Audio News for December 7th to December 13th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 7th to December 13th, 2008.


On coast of former Yugoslavia, ancient trading port emerges from the silt


Our first story is from the border area between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where an archaeological team found the very first traces of an Illyrian trading post that is more than two thousand years old.  The ancient Illyrians lived by hunting, fishing and agriculture and were known as warriors and pirates.  Not only did they fight the Greeks and Romans, but the various tribes also quarreled among themselves.  However, the new archaeological finds are showing that the Illyrians may have also had peaceful trade connections with the Romans.  According to Marina Prusac, Associate Professor in the department of archaeology at the University of Oslo, the find is unique in a European perspective.  They have concluded that Desilo, the ancient name of the settlement, was an important trading post between the Illyrians and the Romans.  A large number of finds have been made in a short period of time, including the ruins of the settlement, the remains of a harbor that probably functioned as a trading port, and many sunken boats, fully-laden with wine pitchers or amphorae from the first century BC.  In spring 2007, Professor Snjezana Vasilj (sne-ZHA-na VAS-si-li) of the University of Mostar found 16 Illyrian boats in Desilo, loaded with Roman wine amphorae, thought to be Illyrian pirate ships that had been sunk by the Romans after returning with their loot.  Prusac and her team do not accept this interpretation, as in their opinion Desilo’s geography make it more likely to have been a trading center than a pirate hideout.  Desilo is located 12 miles from the coast on a plain by the River Neretva.  The river is the only artery along the entire Croatian coast that runs into the Balkan Mountains.  Several ancient traffic routes run past Desilo, including one to Narona, a Greek trading post that was later a Roman colony, and the Illyrian settlement of Daorson, present-day Osanic.  Desilo is situated at the innermost point of a bay where it was convenient to transfer goods to smaller boats, perfect for an inner trading harbor.  The archaeologists found the remains of the trading post under several meters of silt.  A wall protruded from the mud by the water’s edge, measuring 20 meters long by two-thirds of a meter thick, and containing mooring holes.  This may have functioned as one of the many quays or wharfs at the trading post.  The many pieces of pottery found indicate that this was a major trading site.  About a hundred yards from the harbor site they found an Illyrian settlement.  The mountain slopes yielded evidence of terraces for agriculture.  In the former nation of Yugoslavia, archaeological research on the Illyrians was used politically to highlight the culture-historical bonds among the various groups living there.  Today the focus has shifted to recognize the differences between Illyrian peoples as well.

Early Spanish documents extend understanding of Cuban site from time of Columbus


Our next story is from Cuba, where the understanding of an obsolete form of Spanish writing, combined with a joint U.S.-Cuban archaeological effort, is shedding light on the Cuban people who met Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World.  Over the past two summers, the effort in eastern Cuba has recovered several thousand pottery and stone artifacts from the site of a former large native village, El Chorro de Maita.  The research is co-led by The University of Alabama and the Central-Eastern Department of Archaeology of the science ministry of Cuba, and underwritten by the National Geographic Society.  Roberto Valcarcel was the leader of the Cuban contingent.  According to Dr. Jim Knight, the Alabama professor of anthropology who set up and is advising the project, the artifacts from the site, in combination with the research on documents archived in Spain, are giving insight into the early history of the Indians of Cuba.  Knight stated that researchers should be able to put together a map of who was where, showing the different towns and tribes, as well as which Spaniards were where, and what their activities were.  Handwritten documents originally produced by the early Spanish colonizers of Cuba recorded some of the 16th-century news of the day.  On at least one occasion, a detailed inventory of the possessions of an early Spanish colonizer provides insight into 16th-century life.  The researchers’ insight, however, doesn’t come without effort.  The documents are written in a script barely recognizable as Spanish, even to a native speaker.  Dr. John Worth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida who is trained in interpreting the period’s writings, traveled to Spain to review the material and secure copies for further study.  The researchers hope to correlate the documents with what they are finding at the site.  The people Columbus encountered during his first voyage to northeastern Cuba in 1492 are known as Arawakan Indians.  There is no concrete evidence that Columbus visited El Chorro de Maita, but this large village was occupied by Arawakans, and since the 1940s it has been thought that Columbus may have visited the site.  The Arawakans of that time had a similar level of sophistication to the Mississippian Indians in the southeastern United States, although culturally they were distinctly different.   Like the Mississippian Culture, the Arawakans were organized in chiefdoms and were agriculturalists, although they grew mainly root crops, not corn.  The chief, as anthropologists refer to the leader, would have had exceptional ritual, political or entrepreneurial skills that placed him at the top of a very hierarchical society.  Power was concentrated within the chief’s family and those of other leaders, who controlled a substantial amount of their society’s resources and redistributed them to others.  Artifacts recovered from the Chorro de Maita site include evidence of the manufacturing of idolillos, or little idols, showing that the society had both elite and non-elite members.  Elites would have worn these small, human-shaped figurines as part of a necklace.  Working alongside the Cuban and U. S. professional archaeologists during the excavations were students from the universities of Alabama, Syracuse, and Penn State.

