Audio News for September 30th to October 6th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 30th to October 6th, 2007.


Italian find may be main shrine of the Etruscans


Our first story is from Italy, where an archaeological team believes they have discovered one of the most important sites of the ancient world. After seven hot summers of digging, they may have found the Fanum Voltumnae (FAH-num vol-TOOM-nee), a shrine, marketplace, and important Etruscan political center. Located in the upper Tiber river valley, it lies at the base of a massive outcrop of volcanic rock, upon which is perched the mediaeval city of Orvieto (or-vee-EHT-to). The discovery includes a walled sanctuary area, stretches of Etruscan roads 16 feet wide, an altar, and the foundations of many Roman buildings. All of these features have been buried for two millennia. Professor Simonetta Stopponi of Macerata (MAH-che-RAH-ta) University is upbeat about the site's significance. The Fanum Voltumnae (FAH-num vol-TOOM-nee), or shrine of Voltumna (vol-TOOM-na), was the chief sanctuary of the Etruscans. Among other things, it was a meeting place for the leaders of the Etruscan culture, which was the leading civilization in ancient Italy before the rise of Rome. In this sacred place, each spring, the political and religious leaders from the 12 city-states of the Etruscan League, the confederation of city-states, would gather to discuss military campaigns, civic affairs, pray to their common gods, and elect their leader. In the fall of 398 BC, a special meeting of fateful significance meeting was held at the Fanum (FAH-num) to decide on a response to a Roman army that was besieging the town of Veii (VAY-EYE). The city-state of Veii (VAY-EYE) was one of the wealthiest members of the Etruscan League but lay only 10 miles north of Rome. The citizens of Veii were exhausted by years of warfare and appealed for help, asking the other members of the league to join them in declaring war on Rome. The gods were appropriately consulted at the Fanum Voltumnae (FAH-num vol-TOOM-nee), but the vote went against defending Veii (vay-eye). Two years later the city fell to Rome. It was the beginning of the end for the Etruscan League. All of their cities eventually fell to Roman pressure, and the Romans took their lands. The Roman historian Livy, who wrote his famous account of the origins of Rome towards the end of the 1st Century BC, mentions the Fanum Voltumnae (FAH-num vol-TOOM-nee), and stresses its importance no less than five times. However, he failed to mention where it was located, and after the fall of Rome, all memory of its exact location was lost. Absolute certainty that this was the site of Fanum Voltumnae (FAH-num vol-TOOM-nee) can only come with the discovery of written inscriptions dedicated to the Etruscan god Voltumna (vol-TOOM-na), the most important deity worshipped by the inhabitants of this part of Italy. To date, only offering objects such as small bronze statues, or pieces of painted terracotta roof tiles from the temples have been dug up, and nothing in the ancient writing of the Etruscans that would confirm the nature of this location. However, Professor Stoppani is sure that the site will prove to be the remains of ancient Fanum (FAH-num). She will continue the dig next year.

Tests show year of special living before Inca children’s sacrifice


In our next story, new research is showing that children selected for Inca ritual sacrifice were literally fattened up with high-protein diets during the months leading up to their deaths. A team led by Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford, in Britain, carried out DNA and chemical isotope tests on hair samples taken from four child mummies found in the Andes Mountains in the 1990s. The relative proportions of chemical isotopes in the hair showed that the victims were prepared for death as far as a year in advance, including being sent on arduous highland journeys, and drugged before the final sacrificial ceremony. The findings offer insights into the preparatory stages leading to Inca ritual killing, as represented by the unique capacocha (CAH-pa-COACH-a) rite, the Inca tradition of mountaintop child sacrifice. Because hair grows slowly and remains with a person for years, it is like a chemical logbook, forming a record of what an individual consumes. The information often stays intact in archaeological remains. According to Wilson, who teaches archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford, the children themselves thus tell us about their selection and careful preparation for sacrifice, through their own tissues. The evidence shows that they were not killed on a whim, but were part of a complex process for which they were selected some considerable time before. One extremely well preserved mummy, a 15-year-old girl known as La Doncella (la don-SELL-ah) or the Llullaillaco (yu-yai-YAH-co) Maiden, was selected for sacrifice a year in advance, according to the study. The Maiden’s hair was 10 inches long, representing more than two years' worth of growth. Tests on her hair shows that she had been raised on a peasant’s diet rich in potatoes, poor in protein until a year before her death. At that time, about 12 months before her sacrifice, her diet became rich in protein. Wilson said that she was likely now eating the food of the elite class, such as maize and llama meat. The chemical evidence also shows another chemical shift several months before death, which indicates that the children were made to take a grueling pilgrimage. The route likely went from Cuzco, Peru, to very high-altitude mountain shrines, at one of which they were finally drugged and killed. Before her death, the Maiden drank fermented maize beer and chewed coca leaves. This is the first time that this kind of study has been carried out on capacocha victims. Numerous studies have used isotopic signatures to measure seasonal variations in diet, but none has linked up this kind of evidence to suggest a diet shift that equates to a dramatic change in status of these children marked for sacrifice.

