Audio News for October 14th to October 20th, 2007
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for October 14th to October 20th, 2007.
Unusual Neolithic pottery sculpture unearthed in Czech excavation
Our first story is from Moravia in the Czech Republic, where archaeologists have unearthed a 7,000-year-old statue in the village of Masovice (MAH-so-VEECH-eh). Although only the lower parts of the sculpture have been found, researchers say it is unique in a European context. The fragments of a ceramic female could change the way historians look at the Neolithic Age. According to Archaeologist Zdenek Cizmar (ZDEN-ek CHIZ-mar), the sculpture is the largest of its type ever found. The fragment recovered is 12 inches tall, from its feet to the waistline. Therefore, estimated overall original height would be 24 inches. The statue is typical of the Moravian Painted Ware culture, which occupied the Middle Danube Basin. The Moravian Painted Ware people formed a part of the Neolithic civilization of central Europe during 5000 and 4000 BC. As their name suggests, they are particularly well known for their pottery skills. Other figurines have been found in sites across Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. As well as being larger than usual, the recently discovered piece also differs in that it is hollow. Archaeologists have not agreed yet on a specific reason for this. The Brno Archaeological Institute gave the statue the name of Hedvika (hed-VEEK-ah), as the day it was discovered was Hedvika's holy day in the Czech Republic. Now the scientists are hoping to find the rest of the figurine in parts of the site still waiting to be excavated. Scholars from the Brno Archaeological Institute are currently studying the fragments of Hedvika. Next year, the ceramic sculpture will be displayed at the South Moravian Museum.
South African site suggests cultural complexity arose on the coast
Our next story is from South Africa, where the waste from ancient shellfish dinners discarded in a cave could be the earliest evidence of humans living and thriving by the sea. The remains were buried in sediments that are 164,000 years old, which lie in the sandstone opening of the cave at Pinnacle Point on South Africa’s Western Cape. The utilization of coastal resources is believed to have been key in allowing early human migration. According to team member Erin Thompson from Arizona State University, the layer of material is about a foot and a half deep and cemented up against the side of the cave. The team recovered the cooked remains of some 15 types of marine invertebrates, mainly brown mussels, as well as other animal bones. They also found pieces of ochre, a soft stone that can be scraped to produce powders with rich pigments. Ochres are considered important indicators of advanced behavior, because they show the use of color for symbolism. Although the powders have a functional use, as an ingredient in glue and for other purposes, the constant choice of the brightest hues suggests some abstract activity undertaken, such as body painting. The ability to conceptualize, by letting one thing represent another, or represent something not physically present, marks a giant leap in human evolution. This mental activity would eventually permit the development of sophisticated language and math. Simply unearthing the worked ochres at Pinnacle Point at this time is a remarkable find. The site dates to the first part of the time period when modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are thought to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. ASU palaeoanthropologist Professor Curtis Marean noted the team also found what archaeologists call 'bladelets', which are little blades less than half an inch in width, about the size of a person’s little finger. It’s been argued that shellfish exploitation was crucial to an early coastal route of modern humans out of Africa via the Red Sea coast. One of the great challenges for scientists has been to assemble the data to back up this theory. The difficulty stems from rising and falling sea levels over the millennia, which have almost certainly washed away key evidence. The Pinnacle Point cave, although it stands directly on the coast today some 45 feet above the waves, would actually have been a few miles from the shoreline when its inhabitants were eating their shellfish meals. Settlements directly on or near the beach 164,000 years ago would now be under water.
