Audio News for June 1st to June 7th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news June 1st to June 7th, 2008.


Lost pyramid rediscovered in Egyptian sands


Our first story is from Egypt, where the pyramid of an ancient pharaoh has been rediscovered after being buried for generations.  The pyramid is believed to have been the tomb of King Menkauhor, who ruled for eight years in Egypt's 5th dynasty, around 2421 BC.  Reduced to its foundations, the structure was previously known as Number 29 or the "Headless Pyramid."  It was mentioned in the mid-19th century by German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius.  Then it disappeared in the sands of Saqqara, the large royal burial complex near current-day Cairo, until researchers investigated a 25-foot deep hill of sand.  It took archaeologists about a year and a half just to remove all the sand over the pyramid’s remains.  Past archaeologists have disputed whether the pyramid is from the Old Kingdom, from 2575-2150 BC, or the Middle Kingdom, from 1975-1640 BC.  Research now shows that the pyramid lacked the winding mazes typical of a Middle Kingdom funerary structure, and the absence of artwork and inscriptions, as well as the use of red granite blocks, are more typical of Old Kingdom pyramids.  The burial chamber also contained the lid of a sarcophagus made of gray schist, a type of rock often used in the Old Kingdom.  Additionally, the pyramid resembles the pyramid next to it, which belongs to the first pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, Teti, who ruled from 2345 to 2181 BC.   Along with this re-discovered pyramid, archaeologists discovered new parts of a sacred road that dates from the Ptolemaic period, some 2,000 years later.  First recorded in 1850 by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette, the road is called the Way of the Sphinxes because of its long row of these statues, which often mark the entrances of temples.  Researchers hope the path will lead to more discoveries in the area.

Sunken cathedral found off England’s coast


In England, marine archaeologists believe some newly discovered medieval ruins are those of St John's, the largest church in Dunwich, a community that was swallowed up by the North Sea hundreds of years ago.  Researchers are using the latest acoustic imaging technology to uncover clues about the lost city in the North Sea off the Suffolk coast.  According to Stuart Bacon, director of Suffolk Underwater Studies, the church, built in the 13th century, tumbled into the sea about 1540.  Bacon is working alongside a team from the University of Southampton, led by Professor David Sear.  Over the past 35 years, Bacon and hundreds of other divers have looked for it.  They were hindered by thick layers of silt, up to six feet deep, that cover the remains.  Finally, acoustic imaging allowed them to identify different densities of material on the sea bed, including rocks from buildings.  Dunwich was founded by Saint Felix, a bishop sent to convert the pagan clans of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled Suffolk in the 7th Century.  From here, Bishop Felix evangelized Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, forging a bridge between the Roman and Celtic traditions of Christianity by the time of his death in A.D. 647.  The town he founded grew into a flourishing seaport and center for the wool trade.  The Domesday Book census of 1086, carried out two decades after the Norman Conquest, lists a town of 3,000 people and at least six parish churches and other chapels.  Research carried out by Stuart Bacon suggests that Dunwich at its heyday, in the 12th and 13th centuries, boasted 18 different churches and chapels.  But in 1286, North Sea surges began to attack the entire coast, in a form of erosion known as long-shore drift.  Entire quarters, up to 400 houses at a time, were swept away by massive winter sea surges.  Medieval Dunwich has now disappeared except for a graveyard and a few old houses in the present small village, which continues to be nibbled away by the sea.   Medieval efforts to save the city included an expensive breakwater built in the 1500s, to no avail.  Every early church was gone by the 1700s, or had to be abandoned.  From one such decommissioning in the 1750s, the antiquarian Thomas Gardner described a burial accompanied by two Saxon-era chalices, supporting the early accounts of Bishop Felix’s founding.  The last of Dunwich’s medieval churches to fall to the sea was All Saints, which formed a romantic subject for Victorian photography with its abandoned walls eaten by the sea.  Its last tower tumbled below the waves in 1919.  According to long-time local legends, at certain tides, the church bells of Dunwich can still be heard from beneath the waves.

