Audio News for August 10th to August 16th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news August 10th to August 16th, 2008.


Entrance to Mayan underworld discovered in the Yucatan Peninsula


Our first story is from the Yucatan Peninsula, where Mexican archaeologists working near Merida have discovered the stone ruins of the eleven sacred temples and what could be the remains of human sacrifices in underground caves.  Some of the temples are submerged in water and contain human bones.   
The ancient Mayans believed the underground complex of water-filled caves leading into dry chambers, including an underground road measuring 330 feet, was the path to a mythical underworld, known as Xibalba (shee BAL ba.) The souls of the dead followed a mythical dog that could see at night.
The Mayans built towering pyramids and highly structured palaces in Central America and southern Mexico before mysteriously abandoning their cities around AD 900.   According to one of the lead archaeologists, Guillermo de Anda, the ancient Mayan scripture, the Popol Vuh (po pull VOO), describes the dangerous route, including rivers filled with scorpions, houses shrouded in darkness or swarming with shrieking bats.   The sacred text was originally written in hieroglyphic script on long scrolls and later transcribed by Spanish conquerors.   Diverse Mayan groups who inhabited southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize had their own entrances to the underworld which archaeologists have discovered at other sites, almost always in cave systems buried deep in the jungle.   
Excavations over the past five months in the Yucatan caves revealed stone carvings and pottery left for the dead.   At the Yucatan site archaeologists have found one 1,900-year-old ceramic vase, but most of the artifacts date back to between AD 700 and 850.

 Marble head of Roman empress found in Turkey


In Turkey, excavators have found the colossal marble head of the Roman empress Faustina the Elder, wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from AD 138 to 161.   The find was made almost exactly one year after the discovery of the remains of a colossal 16 foot statue of the emperor Hadrian at a spot about 20 feet away at the ancient site of Sagalassos.   Sagalassos was once an important urban center until it was abandoned after several strong earthquakes.   
The head of Faustina was lying face down in rubble that fills the ruins of a bath house that was partially destroyed by an earthquake between AD 540 and 620.  The building in which the statues were found was probably a "frigidarium" - a room with a cold pool which Romans could dip into after a hot bath.   It is part of a larger bath complex.  At first, researchers thought they had found a statue belonging to Hadrian's wife, Vibia Sabina.  But when they turned it over, the face was very different from the usual portrayals of Sabina.  This was a more mature woman with plump lips and a distinctive hairstyle.   According to the archaeologists, the features of the two and a half foot tall head identify the woman as Faustina the Elder.   Faustina was well respected, especially for her charity work.  She enjoyed a happy marriage to Antoninus which lasted 31 years until her death in AD 141.  In her memory, Antoninus formally deified her as a goddess.  

Archaeology students unearth First Nation artifacts in British Columbia


Our next story comes from Canada, where archeaology students from the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George have unearthed more than 200 ancient First Nations artifacts including an "earth oven" believed to have heated and cured rock useful in making tools and weapons.  Led by Farid Rahemtulla, anthropology professor at the university, the dig is an ancient village site of the Nak'azdli Band.   
The site, west of Prince George, on the south shore of Stuart Lake, could be from several hundred to several thousand years old.  Pieces of charcoal found in various locations will be used for radiocarbon dating to determine when it was an active village.   
The student team, including members of the Nak'azdli Band, discovered dozens of stone tools and more than 100 stone flakes indicating tools manufacturing at the site.  A number of depressions around the site may have been used for cooking, food storage or heating rock.   
According to Rahemtulla, the earth oven was excavated at a depth of more than four feet and is believed to be the first ever found in the Northern Interior of the province.   He commented that the northern and interior regions of British Columbia have been ignored by archeologists: the last excavation on Nak'azdli land took place more than 50 years ago.  The students involved in the dig have become immersed in history and have gained great personal knowledge, but their work is also making a major contribution to the collective knowledge about people who lived in the area thousands of years ago.

Largest and oldest Stone Age graveyard found in the Sahara


In our final story, a new report is offering insights into two poorly understood cultures in the Sahara.   Researchers looking for fossils in 2000 were astonished to find a stretch of sand littered with the bones of ancient people positioned in ways distinctive of intentional burials.   During a recent press briefing at the National Geographic Society, the team reported that investigations of the bones and associated finds show that they come from the largest and oldest Stone Age graveyard in the Sahara.   Dating back as early as 10,000 years ago, the Gobero archaeological site is located in the western African nation of Niger (Nee-ZHER).   
Work at Gobero shows that two consecutive human populations, separated by 1,000 years, lived by a lake during a time of regular Saharan rainfall.  These hunter-gatherer groups buried their dead in separate gravesites by the lake, leaving an unprecedented biological and material record of their scantily understood cultures.   
According to anthropologist Henry Harpending of the University of Utah, although hunter-gatherer groups are typically mobile and small in number, those living in resource-rich areas tend to stay for long periods at seasonal sites.  At Gobero these ancient populations became dense enough to require large cemeteries.  200 graves have been revealed and human and animal bones, as well as artifacts, have yielded 78 radiocarbon dates.   
The oldest of the groups are members of the Kiffian culture who colonized the Sahara from 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.  They hunted large game and speared six foot long perch in a deep lake with bone harpoons.  Kiffian burial practices show individuals with their legs pulled up tightly against their body, suggesting they were bound up with some type of wrapping.  
The later Gobero residents, representing the Tenerian culture, inhabited the site from 7,200 to 4,200 years ago, when the lake was shallow.  They hunted small game using tiny stone arrowheads, caught small catfish and tilapia and herded cattle.  Tenerians often buried their dead with jewelry and placed them in ritual poses.  The 4,800-year-old skeleton of a girl lying on her side, with arms and legs slightly bent, includes an upper-arm bracelet carved from a hippo’s tusk.   
In addition, the scientists uncovered what they say is Africa’s first triple burial.  In the remarkable find, a diminutive, 40-year-old Tenerian woman lay on her side, facing two children, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old.  Their entwined arms reached out and their hands clasped in what the team calls the “Stone Age embrace.” These individuals died from uncertain causes 5,300 years ago.

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