Audio News for October 5th to October 11th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news October 5th to October 11th, 2008.


Standing on literally holy ground


Our first story is from Greece, where new research suggests that even the dirt under temples held spiritual significance.   The discovery could explain how the ancients selected locations for their sacred buildings honoring the gods and goddesses.   
Gregory Retallack, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Oregon, took soil samples from 84 Greek temple sites dating from 480 to 338 B.C.  After analysis of the samples, Retallack noticed a pattern: the soil appeared to be directly connected to the mythology surrounding the god or goddess honored by the particular temple.  For instance, temples dedicated to Athena and Zeus, the god and goddess of warrior societies, are mostly on or near easily defensible hills, with evidence of long prior occupation.   Temples dedicated to Artemis and Apollo who were associated with hunting are located on former hunting grounds.   The temples of Hera and Hermes sat atop clay-rich soil that would have been suitable for cattle grazing, in keeping with "Hermes the ram-bearer" and "ox-eyed queen Hera."  The sanctuaries of Demeter and Dionysus, associated with grain and wine, respectively, were found on fertile soils suitable for mixed farming.   Temples erected in honor of Poseidon and Aphrodite, both linked in myth to the sea, were built on arid soils near fishing harbors.  Even the gods of the underworld, Persephone and Hades, received their due: deep, dark caves served as sacred retreats in their honor.   
Based on the writings of early Greek historians, Retallack believes that religious sites predate temple construction by many centuries.   Outdoor ceremonies probably led to wood and earthen temples that were later replaced by marble structures as wealth and influence increased.   

Date of Copper Age pushed back hundreds of years


Now we go to nearby Serbia, where a 7,500-year-old copper axe indicates that the metal was used in the Balkans hundreds of years earlier than previously thought.   The find, located in central Serbia, shifts the timeline of the Copper Age and the Stone Age's Neolithic period.   Until now, researchers believed that only stone was used in the Stone Age and that the Copper Age came later.  The find, however, confirm that metal was used some 500 to 800 years earlier.   
The Copper Age marks the first stage of humans' use of metal and was believed to have started about the 4th millennium BC in southeastern Europe and earlier in the Middle East.   
Archaeologists also found furnace and melting pots with traces of copper at the site, suggesting the site may have been an important metal age center of the Balkans.   
The site is part of the Vinca culture, Europe's biggest prehistoric civilization.  The settlement flourished from 5500 BC until it was destroyed by a fire in 4700 BC.  Vinca culture thrived from 6th to 3rd millennium BC in present-day Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.  Its name came from the village Vinca on the Danube River, some 8 miles downstream from the capital of Belgrade.  

Mayan potters may have imported raw materials


A new study of the chemical composition of the volcanic ash used to make Maya pottery could help researchers determine where potters obtained their raw materials.  
Researchers have long known that Maya of the Late Classic period, AD 600 to 900, used a mixture of volcanic ash and clay to make pottery.   While at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Brianne Catlin, geoarchaeologist, and her colleagues analyzed pottery fragments found at El Pilar (pee-LAHR), a Maya site near the Belize-Guatemala border.  According to Catlin, very little soil covers the carbonate bedrock at El Pilar, and all of the ash layers found there are too old and chemically degraded to have supplied the ash used in the pottery.  Because the Maya pottery typically is both heavy and fragile, it’s unlikely that such items were imported.  Instead, she speculates, ash was hauled in for local potters from other areas at great effort; especially considering the Maya had no roads, no pack animals and would have needed to bring in several tons of the material each year to produce enough dishes and pottery for the site’s thousands of residents.   
To see how various combinations of temperature and heating times affected the chemical composition of ash in pottery, Catlin and her colleagues fired pots using a 50-50 mixture of clay from the El Pilar site and volcanic ash of known chemical composition from California.  In the tests, the longer the pottery was fired, the more sodium was driven from the material.  The hotter the firing temperature, the higher the calcium concentration became.  The also learned that
 the firing process didn’t affect the silica content of the pottery at all.   The ash in the potsherds found at El Pilar is about 78 percent silica, which is distinctly different from the composition of ash from El Chichón volcano, which lies about 225 miles west of El Pilar and emits ash that is approximately 58 percent silica.  
Some archaeologists have suggested that material from El Chichón was used in the Maya pottery, because an ash plume from a 1982 eruption drifted eastward and fell on El Pilar.  But the new results don’t support that idea.   Catlin and her colleagues now are analyzing ash from several volcanoes that lie between 200 to 250 miles southwest of El Pilar, to see if material from those peaks has a chemical composition that matches the ash used in the Maya pottery.  

Yucca found at the “Pompeii of the Americas”


Our final story is from El Salvador, where excavations are showing that yucca, the main ingredient of some Central American dishes, has been a part of crops in the region for more than 1,400 years.  Ongoing studies at Joya de Ceren, have revealed a Maya village, including houses, fields, temples, warehouses and sweat lodges.   Often referred to as the Pompeii of the Americas, Joya de Ceren is preserved remarkably intact under layers of volcanic ash from an eruption of the Loma de Caldera Volcano in AD 600.   
According to the coordinator of Archaeology Department of the El Salvador National Council for Culture and Art, evidence of yucca plantations was found beneath the 14 layers of ash.  In the ash-buried fields, researchers found imprints of vegetables, which plaster cast molds revealed to be yucca, which has a tuber similar to a potato.  Other imprints included beans, maize, squash, cacao, guava and chili.   The villagers were apparently able to flee the eruption, as no bodies have been found.    
Although the site was discovered 30 years ago, excavation did not began at Joya de Copan until 1989.  Since then only 10% of the site has been explored.  Joya de Ceren was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.  

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