Audio News for April 6th to April 12th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 6th to April 12th, 2008.


500 year old Aztec math problem finally solved


Our first story solves a nearly 500 year old Aztec math problem: what does three arms plus five bones equal? Now researchers know the answer: five hearts. Thousands of odd symbols appear in Aztec property registries created around 1540. However, no one knew the value of the symbols or their use in representing the size of land plots for tax assessment and other purposes.
After thirty years of work, geographer Barbara Williams and mathematician Maria del Carmen Jorge y Jorge have found a solution that reveals a complex surveying system with the ability to calculate the area of irregular shapes and manipulate fractional amounts.

The researchers based their analysis on two books, called the Codex Vergara and the Codice de Santa Maria Asuncion. The manuscripts, written on paper brought by Spanish conquistadors who had arrived in Mexico two decades earlier, were probably transcribed from even older documents written on tree bark or cotton cloth. The pages of the books are filled with tiny property maps. Each plot is designated by two drawings: one showing the lengths of the sides and another showing the area. The measurements are represented by seven symbols: lines, dots, arrows, hearts, hands, arms, and bones. Each map also includes the name of the property owner and the soil type. Researchers already knew what the maps represented and the value of some of the measurements. A line, for example, was the standard unit of length, known as a tlalquahuitl, or rod, and would measure a little more than 8 feet.

When the researchers knew the values of the units in roughly rectangular plots, they could easily follow the logic of the Aztecs and reproduce their calculations by multiplying lengths and widths. Nevertheless, they were blocked from calculating many plots because they didn't know the value of the units. The breakthrough came when Jorge y Jorge, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, found that the values of some areas were prime numbers. That meant that some of the unknown symbols had to represent fractions of a rod and through trial and error she decoded the system. A hand equaled 3/5 of a rod, an arrow was 1/2, a heart was 2/5, an arm was 1/3, and a bone was 1/5.

Of the 369 plots the researchers examined the Aztec math could be accurately recorded in 287 cases, according to the study. Still, they don't understand how the Aztec surveyors decided which formula to use for each area calculation. It is also unclear whether the same system was used in other city-states and if it applied to measurements besides land dimensions.

Ancient burial site uncovered in Filipino cave


On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, south of Manila, an ancient burial cave has been discovered. The cave, accidentally discovered by quarry diggers, contained numerous artifacts, many of them clay burial jars that suggest a connection with a highly important site nearby.

This latest discovery in the village of Pinol is only 500 meters from another ancient burial site--Ayub Cave. The archaeological find at Ayub Cave comprised anthropomorphic burial jars that date back nearly 2000 years. The ceramic human figures there, depicting various facial expressions, are associated to the Metal Age in the Philippines. The jars are unique and appear to be portraits of distinct individuals whose remains they guard. They were molded as human heads emulating different facial expressions of happiness, contentment, and even a trace of desolation.

Dr. Eusebio Dizon, curator of the Archaeology Division and chief of the Underwater Archaeology Section of the National Museum, has described Ayub Cave as the most significant cave in Mindanao and its finds as unparalleled in Southeast Asia. The site has been radiocarbon dated between and 5 BC to AD 370 by soot samples taken from a small earthenware vessel found inside one of the anthropomorphic burial jars.

Philippine officials have sealed the newly discovered Pinol cave to protect it from looting, pending examination by archaeologists and more complete report of its contents.

Roman goddesses honored by gift of an altar


On the opposite side of the world in England, a Roman soldier’s gift to two goddesses has been found. After 2,000 years, an altar the soldier built to keep a promise has been unearthed in the middle of the city of Manchester. Dedicated to two minor goddesses, the Latin inscription reads: "To the mother goddesses Hananeftis and Ollototis, Aelius Victor willingly and deservedly fulfils a vow." The altar, described by scientists as being in extraordinary condition, was discovered during an archaeological dig at a construction development site.

The find marks the first time in nearly 400 years that archaeologists have been able to put a name to a Mancunian Roman soldier. In 1612, another altar was found, dedicated by Lucius Seniacianius Martius, a centurion, or officier, with the 20th Legion from York. It is believed that Aelius Victor may have been a centurion commander posted from Germany where the worship of Hananeftis and Ollototis originates.

According to Norman Redhead, Greater Manchester's county archaeologist, this is the first Roman stone inscription found in 150 years. Evidence suggests it was constructed in the latter part of the first century AD and then later discarded. The site is only a few hundred yards from a known fort and the civilian settlement of Roman Manchester, near the River Medlock. General Julius Agricola, the commander of the invading legions, first founded a Roman settlement at the meeting point of the Rivers Irwell and Medlock. He called the place Mamuciam - meaning 'breast-shaped hill' because of the shape of the landform.

Plague victims discovered south of Rome


Lastly we go to Italy, where the remains of hundreds of victims, believed to have been killed in a plague that swept the country 1500 years ago, have been found south of Rome. The bodies, including men, women and children, were found in Castro dei Volsci, in the region of Lazio. The bodies are believed to have been victims of the Justinian Plague, a pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world within a 50-year period beginning during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the early 540s. According to some historians, the plague, which spread through Europe as far north as Denmark and as far west as Ireland, changed the course of European history as a result of depopulation.

Byzantine historian Procopius records that, at its peak, the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople every day, although the accuracy of this figure is in question and the true number will probably never be known for sure. We do know that there was no room to bury the dead, and bodies were stacked in the open. Carried by rats and parasites, the disease spread rapidly because families at the time lived in close quarters in poor hygienic conditions. It apparently decimated the population of Castro dei Volsci.

Modern scholars believe that the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, at its peak and later went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. This archaeological find is the first evidence of the devastating impact of the plague.

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