Audio news December 23rd to December 29th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news December 23rd to December 29th, 2007.


Finland’s lakes were earliest home of ice skates


Our first story is from England, where a new study shows that ice skating was invented in northern Europe around five thousand years ago. The evidence suggests that the first skates made of animal bones date back to 3000 BC. That was in Finland, where the skates helped people travel more widely during frozen winters, and marked the start of the evolution of more sophisticated skates. The original skates were constructed of trimmed horse or cow bones, pierced at one end and strapped to the foot with leather thongs. They were not powered by the classic skating motion, but rather, were used along with a long stick. Skaters straddled the stick and poled themselves along. In the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Dr. Frederico Formenti and Professor Alberto Minetti of Oxford University have laid out the evidence supporting the idea that the birth of ice skating took place in Southern Finland, where the number of lakes within a given area is the highest in the world. According to Formenti, in Central and Northern Europe five thousand years ago people struggled to survive the severe winter conditions and it seems unlikely that ice skating developed as a hobby. He is convinced that the first ice skates were made to limit the energy required for people’s daily journeys. In order to better adapt to the severe conditions imposed by the long-lasting winters, Finnish populations could benefit more than others from developing this ingenious locomotion tool. Other research by the team shows that the energy cost of skating on ice decreased dramatically through history, as bone gave way to iron and then steel, with modern ice-skating only using 25 per cent of the effort associated with the use of bone skates.

Mexico City pyramid is early Aztec site


Our next story is an update from Mexico, where archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an 800-year-old Aztec pyramid in the heart of Mexico City that could prove the ancient city is at least a century older than previously thought. The ruins, found by local archaeologists, are about 36 feet high, and located in the central Tlatelolco area, once a major religious and political centre for the Aztec elite. Since the discovery of another pyramid at the site 15 years ago, historians have thought Tlatelolco was founded by the Aztecs in 1325. This is the same year as the twin city of Tenochtitlan nearby, the capital of the Aztec empire, which the conquering Spanish razed in 1521 to found Mexico City. The pyramid, found last month as part of an investigation begun in August, may have been built around 1100 or 1200, meaning the Aztecs began to develop their civilization in the mountains of central Mexico earlier than believed. According to archaeologist Patricia Ledesma, excavators have found the stairs of a much older pyramid. Archaeologists also have detected a sculpture that could be of the Aztec rain god Tlaloc, or of Tezcatlipoca, the god of the sky and earth. In addition, the dig has turned up five skulls and a series of rooms near the pyramid that could date from 1431. Mexico City is littered with pre-Hispanic ruins. In August, archaeologists in the city's Iztapalapa district unearthed what they believe may be the main pyramid of Tenochtitlan. Ledesma and the archaeological group's coordinator, Salvador Guilliem, will continue to dig and study the area next year to get a better idea of the pyramid's size and age.

Kyrgyz lake contains remains of Scythian city


In Kyrgyzstan, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 2500-year-old advanced civilization at the bottom of Lake Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest saltwater lake after the Caspian Sea, high in the Tien Shan Mountains. According to a report in RIA Novosti, the team comprised Kyrgyz historians, led by Vladimir Ploskikh, vice president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, and other Russian colleagues, including historian Svetlana Lukashova. The expedition resulted in significant finds, including the discovery of major settlements, presently buried underwater. The data and artifacts obtained are the finishing touches to the many years of exploration in the lake through seven previous expeditions. The discoveries included walls stretching for up to 500 yards, and traces of a large city with an area of several square miles. Other findings included Scythian burial mounds, eroded by waves over the centuries, and numerous well preserved artifacts, including bronze battleaxes, arrowheads, daggers, objects discarded by smiths, casting molds, and a faceted gold bar, which is thought to have been used as money. These discoveries suggest that the ancient city was a metropolis in its time. Some artifacts point towards an advanced civilization. A 2,500 year-old ritual bronze cauldron of intricate craftsmanship was found on the bottom of the lake. Outstanding workmanship was also seen on bronze mirrors and horse harnesses, which are thought to have been decorated for use in ceremonies or festivals. Items referred to as the world's oldest extant coins were also found underwater and gold wire rings used as small change. The researchers believe that the local people had a socio-economic system previously unknown to historians. Lake Issyk Kul has played a role in human history due to its geographic location near the crossing of key transportation routes in central Asia, including the Silk Road. Archaeologists found traces of many religions here, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Iraqis seek funding to protect remains of early Christian church


In our final story, Iraqis are determined to restore the former glory of Al-Aqiser church, which may be the oldest standing eastern Christian house of worship, currently a ruin in the windswept desert of Ain Tamur. Because of bandits and looters in the region, no one can visit the southern desert unescorted, local officials say. But 1,500 years ago, early eastern Christians knelt and prayed in this barren land, their faces turned towards Jerusalem. The remains of Al-Aqiser church lie in windswept sand dunes around 40 miles southwest of the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Hussein Yasser, head of the antiquities department of the province of Karbala, says that their research shows the church was built 120 years before the arrival of Islam in Iraq. Islam began in the Arabian peninsula in 622, or, by Yasser's account, 15 years after Al-Aqiser was built in a region once teeming with Christian tribes. In time, Karbala overshadowed it and became a key Muslim Shiite pilgrimage destination, while across the region Christian communities began to recede. Deserted by its worshippers, Al-Aqiser slowly sank into the sands and would have been totally forgotten had it not been for a team of Iraqi archaeologists who stumbled on its ruins in the 1970s. The remnants of the church rise high above the desert sands, forming a perfect rectangle 75 yards long by 15 yards wide. The nave is clearly visible as well as the central part around the altar where masses were celebrated. Yasser has been struggling since 1993 to attract funds and interest to restore the church and carry out excavations in the area. His efforts were briefly rewarded some years ago when the authorities agreed to finance a brief excavation that lasted six months. The work revealed an archway which probably belonged to an underground crypt, with inscriptions in Syriac, the language spoken by the first Christians. The city of Ain Tamur once lay in this area, astride the junction of major trade routes between Persia, the Arabian peninsula and the Roman empire. A lake was present, allowing people to earn their livelihood by fishing. In recent centuries, the church was used by Catholic Chaldeans, the largest single Christian denomination in Iraq, who follow an eastern rite but recognize the Pope in Rome. The sect used to pray in Al-Aqiser on Christmas Day but have not returned in a long time. According to official figures, the Christian community in Iraq has slumped from around 800,000 in the 1990s to about half that number now. Yasser hopes that the church can be saved, as one part of the great civilization built by Iraqis. Ain Tamur police chief Mahfoud al-Tamimi agreed that Al-Aqiser must be saved. The church does not belong only to the Christians or to the Muslims, he said, but to the world. He called for the church to be added to UNESCO's world heritage site list.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at , where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!