Audio News for November 11th to November 17th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for November 11th to November 17th, 2007.


Temple in coastal Peru has 4,000 year old wall paintings


Our first story is from Peru, where archaeologists working on the northern coast have unearthed a 4,000-year-old temple, making it one of the oldest discoveries of its kind in the Americas. According to archaeologist Walter Alva, the temple is located inside a larger complex in the Lambayeque (lahm-bah-AKE-eh) Valley, 450 miles north of Lima. It is near another site he had excavated in the 1980s. The temple was named Ventarron (ven-tar-ROHN) by the team that uncovered it. Alva noted Ventarron is unique because of its abundance of murals as well as construction and design methods. One large mural uses several colors to paint a deer caught in a net. The temple also features a staircase that leads up to an altar, which may have been used for fire worship. Nearby is the Sipan (see-PAHN) site, the religious center of the Moche (MOH-cheh) culture, which flourished in the northern coast of Peru between 200 BC and AD 700. The Moche were skilled at irrigation, turning desert lands into fertile farmlands. One of the greatest finds at Sipan (see-PAHN) included a gold-filled tomb built for a king about 1,700 years ago. Moche society was made up of priest rulers, potters, artisans, farmers, fishermen, and weavers. A sophisticated culture, they made pottery and jewelry that are notable for their fine workmanship. Alva believes the discovery of the new site has provided evidence that the Moche engaged in cultural exchanges with the rest of Peru. Both the Ventarron and Sipan sites date to the time before the Incas, who ruled both the Andes and the coastal plains for several centuries until the arrival of the Spanish during the 1500s.

Cambodian burials indicate existence of women warriors


In Cambodia, archaeologists have found female skeletons buried with metal swords, indicating there may have been a civilization with female warriors. According to Japanese researcher Yoshinori Yasuda, who led the team, they dug up 35 human skeletons at five locations in Phum Snay in the northwest during research earlier this year. Five of them were perfect skeletons and they have confirmed that all of them were females. The skeletons are believed to date back to the first to fifth century AD. The five were buried with steel or bronze swords, and helmet-shaped objects. It is very rare that swords are found with women. This discovery suggests it was a realm where female warriors were playing an active role. Yasuda noted that women traditionally played the central role in the rice-farming and fishing societies, calling it a European concept that women are weak and therefore should be protected. The five skeletons were well preserved because they had been buried in important spots at the tombs. It was the first time that large-scale research was conducted on the Phum Snay ruins, which were found in 1999. It is believed to have been the center of a civilization of several thousand people, between the first and fifth centuries.

Ancient necropolis found at Palmyra


Our next story is from Syria, where archaeologists have uncovered a 2nd century necropolis and statues in the central town of Palmyra (pal-MY-rah), along with several skeletons. According to inscriptions on a 30 by 24 inch sculptured panel, the cemetery belonged to a pagan family. The tablet showed two people of Palmyra. According to team leader Khalil Hariri, the first, named Mallay, is wearing a military uniform and has a sword in his belt which he is holding by the hilt. The second, called Yadeh Bel, is wearing traditional Palmyran clothes. Besides the two figures portrayed on the tablet is a camel carrying a tent and being led by a child. The people would have been traders on the Silk Road, the famous desert trade route that linked the ancient Mediterranean to Asia. Palmyra, some 135 miles northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, had a long history as a stopping point for caravans traveling the Silk Road. Palmyra’s power reached its peak in the third century A.D. under Queen Zenobia, who defied the Roman Empire, controlled all Syria, and invaded Egypt and Asia Minor before she was defeated in 272 by the Emperor Aurelian. Besides the necropolis and panel, the researchers found the bust of a Palmyran man, measuring 24 by 22 inches, and bearing the name Zubeiba, son of Shamune. Palmyra, located in an oasis, was an important city of central Syria throughout ancient times. The earliest documented mention of the city is under its pre-Semitic name Tadmor (tad-more), Tadmur or Tudmur, found in Babylonian tablets. Though the ancient site fell into disuse after the 16th century, the location is still known as Tadmor and a small newer settlement of the same name is located next to the ruins.

Mesoamerican beer-making may be origin of chocolate


In our final story, a new archaeological study suggests chocolate was first produced by the ancients as a by-product of beer. Evidence from drinking vessels left by the Mesoamericans who developed chocolate also suggests that the source of chocolate, cacao, was first used 500 years earlier than had been thought. Mesoamericans who flourished in Central America before the Spanish invasion developed chocolate as a by-product of fermenting cacao fruit to make a beer-like drink called chicha still brewed by South American tribal people. According to Cornell University archaeologist John Henderson, who led the new study, the Mesoamericans developed a taste for the chocolate, but their cousins down in South America stuck with the beer. Archaeologists have found pottery made to serve the frothed chocolate drink preferred by the pre-Columbians in earlier sites, and have found traces of chocolate in pots dating back to 600 BC. But the origins of the drink had been unclear. Chocolate's unique flavor develops only when the watery pulp of raw cacao fruit and the seeds are fermented together, coloring the seeds purple. Grinding the seeds yields the chocolate. The involvement of fermentation led Henderson and co-author Rosemary Joyce, from the University of California at Berkeley, to speculate that cacao beer might have been the original product involved. Only now has supporting evidence come to light, in the form of potsherds dating from 200 BC to before 1100 BC. The crucial ceramics were found in the ruins of an ancient village called Puerto Escondido in the Ulúa (oo-LOO-ah) Valley in Honduras. Using a technique developed at the University of Pennsylvania, the research team was able to extract chocolate residues from the pores in the pottery. Tests found theobromine (the-o-BRO-meen), the chemical signature of cacao, in 11 of 13 fragments. One of these, Joyce estimates, is from 1100 to 1200 BC. That pushes evidence for cacao drinking back 500 years. That pot, and others older than about 900 BC, also lacked any traces of the chilli pepper Mesoamericans used to spice up their chocolate. Pots designed for making a frothed chocolate first appeared after this date, the researchers report. The oldest fragment was the long neck of a bottle that could have held beer, but could not have been used to make the chocolate beverage that became popular later. Joyce called this the smoking gun, since it shows that the beer had come first. Joyce suggests that the key step in switching to chocolate came when ancient brewers ground up the cacao seeds remaining after fermentation and added them to thicken the beer, giving it a chocolate taste.

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