Early Syrian sacrifice includes acrobatic performer’s remains


A building in northeastern Syria has revealed an unusual human sacrifice that provides a unique view into the social world of 4,300 years ago.  The find is a headless acrobat’s skeleton sprawled on a floor near the remains of two other people, several mules and an array of valuable metal objects, apparently the result of a ritual sacrifice.  The discovery is at Nagar, a city that belonged to Mesopotamia’s Akkadian Empire and is now known as Tell Brak.  The earliest layers of mud-brick buildings date to 6,000 years ago.  According to Joan Oates of the University of Cambridge in England, villagers mollified their gods by sacrificing valued individuals, animals and objects.  It appears acrobats ranked high enough on the social ladder to serve as sacrifices.  Cuneiform texts from Ebla, a site from the same period, refer to individuals from Nagar known as húb (hoob), a term that includes acrobats, jugglers and horsemen.  Analysis of the most complete human skeleton found in the structure supports the translation of húb as acrobats.  The leg, foot and toe bones display signs of enlarged muscles from the energetic activity associated with acrobatics.  In further support of this hypothesis, cylinder seals found earlier at Nagar portray parades of spiky-haired acrobats bending over backwards.  The skeleton studied by Oates’ team displays strongly developed attachment areas for ligaments and muscles.  Both forearms feature bony anchors for powerful muscles, comparable to those observed on the forearms of ancient spear throwers.  The knees show wear caused by repeated rotation of the joint.  An upper leg bone contains impressions made by a large hamstring muscle, which works like a spring when a person jumps with flexed knees.  Two other partial human skeletons found on the floor of the building also lack heads.  One body may be that of a wagon driver, evidenced by its position near the mule remains and its relationship with wagon-related artifacts.  No clues have emerged to the background of the other person.  Oates concludes that finding these bodies with the bones of prized mules and bronze and silver items supports a sacrificial scenario.  Artifacts placed in an adjoining temple courtyard were burned during a ceremony that marked the building’s closure following the ritual sacrifice.  According to colleague Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego, the Northern Mesopotamian rulers may have imitated the extravagant sacrificial practices of southern Mesopotamian kings that began around 4,800 years ago.  In one southern Mesopotamian city, a queen’s burial chamber includes the bodies of 54 royal servants, six spear-wielding soldiers and drivers for two wagons, each accompanied by three oxen.  The report of their research appears in the June issue of the journal Antiquity.

Northwest Coast natives provide DNA to trace links to ancient ancestor


In our final story, a recent gathering of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians in Juneau, Alaska, is providing the tribes an opportunity to prove whether they are directly related to one of the very first Alaskans - a 10,300-year old mariner.  The remains were discovered a decade ago in a cave on Prince of Wales Island in the Alexander Archipelago of the Alaska Panhandle.  Molecular anthropologists are collecting DNA of those who have gathered in hopes of adding to their knowledge about how the earliest Americans spread across the western hemisphere, possibly along coastal sea routes.  The fact that Southeast Alaska Native elders approve of the experiment contrasts sharply with the protests of tribal leaders in Washington State over the fate of Kennewick Man, the 9,000-year-old Columbia River skeleton.  Tlingit elder Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, partially credits the institute's Council of Traditional Scholars.  According to Worl, when this person was found, the native people viewed him as an ancestor who was offering himself to give us knowledge and that if the culture is going to survive and flourish, they have to be receptive to science.  Former Alaskan paleontologist Tim Heaton discovered the ancient bones in 1996 in On Your Knees Cave, on Prince of Wales Island.  The bones are only jaw fragments, a partial pelvis, three ribs, and some vertebrae.  Archaeologist Jim Dixon initially dated the bones at more than 9,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains ever discovered in Alaska or Canada.  The teeth indicated he died in his prime, possibly early to mid-20s.  His bones revealed that his key food supply came from the sea.  The nearby stone tools, which were made from materials not found on the island, suggest a traveler.  And his final resting place, filled with bear bones and coupled with signs that his own bones had been chewed on by a large carnivore, suggest he died a violent death.  This evidence points to the man as evidence for how the first people may have spread across the Americas, even before the last ice age ended.  Scientists used to believe migrating groups walked across the 1,000-mile wide Bering Land Bridge but had to wait until melting glaciers opened an ice-free path south down the center of the continent.  This notion has been challenged recently, with discoveries of earlier Americans living south of the glacial areas, including humans in Monte Verde, Chile, 14,300 years ago, on an island off California 13,000 years ago, and inside an Oregon cave 14,300 years ago.  They could have arrived there, some researchers believe, simply by paddling down the coastline.  Molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp, using the man's tooth, specifically dated the Alaskan remains at 10,300 years old.  This yielded the oldest DNA sample in the Western Hemisphere.  According to Kemp, chances that participants in the DNA study will turn out to be directly related to On Your Knees Cave Man are relatively slim, partly because populations move around so much.  For example, the Tlingit and Haida people are closely related linguistically to Interior Athabaskans and may have moved to Alaska a few thousand years ago from farther south for from the interior.

For more information about the remains and the research at On Your Knees Cave, go to The Archaeology Channel at and view our video called “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit Is Looking Out from the Cave.”

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