Audio News for February 17th to February 23rd, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 17th to February 23rd, 2008.


Border wall from Iran shows size and power of Sassanians


Our first story is from Iran, where new discoveries have been unearthed at an ancient frontier wall, which provides evidence that the Persians matched the Romans in military power and engineering ability. The ‘Great Wall of Gorgan (GORE GAHN),: in northeastern Iran, is a barrier of tremendous scale and complexity. Including over 30 military forts, an aqueduct, and water channels along the route, the wall is being explored by an international team of archaeologists from Iran and the universities of Edinburgh and Durham. Also known as the “Red Snake,” the reddish brick-built barrier is more than 1000 years older than the Great Wall of China and longer than Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall put together. Until recently, however, nobody knew who had constructed the Great Wall. Proposals for the builder ranged from Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC, to the Persian king Khusrau I in the 6th century AD. Previously, most scholars suspected a 2nd or 1st century BC construction. However, scientific dating has now moved this forward considerably, showing that the Sassanian Persians built the Wall in the 5th century AD or possibly the 6th. The Sassanian Persian dynasty created one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world, based in Iran, but stretching from modern Iraq to southern Russia, Central Asia, and Pakistan. Surveys, satellite images, and excavations reveal that the forts, densely occupied with military style barrack blocks, bustled with life. Scientists estimate that 30,000 soldiers may have been stationed at this Wall alone. According to Eberhard Sauer, of the University of Edinburgh's School of History, Classics and Archaeology, the project challenges the traditional view of the late classical world. At a time when the Western Roman Empire was collapsing and the Eastern Roman Empire was under great external pressure, the Sassanian Persian Empire gathered the manpower and resources to build and garrison a monument of greater scale than anything comparable in the west. The Persians seem to match, or more than match, their late Roman rivals in army strength, organizational skills, engineering, and water management. It is believed the “Red Snake” was a defense system against the White Huns of Central Asia.

Ruins of city in India indicate very large population


Our next story is from India, where archaeologists have found remains of a city that flourished 2,500 years ago. The remains, discovered near Bhubaneswar (boo-bah-NESH-war), capital of the eastern state of Orissa, point to a highly developed urban settlement. Archaeologists believe the population of the city could have been around 20,000 to 25,000 inhabitants. Ongoing excavations have revealed 18 stone pillars, pottery, terracotta ornaments and bangles, finger rings, ear spools, and pendants made of clay. As an indication of the significance of this sizable city, RK Mohanty of the department of archaeology at Deccan College, Pune, a co-leader of the excavation, noted that this is twice to two-and-a-half times the size of the population of classical Athens, which at the height of its Golden Age held barely 10,000 people. Mohanty and co-leader Monica Smith, of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, have been carrying out limited excavations at the Indian site annually since 2005, under a permit from the Archaeological Survey of India. Professor B.B. Lal carried out the first excavations at the site starting in 1948. Based on the architectural pattern and artifacts discovered during the early excavations, Lal had concluded that this fort city thrived between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD. Based on new findings, Smith and Mohanty have expanded that range, and now estimate that the fortified city was flourishing by around the 5th century BC, and probably lasted well beyond the 4th century AD. The new estimates were determined through geophysical survey, systematic surface collections, and selected excavations in the 4.8-kilometer long perimeter of the fortified area. The researchers also studied individual houses and civic structures to arrive at the population estimate of 25,000, a number Smith believes is on the conservative side. However, some historians and archaeologists in Orissa have expressed reservations about the claim, saying it is too early to know much about the population or dating of the area. B.K. Rath, former director of the state archaeology department, believes that without excavating the entire area of the fortified city, it is impossible to determine its population or age. But Rath praised Smith and Mohanty for having focused attention on the problem of encroachment that is threatening to consume a large part of the fortified city. The major portion of the land that makes up the ancient city is under private ownership, making archaeological study difficult. With a view to preserving this important archaeological site for future research, the Indian Archaeological Survey office is now contemplating asking the state government for control over the land. The National Science Foundation of India, the National Geographic Society, and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, California are supporting the project.

