Audio News for June 22nd to June 28th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news June 22nd to June 28th, 2008.


Paris dig pushes city’s earliest occupation back into Mesolithic


Our first story is from France, where Paris’s history has just been extended by more than 3,000 years.  New research is moving back the first known human occupation of the city to about 7600 BC, in the Mesolithic period or Middle Stone Age.  The evidence comes from a dig close to the bank of the river Seine, which has yielded thousands of flint arrowheads and fragments of animal bone.  Archaeologists believe that, some 10,000 years ago, the site was used as a kind of sorting and finishing station for flint pebbles washed up on the banks of the river.  The oldest previous human settlement discovered within the Paris city boundaries was around 4500 BC, a fishing and hunting village along the Seine at Bercy near the Gare de Lyon railway station.  The new exploration by Inrap, the French government agency for preventive archaeology on sites where new building is imminent, pushes back the history of the city to the little-known transitional period between the Old and New stone ages.  During the Mesolithic period, large game animals such as mammoth and reindeer had disappeared from Western Europe.  The scattered human bands were still hunter-gatherers, and not yet farmers, but they lived in temperate forests and hunted with bows and arrows rather than spears.   The site has been preserved by silt from the frequent flooding of the Seine.  Researchers believe it was used for many centuries during the Mesolithic period, possibly for periods of only a few weeks at a time, as a place to prospect for, and sort out, flint pebbles as raw material sources for making arrowheads.  The dig has also unearthed larger instruments made from granite.  They include an almost perfectly round hand-held hammerstone the size of a billiard ball, and long stone blades, possibly used for making arrow shafts or scraping animal skins.   Evidence on the site suggests that it remained in use as a human settlement, on and off, until the Iron Age, from 800 to 500 BC.  Julius Caesar reported that the site of the capital was occupied by a Gaulish tribe called the Parisii in 53 BC.  The Roman city of Lutece was established soon afterwards, beginning in what is now the fifth arrondissement, on the left bank of the Seine.

 Arctic oral traditions may recount the mystery of the Franklin expedition’s end


More than 150 years after the disappearance of the famously ill-fated Franklin Expedition’s ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, fresh clues have emerged that could help solve Canadian history's most enduring mystery.  A Montreal writer publishing a book on Inuit oral traditions from the era of Arctic exploration believes she's gathered a previously  unknown account of a British ship wintering in 1850 in the Royal Geographical Society Islands.  The islands are a significant distance west of the search targets of several 19th- and 20th-century expeditions that went looking for the shipwrecks.  According to Dorothy Harley Eber, author of the upcoming Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, new details about Sir John Franklin's doomed Arctic voyage in the late 1840s came to light during interviews with several Inuit elders at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, in Canada’s far north.   The Inuit account, passed down from 19th-century ancestors who witnessed the British expedition's failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, describes an exploring vessel that anchored off the Royal Geographical Society Islands during the winter of 1850 because they were iced-in and had no choice.  Evidence of the expedition's presence on the islands, according to Inuit oral history, can still be seen during the summer months in oily deposits along the shore where the ground still shows signs of rendered seal oil blubber used by stranded crewmen to fuel fires for cooking and warmth.  When Eber first heard and recorded the information, she didn't have a map and wasn't actually quite sure what she was hearing.   Later she had the material translated two or three times and realized its significance.  The location of the iced-in ship described by the Inuit is nearly 60 miles to the northwest, close to King William Island and the mainland Adelaide Peninsula.  Franklin himself died in June 1847, with the two ships at his command frozen in sea ice somewhere west of King William Island.  The 105 surviving crew members battled bitter cold and ice-choked seas before succumbing to hunger and disease over the following few years.  A series of searches in the 1850s gripped the British nation and its Canadian colonies, and much of the Arctic Archipelago was mapped and claimed for the British Empire as a result.  Various artifacts from the Franklin Expedition and the remains of several crewmen have been discovered over the years, but the ships have eluded researchers.  This included a major Canadian government-sponsored expedition in the 1990s headed by Robert Grenier, chief of marine archeology for Parks Canada, who called the new evidence “very interesting”.

Mercury from manuscript ink may have poisoned Danish monks


In Denmark, medieval bones from six different Danish cemeteries reveal that monks who wrote religious materials may have been exposed to toxic mercury.  The mercury was used to formulate just one of their ink colors: red.  The study, to be published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, also describes a previously undocumented disease, called FOS, which was similar to leprosy and caused skull lesions.  The researchers found that mercury-containing medicine had been administered to 79 percent of the interred individuals who had leprosy, and 35 percent with syphilis.  The monks themselves, who were buried in the cloister walk of the Cistercian Abbey at Øm, did not have these diseases, but their bones contained mercury.   Scientists believe the monks were either contaminated while preparing and administering medicines, or while writing the artistic heading letters of manuscripts.  Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a University of Southern Denmark scientist at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry, believes that ink used in the abbey's scriptorium was the perpetrator.   Rasmussen noted it is very human to lick the brush, if one wants to make a fine line.  Even today the parchment pages of an incunabulum can be poisonous.  Rasmussen added that mercury was used in the first place because cinnabar, a type of mercury, has a bright red color.   For the study, Lund Rasmussen and his team took bone samples, some of which were from friars buried in the cloister walk of the Franciscan Friary in Svendborg.  Unlike the Øm monks, the friars showed no signs of the poisoning.  The researchers also noted that, due to different carbon signatures, some of the medieval individuals ate a mostly marine, fish-filled diet. Lund Rasmussen suggests that the others may have preferred beer and meat, rather than fish and water.  The Cistercians were not allowed to eat meat from any four-footed animals, but the Franciscans do not appear to have always followed this rule.  Other religious groups may have experienced mercury poisoning due to scripting holy texts.  In a separate study, scientists from the Soreq Nuclear Research Center in Israel and the Israel Museum found cinnabar on four fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  By 1536, books were no longer written by hand, but were instead printed.   The scientists suspect that as printed books took over, the toxic red ink faded from the monastic picture.  

Very ancient mummies found in Chile


In Chile, eight perfectly preserved mummies, believed to be some 4,500 years old, have been found by workers on a restoration project in the country’s far north.   According to archaeologist Calogero Santoro, the mummies date between 2,000 BC and 5,000 BC.  The mummies belong to the Chinchorro culture, which has provided the earliest examples of the deliberate preservation of the dead and the most stylistic mummification techniques.  The mummies were found in excellent condition, a tribute to the advanced mummification techniques used.   Three of the eight skeletons have been kept on the site in the Morro de Arica site for visitors to see, while the other five were taken to Tarapaca University in northern Chile for further research.   Morro de Arica is known for its mummies.  Several hundred of them, some as old as 7,000 years, were discovered in 1983.  In 2005, University of Tarapaca archaeologists found 50 Chinchorro mummies, dating back to 4,000 BC, during the demolition of a house.  The unusually large number of mummies found in the area indicates that one of the oldest Chinchorro cemeteries may have been located there.  The Chinchorro people were fishermen and hunter-gatherers who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert of northern-most Chile from the Lluta Valley to the Loa River.  The name Chinchorro means small boat.  They are thought to have died out or migrated in the first century AD.  The mummies found in northern Chile are older than those found in Egypt, making them some of the world's oldest examples of mummification.

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