Audio News for March 2nd to March 8th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 2nd to March 8th, 2008.


Proposed Roman subway expansion is connecting to many new finds


Our first story is from Rome, where no less than 38 digs in the depths of the Eternal City have been carried out in preparation for a new subway line. Last week, these digs revealed a sixth-century copper factory, medieval kitchens still stocked with pots and pans, and remains of Renaissance palaces. Over the last nine months, the remains turned up have included Roman taverns and 16th Century palace foundations at the central Piazza Venezia and near the ancient Forum. According to archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi, the medieval and Renaissance finds that have come to light in Piazza Venezia are extremely important for their rarity. Among the most significant discoveries in a Ninth Century kitchen were three pots that were used to heat sauce. Previously, only two others had been found in Italy. The copper factory, another unprecedented find, was used to work copper alloys in a series of small ovens, traces of which can still be seen. Various small copper ingots found are currently being analyzed. The planned new subway line requires archaeological investigations only for stairwells and air ducts, because the 15 miles of stations and tunnels will be dug at a depth of 80 to 100 feet, probably well below the level of any past human habitation. Most of the digs, however, still have to reach the layer that dates to Roman times. Under Italy's strict conservation laws, it will be up to Rome's archaeological superintendent Angelo Bottini to decide whether a find will be removed, destroyed or encased within the subway's structures.

Oregon coast beeswax sheds light on colonial Spanish, Indian, and Anglo interactions


In the United States, beeswax has been turning up on Oregon's north coast for a long time. Now, beeswax has washed up in the southern part of the state, which is rare. Researchers believe it may be a chunk of beeswax from a Spanish trading vessel, a Manila Galleon, that sank more than 300 years ago on the northern Oregon coast. Scott Williams, assistant state archaeologist for the State of Washington, leads the Beeswax Wreck Project, whose volunteers are probing why blocks of beeswax have been popping up along the Oregon coast for centuries and looking for the wreck that may be the source. He believes this piece could have been from the Santo Christo de Burgos, which sank in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705. Both were crossing the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico, on annual voyages, with tons of wax. These discoveries have been traced to the Philippines through the wings of bees found in the wax, showing that the bees were native to those islands. According to Williams, the location of the recent wax discovery is unusual, since the ocean currents off Oregon flow north, not south. However, it is known that the Indians were trading the salvaged chunks of beeswax up and down the coast prehistorically. The amber glow of the 10-pound egg-shaped wax lump caught the eye of a beachcomber named Loretta LeGuee as she and her German shepherd, Norman, walked the beach after a ferocious storm. Beeswax was once preferred for candles over malodorous tallow, or rendered animal fat. According to the Beeswax Wreck Project, the Catholic Church required the use of beeswax, but there were no native domestic honeybees in the New World. The churches in Mexico had to get wax from somewhere and the large Asian honeybees produced a lot of beeswax. Records dating to the early 1800s show that Indians traded cakes of beeswax to Anglo settlers arriving in the Pacific Northwest. As soon as the Northwest fur traders came into the country, the Indians who offered to trade beeswax to them said it was from a shipwreck. The ship San Francisco Xavier was carrying some 75 tons of beeswax, according to shipping records. Because a massive earthquake and tsunami in January of 1700 would have sent earlier ship remains farther inland, a researcher on the team says beeswax is likely from the 1705 shipwreck. Finds of the wax along the north coast still occur regularly. The wax lacks the monetary value of the gold and silver thought to be lost, or even buried, along the north coast, but discoveries are nonetheless priceless because of the social and historical information they contribute for this complex period of historical discovery.

For more information on the Beeswax Wreck Project, see The Archaeology Channel video, an interview of Scott Williams by Faith Haney, called Anthropology Field Notes 5: The Beeswax Shipwreck of Nehalem.

Beneath Alexander’s capital, Greek Bronze Age is brought to light


In Greece, exciting new finds at the archaeological site of Pella have opened a new chapter in Macedonian history. Beneath the ruins of the ancient capital of the Macedonian kingdom is a large prehistoric burial ground that has begun yielding the first clues of organized life in Pella during the third millennium BC. A team from Aristotle University, while carrying out conservation, repairs and other work at the site, came across more than 100 Early Bronze Age burials in large jars, accompanied by marble works of art from the Cyclades (cicladees), local ceramics, and metalware. The finds are so recent that researchers at the Demokritos Center have not yet completed the analysis of bones that will provide precise dating. The initial evidence supplements what is already known about Pella in the Early Bronze Age, when it was already an important city for the region, long before it became the capital of the Macedonian Empire. According to the excavation director, Professor Ioannis (yoannis) Akamatis, Pella, “the greatest of Macedonian cities” was apparently built on top of the prehistoric graveyard when Archelaus (archelayus) moved his capital there from Aiges (agees). As this important urban center developed, it had an innovative, rectangular town plan, with an extensive network of water and sewerage pipes. This helped make Pella one of the most important political and cultural centers of the Hellenistic Era of the 4th to 1st centuries BC. The exact boundaries of the prehistoric cemetery cannot be determined, because a large part of it lies beneath the urban center of the ancient city. However, the graves that have been located so far beneath the city roads provide enough information to form a picture of prehistoric Pella. In burial customs practiced by Pella’s prehistoric community, the dead were placed in jars, simple trenches or in stone structures. The bodies placed in jars were buried with their limbs folded, and the head close to either the mouth or the bottom of the jar. Most of the jars are between 60 and 65 inches tall. The position of the body depended on the individual’s sex: men were placed facing the right, women to the left. Objects, many of which had long been in everyday use before they ended up in the grave, accompanied the dead. Most tombs contained at least one vessel.

Roman villa to be excavated on Isle of Wight


Our final story is from England, where an excavation is about to start at one of the most important Roman villas in Western Europe. The villa is located on the Isle of Wight and is set to be uncovered in a five-year long archaeological dig. Barely 15 per cent of Brading Roman Villa has been excavated so far. Now a leading Oxford University professor and 20 graduate student archaeologists are to excavate the four-acre site further. According to Sir Barry Cunliffe, signs suggest the north side could contain a large assembly hall with side aisles. The finds could include mosaics, although it is unlikely that they would match the quality of those within the villa itself, which have their depictions of peacocks signifying eternal life, Orpheus charming the beasts of the forest and Tritons, or sea deities, carrying reclining nymphs on their backs. The Romano-British settlement on the island flourished through an active stone-quarrying industry and maritime trade. The villa’s remains disappeared from sight until 1879, when a local farmer stumbled across them. That same year, Captain Thorp of Yarbridge began searching for Roman antiquities in the fields of Morton Farm. Mr. Munns, a local farmer, also became interested. One evening, while using an iron bar to make holes for a sheep pen, he struck the Bacchus mosaic floor. The following morning, he and Captain Thorp had uncovered the Gallus panel. Sir Barry Cunliffe believes the new excavation could give an insight into the identity of the owner of the villa. Its luxury suggests it was owned by the wealthiest of Roman Britons. The sophistication of the mosaics – which are full of allegory, politics, and double entendre – suggest someone highly cultured. One theory is that the villa belonged to Allectus, who ruled Britain in AD 293 to 296 after murdering his predecessor Carausius, an army commander who had proclaimed himself emperor of Britain.

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