Audio News for February 10th to February 16th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 10th to February 16th, 2008.


First Americans camped out for 20,000 years


In our first story, a new genetic study indicates that people who migrated from Asia to the New World camped out for 20,000 years on land now submerged under the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia.

A team at the University of Florida fused DNA studies, archaeological evidence, climate data and geological data to arrive at the new hypothesis. According to molecular anthropologist Connie Mulligan, the team proposes that the people who left Central Asia to ultimately populate the Americas passed quickly through Siberia, and then were stuck in Beringia, a former land mass that now lies under the frigid Bering Sea. They stayed there for 20,000 years, until glaciers melted about 15,000 years ago, opening a route to the Americas. Mulligan added that the reason no archeological evidence exists is that the area is currently under water.

The researchers used sequences of mitochondrial DNA taken from Asians and Native Americans for their analysis. Mitochondrial DNA is passed along nearly unchanged from mother to child. Small mutations can be used as a genetic clock to track the descent and the sizes of ancient populations.

The report suggests that, after a long period of little change in population size in greater Beringia, the migrants rapidly expanded into the Americas less than 15,000 years ago either through an interior ice-free corridor or along the coast. An original group with an effective population size of 1,000 to 5,400 achieved this rapid colonization of the New World.

The University of Florida's Michael Miyamoto said the DNA suggests a 20,000-year "waiting period" during which generations passed and genetic changes accumulated. Miyamoto noted that by looking at the kinds and frequencies of these mutations in modern populations, we could get an idea of when the mutations arose and how many people were around to carry them. According to Mulligan, these people didn't know they were going to a new world. They were moving out of Asia and finally reached a landmass that was exposed because of lower sea levels during the last glacial maximum, but two major glaciers blocked their progress. Therefore, they stayed put for about 20,000 years. When the North American ice sheets started to melt and a passage into the New World opened, they left Beringia to go to a better place.

Mummy of an Egyptian soldier unearthed


Our second story comes from Egypt, where an unusual, well-preserved burial chamber near Luxor may contain the mummy of an ancient warrior. Located in Dra Abul Naga, an ancient cemetery on Luxor's west bank, a closed wooden coffin inscribed with the name "Iker," meaning "excellent one" in ancient Egyptian, was found inside a burial shaft. Inside the coffin, the archaeologists found Iker's mummy, lying on its left side next to two bows and three staffs which indicate his high rank. Five arrows made of reeds, three of them still feathered, were also discovered near the coffin. Based on the coffin's inscriptions and pottery found with it, scientists date the burial to the early 11th dynasty, from 2125 to 1985 B.C.

According to Jose Galán, the leader of the new excavation from the Spanish National Research Council, some intact burials from that period had been found in the 1920s, but the new find could offer a new look into 11th dynasty’s burial customs.

The discovery of burials belonging to soldiers and mercenaries, who had elevated status in the wartime society, is rare, according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Only a handful has ever been unearthed. Ikram believes because of their prominence in calming things down after a civil war, soldiers probably were wealthier and regarded with more honor than in early periods, and thus received nicer burials.

The wooden coffin, adorned with drawings of Iker presenting offerings to the goddess of the heavens, Hathor, was well preserved, though it suffered some damage from flooding and termites. The presence of bows and arrows means that Iker was likely a hired soldier in the service of a king, although the exact details are unclear. Galán and his team plan to remove the mummy from the coffin to x-ray it and determine more specifics.

The coffin was discovered during routine excavations in a courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (Jee-HOO-ti) a high-ranking official under Queen Hatshepsut (Hat-SHEP-soot).

First archaeological evidence of Druids discovered?


British history tells of a wise, priestly class of elite individuals called Druids among Celtic societies, but no archaeological evidence of their existence has been found---until perhaps now.
According to a new report published in British Archaeology, a series of graves, dating to AD 40-60, were found at a gravel quarry at Stanway near Colchester, Essex. At least one of the burials may have been that of a Druid. Mike Pitts, the journal's editor and an archaeologist, studied classical Greek and Roman texts that mention the Druids in early France and Britain. The most detailed description comes from Roman military and political leader Julius Caesar.
According to Pitts, Druids were exalted ritual specialists who performed human sacrifices, acted as judges in disputes, were excused action in battle, and taught the transmigration of souls—the belief that when you die, your soul is passed on to another living being. Other historians link the Druids to soothsaying and healing practices.