Cathedral may hold bones of leaders of the Teutonic Knights


In Poland, archaeologists believe the silk-draped skeletons found in a cathedral crypt in the city of Kwidzyn, the former Teutonic fortress of Marienwerder, are those of three grand masters who more than 600 years ago ruled the Teutonic Knights, an order that spread Christianity through military might.  According to Bogumil Wisniewski, an archaeologist who led the search, DNA tests indicate the remains are those of Werner von Orseln, the knights' leader from 1324 to1330; Ludolf Koenig, who ruled from 1342 to 1345; and Heinrich von Plauen, who reigned from 1410 to 1413.   The skeletons were found in wooden coffins and draped in silks, some of which were painted with gold.  Such a fabric in the Middle Ages was reserved for leaders of the highest rank.  Laboratory tests matched the age of the skeletons to that of the recorded age of the three grand masters at their times of death.  They also revealed temporary malnutrition in one of the skeletons that could match the 10-year imprisonment of von Plauen.  While Wisniewski acknowledged he could not be entirely certain of their identities without associated documents, several other indicators supported the find, including wall paintings in the cathedral showing the three grand masters and historic documents saying that von Orseln and Koenig were buried there.  The Order of the Teutonic Knights was founded in the late 12th century to aid German pilgrims in the Holy Land.  It became a military order, wearing trademark white coats with black crosses, forcefully bringing Christianity to pagan Prussians.  It took control along the Baltic Sea coast in what is now northern Poland and ruled the area until the early 16th century.  The order’s might was destroyed by Polish and Lithuanian forces at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.

Pre-Columbian groups honored noble dead with barbecue and maize beer


Our final story is from South America, where a new study is showing that some pre-Hispanic cultures had elaborate celebrations at their cemeteries, complete with feasting and drinking grounds much like modern barbecue pits.   Excavations of 12th- and 13th-century burial mounds in the highlands of Brazil and Argentina have revealed numerous earthen ovens.  The finds suggest that the graves were sites of regular festivals held to honor community chiefs upon their death.  According to José Iriarte, an archaeologist who is the co-author of the study, after community members buried an important person, they feasted on meat that had been steamed in the earth ovens, and drank maize beer.  Large rings of raised earth surround the mounds, with paths leading to their centers.  The rings comprise a series of the ovens, built up over generations.  According to Iriarte, who teaches archaeology at the University of Exeter, this monumental tradition spread across a large area, from southern São Paulo state in Brazil to Río Grande del Sur in Argentina.  The Jê people, who occupied the vast area during the 12th and 13th centuries, are recorded as having often consumed an alcoholic beverage of maize and honey.  The research shows that they carried out these festivities in a period of the year when pine nuts eaten at celebrations and maize were abundant.  Researchers found ceramic vessels such as bowls and small drinking cylinders that still contained residues of corn.  They also discovered unidentifiable animal remains.  Archaeologists traditionally have viewed the Jê people as small, nomadic groups.  But these discoveries prove that theory wrong.  It is an unexpected development in this part of South America.  Along with the ovens, the team found big subterranean houses complete with roofs in a region rich with diverse plant and animal species making it a desirable place to settle down.  The population was able to combine hunting and gathering, horticulture, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture to sustain large populations.  Other evidence has shown that the burial parties were reserved for renowned chiefs, demonstrating a moderate degree of political complexity.  The chief's son usually sponsored the festivities, which thus reaffirmed his ties to ancestors and to his position in society.   The Jê were also reaffirming their territory.  Around AD 1000, several other groups of people were migrating around the Brazilian and Argentine highlands.  The burial monuments, situated on hilltops or ridges, clearly outlined Jê communities and marked their land.  The findings are published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.

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