Audio News for October 26th to November 1st, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news October 26th to November 1st, 2008.


Potsherd from kingdom of David may be the oldest Hebrew writing


Our first story is from Israel, where a teenage volunteer has discovered a 3,000-year-old potsherd with writing that archaeologists believe is the oldest known Hebrew inscription.  Moreover, it suggests that Biblical accounts of the ancient Israelite kingdom of David may have been based on written texts.  The volunteer discovered the curved shard bearing five lines of faded characters during the summer in the ruins of an ancient town on a hilltop south of Jerusalem.  Yossi Garfinkel, the Israeli archaeologist leading the excavations at Hirbet Qeiyafa, released his conclusions this week after months of study.  According to Garfinkel, the artifact is strong evidence that the ancient Israelites were literate and could chronicle events centuries before the Bible was written.  The shard was found in a house excavation and later discovered to bear characters known as proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.  The Israelites were not the only people using the proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it may be difficult to conclude the text is Hebrew.  However, Garfinkel based his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning, "to do," a word he said existed only in Hebrew.  Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site as the potsherd helped archaeologists date it to between 1,000 and 975 BC, the same time as the Biblical golden age of King David's rule in Jerusalem.  Archaeology has turned up only scarce finds from David's time in the early 10th century BC, leading some scholars to argue the Bible's account of the period inflates the importance of his personality and his kingdom.  Some have even suggested his kingdom may not have existed at all.  Nevertheless, Garfinkel noted, the fortified settlement where the writing was found contains indications that a powerful Israelite kingdom existed near Jerusalem in David's time.  The script, which Garfinkel suggests might be part of a letter, predates the next significant Hebrew inscription by between 100 and 200 years.  History's best-known Hebrew texts, the Dead Sea scrolls, was written 850 years later than this potsherd.  The fragment is now kept in a university safe by the philologists translating it.  That task is expected to take months.  Several words have been tentatively identified, including "judge," "slave" and "king."   Hirbet Qeiyafa sits near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh in the Judean foothills, an area that was once the frontier between the hill-dwelling Israelites and their enemies, the coastal Philistines.  The site overlooks the Elah Valley, said to be the scene of the slingshot showdown between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, and near the ruins of Goliath's hometown, the Philistine metropolis of Gath.

Excavations on Robinson Crusoe Island add weight to historic accounts


In our next story, evidence has been discovered that being cast away on a desert island, surviving on what nature alone can provide, while praying for rescue may not be simply the imaginative creations of Daniel Defoe in his famous novel Robinson Crusoe.   The story has always been believed to have been based on the real-life experience of sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned in 1704 on a small tropical island in the Pacific for more than four years.   Now archaeological evidence has been found to support contemporary records of his existence on the island.  Excavations on the island of Aguas Buenas, since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, show evidence of an early European occupant.  The most compelling proof is the discovery of a pair of navigational dividers that could only have belonged to a ship’s master or navigator, as history suggests Selkirk must have been.  The account of Selkirk’s rescuer, Captain Woodes Rogers, who arrived at Aguas Buenas in 1709, mentions various instruments that he described as both practical and mathematical among the few possessions Selkirk had taken with him from the ship.  A useful navigational tool would certainly fit both terms in that description.  The finds also provide insight into exactly how Selkirk might have lived on the island.  Postholes imply he built two shelters near a freshwater stream and had access to a viewpoint over the harbor from whence he could watch for approaching ships and determine whether they were friend or foe.  Accounts written shortly after his rescue describe him shooting goats with a gun rescued from the ship and eventually learning to outrun them, eating their meat and using their skins as clothing.  According to David Caldwell of the National Museums of Scotland, the evidence uncovered at Aguas Buenas corroborates the stories of Alexander Selkirk’s stay on the island and provides a fascinating insight into his life there.  Alexander Selkirk was born in the small seaside town of Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland in 1676.  The younger son of a shoemaker, he was drawn to a life at sea from an early age.  In 1704, during a privateering voyage, Selkirk fell out with the commander over the boat’s seaworthiness and decided to remain behind on Aguas Buenas Island, where they had landed to overhaul the worm-infested vessel.  Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is one of the oldest and most famous adventure stories in English literature.  While it is unclear whether Defoe and Selkirk actually met, Defoe would certainly have heard the stories of Selkirk’s adventure and used the tales as the basis for his novel.  The new study is published in the current issue of The Journal of Post-Medieval Archaeology.

