Audio News for September 21st to September 27th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news September 21st to September 27th, 2008.


Copper sheeting points to doomed Arctic expedition


Our first story is from Canada, where researchers have found fragments of copper sheeting that probably came from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic.
Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 were searching for the elusive Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans when they became trapped in ice.  All the men died and their ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, vanished.   
The fragments were located during a six-week trip in August and September to three islands near O'Reilly Island in the Queen Maud Gulf, close to where Franklin's ships are believed to have gone down.   According to Robert Grenier, chief of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, the research team found pieces of a considerable number of copper sheets.   Since copper did not exist naturally in the region, the sheets could not have been made by the local Inuit.   However, the copper fragments showed signs that Inuit had used the sheets over the years to make traditional tools.  
Previous exploration teams have found traces of 70 crew members, many of whom started trekking overland in desperation.   Research suggests they suffered from lead poisoning from either canned food or the ships' water supply, and Inuit oral narratives tell of cannibalism among the fated crew.   Grenier and his expedition are due to return to the area in the summer of both 2009 and 2010.

Archaeologist race the sea in Scotland


Now we go to Scotland, where a cremation pit containing a human jaw bone mixed with animal bones has come to light in an archaeological dig in the Hebrides (heb-ri-deez) Islands off the northwest coast.   Located on the flat tidal island of Baleshare in the Outer Hebrides, the Iron Age site consists of a settlement of wheelhouses, which are round structures divided by internal radial walls which form rooms within the building.   
Other finds include a well-preserved hearth, with a clay foundation scratched with a cross, as well as bone, shell and pottery artifacts.   Archaeologists believe the finds promise a breakthrough in understanding the mysterious ways of the pre-historic Hebrideans (heb-ri-DEE-ans).  
The original Celtic inhabitants were conquered by Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, who ruled the islands until 1266.  Native Scottish chieftains controlled the Hebrides until the 16th century, when the islands passed to the kingdom of Scotland.
In 2005, a huge storm tore away more than 150 yards of Baleshare's coastline to reveal the 2,000 year old settlement.   In a race against time, the organization “Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion” (SCAPE) has been working to excavate and record the site before it is lost forever to the sea.   Some of the settlement was unearthed and recorded last year, shortly before a high August tide ripped away another 3 yards of coastline and the excavated area with it.  This year, professional archaeologists, funded by Historic Scotland, have been joined on a three week dig by volunteers from the local archaeology group, Access Archaeology.   

Could kangaroos help scientists answer a 5000 year old mystery?


In Australia, a new experimental investigative technique could help scientists solve one of Australia's enduring mysteries.   Aborigines arrived at least 45,000 years ago, spreading across the continent with amazing speed.  Then for the next 40,000 years, very little change occurred.   No significant population expansion.  No fundamental changes in lifestyle.  Then, 5000 years ago, populations grew again.  Settlements increased in number and their inhabitants grew more sedentary.  Scientists can't explain such massive upheavals in a culture that had been stable for thousands of years.
According to Doug Bird, a Stanford University anthropologist, kangaroo fossils may offer an answer.   His team recently published a study on "fire stick farming," a traditional method of ecosystem management still used by aborigines in Australia's Western Desert.  Burning old-growth spinifex or porcupine grass, makes it easier to hunt lizards.  In turn, kangaroos and emus ate the grasses flourishing on newly cleared lands.   Fire stick farming is too small-scale and subtle to leave behind the sort of landmarks that have made prehistoric terraforming relatively easy to spot elsewhere, and charcoal deposits will be too mixed to interpret.  But human-directed changes in foliage should leave telltale traces in the bones of kangaroos, which have small, stable home ranges and adaptable dietary habits.   Bird believes if scientists are looking for a shift from woody-like vegetation to grasses, it should be indicated in the shift of stable isotopes of nitrogen and oxygen in the kangaroo bones.   Combined with carbon-14 dating, researchers could make a time-and-space map of aboriginal settlement and migration.  This could help scientists figure out what was going on 5000 years ago.   Bird cautioned that the method is still experimental and his team is now calibrating the methodology by analyzing kangaroo fossils from recent burn sites.  

Computer helps in reconstructing Grecian wall paintings


In our final story a new, portable software program from Princeton University may soon make the archaeologist’s life easier.   For several decades, researchers in Greece have been painstakingly attempting to reconstruct wall paintings that hold valuable clues to the ancient culture of Thera, an island civilization that was buried under volcanic ash more than 3,500 years ago.   
Reconstructing an excavated fresco, mosaic or similar archaeological object is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle, only far more difficult.  The original object often has broken into thousands of tiny pieces.  Many lack any distinctive color, pattern or texture and possess edges that have eroded over the centuries.   As a result, the task of reassembling artifacts often requires a lot of human effort, as archaeologists sift through fragments and use trial and error to hunt for matches.  This massive task, which would require more than a century of further work with current methodologies, soon may get much easier with new technology that brings in the computer as a research partner.  The Princeton system uses inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware and is designed to be operated by archaeologists and conservators rather than computer scientists.  
The setup consists of a common flatbed scanner, a laser rangefinder and a motorized turntable all connected to a laptop computer.   The system then integrates all of the information gathered, including the shape, image and surface detail, into a rich and meticulous record of each fragment.  The software, or algorithm, undertakes the work of making sense of this information.  When fully developed, this system could reduce the time needed to reconstruct a mosaic wall from years to months.  It could free up archaeologists for other valuable tasks such as restoration and ethnographic study.   
In 2007, a team of Princeton researchers made a series of trips to Akrotiri on the island of Thera, which flourished in the Late Bronze Age, around 1630 BC.  The initial plan was to observe and learn at the site, and later to test their system.  During a three-day visit to the island, they successfully measured 150 fragments using their automated system.    Although the system is still being perfected, it already has yielded promising results.   When tested on fragments from a large Akrotiri wall painting, it found 10 out of 12 known matches and two previously unknown matches.   The Princeton researchers have dubbed the software that they have developed "Griphos," which is Greek for puzzle or riddle.   While Princeton's system will never replace the experience, contextual knowledge and "soft skills" that conservators and archaeologists bring to the table; the computer takes over the laborious parts of the process while leaving the important, intuitive decisions to the archaeologist.

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