps of chewed resin and tar, complete with tooth marks, have been discovered in waterlogged bog sites in northern Europe, particularly Germany and Scandinavia.  The earliest chewed gum known dates from the beginning of the Middle Stone Age, more than 10,000 years ago.  Birch bark might not have tasted pleasant, although who knows what really captivated Neolithic taste buds.  But archaeologists believe it might have been chewed for enjoyment and as a stress-relieving activity.  Pickin also found part of an amber ring and a slate arrowhead.  The items will go on display at the center, along with the prehistoric chewing gum, once they return from laboratory analyses.

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