Audio News for May 25th to May 31st, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for May 25th to May 31st, 2008.


Abandoned island off New Zealand left 200-year old record of Maori life


Our first story is from New Zealand, where archaeologists have uncovered an untouched "time capsule" of Maori life as it was almost 200 years ago.  The newly discovered material was hidden beneath the dense underbrush of an island called Tawhiti Rahi, one of a group of islands called the Poor Knights off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.  On or around December 16, 1823, a raiding party from the Hikutu Hapu tribe landed at the island's only safe landing spot when they had found out that the island's chief and men were off on their own raid.  The island fell and their inhabitants were massacred.  The returning chief pronounced the scene of death tabu and scarcely anyone ever set foot on the island again.  Although a permanent pre-European Maori population has long been known on Poor Knights’ southern island, Aorangi, the ill-starred island of Tawhiti Rahi was thought to be little more than a seasonal camp.  It had also not been examined because of its difficult access, with only a single safe landing spot.  Now, over the past three years, Otago University archaeologist James Robinson and his team have spent 12 weeks searching its landscape.  The 300-foot sheer cliffs of the island protect its populations of tuataras, a lizard like reptile, as well as more than 700,000 birds.  Surrounding the island is a world-famous marine reserve.  According to Robinson, Tawhiti Rahi is home to one of the clearest history lessons of late Maori settlements ever found in New Zealand.  The island has so many archaeological features that very few areas do not have something.  Previous researchers had assumed the neighboring Aorangi was the dominant island, but Robinson’s 12 weeks of research made clear that Tawhiti Rahi had the larger population.  Plentiful fish, muttonbird, and fresh water were available.  In addition, slash-and-burn gardening methods, combined with stone walls, stone mounds and terraces, made the island a productive garden site.  Expansion of gardens into suitable locations appears to have been ongoing, but stopped after the 1823 massacre.   Robinson believes the island was settled after 1500.  It did not have any pa (pah) sites, or fortifications, that began to appear throughout New Zealand after 1500.  To date the island has yielded defined, untouched examples of Maori gardens and villages, complete with untouched building structures, stone walls, stream diversions, terraces, pits and mounds and evidence of a year-round population of 100 people, peaking seasonally at 300-400.  Artifacts litter the ground, including tools, utensils, and carved items.  Bodies of the massacred tribal members have remained there untouched since their death.  Robinson will present his findings at the New Zealand Archaeological Society conference on June 4, and then at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin on June 29.

British man’s childhood toy turns out to be golden antiquity


A metal cup obtained by a rag and bone man or junk man in the UK has been revealed to be a pure gold goblet from the 3rd or 4th Century BC.   William Sparks, who ran a scrap metal business in Taunton during the 1930s and 40s, left the ancient treasure to his young grandson John Webber.  Webber assumed his bright-colored but odd little mug, just over 5 inches high and decorated with the heads of two women looking in opposite directions, their foreheads ornamented with knotted snakes, was brass, which his grandfather always had in quantities.  According to Webber, his grandfather was originally a rag and bone man from Romany stock who lived in a van and let him play with some of his finds occasionally.  Webber’s grandfather gave him some things shortly before he died, one of which was the cup, which he remembers from his childhood.  After forgetting about the cup for years, he rediscovered it last year when he was moving to a new house.  Webber sent it to the British Museum, where the researchers had not seen anything like it before.  They recommended it be tested at a laboratory.  The analysis confirmed its ancient age and that it had been meticulously crafted from one single piece of gold.  According to the report by Peter Northover, the scientist who reported on the gold analysis, the method of manufacture and the composition of the gold are consistent with Achaemenid (ACK-a-ME-nid) gold and gold smithing techniques.  The Achaemenid Empire was based in Persia from 550 to 330 BC.  At the height of its power it spanned three continents, including territories of modern Pakistan, Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya.  Alexander the Great conquered the Empire in 330 BC.