Obsidian radiation provides new technique to trace origins of early tools
In the United States, researchers are retracing American Indian trade routes by bombarding arrowheads and stone tools with radiation to locate their origins. The work at the Idaho Accelerator Center involves a new method called photon activation analysis. It allows researchers to measure trace elements in an object and use the data to match artifacts with their places of origin. For example, arrowheads made of obsidian can be matched with the lava flows they came from. This can provide evidence on items that were passed among the tribes. According to Idaho State University anthropology professor Herb Maschner, this is the only accelerator center in the world doing this kind of work. The same results can be attained by drilling holes into the artifacts and irradiating them inside nuclear reactors. However, this means artifacts are treated as nuclear waste afterward. The photo activation method, just like x-ray fluorescence analysis that has been used for many years, causes no damage. The university's physics and anthropology departments began collaborating on the project about two years ago. Maschner wanted to trace the origins of the artifacts found by anthropologist and tribal members in the Aleutian Islands, and former Idaho Accelerator Center Director Frank Harmon thought he had a technique that could work without destroying the objects. Maschner and Harmon began their project by irradiating rocks to see if they could get an elemental fingerprint. When they found the process worked, they added quality controls before examining artifacts. The scientists experimented with obsidian and rocks from the lava flows in southeastern Idaho, discovering they could accurately match samples to particular flows. The scientists know the obsidian in Maschner's arrowheads came from particular volcanoes in Alaska, but they hope to learn which arrowheads correspond with which volcanoes. Their project uses a medical grade accelerator designed for cancer therapy. Afterward, the objects are set aside for a few days until they are radiation free. Then they can be returned to the tribes.
Transfer of Acropolis marbles to new museum anticipates a wider return
Our final story is from Greece, where hundreds of pieces of marble sculpture from the Acropolis are being moved for the first time since they were carved by Phidias (FID-ee-us) during the Golden Age of Athens, 2500 years ago. The home for the world-famous sculptures is a new museum scheduled to open next year. A giant crane at the Acropolis recently hoisted the first blue crate containing a two and a half ton slab of marble holding one of the most important works of antiquity. During the coming months, the scrupulously choreographed moving operation will be repeated 153 times as an estimated 4,500 antiquities are moved from the Acropolis to the new museum. Greeks hope that the new museum, opening after more than 30 years of preparation, postponement, and bitter debate, will mark the end of their campaign for the return of all the Parthenon marbles. Not since construction began on the new museum has a single event injected such fervor into the debate over the future of the world's most famous collection of classical statuary, the Elgin (ELG-in ]with a hard ‘g’]) Marbles. The centerpiece of the Parthenon was a 500-foot long strip of marble depicting the great Panathenaic (PAN -ATH-en-AY-ic) procession that adorned the Parthenon, until 200 years ago, when Britain’s Lord Elgin (ELG-in) removed and sold half of it to the British Museum. Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin (ELG -in), was serving as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1801, when he secured their permission to remove the marbles. At that time, the Ottoman Empire still ruled over Greece. From 1801 to about 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon and transported them to Britain. They were purchased by the British Government in 1816 after vigorous debate in Parliament over the morality of their removal, and are currently housed in a gallery built specifically for their viewing. The British Museum holds 247 feet of the Parthenon frieze (FREEZE), and architectural fragments from the Parthenon and three other temples, including 30 other statues and carved slabs. If laid end to end, the British Museum’s section of Parthenon frieze along with the other building sculptures would stretch nearly 1 kilometer, or six-tenths of a mile. The modern Greek campaign for return of the marbles was launched in the early 1980s by the actress Melina Mercouri (mair-COO-ree), when she became the Greek Minister of Culture. The Acropolis buildings and sculptures had been damaged while used as churches during the Middle Ages, and the later wars of the Ottoman Empire brought outright destruction to many, as did the Greek War of Independence from 1821-1833. One argument made against the return of the Elgin Marbles is the impact of Athenian air pollution on the soft stone, which has caused significant deterioration in the last century. As well, there has been damage in both Britain and Greece from poor cleaning and conservation techniques. With a state-of-the-art museum set to open next year, proving that modern Greece can properly house the precious pieces of its golden age, the Greek government hopes this will put an end to the 25-year campaign for the return of the marbles from Britain. Polls show that the British public has long favored a return. Other Parthenon fragments have already been returned from museums in Sweden, Germany, and the USA. The transfer of Acropolis marbles to the new museum is expected to take up to three months, with four crates of artworks being transferred each day.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!