Audio News for November 25th to December 1st, 2007

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


Florida shipwreck is from 450-year-old Spanish expedition


Our first story is from the United States, where archaeologists at the University of West Florida say the buried hull of a ship from a Spanish fleet holds the crucial clues to the fate of a sixteenth-century expedition. Don Tristan de Luna's fleet of 11 ships lost at least 8 to bad weather off the Floridas in 1559. The discovery of the wreckage of one of those ships below the waters of Pensacola Bay was announced in October, after lead sheeting and pottery from the wreck site were matched to records of the de Luna expedition. Another ship in the fleet was found nearby in 1992. Almost 450 years ago, the Spaniard de Luna's effort to form the first colony in the present-day United States was wrecked by a hurricane, while sailing from Mexico to Florida's Panhandle. Had the colonization succeeded, his Panhandle settlement would have predated St. Augustine, the oldest Spanish colony in modern-day America, by five years. The two Pensacola shipwrecks are the second oldest discovered off U.S. waters. The oldest are a fleet of merchant ships that sank off Padre Island, Texas, in 1554. The archaeology team from the University of West Florida has brought to the surface more than 800 artifacts from the new-found de Luna ship, including pieces of olive jars used to transport food and wine, chunks of the ship's wood frame, cow bones, Spanish bricks, and even tiny balls of mercury, which was used to extract gold from ore. According to John Bratten, a professor of maritime archaeology, only 3 of the 11 ships that came from Veracruz, Mexico, on de Luna's expedition survived the storm. Seven ran aground in the water and one was blown onto shore. Although the Spanish kept detailed records of the ships and their contents, historians are uncertain which of the 11 ships the archaeologists have discovered. In the 15 years since the discovery of the first de Luna ship, researchers have scoured Pensacola Bay in hopes of finding the rest of the fleet. Bratten and a team of students found the second ship during the last day of an archaeological field school last fall after students began bringing up ballast stones from the site. They continued to explore the site for months before its origins were confirmed. Divers have explored only about 5 percent of the shipwreck site. However, the long-term plan is for underwater archaeologists to excavate less than 40 percent of the site and leave the remainder of the ship buried.

Artist Gauguin’s belongings found in well


Our next story is from the remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in French Polynesia, where an archaeological dig has explored the secrets of a water well used by Paul Gauguin. The buried objects range from a New Zealand beer bottle to four human teeth. Gauguin lived in the village of Atuona from 1901 until his death two years later. He built his own Maori-style hut, “la Maison de Joui” or house of pleasure, and dug a well just outside. The Marquesans did not use wells, but springs, and after Gauguin died, it was filled with rubbish from his home. Objects from Gauguin’s time found about 8 feet below ground level included a Bovril jar from England and various liquor bottles. Five broken pieces of hand-decorated plate made in Quimper (kahn-PARE) presumably date from the time when Gauguin was painting in Brittany. Art-related materials were found as well, including three chunks of orange and ochre minerals, still smelling of linseed oil, which suggest that Gauguin made his own paint. A broken coconut shell with pigments was probably used as a palette. Gauguin is likely to have suffered from syphilis, and had serious eczema. A buried syringe and two ampoules (AM-pyools) that had contained morphine were presumably for pain relief. The four teeth show signs of severe decay, suggesting they are European as the Marquesans did not eat sugar. They are likely to be Gauguin’s, and he may have had them extracted and then saved them. The finds from the well now belong to the municipality of Atuona, which bought the site and erected a replica of Gauguin’s Maison du Jouir in 2003.

Rams used as bio-weapons 3,000 years ago


According to a new study, infected rams and donkeys were the earliest bioweapons, dating back more than 3,300 years. In a review published in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses, two ancient populations, the Arzawans and the Hittites, engaged in mutual use of contaminated animals during the Anatolian war 1320-1318 BC. The animals were carriers of Francisella tularensis, the causative agent of tularemia. Tularemia is a devastating disease that even today can be fatal, if not treated with antibiotics. Its symptoms range from skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands to pneumonia, fever, chills, progressive weakness, and respiratory failure. The disease affects animals such as rabbits, sheep, and donkeys and it is passed on to humans most commonly through the bite of infected ticks and deerflies. First isolated in 1911, Francisella tularensis is highly infectious and is now considered one of the pathogens most likely to be used in bioterrorism attacks. According to author Siro Trevisanato, a molecular biologist, the bacterium flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean toward the end of the 14th century BC, when a long-lasting, deadly epidemic plagued most of the Middle East. Known as the Hittite plague, the epidemic is described in letters to the Egyptian king Akhenaten. A letter, dating around 1335 BC, reports a pestilence in Simyra, a city near today’s border between Lebanon and Syria. Despite efforts to contain the epidemic, the disease contaminated an area stretching from Cyprus to Iraq and from Israel to Syria. Subsequently, wars spread the epidemic to central and Western Anatolia. Finally, Aegean soldiers fighting in western Anatolia returned home to their islands, further spreading the epidemic. According to the researcher, the Hittites, whose empire stretched from modern-day Turkey to northern Syria, were severely hit by the disease after they attacked a weakened area around Simyra. The weakened Hittite empire attracted the Arzawans from Western Anatolia and a new war, which lasted between 1320 and 1318 BC, began. It was at this point that the Hittites used disease-ridden rams and donkeys, setting them loose with the hope that they would be taken by the enemy and begin infecting them. Tablets dating to the 14-13th century BC describe how rams mysteriously began populating the roads in Arzawa. The practice was soon understood by the Arzawans, who responded by sending their own infected rams along the road in the direction of the enemy troops.

Five thousand year old Chinese ruins are late Neolithic city


Our final story is from China, where archaeologists have discovered the remains of an ancient city in eastern Zhejiang (jche jiang) Province that could provide more insight into the long history of Chinese civilization. The city was found near Mojiao Mountain between Liangzhu (Lang jchu) and Pingyao townships in Yuhang District of the provincial capital Hangzhou (hang djoe). Based on the remains, scientist estimate the ancient city covered an area of about one and a half square miles. There are still pieces of walls as high as four yards at the site. The location of the ancient city would have been carefully selected and it can be dated prior to the late period of the Liangzhu culture, between about 4000 and 5000 years ago, about the time when the great pyramids of Egypt were constructed. The Liangzhu (langjchu) culture was the last and most prominent Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. Its area of influence extended from Taihu Lake area in the north to Nanjing and Shanghai in the east and Hangzhou in the south. A prominent Liangzhu monument is a great burial mound located near Shanghai. Liangzhu succeeded the Majiabang (mahjah bang) culture and later became connected with the Shang Dynasty.

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