Audio News for April 27th to May 3rd, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 27th to May 3rd, 2008.


Conclusive evidence dates sunflower to early Mexico


In our first story, a new study shows ancient farmers were growing sunflowers in Mexico more than 4,000 years before the Spaniards arrived.  According to Mary Pohl, an anthropologist at Florida State University, who wrote the study with David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati, their evidence confirms that farmers began growing sunflowers in Mexico by 2600 BC.  The study is in response to scientists who still believe that sunflowers were first domesticated as an agricultural crop in eastern North America and that the Spaniards introduced the sunflower to Mexico from further north.  Pohl noted that the evidence shows that, actually, sunflowers were domesticated twice, first in Mexico and then again hundreds of miles away in the Middle Mississippi Valley.  The researchers also argue that after the Spanish Conquest, the Spaniards tried to stop cultivation of the sunflower because of its connection with solar religion and warfare.  Scientists discovered the early domesticated remains of sunflower a decade ago during an excavation of the San Andrés site in Gulf Coast state of Tabasco.  More evidence for domesticated sunflower was found in a dry cave at Cueva del Gallo (CWAY-vah del GAI-yo) in the west Mexican state of Morelos (moh-RAY-los) in the form of three large achenes (aye-KEENs), or seed coverings.  The Cueva del Gallo sunflower shells were in excellent condition and have distinctive sunflower traits, removing all doubt about the pre-Columbian presence of domesticated sunflower in Mexico.  Furthermore, the Mexican sunflower achenes are significantly larger than those from eastern North America -- further evidence that the Mexican domestication was a separate process.  Ancient people used the Cueva del Gallo cave for rituals, even bringing their dead to be buried there.  The Cueva del Gallo sunflower shells give us another perspective on how Mexican people used sunflowers in worship, which provides a clue as to why cultivation of the Mexican sunflower mysteriously disappeared after Spanish conquest.  The Spanish priests tried to eliminate pagan worship as well as native political power, and the sunflower was a strong visual symbol then, as it is now.  In addition to the physical evidence, the researchers also looked at linguistic traditions to bolster their argument that sunflowers existed in Mexico before the Spaniards arrived.  For example, the modern Otomi word for sunflower translates to “big flower that looks at the sun god,” a clear reference to pre-Columbian solar worship.  Lentz and Pohl’s study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Welsh locale was Bronze Age factory for stone axes


In Wales, archaeologists are looking to unearth evidence of what is believed to be one of Bronze Age Britain's largest axe-making factories.  According to the Clwyd-Powys (CLUE-id POW-iss) Archaeological Trust, the axes, made from a distinctive type rock known as picrite, have been found throughout the country.  Picrite is a dark green igneous crystalline rock that consists essentially of olivine and augite, and usually contains iron oxides.  A three-week survey at the 4,000-year-old site will start in Hyssington, near Welshpool, Powys.  The trust's Chris Martin believes it may have been a large industrial center.  Test results from a 2007 survey proved that picrite had been mined in the local area, which back as far as the 1950s had already been identified as an area where axes probably had been made.  The axes are more commonly found in the border areas and the West Midlands, but they have been found throughout Britain, as far away as Devon and Cornwall and also the north of England.  According to Martin, what makes the axes distinctive is that they were made of a specific type of picrite, which can be traced back to this area.  This suggests that they were exported in quite large numbers.  As for their uses, researchers are not sure if the axes were used to split logs, split heads, or just used for ceremonial duties.  The Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust is one of four Welsh Archaeological Trusts that work closely with other national, regional, and local bodies, to help protect, record and interpret all aspects of the historic environment for the whole of Wales.

