Audio News for August 25th to September 1st, 2007.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!   I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for August 25th to September 1st, 2007.


New research provides fresh insight into the origins of urbanization


Our first story is from Syria, where excavations at the 6,000-year-old archaeological mound known as Tell Brak are fueling an alternative theory for how the first urban centers may have developed..  Archaeologists have generally held to the theory that cities first began in a single concentrated area and grew outward.  New evidence, however, indicates that the urban area of Tell Brak actually grew inward from a ring of small villages to become a city .  This discovery is also providing insight into the broader political organization of the region.  According to archaeologist Jason Ur of Harvard University, the lead researcher of the project, urbanism does not appear to have originated as a result of a mandate by a single, powerful ruler or political entity.  Instead, early Mesopotamian cities seem to have developed through grassroots organization and unification.  The city, whose ancient name is unknown, was part of the ancient region of Mesopotamia, which extended from present-day southern Iraq to northern Syria.  The major Mesopotamian city of Uruk in southern Iraq is believed to be the oldest city in the world, but the recent discoveries at Tell Brak suggest that this urban area may have been developing at the same time as Uruk.  Legend tells that it was the great leader Gilgamesh who originally built Uruk - a story that has long served as a model for earlier theories of urban development in Mesopotamia, which would have involved a powerful, unifying central authority.  By studying bits of pottery, bones and other artifacts at Tell Brak, Ur and his fellow researchers have created a picture of what the area may have looked like around 4200 BC to 3900 BC:  people would have lived in six clusters, each with an area of 5 to 10 acres, that were scattered around what would later become the central mound.  Ur speculates that the founders, perhaps immigrants, cautiously kept their distance from their neighbors in the beginning.  As their anxiety eased over time, the population grew denser and expanded inward, until by 3400 BC, Tell Brak was a well-developed urban center.  The finds, the researchers wrote, suggest that the study of early processes of urbanization must accommodate multiple models for the origins of cities.

Canadian team seeks to prove seafarers were first to Americas


A new archaeological project in Canada could transform our understanding of when and how humans first reached the New World.  Two Canadian scientists, using sophisticated underwater techniques, have mapped out a now-flooded route that could have provided an entry point into the New World during the last ice age.  The research adds weight to the idea that seafaring Asians may have migrated down the coast of North America instead of coming overland, as anthropologists have conventionally believed.  Daryl W. Fedje of Parks Canada in British Columbia, and Heiner Josenhans of the Geological Survey of Canada in Nova Scotia, carried out the study off the coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands, just south of Alaska. They used high-resolution sonar to complete a detailed bathymetric map of the underwater landscape.  Their chart shows a submerged world of former river valleys, flood plains, and ancient lakes that would have been above sea level at the end of the last glacial era, more than 10,000 years ago.  During the ice age, so much of the world's water was frozen in continental glaciers that the height of the oceans dropped by 350 feet.  The narrow seas separating Siberia and Alaska dried up, forming a temporary land bridge between the two continents.  Using the new map, Fedje and Josenhans went out to collect samples from the coastal seafloor.  They found a pine tree stump and other debris that date to 12,200 years ago, according to the carbon-14 method.  Other sites yielded shells from edible shellfish dating almost to the same time.  Such clues reveal how the coastline, frozen until about 14,000 years ago, was growing more hospitable. According to Fedje, at 12,000 years ago, this would have been a suitable place for people to live and be moving across.  The researchers also found a stone tool at a location now 150 feet below sea level, which has been dated to 10,000 years ago, making the tool one of the earliest human artifacts along the northwest coast of North America.  The new evidence contradicts the long-held assumptions of anthropologists who theorized that people passed over the land bridge to Alaska about 12,000 years ago.  Recently, however, archaeologists have discovered evidence of people reaching South America by 12,500 years ago, well before the ice-free inland corridor would have been passable.  Archaeologist David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas notes that coastal migrants must have arrived well before the time of the forests documented by Fedje and Josenhans in order to have spread all the way to the southern end of South America by 12,500 years ago.

