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

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


US financial lab proposes market solutions for illegal antiquities trade


Our first story is about a revolutionary study that examines innovative financing for cultural heritage preservation.  From the Moche to the Phoenicians, demand for antiquities has contributed to looting that increasingly leaves a trail of environmental and cultural ruin.   Despite awareness and worldwide attempts at enforcement, the four billion dollar illegal antiquities trade shows that rewards still outweigh the penalties.  Now a report from the Milken Institute proposes an overhaul of incentives that could change the market to create significant cultural and economic value.  The Milken Institute’s Financial Innovation Laboratory, well-known for its work on market mechanisms and financial tools, drew on organizational assistance from the University of Chicago’s Center for Cultural Policy to bring together a highly respected group of economists, museum representatives, attorneys, collectors, antiquities dealers and members of the archaeology community to discuss possible regulatory and economic innovations and incentives.  According to their report, entitled “Financial Innovations for Developing Archaeological Discovery and Conservation,” market-based solutions can promote legal discovery and conservation, while at the same time stopping or at least alleviating the effects of looting.  The group explored potential solutions such as promoting long-term leases for museums and exhibits, developing museum and collector partnerships for sponsoring digs, and creating archaeological development bonds.  The writers suggest that incentives such as these could change the market to create significant cultural and economic value.  In economic terms, the antiquities trade represents a classic case of market failure, with illegally looted assets arising outside established markets.  In legal terms, the art market is distorted by movement of illegally obtained antiquities into an established and respected market.  The muddy chain of transactions between the looter and the dealer or curator often makes it difficult to determine, for example, whether Incan pottery on the New York auction block was in fact stolen from a site or released from a long-held private collection.  But how does a country, for example, like Belize, with perhaps 30,000 subsistence farmers also picking through the ground for relics, provide alternative, legal market incentives?  Both regulatory and economic options were considered by the experts assembled for this Financial Innovation Laboratory at the Milken Institute in January 2008.  Their conclusions have been presented in a 36-page report, available online as a free download.   Four alternative financing options were suggested.  
Long-term museum and exhibit leases, such as the famous touring King Tut exhibition, can use individual objects, as well as entire exhibits, to build cultural understanding and also channel funds into home country cultural ministries to support excavation and restoration.  Second, museums and universities can partner with private collectors to pool capital for loans to fund excavations and the subsequent publication of findings.  Repayment might take the form of a share of the excavated artifacts, or if the excavations unearthed little, repayment could be made from existing excess museum inventory or items for short-term exhibition.  In a variation of this, auctions could be held for all market participants, including investors, curators, universities, collectors, and dealers, to bid on the right to fund excavations and receive a share of the artifacts. Such auctions could increase funding for site protection and community development.  Finally, a group of archaeological projects could support archaeological development bonds, which might prove attractive for investment from philanthropies, governments, private investors, and public-private partnerships.  Like the ecotourism industry, such bonds would effectively realize the value of intangible cultural assets.  Tangible assets would be traded as in climate exchange or environmental markets, with revenue from object sales or leases helping the home country participate in site management and development, and further revenue generation from archaeotourism and licensing.  The report acknowledges reluctance by many, including much of the archaeological community, to accept the monetization and trade of archaeological assets.  It emphasizes that any economic solution must be scrutinized for its potential to compromise the rights and heritage of countries of origin.  Several of the options presented, particularly those involving the sale of excavated objects, conflict with current market and policy regulations, and national patrimony, or ownership, rights.  Archaeological representatives at the financial innovations conference had significant reservations about economic solutions that challenge current national and international statutes.  This was considered a major obstacle, but discussion of legal models stimulated ideas about how regulatory policies could complement financial innovation, ensuring that possible solutions would benefit countries of origin without compromising their sovereign rights.  The full report of 36 pages is available as a free download from the Milken Institute’s website.

A widespread switch from barbeque to roasted roots when mammoths died out


In our next story, a Texas archaeologist is saying that long before early humans in North America grew corn and beans, they were harvesting and cooking the bulbs of camas, a relative of the wild onion, by roasting them for days under hot rocks.  Evidence for this practice has been known for a while from fire-cracked rock piles found throughout the continent, but archaeologists have tended to pass over it for more eye-catching finds.  According to archaeologist Alston V. Thoms (TOMS) of Texas A&M University, writing in two reports published online this week in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and the Journal of Archaeological Science, cooking under hot rocks first became a substitute for cooking on hot coals between 10,500 and 9,000 years ago, then took a sudden jump in popularity about 4,000 years ago.  The reason for the change is population growth that required a switch to new food resources.  Thoms said that the foods people had been eating up until that point did not require prolonged cooking.  But beginning about 10,000 years ago, people couldn't live off the land anymore.  Prime food sources like the woolly mammoth were becoming extinct, and other mammals were becoming harder to find.  People had to turn to plants.  Meadowlands and forest edges were filled with several kinds of wild plants in the lily family, ready for harvesting.  The most nutritious of these is the camas bulb, which has as much nutrition as a sweet potato, and a cooked texture somewhere between an onion and a potato.  However, the energy of the raw camas bulb is locked up in a dense, indigestible carbohydrate called inulin (IN-you-lin).  The only way to make it beneficial to humans by roasting the bulbs steadily for two days or even longer.  In the past, that meant staying beside a fire pit to constantly tend it.  But the discovery of cooking with rocks changed the situation.  If the rocks were heated red-hot, they held the heat for 48 hours or longer, releasing it steadily to cook the food in an earth-covered pit.  This conserved both fuel and human energy.  The remains of earth ovens have been excavated by archaeologists since 1900 in many locations, but on the broad level it was not recognized that the earliest ones are about the same age, whether they are in Canada, the Pacific Northwest, or Texas.  Evidence suggests that a similar change occurred in Russia, Japan and perhaps Britain, since the lily plant family flourishes in northern latitudes around the world.  According to Thoms, camas bulbs were staples like modern wheat and rice, but eventually fell out of favor when domesticated grains and corn were introduced, not only because of the long cooking time for camas, but because the modern starchy plants provide more calories per pound.