Early Guatemalan sculpture blends Olmec and Mayan symbolism


In Guatemala, excavations at the National Project Tak'alik Ab'aj have produced an unusual Olmecoid Maya sculpture.  In June, the first sculpture was found forming part of a basement wall.  As excavations continued along the wall, the second sculpture was discovered on August 26th.  Both sculptures had been disfigured.  However, it was possible to confirm that the two were once linked, forming a single monumental sculpture carved on all four sides.  This sculpture, known as the Carrier of the Ancestor, shows a daunting character, decorated with symbols of power containing Olmec featuress such as the sign U on the sash.  In an unusual pose for such sculptures, the character bears a small human figure on his back.  The positioning of the human’s arms on the chest, his hands folded down, and his very straight legs are all similar to the pose of infants often found in the lap of Olmec jade figures.  Some archaeologists have interpreted these infant figures as divine beings or ancestors.  The size and complete form of the sculpture suggests the idea of Olmec sculpture; however, this sculpture is unique.  The character is standing on the capital of a rectangular column.  The capital is carved in the shape of the head of a Mayan monster bat or monster of the earth, known as “Cauac.”  This form of the monster Cauac with Mayan features is found a few decades later in other classic Maya cities, as in Quirigua and Copan.  In Quirigua and Copan, the stelas have the monster Cauac on the base on which the rulers are standing.  It is important to note that the small figure on the back of the standing character is joined by a cloth or skirt to the head of the bat.  The sculptor emphasized the union of the carrier of the ancestor with the monster of the earth.  The rectangular column itself was mutilated and cut off near the bottom of the bat’s head.  Two pieces of sculptures found in excavations years ago fit into the column, completing it and making it possible to see the front face of the column.  In profile, this character shows definite characteristics and the distinct style of Mayan sculpture.  It is adorned with lavish garments and its face emerges from an elaborate headdress mask.  On both sides of the column, text was found in a double column of early glyphs.  Mayan scholars who specialize in glyphs all over the world are still ardently discussing the meaning of these early glyphs.  Many questions have yet to be answered about this sculpture, such as: why is the character carrying a small figure on his back, who are the characters and why was it destroyed.  Fragments of these sculptures clearly were integrated into the buildings during the second part of the Late Pre- Classic Period, 200 BC to AD 150, during the early Mayan culture.  Therefore, this sculpture must have been carved before this time.  There are two possibilities.  Either it was carved at the start of the earlier Mayan era, or when the changes in Tak’alik Ab’aj from the Olmec era  to the Mayan era were taking place.  The Olmec era ended about 400 BC.  The sculpture of the Carrier of the Ancestor at Tak'alik Ab'aj is an unprecedented and challenging find.  Much about the Mayan civilization is not yet known, and many archaeological sites are yet to be studied.  In Guatemala alone, most of the archaeological sites considered Mayan have not yet been excavated.  Vast geographical areas full of Mayan cities and monuments are still covered by earth and forest.

Island in Macau group reveals Neolithic tool and ornament workshop


Our final story is from Macau, where archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate on Coloane (ko-lo-AHN) Island following the discovery of a 4000-year-old workshop at the site.  Coloane is one of the two main islands of Macau.  According to Tang Chung, Director of the Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, still much work remains to be done at the site, which was first excavated in the late 1970s.  Some two to three thousand square meters remain unexcavated, and researchers hope to find more evidence of manufacturing practices at the workshop site.  The first of five digs was carried out at Hac Sa Park by the Hong Kong Archaeological Society in the late 1970s.  The most recent was led by Tang in conjunction with Macau University in 2006.  During this project, they excavated a 120-square-meter site.  What they found in it revealed the daily life of a prehistoric artisan.  The finds included burnt clay, a hearth, pottery shards, and a quartz ornament workshop with quartz cobbles, blanks, flakes, a hammer, a borer, and tools for polishing stone.   Neolithic artifacts, including ornaments and tools, were similar to those found in Vietnam, the Pearl River Delta and Taiwan.  William Meacham is the former president of the Hong Kong Archaeological Society, and led the early digs.  He described this as a very rich site, noting that it is around two meters deep.  Meacham described the information gained from the early digs as extremely important.  He also commented at the time of the first dig that Coloane Island was relatively underdeveloped and the team found Neolithic pottery within the first five minutes.  The island is substantially more developed nowadays and no-one knows what is left.  Lots of archaeological work is yet to be done in Macau, but accomplishing it will depend on many factors, including the support of the Chinese government.

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