Siberian hominid remains may be far-ranging Neanderthals


In our next story, DNA extracted from skeletal remains has shown that Neanderthals roamed some 1500 miles farther east than previously thought. Researchers say the genetic signature of an adolescent Neanderthal found in southern Siberia closely matches that of Neanderthals found in Western Europe, suggesting that this close relative migrated a long distance. Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, worked with colleagues to examine skeletal remains found in the Okladnikov Cave in the Altai Mountains. They dated the remains to between 30,000 and 38,000 years ago. Until now, archaeologists had been unable to determine whether the remains belonged to Neanderthals or another species of extinct hominid because the bones are so fragmentary. Pääbo and his team used a new approach to overcome this problem, starting with microscopic samples of bone from the adolescent. After dissolving the mineral component of the bone, the team succeeded in extracting DNA from mitochondria. Upon sequencing this DNA, the team compared it with that of several Neanderthals found in Europe. They discovered that it matched DNA recovered from remains found in Belgium almost perfectly. According to Pääbo, the match was quite a surprise, since the new evidence extends the territory of this hominid some 1,500 miles further east. Archaeologists had previously thought that Neanderthals' range only extended as far as modern-day Uzbekistan. This was based on a distinctly Neanderthal skull recovered from the Teshik-Tash cave in the southeast region of the country. The study may not settle the debate over Neanderthal's range definitively, though. Eric Trinkaus, a noted paleanthropologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, questions whether this definitively proves the Okladnikov people were Neanderthals. Trinkaus suggests that other species of hominids could have had the same DNA sequence as Neanderthals. The mitochondrial sequence found by Pääbo's team can be used to definitively identify individuals as Neanderthals only after scientists study the mitochondrial DNA of other archaic hominids.

Egyptians plan first underwater survey of the Nile


Our final story is from Egypt, where for the first time, the Nile River will be the subject of an archaeological excavation. Alaa Mahrous, director of the underwater antiquities department in Alexandria, announced the plans for the search. The survey will cover the stretch of river between the quarries in Aswan and the major cities of Luxor and Abydos. Over the centuries, this was a significant transportation corridor for both the ancient Egyptians or the many rulers of the country who followed. Aswan was the location of important granite quarries where statues and obelisks were cut and shaped in the mountains before being shipped downriver to Luxor and Abydos. The team hopes to find any pieces that might have gone down while being loaded or unloaded from ships. Mahrous pointed out that it is also possible to discover shipwrecks as many huge boats sank along with their cargoes, which would have contained statues, pottery, and other goods. In fact, he said, there are records of two small obelisks that settled in the riverbed 5 miles off Luxor as they were being shipped to Cairo. Fortunately, the geography of the Nile hasn’t changed, especially in Upper Egypt. In addition, the river’s alluvial mud is a protective agent, unlike seawater, which erodes metal, wood and other organic materials. State-of-the-art technology will be used for the survey, including side scan sonar to reveal objects buried under the riverbed, another device to penetrate the river’s mud and sand, and GPS to map the exact locations of discoveries. Results will be immediately available, because the sonar is connected to a computer on board the survey ship. Actual dives in the Nile aren’t as easy as some would think, because of strong winds, the force of the river water and the intensity of alluvial mud, which can turn the water completely dark. Based on the information relating to this survey, the follow-up stages will be decided. A survey of all the locations of sunken antiquities countrywide is a plan that will take years of hard work.

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