Audio News for April 13th to April 19th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 13th to April 19th, 2008.


Kharg Island reveals ancient compass and games carved in rock


Our first story is from Iran, where an ancient compass-rose and a number of board games carved on rocks were discovered on the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf. The term "rose" comes from the figure's compass points resembling the petals of the well-known flower. Shahram Eslami, a local resident and member of Kharg’s Friends of Cultural Heritage, made the discovery. The artifacts were studied and their origins identified by Dr. Reza Moradi Ghiasabadi. According to Ghiasabadi, the engravings are between 2000 and 3000 years old. The first carving, located beside an ancient road, is a four-pointed compass-rose showing directions of the four cardinal points within a square-shape with rounded angles, measuring 20 by 20 inches. Some sections of the compass-rose have been damaged as the result of cracks in the rock. Ghiasabadi also noted that the compass-rose's lines were placed in a position with only two degrees of error based on a Global Positioning System or GPS comparison. The remaining carvings are board games in a mixture of circular and oblong shape settings, in various diameters, from two to four inches. All were carved into various flat surfaces at the top of the cliff overlooking the waters of the Persian Gulf. Some of them resemble a prototype form of backgammon. The island of Kharg is located about 30 miles northwest of Bushehr. It is about 8 km long and, at its widest point, 4 km across. Archaeologists have always believed the oldest settlement on the island dated to the Parthian era, from 248 BC to AD 224. However, a discovery in November 2007 of an inscription in Old-Persian cuneiform moves that date back, to the Achaemenid (a-KEE-men-id) Dynasty of 550-330 BC.

Swift reporting urged as Alpine glaciers melt to disclose rare artifacts


In the Alps, a new coalition is being organized to protect prehistoric artifacts unearthed as melting glaciers recede. The task force of archaeologists, anthropologists, mountain climbers, and Alpine rescue teams has been formed in an attempt to salvage the artifacts from looters. According to Franco Nicolis, an archaeologist from Trento, Italy, mountain climbers and hikers are asked to report any finds of newly revealed objects that include weapons, clothing, and tools. The superintendents of archaeology at Trento and the Stelvio National Park are organizing the initiative, which will ensure that items are preserved before they can deteriorate. The most spectacular Alpine find to date is Oetzi the Iceman, also known as Similaun Man, the well-preserved, mummified body of a hunter or shepherd in his forties, who died in about 3300 BC. He was found in a glacier located in the Oetztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy in 1991. Recent finds include prehistoric bronze arrowheads, clothing, and shoes at Schnidejoch in the Swiss Alps and Roman and mediaeval artifacts found at Vedrete di Riete and Vioz in the Italian Alps. The bodies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers, killed in 1918 during the First World War, were discovered in the Trentino region. Oetzi, found by two German hikers, was at first taken to Innsbruck in Austria. Later it was proven that the body had been found just inside Italian territory. In 1998, the body was moved to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where it is displayed under controlled conditions. Archaeologists say that errors made in his recovery must not be repeated as more discoveries are made. Oetzi was dug out with ice axes and hikers were allowed to touch the corpse and take tools and fragments of clothing as souvenirs. Professor Nicolis, an expert on the Copper Age, described the priceless information that can come from careful study of such finds. Analysis of pollen and tooth enamel in the remains of Oetzi indicate that he lived in mountain valleys 31 miles north of Bolzano. His pouch contained a flint and dried fungus to be used as tinder and a copper axe. A flint knife and 14 bone-tipped arrows were found nearby.