Two new tombs in Egypt suggest even more remains


In Egypt, pair of 4,300-year-old Pharaonic tombs discovered at Saqqara may show that the necropolis south of Cairo is even larger than previously thought.  The two rock cut tombs were built for high officials, one responsible for the quarries used to build the nearby pyramids and the other a woman who was in charge of procuring entertainment for the pharaohs.  The discovery indicates that there is even more to the enormous necropolis of Saqqara.  In the past, excavations have focused on just one side of the two famous pyramids nearby, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser and that of Unas (oonis)0, the last king of the 5th Dynasty.  The area where the two tombs were found, to the southwest, has been largely untouched.  According to Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who will be the Keynote Speaker for The Archaeology Channel International Film and Video Festival in May 2009, the excavations will continue, with further finds expected to shed light on the 5th and 6th dynasties of the Old Kingdom that ruled over four thousand years ago.  One of the tombs measures about a yard wide and nearly three yards long, and bears a description above the entrance about the man, Yaamat, for whom it was built.  The second tomb is twice that size and includes inscriptions and an image of a seated woman.  According to Dr. Aidan Dodson, a research fellow at the University of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in England who was not involved in the dig, what’s significant is not the tombs themselves, but the possibility they hold out of a much larger cemetery.  Excavations have been going on at Saqqara for about 150 years, uncovering an immense necropolis of pyramids, tombs and funerary complexes, which date mostly from the Old Kingdom, but include sites as recent as the Roman era.  But despite the years of excavation, new finds are constantly being made.  In November, the discovery of a new pyramid at Saqqara was announced.  According to Hawass, only 30% of Egypt's monuments have been uncovered, with the rest still under the sand.

Ancient Nasca trophy heads may have come from locals


Our final story is from Peru, where new evidence suggests that the ancient Nasca culture obtained ritual skulls by killing and beheading some of its own people, not foreign warriors.  The new study suggests that some Nasca literally lost their heads so that others could fill their bellies.  Previous analyses of Nasca pottery painting suggested that they believed the taking of trophy heads provided a mystic power that helped crops flourish.  Now it appears that the Nasca may have obtained trophy heads from their own people, not from foreigners slain in battles and raids as was practiced by the Inca and other prehistoric societies of that region.  Ever since the first Nasca trophy heads were discovered nearly 100 years ago, scientists have debated whether these decorated skulls came from defeated enemies or from local individuals thought to represent adored Nasca ancestors.  According to archaeologist Kelly Knudson of Arizona State University, the new understanding is supported by her analysis of diet-related chemicals in the teeth of Nasca trophy heads excavated by Alfred Kroeber in the 1920s, now in the Field Museum at the University of Chicago.  Knudson’s team measured key forms of strontium, oxygen and carbon in the tooth enamel of the ancient skulls, then compared those ratios to those in teeth from intact skeletons from burials, as well as to baseline levels of the same elements in rock formations, water, plants and small animals throughout the Nasca region.  Teeth from the trophy heads had no substantial differences in their biochemical ratios from the burials or the regional environment.  It thus is likely that these sacrificed people lived in the Nasca region.  The data has yet to pinpoint their precise geographic origins, nor can it rule out the possibility that the trophy heads were acquired through local fighting.  Nasca culture flourished in the coastal lowlands of what is now southern Peru from about 2,000 to 1,250 years ago.  Political complexity and warfare increased during the culture’s final 200 years, and the archaeological evidence suggests that local Nasca groups sometimes engaged in battles and raids among themselves.  As the Nasca culture neared its end, various groups built well-protected, widely spaced settlements, probably in response to internal conflicts.  Nasca sites of various ages have yielded more than 150 trophy heads.  They have been found in caches of as many as 48 skulls, in graves as offerings to the dead, and in public buildings.  Most trophy skulls come from men, but some are from women and teenagers.  Knudson has coauthored articles in Current Anthropology and the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology that describe the new trophy head research.

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