Within the wooden, chambered burial site, researchers have unearthed a wine warmer, cremated human remains, a cloak pinned with brooches, a jet bead, and divining rods for fortune-telling. Additionally, a series of surgical instruments, a strainer bowl last used to brew Artemisia-containing tea, and a board game carefully laid out with pieces in play were found.
The surgical kit contained iron and copper alloy scalpels, a surgical saw, hooks, needles, forceps and probes. Pitts said the collection emulates basic medical tools from other parts of the Roman world. The board game and its arranged pieces, however, are anything but common. Nothing like it has ever been found at Roman-era sites in Great Britain. Surviving metal corners and hinges from the board allowed reconstruction as an 8-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Raised sides suggest dice might have been used. The white and blue glass counters were positioned with care. Some were straight across the sides, another in a diagonal line and one white marker was found close to the board's center. Pitts believes the game may have been a divination tool.
Pitts noted that the person in the burial site was clearly wealthy and powerful, as indicated by the special grave and its apparent location within the compound of a “chief.” Pitts is disposed to believe the person was indeed a Celtic Druid and may be closely related to Cunobelin, a chief or king of the Catuvellauni tribe.

Philip Crummy, director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, also believes that the person in the burial could very well have been a Druid, given the healing and divination characteristics and assuming that Druids were trained in these skills. Crummy agrees that such individuals would have been near the top of the social scale in Iron Age Britain. However, he is not yet convinced the person was Celtic, since the medical kit was "fairly Romanized."

Maltese cistern turns out to be ancient tomb


Our final story is from Malta, where a bell-shaped cistern has been revealed to be an ancient tomb. At the Limestone Heritage, studies have confirmed that a bell-shaped cistern in a quarry at the museum location is an ancient tomb of Punic or Roman origin.

Dr Nicholas Vella, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the Department of Classics and Archaeology of the University of Malta, conducted the research. Entrance into the tomb is currently through one of its two burial chambers, but in antiquity the tomb was reached through a deep shaft from the fields above. In later years, the shaft was rehewned into a bell-shaped cistern for rainwater collection. The 8-foot-deep shaft would probably have been rectangular with footholds dug on the side to allow the funeral undertaker to descend to its bottom. Two small, nearly rectangular burial chambers are opposite each other at the bottom of the shaft.
According to Dr. Vella’s report, a mortuary bed cut into the rock lies to the left of each entrance. The body would have been laid to rest on the bed with its head resting on a rock-cut pillow at the deep end of the chamber. Each mortuary bed is about six feet long and about a foot and a half wide, indicating that only one adult was placed on the bed. Pottery vessels, such as plates, jugs and amphorae, were placed in the chamber to accompany the deceased. A stone slab blocking the doorway sealed the chamber.

A pilaster cut into the rock was found in one corner of each burial chamber. Original cut marks are visible on the ceiling of burial chamber two, which are different from those produced by a modern pickaxe on the ceiling of burial chamber one.

The date of the tomb is unknown because none of its contents had been preserved. Dr. Vella says that, in the absence of such material, the tomb has to be dated according to its shape and its layout. Tombs like this one, with chambers on either side of a deep shaft, are common in Malta after the 3rd century BC. This would correspond to a time when the Maltese Islands were under Carthaginian domination. However, this type of tomb was common also in later Roman times up until the 2nd century AD. At some point in time, probably in the nineteenth century, the tomb was made into a cistern to collect rainwater. The shaft of the tomb was widened, especially at the bottom, and the rock cut in the shape of a massive bell. Part of the cistern shaft was built from stone blocks kept together with plaster. Rainwater would have gathered here and inside the tomb chambers. To make the surface of the rock waterproof, the builders of the cistern applied a cement-based mortar on the rock surface except on the roofs of the chambers. The water would have been used probably to water the crops in the field.

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