Audio News for December 30, 2007 to January 5th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines Audio News for December 30, 2007 to January 5th, 2008.


Arctic changes threaten graves of ancient whaling people


Our first story is from Arctic Alaska, where ocean changes are rapidly eroding Point Barrow and threaten ancient burials left by the Thule (TOOL-eh) whale hunting people. Archaeologists are hurrying to rescue the eroding burials from the town of Nuvuk (NOO-vuk), which was occupied for at least 1,000 years, until about 60 years ago. Nuvuk lay just north of the current town of Barrow, Alaska, on the long low point that divides the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and marks the farthest northern reach of North America. Over the past decade, changes in ocean currents have begun to erode the point at a rate of 60 feet per year. The archaeology team removes, catalogues, and reburies about 20 burials during each short Arctic summer. Most of the bodies were interred in a rough framework made of wood or whale bones, with a piece of driftwood on top; some were also wrapped in animal skin or fur. Accompanying artifacts include ulus (OO-LOOs), the traditional half-moon shaped knife, and bolas (BOW-las), the rope with weights that was whirled to bring down birds. Armor made from whale baleen has also been found. Barrow archaeologist Anne Jensen believes that this very early Thule site may represent the beginning of Thule culture. The origins of the whale-hunting Thule culture that spanned the American Arctic are uncertain. It was first described in the eastern Arctic and it is clearly ancestral to the modern Inupiat (in-YOO-pee-yot) and Inuit (INN-yoo-it) cultures. Dr. Jensen believes the Thule started somewhere in northern Alaska, perhaps in a major whaling area like Point Barrow. A community organized for whaling, she said, would have had an edge over competing cultures. The social structure needed for catching the huge animals, including the practice of quickly butchering and distributing the meat, would have given these people an advantage in warfare. The rich diet also meant better nutrition. Since 2005, grants from a US federal program called Echo, which provides science experiences for high school students, have paid for students to help the field effort. The students learn about the long history of whaling culture as they help salvage it from the ocean.

Terracotta find shows legendary woman leader of Jain religion


Our next story is from Bangladesh, where an 1,800-year-old terracotta plaque has been discovered bearing the image of the only female Jain Tirthankar. In the Jain religion, a Tirthankar is a human who achieves enlightenment through ascetism. The legendary 24 Jain Tirthankars each founded a Jain community in order to show others the path. According to some Jain thinking, the 19th Tirthankar was a woman, Mallinath. The seven-inch-long red terracotta plaque showing the image of Jain Mallinath was discovered in excavations at the Damdampir mound, located in the Manirampur subdistrict of Jessore District. The discovery was made on December 18 but was kept secret for security reasons. Shihabuddin Mohammad Akbar, director of the Khulna regional office of the Archaeology Department, reported that excavations at the site began in 2004. Besides the rare image of Jain Mallinath, more antiquities, including earthenware from the 200-year-old Jain dynasty, have been discovered at the site. Shihabuddin said excavations at the ancient Jain site will continue.

Fungus attacks famed French cave paintings


In France, the government is taking emergency action to rescue the celebrated cave paintings of the Lascaux caverns from a fungus. Archaeological experts have begun applying a fungicide to halt the spread of gray and black mould in the caverns, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistory. The caves, discovered in 1940 by teenagers walking a dog, contain images of bulls, deer and horses believed to be 15,000-17,000 years old. The French government has closed the caves to everyone, including scientists and historians, for three months and will replace an air circulation system that may be partly responsible for the fungus. The system, installed seven years ago, may have been poorly designed, as a similar fungal attack took place after its installation. Paul Bahn, Britain's foremost specialist in Ice Age art, said that water could be seen running down the paintings, while black spots - some as large as a hand - were spreading across the walls and some of the paintings. He said that the cave had no means of circulating its natural currents of air and that, as biologists had yet to identify the exact nature of the spots, they had been unable to prescribe a proper treatment. The fungus is threatening some of the 600 drawings in yellow, red and black mineral pigments that cover the caves. The drawings, believed to have been painted by hunter-gatherers, have survived since the last Ice Age. The caves, which had been a major tourist draw in the 1950s, have been closed to the public since 1963. In 2001 and 2002, a white fungus spread over much of the caves, but was successfully brought under control. One of the projects to be halted by the emergency treatment is a survey that was to make a three-dimensional digital record of every painting in the caverns.

Ancient Chinese cave statues at risk of multiple modern threats


We end this week’s news in China, where experts at the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute have called for conservation to protect the ancient Buddhist statues there from a wide range of natural and human damage. Yungang Grottoes, one of the three largest major cave complexes in China, contain more than 51,000 Buddhist statues, ranging from a mere inch to over 50 feet in height. Most were constructed during the Wei Dynasty in the mid-fifth century, when Chinese Buddhism was at the peak of its popularity. The statues are among the few historical survivals from the dynasty. According to experts at the Institute, many of the statues' surfaces have flaked off as they have weathered, and some of their faces have been completely worn away. Some of the statues have even collapsed. The grottoes were placed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 2001 and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Institute Director Yuan Jinghu said water is a major cause of damage, especially during the summer rains, when water sheets down the statues, and puddles eat at their bases. People are damaging them, too. Datong, the city near the caves, is famous for its coal production. Floating coal dust and sulfur dioxide from coal burning causes chemical reactions in the sandstone. Although the government has allocated over one hundred million yuan for the construction of a new coal transport route far from the Yungang Grottoes, and a large annual sum to maintain the grottoes, increasing numbers of tourists are still a threat. Besides touching the statues and climbing them, tourists damage them simply with the carbon dioxide in their exhaled breath. According to Director Yuan, the statues have lives like human beings and must be protected so they will live. Otherwise, later generations will lose the chance to enjoy the art.

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