Japan allows unprecedented look at legendary royal tomb


In Japan, a 32-year-old request finally resulted in a rare visit by archaeologists to a Fifth Century imperial tomb.  The event marked the first time that scholars had been allowed inside a royal tomb outside of official excavations led by Japan's Imperial Household Agency.  Scientists have been requesting access to Gosashi tomb and other imperial sites since 1976, partly because they date to the beginning of Japan as a central state under imperial rule.  However, the agency has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the "pure" imperial family and Korea or that some tombs may hold no royal remains at all.  Gosashi tomb in the western Nara Prefecture is regarded as the resting place of Empress Jingu, the somewhat legendary wife of the country's 14th emperor.  Jingu is thought to have ruled as regent for her son starting around AD 200.  The archaeological team was allowed to visit the tomb for two and a half hours to explore the lower part of the 886-foot-long burial mound.  Excavation was not allowed.  They did find previously unknown terra cotta haniwa figures on the tomb's eastern side.  These funerary statues were believed to help care for the elite after death.  In addition to overseeing Jingu's tomb, the Imperial Household Agency controls some 896 sites said to contain the remains of imperial family members.  While the Imperial Household Agency is sharing the results of its research, the agency has been reluctant to grant access to independent archaeologists.  It is their position that since Imperial Household religious ceremonies continue to take place at tombs and mausolea, and they are objects of remembrance and veneration for the public and the imperial family, preserving their peace and dignity is of paramount importance.  The agency added that although they will consider further research requests, excavation would not be permitted.  Koji Takahashi, a Toyama University archaeologist and member of the team, however, believes the agency is reluctant because excavation might threaten official control over the tombs.  Of the oldest, most significant tombs under the agency's jurisdiction, very few realistically can be proven to contain the remains of imperial family members.  Other researchers have suggested that the hesitation is because conservatives fear excavation will uncover blood ties between the supposedly pure Japanese imperial line and the Asian mainland, specifically Korea.  But Walter Edwards, professor of Japanese studies at Tenri University in Nara, argues that the "Korean bones" issue is a diversion, adding that blood links between Korea and the Japanese imperial family are admitted and documented from as far back as the eighth century.  Nevertheless, faced with the costs of keeping up hundreds of sites, the cash-strapped Imperial Household Agency may eventually allow more access as a way to get more public funds.  In the meantime, high on archaeologists' wish list for access is the Fifth Century tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Osaka Prefecture.  At 1,594 feet long, that mausoleum is the largest in Japan --and in volume is nearly the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

Large Indian mound in Florida will be studied


In the United States, an archaeological team is taking advantage of a rare chance to study the little-known Turtle Mound and its contents.  Many Native American mounds have been lost through time, but the one thought to be the nation's highest of its kind, the Turtle Mound in Florida, survived.  Preservation of the mound has saved its secrets, and clues to the past have yet to be unearthed.  Archaeologists and park rangers have an opportunity to learn as much as they can from new holes dug into the massive oyster-shell pile.  The team has found what it thinks are 1,200-year-old pottery, fish bones and other samples to analyze with radiocarbon-dating technology to find out how old the mound is.  According to Margo Schwadron, an archaeologist with the National Park Service's Southeast Archaeological Center, it's a great opportunity because not much work has been done on this mound, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country.  Turtle Mound, located in Canaveral National Seashore Park, is a sizable site.  It is at least 35 feet tall, though a 1979 survey measured it at more than 54 feet.  It covers 2 acres, with a 600-foot shoreline.  The tree covered hill holds an estimated 35,000 cubic yards of oyster shell.  Some of the earliest Spanish maps of Florida use Turtle Mound as a navigational landmark.  Turtle Mound is believed to be North America's highest Indian midden.  In addition, the midden is at least 1,300 years old, based on limited archaeological work previously done.  Until now, relatively little is known about the mound, since it has been kept in such pristine condition.  Hidden among the oyster shells were pottery shards with the distinctive criss-cross design used by Indians in AD 800.  Also found were stones with hand-smoothed surfaces that suggest they were tools used to sharpen projectiles or grind seeds.  Other dietary remains included fish bones, bird bones and even a vertebra of a river dolphin.  Some samples are to be tested with radiocarbon dating.  Past tests have shown the mound could date back to AD 620, but Schwadron reported that new samples were taken close to the sand dune that lies underneath all that shell.  These could show if construction of Turtle Mound started as early as 3,000 years ago.  Like other Central Florida middens, the mound was built with the food discards of the coastal natives, of which the last tribe was called the Timucuan.  Federal officials hope the information unearthed will support an effort to have the mound declared a National Historic Landmark.

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