Audio News for November 9th to November 15th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news November 9th to November 15th, 2008.


Mayan sacred caves were ancient route of the dead


Our first story is from Mexico, where the original Mayan pathway to the underworld may have been found.  According to Mayan legend, the afterlife was a horrifying obstacle course in which the dead had to navigate rivers of blood, and chambers full of sharp knives, bats and jaguars.  Now a Mexican archaeologist has used long-forgotten records from the Spanish Inquisition to show that a series of caves he has previously explored may be the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.  The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatan peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba (Shee-BAHL-ba), which was described in ancient mythological texts like the Popol Vuh (POE-pul VOO).  According to University of Yucatan archaeologist Guillermo de Anda (gui-YER-mo deh-AN-da), this was the place of fear, the place of cold, and a place of great danger.  Searching for the names of sacred sites mentioned by Indian heretics who were interrogated by colonial courts of the Spaniards, De Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of the Yucatan state capital of Merida.  Archaeologists have long known that the Maya regarded caves as sacred and built structures in some of them.  However, De Anda's team introduced a critical new ingredient by using historical records to locate and connect a series of sacred caves, and link them with the concept of the Mayan road to the afterworld.  Far beyond the overgrown entrances, accessed only by rappelling down narrow shafts and slippery tree roots, the group explored walled-off sacred chambers that can only be entered by crawling along a floor populated by spiders, scorpions and toads.  To find Xibalba, De Anda spent five years combing the 450-year-old records of the Inquisition trials the Spaniards held against Indians who they called heretics for continuing to practice their old religion even after the conquest.  Using names of locations given up during the trials, the archaeologists worked with locals to identify them among the many sinkhole caves that dot the limestone of the peninsula.  Known as cenotes, these were used by the Maya as places of worship and depositories for sacrifices, including the occasional human.  The best-known is the broad, circular pool at the ruins of Chichen Itza.  Many cenotes still supply villages with water.  The cenotes De Anda found were drier, better hidden and farther from villages.  Their religious significance seems clear because the Maya kept traveling long distances to worship there even as they were being forced to convert to Christianity.  Among the cavern finds are a broad, perfectly paved, 100-yard underground road, a submerged temple, walled-off stone rooms and, as in the legends, a confusing crossroads.  At the center of one underground lake, De Anda's team found a collapsed and submerged altar with carvings dedicating it to the gods of death.   In some chambers, it is almost impossible to move without slashing one's skin on stalactites and stone formations projecting from the walls and ceilings, leading De Anda to believe they represent the feared "room of knives" described in the Popol Vuh.  Bats are depicted in the ancient texts, and visitors have to duck to avoid swarms of them.  Another chamber fills the description of roasting heat.  Others match up with the legend’s chambers of shaking cold, because of cold currents of air moving through them.  While De Anda has not yet clearly encountered a jaguar chamber, jaguar bones have been found in at least one cave.

Newly found pyramid was for a pharaoh’s mother


In Egypt, archaeologists have discovered a new pyramid buried in the desert.  They believe it to be the tomb of the mother of a pharaoh who ruled more than 4,000 years ago.  The pyramid, found south of Cairo about two months ago, probably housed the remains of Queen Sesheshet (ses-HES-het), the mother of King Teti, who ruled from 2323 to 2291 BC and founded Egypt's Sixth Dynasty.  According to Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the only queen whose pyramid is missing is Shesheshet, which is why he is sure it belonged to her.  Dr. Hawass, who will be Keynote Speaker for The Archaeology Channel International Film and Video Festival in May of 2009, notes that this will enhance our knowledge about the Old Kingdom.  The Sixth Dynasty, a time of conflict in Egypt's royal family and erosion of centralized power, is considered to be the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom, after which Egypt descended into famine and social upheaval.  Previously, archaeologists had discovered pyramids belonging to two of the king's wives nearby, but had never found a tomb belonging to Sesheshet.  The headless, 16-foot high pyramid originally reached about 46 feet, with sides stretching out over 73 feet long.  It is the one-hundred eighteenth pyramid found in Egypt, and lies near Saqqara, the oldest pyramid in the world.  According to Hawass, the queen’s pyramid was originally covered in a casing of white limestone brought from quarries at nearby Tura.   Archaeologists plan to enter the pyramid's burial chamber within two weeks, although most of its contents are likely to have been taken by thieves.  Artifacts from the tomb area include a wooden statue of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis and funerary figurines dating from a later period, which indicate that the cemetery had been reused through Roman times.

Arizona city turns up prehistoric village


Now we shift to the United States, where an ancient village has turned up in Tucson, Arizona.  In 2004, voters approved upgrade and expansion of the wastewater facility, but before anything new can be built, the state and county require a search for any archaeological ruins.  A team from the company Desert Archaeology discovered the ancient village, estimated to be 3500 years old, during this work.  The levels excavated so far show the surface of agricultural fields, as well as irrigation canals and evidence of floods.   Since August, the team has dug 54 trenches on the site of the proposed facility.  In January, they will expand horizontally to reveal more detail.  According to leader Fred Nials, the farmers who lived here probably numbered 30-50 people at any one time and lived in pit houses, which were excavated partially into the ground and had a brush structure above.  A number of storage pits have been found, one of which has the classic bell-shaped profile of the time.  Another is a shallow roasting pit for cooking meat or other food.  Among the artifacts found so far are stone points for spears and a flaked stone knife.  Archaeologists also have collected pieces of shell from a 2,800 year old turtle.  Nials, who has looked at agricultural systems in North and South America and in the Mediterranean, believes this has some of the best-preserved evidence he has ever seen.  Compared to the handful of similar sites that have been excavated in the Tucson area previously, this may contain the most data yet.

Phoenician site reveals early burials in pottery jars


Our final story is from Lebanon, where Lebanese and Spanish archaeologists have discovered 2,900-year-old earthenware pottery that ancient Phoenicians used to store the bones of their dead after cremation.  More than 100 jars were discovered at a Phoenician site in the southern coastal city of Tyre (TIRE).  The Phoenicians flourished from 1500-300 BC in the coastal area of present-day Syria.  According to Ali Badawi, the archaeologist in charge in Tyre, the big jars are like individual tombs.  The smaller jars are left empty, but symbolically represent that a soul is stored in them.  Badawi and a Spanish team from the Pompeu Fabra (POM-pe-you FAH-bra) University in Barcelona have been excavating at the Phoenician site for years.  The site was first discovered in 1997, but archaeologists have only been able to excavate 50 square yards per year.  A seafaring civilization, the Phoenicians inhabited their earliest cities, including Byblos, Tyre and Sidon (SIGH-don) on Lebanon's coast.  From Tyre, the Phoenicians expanded into other colonies on the Mediterranean coast.  According to Maria Eugenia Aubet (ma-REE-a eh-you-HAY-nee-a OW-bay), who leads the Spanish team, these discoveries help researchers who work on the prehistory of Phoenician colonies that spread across Spain, Italy and Tunisia, to pin down more of their habits and traditions.  She noted that few studies of the Phoenicians have been done in their motherland, Lebanon.  The remains prove that the Phoenicians had a belief in life after death.  The last previous excavation was in 2005, after which war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas and continuing political and security concerns halted work on the site until this year.  

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