Audio News for December 9th to December 15th, 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.


Evidence belies bloody legend of Spartans throwing unwanted babies away


Our first story is from Greece, where the myth that ancient Spartans threw their stunted and sickly newborns off a cliff has been overthrown itself by recent archaeological digs. For more than five years researchers have analyzed human remains collected from the legendary pit into which the unfortunates fell. The bones from the pit, known as an apothetes (ah-poth_EE_tes), included only the remains of adolescents and adults, ranging from 18 to 35 years of age. According to Theodoros Pitsios (TAY-o-dore-os PEET-see-oss), an anthropologist with the Athens Faculty of Medicine, other bones were in the area as well, but none from newborns. The samples were taken from the bottom of the pit located in the foothills of Mount Taygetus (tah-IG-ih-tus) near present-day Sparta. The story was reported as testimony to the militaristic nature of the ancient Spartan people. The most famous telling of the anecdote is by the didactic historian Plutarch, who published the legend during first century AD. Pitsios reports that the bones studied to date are from the fifth and sixth centuries BC and represent 46 men, confirming another assertion from ancient sources that the Spartans threw prisoners, traitors or criminals into the pit. The discoveries provide context for the story of an event during the second war between Sparta and Messene (mes-SEEN-ee), a rival city-state, when Spartans defeated the Messenian hero Aristomenes (ah-ris-TAH-men-eze) and his 50 warriors, who were all thrown into the pit.

Shipwreck find may be Captain Kidd’s last pirate ship


Our next story is from the Dominican Republic, where wreckage found in less than 10 feet of seawater is thought to be the ship abandoned by the notorious 17th century pirate Captain William Kidd. An underwater archaeology team from Indiana University discovered the remnants of the Quedagh (KED-ah) Merchant just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island. According to Charles Beeker, director of Academic Diving and Underwater Science Programs, this is one of the first sites he’s been on with no evidence of looting. The shipwreck is in crystal clear, pristine water and amazingly untouched. Beeker intends to keep it that way, and ensure the site's protection from looters. The find is valuable because of its potential to reveal important information about piracy in the Caribbean and the legendary Captain Kidd. Because of an abundance of extensive, written documentation, this is a rare opportunity to test historical information against the archaeological record. Historians differ on whether Kidd was actually a pirate or a privateer, someone who captured pirates under letters of authority from the crown. Kidd had captured a rich ship returning from the East Indies, the Quedagh (KED-ah) Merchant, which was loaded with valuable satins and silks, gold, and silver. When he heard he’d been charged with piracy, he left it in the Caribbean and sailed to New York on a less conspicuous sloop to try to bargain his way out of the charges. Instead, he was seized and sent to London for trial. After his conviction of piracy and murder charges in a sensational trial, he was hanged over the River Thames, where his body remained on view for two years. Meanwhile, according to anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, the men Kidd entrusted with his ship had looted it, then set it ablaze and let it drift. The location of the wreckage just found, and the formation and size of the cannons, which had been used as ballast, are consistent with the historical records of the Quedagh (KED-ah) Merchant. Also found were pieces of several anchors under the cannons. The site was reported by a visitor to the area who recognized the significance of the numerous cannons. Indiana University has collaborated in underwater archaeology for 11 years with the Dominican agency for Underwater Cultural Heritage. Their previous work focused in the area of La Isabela Bay, the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement established by Christopher Columbus.

Ancient Egyptian glassmaking furnace is recreated for study


In Egypt, a team led by a Cardiff University archaeologist has reconstructed a 3,000-year-old glass furnace. The results show that ancient Egyptian glassmaking methods were even more advanced than previously thought. Dr Paul Nicholson, of Cardiff University’s School of History and Archaeology, is leader of an Egypt Exploration Society team working on the earliest fully excavated glassmaking site in the world. The site is at Amarna, on the banks of the Nile, and dates back to the reign of Akhanaten, who lived from1352 to 1336 BC. Scholars had believed that Egyptians might have imported their glass from the Near East during this time. However, the excavation team thinks the evidence from Amarna shows they were making it themselves, possibly in a single-stage operation. Dr Nicholson and his colleague, Dr. Caroline Jackson of Sheffield University, demonstrated this was possible by using local sand to produce a glass ingot from their own experimental reconstruction of a furnace near the site. The team has also discovered that the glassworks was part of an industrial complex that involved a number of other high temperature manufacturing processes. The site also contained a potter’s workshop and facilities for making blue pigment and faience, a material used in amulets and architectural inlays. According to Dr Nicholson, who has been working at Amarna since 1983, some have argued that the Egyptians imported their glass and worked it into the artifacts that have been discovered from this time. He believes enough evidence has accumulated now to show that skilled artisans could make their own glass and were probably involved in a range of other manufacturing industries as well.

Germany’s Roman heritage turns up an ancient river barge


Our final story is from Germany, where archaeologists are raising part of a Roman barge that sank near a wharf nearly 2,000 years ago in the riverside city of Cologne. The oak boat, found 12 yards below the surface during excavations for an underground mass-transit line, is an unusual opportunity for scientists to see the workings of life in this cold northern Roman province. A piece of the vessel's flat bottom, about 10 square yards in size, complete with iron nails still in place, is still in the mud between modern building machinery and materials. According to the City's top official for subsurface history, Gerd Hellenkemper, this could turn out to be the oldest Roman transport vessel left in central Europe. The Rhine River was the main highway of the Roman province and the site of the boat’s find was a river port. The University of Cologne has already counted tree rings and has dated samples from the oak, establishing that the tree began its growth in 142 BC. While this does not tell us when the barge was built, the evidence so far is that the tree grew in the highlands east of Cologne, making it plausible the barge was built here. The entire flat-bottomed vessel is a standard Roman type that would have been 22 to 23 yards long with a beam of 3.5 yards. This would give it a capacity of 20 to 30 tons, suitable for hauling cattle, stone and bricks, firewood or construction timber. The existing piece of the ship is to be raised in four sections and stored in fluid, with restoration scheduled by 2011. Cologne, which derives its modern name from the town's Latin name, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (co-LOH-nee-a CLOUD-ee-ah AH-ra AH-grip-pih-NEN-see-um), is full of Roman remains including a largely intact aqueduct.

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