Audio News for June 29th to July 5th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news June 29th to July 5th, 2008.


Mexican cave may hold answers to collapse of largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas


Our first story is from Mexico, where archaeologists are about to open a cave, deep beneath a Teotihuacan (TAY oh TEE wäkän') stone pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacan (TAY oh TEE wäkän'), located just outside Mexico City.  Teotihuacan was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, housing some 200,000 people.  During its heyday around AD 500, it rivaled the size of ancient Rome.  The name Teotihuacan was given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs centuries after the fall of the city.   The Aztecs, who believed it was a divine site, called it "The Place Where Men Become Gods.”  The original name of the city is unknown, but it appears in hieroglyphic texts from the Maya region as “puh,” or "Place of Reeds.” Archaeologists hope to find clues about the unexplained collapse of the city as well as unlock information about the sacred rituals of the inhabitants.  Offerings were placed at the very end of the tunnel as part of the pyramid's construction process.   

Little is known about the ancient people who built the vast city which contains ceremonial architecture and geometric temples, except that it was torched and abandoned around AD 700.   Archaeologists are now revisiting a cave system beneath the 212 foot Pyramid of the Sun.  The cave extends into a tunnel stretching for some 295 feet with a height of 8 feet.  Researchers want to find out why the Teotihuacan people sealed it and when.  

The tunnel was first discovered in the early 1970s but it was closed soon afterward.  Most of the information about it was lost when the archaeologist who found it died.   

Ruins at Pompeii falling into ruin


The spotlight in Europe is on Pompeii, where the Italian government has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to rescue one of the world's most important cultural sites from decades of neglect.   A special commissioner will be appointed for Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by an eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in AD 79.
Archaeologists and historians have long protested the poor upkeep of Pompeii.   Lack of funding, mismanagement, litter, looting, and stray dogs plague the site.   According to a regional councilor responsible for artistic heritage, at least 1600 square feet of fresco and plaster work are lost every year for lack of maintenance.   At least 3,000 pieces of stone every year end up disintegrating.    A report in the daily paper Corriere della Sera stated that most of the 1,500 houses at the site are closed to the public, frescoes have faded to almost invisible and restoration work that began in 1978 has yet to be completed.

The "state of emergency" will last for a year, as well as allow for extra funds and special measures to be taken to protect the site.   Two-thirds of the 165 acre town, which was home to some 13,000 people in the Roman era, has been uncovered since serious excavation and research began 260 years ago.   The remaining third is still buried, the ground above it is being used as an illegal rubbish dump, scattered with debris such as tires, refrigerators and mattresses.

Bureaucracy nothing new: ancient Egyptian administrative center unearthed.


A team in southern Egypt at Tell Edfu has unearthed a large administration building and silos complex.   According to Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the traditional view of ancient Egypt has been biased by the fact that most excavation work so far has focused on temples and tombs.  Until recently, the mounds which comprise the remains of Egyptian cities were ignored, buried under modern towns or destroyed by modern agricultural activities.   Tell Edfu is one of the very few remaining city mounds that are accessible for scientific study.

At Edfu, archaeologists have uncovered what is similar to a downtown area.  The community was a provincial capital and important regional center.  Tell Edfu is also rare, in that almost 3,000 years of history are preserved in the layers of a single mound.   The administrative building and silos were at the center of the ancient community.  Because grain was a form of currency, the silos functioned as a bank and a food source.  The silos’ size indicates the community was apparently a wealthy urban center.

Dating to the 17th Dynasty, from 1630 to 1520 BC, the grain bins are in a large silo courtyard and consist of at least seven round, mud-brick silos.  With a diameter between 5.5 and 6.5 yards, they are the largest examples discovered within a town center.    The pottery and seal impressions found in the hall date it to the early 13th Dynasty, from 1773 to 1650 BC).  The building layout indicates that it may have been part of the governor’s palace, typical of provincial towns.   The administrative center was used when Egypt’s political unity was lost and a small kingdom developed at Thebes and controlled most of Upper Egypt.

The discovery provides new information about a little understood aspect of ancient Egypt-- the development of cities in a culture that is largely known for its epic architecture.  Work revealed details of seven silos, the largest grain bins found in ancient Egypt, as well as an older columned hall that was an administration center.   Due to intense farming and heavy settlement over the years, much of the record of ancient urban civilization has been lost.  So little archaeological evidence remains that some scholars believe Egypt did not have a highly developed urban culture, instead granting Mesopotamia the distinction of teaching people how to live in cities.   
The current  archaeological work is under the direction of Nadine Moeller, Assistant Professor at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.  Moeller noted that administration in ancient Egypt is mainly known from texts, but the full understanding of the institutions and their role within towns and cities has been so far difficult to understand because of the lack of archaeological evidence with which textual data need to be combined.   

History versus cash—who will win in Georgia?


Lastly we turn to the Republic of Georgia, where the architectural history of the city of Tbilisi (ta-BLEE-see) is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.   The dispute pits the conservationists, who believe the architectural heritage of Tbilisi's old town district is under threat, against profit-seeking developers and the city council.   
Tbilisi's old town is a jumble of crooked streets, courtyards and overhanging balconies decorated with intricate wooden latticework.   Its architecture is a diverse mixture of European and Middle Eastern influences and includes some fine examples of Art Nouveau and neo-classicism.  However, because so many buildings have fallen into disrepair after a long period of economic decline and extensive damage caused by a powerful earthquake in 2002, the authorities in this poor former Soviet republic say it would be impossible to find the money to save them all.   The city council lacks the finances needed to restore the buildings.

The city authorities say they want to transform Tbilisi into a prosperous, European-style capital, while retaining as much of its architectural charm as possible.  According to the Deputy Mayor, the authorities have been working with international architectural experts to prepare a new plan for developing the city, but he argues that the city can only be regenerated with the help of private investors.   The deputy mayor insists that developers are subject to strict guidelines about what they can build, and they have to respect the "Tbilisian style of architecture" in the old town.   But Maia Mania, a professor of architectural history, claims that the rich and powerful can sometimes circumvent the rules.

The Georgian capital is currently going through a minor construction boom, but conservationists fear that as the authorities attempt to create a wealthier future by bringing in much-needed investment, they are allowing developers to erase part of the past forever.

According to Tbilisi's Deputy Mayor, far too many buildings in the city have been classified as historical monuments.    He wants the number to be reduced from 1,700 to 500 and suggested that some will be demolished.   The conservationists are worried that this means some architectural treasures will be lost to glass-front business centers and upscale apartment complexes.   A Georgian art historian, who serves on the city planning commission, says there are often bitter rows about which buildings should be saved, noting that while not everything can be saved, they want to protect as much as they can.   However, many people are very poor, and some Tbilisi residents actually want their dilapidated buildings to be knocked down by developers in return for new apartments or cash.   For the authorities it's convenient, because then they won't have problems with these people who are living in bad circumstances.   Some residents refuse to do repairs because they are waiting for investors to buy them out, while others have disfigured attractive courtyards and balconies by adding poorly-built extensions to create more living space.  

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