Venice’s “Quarantine” island yields mass plague graves


In Italy, an area of ancient mass graves containing more than 1,500 victims of the bubonic plague has been discovered on a small island in the Venetian Lagoon located a couple of miles from Venice’s Piazza San Marco.  Researchers believe that the island is the world's first lazaret, a quarantine colony intended to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.  The lazaret opened during the plague outbreaks that decimated the city, as well as much of the rest of Italy and Europe, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.  When the plague struck Venice, anyone sick or showing any suspect symptoms, regardless of class or status, were restricted to the island until they either recovered or died.  While digging the foundations for Venice's new archaeological museum on the eastern side of the island, workers came across the well-preserved human skeletons three years ago.  According to Vincenzo Gobbo, an archaeologist of the University Ca' Foscari of Venice, researchers were called to attend the excavations, study the site, and rescue remains and artifacts.  In addition to the more than 1,500 corpses and 150 boxes of artifacts they have collected to date, the researchers estimate there are still thousands of skeletons buried.  The mass graves were arranged in several layers, the oldest ones dating back to the end of the 15th century.  Among the skeletons, the archaeologists also found common artifacts such as pottery, coins, combs, and jewelry.  The skeletons inside these older rectangular trenches were carefully lined and wrapped in sheets, while later graves comprise nothing more than large holes where bodies were hurriedly dumped.  Gobbo noted that plague outbreaks in the 16th century were far deadlier than the earlier ones, and about 500 people a day perished in Lazzaretto Vecchio.  There was simply no time to take care of the burials.  The concept of a lazaret began in 1485, when a destructive plague outbreak hit Venice.  The government built a public hospital on Lazzaretto Vecchio in order to isolate the infectious and curb the spread of the disease.  At the time, the island was named Santa Maria di Nazareth, but people also called it Lazaretum, giving rise to the modern word, “lazaret.”

New study challenges notions of elite Mayan craftworks


In our final story, a new study is revealing that ancient Maya political leaders likely crafted their own bone and shell products for domestic use.  This proposal, presented by the Florida Museum of Natural History, counters previously held beliefs that such an elite group depended entirely on domestic servants or lower classes for everyday household items such as sewing pins, spatulas and shell bowls.  According to lead author Kitty Emery, an environmental archaeologist, the study provides clues into ancient Mayan society and the way in which elite status groups used and controlled animal bone and shell resources.  The study included analysis of more than 20,000 bone and shell craft items and the stone tools used to make them. These pieces were excavated from elite homes in the heart of the ancient Maya city of Aguateca, located in the lowlands of modern-day Guatemala.  As it is typically extremely difficult for archaeologists to clearly establish a relationship between artifacts excavated and the specific people who made or used them, the unique preservation of artifacts at this site provided a rare break for researchers.  Aguateca was one of the most politically important cities of the region, but an invasion of the city around AD 830 led to its remarkable preservation.  During the turmoil of invasion, the city was abandoned so rapidly that the excavators have been able to pinpoint, for the first time, exactly who was doing what with bone and shell products among the upper classes and rulers of the Maya world.  The most important sections of the city were set on fire and, as the homes of the elite caved in upon themselves, they encapsulated a snapshot of their daily activities at the moment of departure.  Emery’s study is the first to assert that many influential members of the Mayan society were, at the time of invasion, occupied with the production of everyday household bone and shell crafts for their own use or, perhaps, that of the community and their rulers.  Excavation work at the site produced no evidence that any other parts of the city were attacked before its ultimate abandonment.  According to Emery, the ancient Maya saw cities as living beings.  In order to kill a city, you went straight for its spirit, the homes of its powerful leaders.  Once this section of society was defeated, the political power of the city was destroyed.  Killing the lower classes was considered unnecessary.  The ancient Maya also believed that residences and buildings were sentient beings themselves.  Their layouts often symbolically reflected the left-right dichotomy of the human body.  Modern ethnography suggests that past and modern Maya cultures associate the left side of residences with women and the right side with men.  Emery’s team repeatedly discovered that certain craft activities seemed to be restricted to either the right or left secondary chambers attached to a central room.  She has hypothesized that women were executing the early stages of bone and shell crafting.  Evidence for final-stage crafting, such as nearly finished adornments, was located in the chambers likely occupied by men.  This study is one piece of Emery’s more extensive research at Aguateca and other sites in Guatemala and Honduras which details the courtly and humble lives of the ancient Maya throughout the Classic Maya period.

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