Large coastal pyramid complex found in Peru


In Peru, the remains of at least ten pyramids have been discovered on the coast and archaeologists believe it could be the vast ceremonial site of an ancient, little-known culture. Construction crews working in the province of Piura discovered several reduced pyramids and a large adobe platform. Officials from Peru's National Institute of Culture have now announced that the complex, which is 2 miles long and 1 mile wide, belonged to the ancient Vicús culture and was likely either a religious center or a cemetery for nobility. The Vicús, known for their decorated ceramics, are a pre-Hispanic civilization that thrived on Peru's northern coastal desert from 200 BC to AD 300. Researchers say little is known about the culture, because their sites have been heavily looted over the years. According to César Santos Sánchez, chief archaeologist for the Institute of Culture Piura division, at least ten pyramids have been located and a large adobe platform that may have been used for burial rituals. However, further testing is required to be sure. Found alongside one of the larger pyramids in the complex, the adobe platform measures 82 by 98 feet. Another of the larger pyramids contained some artifacts as well as bone fragments from a human skull. Skull fragments, found several yards below the surface, indicate a deep grave that took time to dig, suggesting that the individual buried there had high social status. Santos noted that the complex is enclosed by four large hills: Pilán, Vicús, Chanchape, and Tongo. This location may indicate strategic value for the site. The area containing the pyramids is surrounded by a cemetery that has long since been looted by grave robbers, but the complex itself is intact. The Vicús are poorly understood, given that most of what we know about them is through looted ceramic art. Pottery specialists say the Vicús ceramic style is similar in some respects to that of the Moche, stimulating increased research on the relationship between the two cultures. The Moche civilization developed in areas south of the Vicús from around AD 100 to 750, producing complex painted pottery as well as gold ornaments, irrigation systems, and monuments. The two cultures thrived within a relatively short distance of each other. Joanne Pillsbury, an archaeologist at Washington, D.C.-based Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute affiliated with Harvard University, notes that the discovery of the Vicús pyramids comes as perceptions about the Moche have changed. It was once thought that Moche was a single monolithic state. Now it seems likely to have been a series of regional kingdoms that shared a broader culture; and Vicús was probably part of that sphere of interaction.

California volunteers work to bring tribal languages back from dusty archives


Our final story is from the United States, where researchers in the J. P. Harrington Database Project at the University of California, Davis, are working with Native Americans to save records of long lost tribal languages. The first time Jose Freeman heard his tribe's lost language through the crackle of a 70-year-old recording, he cried. The last native speaker of Salinan died almost a half-century ago, but today many indigenous people are finding their extinct or endangered tongues, one word or song at a time, thanks to a linguist who died in 1961 and scholars at the University of California, Davis, who are working to transcribe his life's obsession. The linguist John Peabody Harrington spent four decades gathering more than 1 million pages of phonetic notes on languages spoken by tribes from Alaska to South America. When the technology became available, he enhanced his written records with audio recordings, first using wax cylinders, then aluminum discs. In many cases, his notes provide the only record of long-gone languages. Martha Macri, an instructor in California Indian Studies at UC Davis and a principal researcher on the J.P. Harrington Database Project, is working with American Indian volunteers to transcribe Harrington's notations. Researchers hope the words will bridge the decades of silence separating the people Harrington interviewed from their descendants. According to Freeman, when we lose our language, we're being cut off from our roots and the worldview that our ancestors carried, which was quite different from the Euro-American worldview. He hopes his 4-month-old great-granddaughter will grow up with the sense of heritage that comes with speaking her ancestors' language. Although it will be years before all the material is available, some American Indians connected to the Project have already begun putting it to use. Members of Freeman's tribe gather on their ancestral land every month to practice what they've learned; a few words, some grammar, old songs. Harrington was a devoted scholar. Sometimes he spent 20 or 30 minutes on one word, saying it repeatedly until the person he was interviewing agreed he had gotten the pronunciation correct. According to Jack Marr, who worked as his assistant, the tribes trusted Harrington, recognizing that he was making his records for posterity. Harrington was so focused on gathering information that he spent little time polishing his work for publication, diluting efforts to pass the words down to new generations. He was also so mistrustful of other researchers that he stashed much of his research as he traveled, deliberately keeping it out of reach of his colleagues. He kept even his employers at the Bureau of American Ethnology - now the National Anthropological Archives - in the dark about where he was and what he was doing. After his death, the federal archives received boxes of Harrington's notes, recordings and other material from people who found them in barns and basements across the West. It took the archives until 1991 to transfer the massive quantity of notes to microfilm. While linguists, archaeologists, botanists and others have spent the years since combing through the files, Macri notes that the trove of information has remained all but inaccessible to members of the tribes themselves. The Harrington Project was created with the goal of returning the words to the people who can fill them with life again, as well as making the material more accessible to scholars. The researchers are teaching tribal members across California how to read Harrington's cramped handwriting and decipher his notation system. Macri's team focuses on the more than 100 California languages Harrington catalogued, such as Wiyot, Serrano and Luiseño, for which there are few other records. Jacob Gutierrez, a member of the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians – called "Pipiimaram," in the tribe's own language - has decoded all the material Harrington gathered on his people, over 6,000 pages, and is now working on information about their linguistic neighbors.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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