Audio News for April 20th to April 26th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 20th to April 26th, 2008.


3000 year old jewelry and pottery found in Fiji


Our first story is from Fiji, where fine jewelry and high quality pottery made by ancient Lapita people some 3,000 years ago has been discovered.   Found on the southwest coast of Fiji's main island, the find is the first of its kind in the region.  Fiji Museum staffer Sepeti Matararaba found the shell jewelry under an upturned clay pot.  When the pot was turned over, it contained a collection of nine shell rings of different sizes, four shell bracelets and six necklace pieces complete with drill holes.   According to Professor Patrick Nunn, geographer with the University of the South Pacific, the site was probably a manufacturing center for shell jewelry.   The Lapita people, the original settlers of the South Pacific, are thought to have migrated eastward from the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and other Pacific islands.  Within a decade or so of arriving in Fiji, they were producing exquisite shell jewelry and intricately decorated pottery, yet they disappeared as a distinctive cultural group about 550 BC.   

Your chances of surviving skull surgery in Inca times were good


More than 500 years ago, when Incan healers cut into a person’s head, they were serious.   A new study is showing that practitioners of this surgery, known as trepanation, demonstrated great skill in treating warriors’ head wounds, rarely causing infections or killing their patients.  According to Valerie Andrushko of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans, trepanation emerged as a medical procedure about 1,000 years ago in small communities near the Inca heartland in Peru.   Incan healers later mastered certain trepanation methods, performing them safely and frequently.   In pre-Inca times, only one-third of skull surgery patients survived, as indicated by the healing around cranial openings.   Survival rates rose to between 80 and 90 percent during the Inca era, from AD 1400 to 1532.   
Prehistoric trepanation in this part of South America comprised four techniques.   Practitioners cut out squares of bone, bored holes in the skull, scraped away bone to create an opening or made circular incisions to remove a plug of bone.  Inca surgeons specialized in the latter two methods.   Most recipients of skull surgery displayed one trepanation hole.  A substantial minority exhibited from two to seven such openings.   

According to the researchers, Incan surgeons avoided cutting cranial muscles and at risk parts of the skull.  These practitioners also managed not to sever internal blood vessels or the membrane encasing the brain.   Among the Inca, trepanation was mainly used to ease fluid buildup and inflammation caused by head wounds sustained during fighting.  However, excavations have not revealed trepanation instruments.   

This study focused on radiocarbon-dated skulls from recently excavated sites, allowing estimates of how common and successful trepanation was for each ancient community over thousands of years.  From 411 skulls unearthed by different teams at six Peruvian sites dating from AD 1000 to the end of the Incas’ sovereignty, the researchers identified 66 cases of trepanation.  At pre-Inca sites, 5 to 8 percent of skulls displayed surgical openings.   At Inca sites, 16 to 36 percent of skulls contained trepanation holes.  

New branch of archaeology shaking up academics


Our next story reveals a new branch of archaeology.   Archaeoseismology,  also known as Earthquake Archaeology, is a young scientific discipline that studies past earthquakes in the archaeological record.  The destruction and disappearance of ancient cultures mark the history of human civilization.   The longevity of today’s societies depends upon separating fact from fiction, and archaeologists and seismologists are figuring out how to join forces to do just that with respect to ancient earthquakes.  They gathered together recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to present studies on the matter at the international conference of the Seismological Society of America.
According to Robert Kovach, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, seismology must be included in any framework for understanding what happened to past civilizations.  But archaeological evidence for past earthquakes raises many reservations from seismologists, some of them strongly questioning whether man-made structures can be used as earthquake indicators at all.   Controversy stems from what is seen by some seismologists as haphazard blame placed on earthquakes by archaeologists for inexplicable phenomena on an archaeological site, adding drama to the site’s history.   

Much still is unknown about ancient earthquakes.  The instrumental record for seismology is short, going back 100 years.   The historical seismology record is a much longer, including written documentation such as news accounts and diaries, which vary widely by culture and region.  The archeoseismic record serves as the bridge between historical accounts and the paleoseismic record of Earth’s history.  Seismologists look for evidence that suggest an earthquake’s footprint.  The researchers cite some distinct types of evidence such as faulted and displaced archaeological relics, or ground-shaking induced damage to buildings and damage induced by secondary phenomena, such as tsunamis, as well as archaeological evidence, such as repairs to man-made structures.  While some remain cautious, others are eager to refine the role of earthquakes on past cultures.  One group at the Santa Fe meeting has proposed a standardized measure, called the Archaeological Quality Factor, or AQF, to assess the degree of certainty that an earthquake actually is documented by the evidence at an archaeological site. Kovach notes that a lot can be gleaned from going back to look at old reports, because past earthquakes have left an inviting tale of destruction.

Nero built a gate in his mother’s home town


Our final story is from Germany, where builders in Cologne, while excavating a new metro line, discovered a two thousand year old Roman gate believed built by Emperor Nero.  The gate, found complete with 11 meters of wall, was a goods-delivery entrance to the Roman town from its river port outside on the Rhine.   The sturdy Roman wall protected Cologne for 1,000 years.  Archaeologists have dated the gate to Nero's reign of AD 54 to 68.   The Nero connection is based on the fact that the wall was built in the second half of the 1st century AD and that the city itself could not have afforded the cost.  Nero's mother, the famously beautiful, but ruthless, Agrippina the Younger, was born in Cologne, so the emperor is believed to have funded the fortification for the town.  

In the late Roman period, the inhabitants walled up the gate for fear of attack by invading Frankish tribes, using any rocks at hand, including tombstones.  Local government has allocated more than three million euros to preserve the gate, with the metro line running underneath and a road passing overhead.

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