Audio News for January 27th to February 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for January 27th to February 2nd, 2008.


Iron ore mine in Peru predates Spanish conquest


Our first story is from Peru, where an ancient iron ore mine reveals how hematite or ochre was mined before the Inca Empire. Iron mining in the Old World, specifically in Africa, goes back 40,000 years. The ancient people in Mexico, Central America and North America also mined for various materials. However, little evidence exists for these types of mines until now.
According to Kevin Vaughn, an archaeologist at Purdue University, the only hematite mine discovered in South America prior to the Spanish conquest was uncovered in a cliffside facing a modern ochre mine. The mine, dubbed Mina Primavera Vaughn, was a human-made cave first created roughly 2,000 years ago. It is nearly 700 cubic meters in size, about seven times the volume of a double-decker bus, is in. A number of artifacts have been recovered including corncobs, gourd fragments, stone tools, beads made of shell and stone, and shards of textiles and pottery. The small ceramic fragments had distinct designs on them that are characteristic of the early Nasca civilization. The Nasca civilization, which existed from about 1 AD to 750, is well known for hundreds of drawings known as the Nasca Lines, stylized hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, lizards, sharks, llamas and other figures can only be seen from the air. They also built an aqueduct system that is still used today. Researchers estimate more than 3,700 metric tons of hematite were extracted from the ancient mine during more than 1,400 years of use. Vaughn conjectures that red-pigmented mineral was used primarily for ceramic paints, but they also could have used it as body paint, to paint textiles and even to paint adobe walls. Vaughn further noted the iron was not extracted from the ore for use in tools. Metals were used for a variety of tools in the Old World, such as weapons, while in the Americas, metals were used as prestige goods for the wealthy elite.

Healthy individuals may have survived the Black Plague


In our next story, a new study is providing evidence that the Black Death that decimated populations in Europe and elsewhere during the middle of the 14th century may not have been as indiscriminate as believed. The Black Plague epidemic of 1347 to 1351 was one of the deadliest recorded in human history, killing about 75 million people, more than a third of Europe's population according to some estimates.

An analysis of 490 skeletons exhumed from the East Smithfield cemetery in London suggests that the plague took the already ill, while many of the otherwise healthy survived the infection. According to anthropologist Sharon DeWitte of the University at Albany in New York, many people believe that the Black Death killed indiscriminately because it had such massive mortality. People already in poor health often are more vulnerable in epidemics, although that isn’t always true. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed thousands of healthy people in their prime while sparing many children and the elderly, whose weaker immune systems did not overreact to the infection.

East Smithfield cemetery was set up to bury victims of the Black Death and for no other purpose. The scientists determined the victims’ state of health when they died by counting bone lesions, defects that suggest previous infections and other existing health problems. The researchers also estimated age at death by noting dental development and using other established methods.
As a comparison, they analyzed the bones of 291 genetically and culturally similar people buried in a Danish cemetery shortly before the plague began. At East Smithfield, DeWitte found abnormalities in many skeletons, suggesting these people had experienced malnutrition, iron deficiencies, and infections well before succumbing to the Black Death. What is known from existing archives is that many survived the plague, and they were probably well fed and healthy enough to mount an effective immune response.

Many scientists think the Black Death, named after the black spots the bubonic form of the plague caused on the skin, was caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterial disease spread by fleas from rats. Others now think the Black Death may have been caused not by bubonic plague but by a viral hemorrhagic fever, similar to the disease caused by the Ebola or dengue viruses.

Art of oil painting much older than believed


Our third story comes from Afghanistan, where scientists are reconsidering common perceptions about the origins of oil painting. Oil painting is widely believed to have begun in Europe between 1400 to 1600. However, the world's first oil paintings go back nearly 14 centuries to murals in the Bamiyan caves in same region of Afghanistan where two gigantic statues of the Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

According to Yoko Taniguchi, researcher at Japan's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Buddhist images dated to around AD 650 are the earliest examples of oil used in art history. In the murals, thousands of Buddhas in vermilion robes sit cross-legged, with elegantly knotted hair. Other images show crouching monkeys, men facing one another or palm leaves intertwined with mythical creatures. The paintings incorporate a mix of Indian and Chinese influences, and are most likely to be the works of artists traveling on the Silk Road, once the largest trade and cultural route connecting the East and the West.

Taniguchi noted oil was used for medicine, cosmetics or to coat boats in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but no examples exist of its use in painting. The Getty Conservation Institute analyzed 53 samples extracted from the murals. Using gas chromatography methods, the researchers found that 19 had oil in the paint. Painters of the murals used organic substances including natural resin, plant gum, dry oil, and animal protein as a binder, which even today is an important element in paint. A binder keeps pigment particles together in a solid film and allows the paint to resist decay.

Taniguchi hopes the advanced techniques used to analyze the murals can be utilized on the ruins of other ancient civilizations. Other early civilizations, including those in current-day Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan, and India may have used similar techniques as well but their ruins have not been subject to advanced, extensive research.

Antarctic relics preserved


Our final story is from the Antarctic, where a team of Australian researchers has constructed a laboratory to preserve the ice-encrusted hut built by the explorer Douglas Mawson in 1911. The hut, constructed out of timber and embedded in ice, was Mawson's home for two years. The laboratory will serve as a base for the conservation of hundreds of artifacts frozen in ice and snow after being left behind by Mawson and his team at the end of their ill-fated expedition. Ice has covered the hut in the years since he abandoned it. Letters, books, university medals, whisky bottles, boxes of biscuits, and even shriveled potatoes and seal meat were found in the hut at Cape Dennison, Commonwealth Bay. The relics will undergo conservation treatment and then returned to the hut. The Australian Antarctic Division is supervising the conservation effort. A team including builders and an electrician constructed the laboratory over a five-week period, while battling 60 mile an hour winds and below-freezing temperatures. Four cubic yards of snow were removed from the inside of the shelter during the latest expedition. According to archaeologist Anne McConnell, it was an unusual experience, since she never excavated snow and ice before. Her colleague Michelle Berry noted that many items such as books and bottles were still in good condition, but metal objects such as cans of food were corroding because of the damp atmosphere inside the hut.

Mawson's exploration was carried out by five parties from the Main Base at Cape Dennison and two from the Western Base on the ice shelf on the Queen Mary coast. Mawson's team, which was to go east, consisted of Xavier Mertz, Lieutenant B. Ninnis and Mawson himself. Near the end of this team's trek, Ninnis, his dog team, and sled with most of the provisions fell through a crevasse and were lost. Mawson and Mertz turned back immediately. Mertz died during the return journey and Mawson continued alone. On one occasion during his return trip to the Main Base, he fell through the lid of a crevasse and was saved by his sled wedging itself into the ice above him. Mawson and six men who had remained behind to look for him wintered a second year until December 1913. His party, and those at the Western Base, had explored large areas of the Antarctic coast, describing its geology, biology and meteorology, and more closely defining the location of the south magnetic pole.

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