Frozen hair from Greenland points to unsuspected Asian ancestors


In Greenland, an ancient tuft of dark brown human hair suggests that a tribe of humans trekked from north Asia to settle in what is now Greenland more than 4000 years ago and then vanished.  The scientific evidence is DNA analyses of hair, well preserved after 4,000 years in permafrost soil, from the Disco Bay ice fjord area in northwest region of the Arctic island.  The discovery by Professor Eske Willerslev, University of Copenhagen, and his team makes it necessary to review Greenland’s immigration history.  Until now, science regarded it as a possibility that the earliest people in Greenland were direct ancestors of the present-day Greenlandic population.  It now turns out that the original immigrants instead came from a Siberian population whose closest present-day descendants live in the Aleutian Islands at the southern margin of the Bering Sea and at a place in northeastern Siberia .  According to Willerslev, they must have followed the coast via Alaska and Canada and then on to Greenland.  It is known that the first immigrants came to Greenland approximately 4,500 years ago, because tools from that era had already been found.  However, what was not known was that they nay have come from the Aleutian Islands, which the DNA research now shows.  The project was close to being put on hold.  Originally, Willerslev was in the most northern part of Greenland with Claus Andreasen from the National Museum of Greenland, looking for DNA traces with no luck.  But he found out that archaeologist Bjarne Grønnow, from the National Museum of Denmark, had made some excavations at a settlement in the northern part of West Greenland in the 1980s.  Then, among all the samples taken from the frozen culture layers on the site, Willerslev found a tuft of hair which he and his colleague Tom Gilbert analyzed for mitochondria, the genes on the maternal side.  The Willerslev team compared the results against an international DNA database and which came up with the eastern part of Siberia and the Aleutian Islands.  The interesting feature of the find is that there is no connection between this DNA and the most recent immigrants to Greenland, the Thule culture, who are the ancestors of modern Greenlandic Inuit.  The team’s findings prove that humans moved quickly over great distances in very early times.  Although they studied only the mitochondria, which are the maternal inheritance, it is the first time that someone has succeeded in sequencing the entire mitochondrial genome from an extinct human.  Their next project will be recreating what is known as the core genome from the tuft of hair; in other words, they will gain the first full picture of the genetic material of an extinct human.  This may reveal where the paternal line came from in the earliest immigration to Greenland, and even such things as the eye color of these early people.  The paternal line may very well come from a very different place.

Egyptian town is northeastern army fort


Our final story is from the Sinai Peninsula, where archaeologists have discovered the headquarters of the Pharaonic army that guarded the northeastern borders of Egypt for more than 1,500 years.  The fortress and adjoining town, at the ancient location of Tharu, lie about two miles northeast of the modern town of Qantara.  The town sat at the beginning of a military road joining the Nile Valley to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, parts of which were under Egyptian control for much of the time.  The Egyptian archaeologists, led by Abdel Maksoud, have been working on strongholds along the road since 1986, but it was inscriptions found this year that confirmed the identification.  The inscriptions names three Pharaohs: Tuthmosis II, whose rule began about 1512 BC and who built one of the military installations along the route; and also Seti I and Ramses II, who between them ruled Egypt from 1318 to 1237 BC.  The site contains the remains of a mud-brick fortress dating from the time of Ramses II.  It measures 1500 by 750 feet, with towers 12 feet high.  According to a statement issued by the Supreme Council for Antiquities, initial studies at the site prove that this fort was the headquarters of the Egyptian army from the time of the New Kingdom until the Ptolemaic period.  The New Kingdom began in about 1570 BC and the Ptolemaic period ended with the death of Cleopatra in the first century BC.  The archaeological features of this fort confirm the inscriptions on ancient Egyptian temples showing the shape of the city of Tharu, which lay at the start of the Horus military road.  The site contains the first New Kingdom temple ever found in northern Sinai, and warehouses where the ancient army stored grain and weapons, as well as ovens, seals and earthenware vessels.

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