Audio News for December 2nd to December 8th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for December 2nd to December 8th, 2007.


Ancient Mansion Found in “City of David”


Our first story is from Israel, where archaeologists digging in an east Jerusalem parking lot have uncovered a 2,000-year-old mansion which they believe belonged to Queen Helene of Adiabene (ah-dee-ah-BAY-nay). According to Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Doron Ben-Ami, the mansion most likely belonged to Helene's family, simply because no other building comes close to matching the historical description.

The dig site is on a slope in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan that houses the ancient settlement known to scholars as the City of David. The building includes storerooms, living quarters and ritual baths. It is the largest and most elaborate structure discovered in the area which was inhabited almost exclusively by the city's poor. Jewish historian Josephus Flavius mentions only one wealthy family who lived there — the family of Queen Helene.

According to Josephus and other Jewish texts, Helene was from a royal clan that ruled Adiabene, a region now in northern Iraq. She converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem in the first half of the first century AD.

Helene is mentioned in the Mishna, the written version of Judaism's oral tradition, where she is praised for her generosity to the poor and for contributing to the Second Temple, which was just a few hundred yards from her house.

The house was destroyed along with the temple and the rest of the city when Roman legions put down a Jewish revolt. In the ruins, researchers found ceramic shards and coins dating to the time of the Jewish revolt.

Viking Power Centers Reassessed


In our next story, a large grouping of monumental burial mounds from the late Iron Age has been discovered in Borre, Norway, southwest of Oslo. In addition, two massive Viking halls have also been located in the same area.

Seven large burial mounds, and more than 30 smaller mounds, all of which have been opened or plundered, have been discovered. Not far from the mounds, two great hall buildings from between AD 560 and 1050 have been located. The halls were found using a magnetometer and ground-penetrating radar that visualizes what is below the ground. “King’s Hall” is the largest Viking hall found in the county. The halls are the forerunners of the stave churches for which Norway is so well known.

According to archaeologist Lena Fahre, the finds show that the area was a true center of royal power in Viking times. With this discovery, archaeologists believe historians must now reassess the role of Kaupang as the seat of power.

Kaupang is a town founded in the 780s during the time when the Vikings started to launch their raids against Britain and other parts of Europe. It was considered the largest trading town before it was abandoned for unknown reasons in the early 10th Century. The discovery at Borre, which is further north than Kaupang, have given archaeologists reason to reconsider the distribution of power in Viking times.

Mayan “Death Vase” Used in Ancestor Worship


Our next story features an extremely rare and complexly carved white marble "death vase" which has been discovered in a 1,400-year-old Mayan grave. Archaeologists discovered the vase along with parts of a human skeleton while excavating a small palace in northwestern Honduras. Soil samples taken from inside and around the vessel contained pollen from corn, cacao, and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten.

According to Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who led the excavation, these traces suggest the vase may have been used in ancient rites to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging. The vase is the first of its kind found in modern times, and opens a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting.

Wells explained that the ancient Mayans believed a way to communicate with ancestors was to have visions. His team believes that the vase contained a corn-based gruel laced with the false ipecac. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, may have been added for flavor.

This is the first ornamental vessel of its type that has been scientifically excavated. Other examples of these vases were either looted from graves or unearthed long before modern archaeological methods were available.

Although the archaeologists may have unlocked the vase's purpose, they are still mystified by where they found it---beneath a pyramid-like palace in a remote settlement in Honduras' Palmarejo Valley. Wells noted that the site is small and rather unimpressive compared to other sites in the region, raising questions as to why there would be a very high-status product in this burial in this residential building. Both the palace and the vase suggest a level of prestige that seems out of place with what was otherwise an unremarkable farming village.

The team suspects that the person buried beneath the palace was of historic importance to local residents, perhaps an ancestor figure whose death marked the end of an era. The palace was built over the grave very soon after the burial took place, around AD 650. The vase was added to the grave about a hundred years after the burial, likely to commemorate the ancestor's death.

Roman Glue “Sticking” Around for 2000 Years!


Our final story is from Germany, where archaeologists claim to have found traces of glue made by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. The glue apparently was used to mount silver laurel leaves on legionnaires' battle helmets. According to researchers at the Rhineland historical museum in Bonn, remnants of the glue were found on an iron helmet unearthed from what was once the bed of the Rhine.

Frank Willer, the museum's chief restorer, and researchers came across the glue by surprise while removing a tiny sample of metal from the helmet with a fine saw. The heat from the saw caused silver laurel leaves decorating the helmet to peel off, leaving thread-like traces of the glue behind.

Analysis shows that the Roman glue was made of bitumen, beef tallow, and pitch. However, researchers have failed so far to recreate the adhesive. They believe that sawdust, soot, or sand might have to be added to complete the process.

The museum's team of archaeologists maintains that because the helmet lay on the riverbed for so long, the glue was not exposed to the destructive effects of the atmosphere and therefore did not lose its adhesive power. Other Roman remains, including ancient battle masks, bear traces of silver decorations which probably were glued in the same way, but their condition has deteriorated too far to find any evidence.

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