Mayan textile skills revealed through analysis of Copán fabrics


Now we go to the Mayan site of Copán, in Honduras, where a trove of fabrics excavated from a tomb there since the 1990s has generated considerable excitement. Textiles conservator Margaret Ordoñez, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, spent a month at the site in 2004 examining 100 textile samples found in a tomb, and since then she has been analyzing tiny fragments of 49 samples she brought back to her lab to see what she could learn from them. The tomb, one of three excavated by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, was of a woman of high status who was buried during the 5th century. Very few textiles from the Mayan culture have survived. In this tomb, however, were as many as 25 layers of fabrics on an offertory platform and covering pottery in the chamber, each with a different fabric structure, color, and yarn size. Ordoñez thinks it’s likely that the tomb was reopened several times and additional layers of textiles laid there, years after the noblewoman’s death. One fabric had an especially high thread count, 100 yarns per inch, which Ordoñez notes is considered high even for modern textiles, showing the Mayan skill in spinning and weaving. Analyzing these ancient textile samples is a complex and laborious process, particularly because the remnant samples are so small. Many are no more than a bit of compressed mud about an inch in diameter. Only an expert would know that within each are tiny, crumbling fragments of fabric. Ordoñez uses a stereomicroscope to examine the yarn structure, the fabric structure, and the finish on each sample, then a scanning electron microscope to see the finer detail of the plant material from which each piece of yarn was made. Ordoñez has found threads made from cotton, sedge grasses, and many other plant fibers. After completing the analysis of the textile samples in her lab this summer, which may take up to three days per fragment, the University of Rhode Island professor plans to return to Copán in 2009 to examine more fragments from the woman’s tomb and other sites. She said the working conditions at the site are challenging and the research facilities are primitive, but the site provides the best opportunity to learn more about the Mayan culture. She may also study Mayan statuary at the site to see what she can learn from the way that sculptors represented textiles from the period.

For lack of strong rivets, the Titanic was lost


Our final story is a Titanic update. Researchers have shown that the builder of the Titanic struggled to obtain enough good rivets and riveters and in the end, accepted the work and materials that doomed the ship. Timothy Foecke, a metallurgist at the U.S. government's National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who researched the history, believe the builder’s own archives hold the evidence. For a decade, scientists have argued that the storied liner went down fast after hitting an iceberg because the ship’s builder used substandard rivets that popped their heads and let tons of icy seawater rush in. More than 1,500 people died. At first, the shipbuilding company said it did not have an archivist who could address the issue. Now, historians say new evidence uncovered in the archive of the builder, Harland and Wolff, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, settles the argument and finally solves the riddle of one of the most famous sinkings of all time. The company says the findings are flawed, not the rivets. Harland and Wolff stretched the era’s resources to simultaneously construct the world’s three biggest ships, the Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic. Each of the great ships required three million rivets, which acted like glue to hold everything together. In a new book, Foecke and McCarty say trouble began when its ambitious building plan forced Harland and Wolff to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron and include smaller forges, who tended to have less skill and experience. Adding to the problem, the company had to order a lower grade of iron known as No. 3 best, rather than the No. 4, called best-best. Shipbuilders at the time were transitioning to steel rivets, but were still using iron. They normally chose No. 4 iron for anchors, chains, and rivets. The shortages peaked during the Titanic’s construction. Apart from the archives, the team gleaned clues from 48 rivets recovered from the hulk of the Titanic, which they subjected to modern tests and computer simulations. They also compared metal from the Titanic with other metals from the same era, and looked at documentation about what engineers and shipbuilders of that era considered state of the art. Many rivets recovered from the Titanic’s resting place in the North Atlantic in two decades of diving turn out to be riddled with high concentrations of slag. A glassy residue of smelting, slag can make rivets brittle and prone to fracture. Archives also showed that the company was also deeply concerned about shortages of skilled riveters. For six months, from late 1911 to April 1912, when the Titanic set sail, company records document that the problem was discussed at every board meeting. The rival Cunard line, the scientists found, had already switched to steel rivets, which were stronger and could be installed by machines, leading to more consistent quality. Harland and Wolff also used steel rivets, but only on the Titanic’s central hull, where stresses were expected to be greatest. Iron rivets were chosen for the stern and bow. And the bow, as fate would have it, is where the iceberg struck. Studies of the wreck show that six seams opened up in the ship’s bow plates. Dr. Foecke noted that this is where the rivets transition from iron to steel. The scientists argue that better rivets would have likely kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to arrive before the icy plunge, saving hundreds of lives.

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