Audio News for February 1st to February 7th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news February 1st to February 7th, 2009.


New look at old potsherds reveals Chaco Canyon chocolate drinking


Our first story is from the United States, where evidence of chocolate has been found at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, making this the earliest indication of the substance north of Mexico.  Anthropologist Patricia L. Crown at the University of New Mexico worked with W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition on the research, published in the newest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The research was prompted when Crown learned that the Maya used tall ceramic drinking mugs called cylinder jars for drinking chocolate.  She had pieces of similar ceramics from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, so she teamed up with Hurst, a specialist in analysis of cacao, to test them for residue.  Using mass spectrometry and high performance liquid chromatography, Hurst found traces of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid of the cacao plant that is a distinctive part of chocolate’s complex chemical profile.  Crown notes that this illustrates the importance of collections in archaeology, when new techniques can bring out new information.  Crown has spent years studying the Chaco canyon artifacts, many of which were first excavated in the nineteenth century.  The cylinder jar sherds were among 200,000 items removed from the ancient trash heaps next to the 800-room Pueblo Bonito.  Fewer than 200 of the tall vessels are known from the Chaco culture, almost all of them found at Pueblo Bonito, long thought to be the center of an extensive trading sphere.  The discovery indicates trade connecting Chaco Canyon to cacao growers in Central America, where Crown says the nearest cacao plantation would have been more than 1,000 miles away, making its import a major undertaking.  Maize, beans and corn had already spread to the Southwest after being domesticated in southern Mexico.  Earlier excavations at Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the Chaco complex, had also found scarlet macaws and other items from the tropics and elsewhere in North America.  Chocolate drinking was part of many rituals in ancient Central America, including weddings, but Crown is not sure of its exact uses in Chaco Canyon.  It was probably something consumed rarely and on special occasions.  The new research was supported by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, University of New Mexico and the Hershey Technical Center.

Mosaic buried below church may show lost pagan rites


In Italy, a Roman mosaic floor filled with scenes depicting pagan rites and oriental gods has emerged from the ground of a Catholic church.  The mosaic pavement, measuring 140 square feet and dating to the fourth century AD, was unearthed at a depth of about 13 feet below the ground during archaeological study in the crypt of the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia, in central-northern Italy.  According to Renata Curina, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, the size and design of the mosaic pavement suggest that it formed the floor of a huge room and possibly the residence of a wealthy Roman.  That depictions of pagan gods had lain for hundreds of years just a few yards under the cathedral doesn't come too much as a surprise, according to the archaeologist.  Curina found that the church was built on top of preexisting building structures, as is typical in Reggio Emilia.  Little care was taken for the mosaic floor when new pillars were built on top of it.  The elaborate mosaic is made of tiny tiles from different materials, including colored stones, glass cameos and golden leaves.  Decoratively, it combines geometric designs of circles and squares and realistic little figures of dancers, flowers and birds such as magpies and peacocks.  Added to this is the most exceptional aspect of the mosaic, three large mythological scenes.  The scenes are rather unusual compared to others of the time.   One shows a naked man falling into someone's arms; another scene shows two naked figures, a man and a woman, wearing jewels.  The woman holds a just-caught fish, while the man holds two live ducks.  Another extraordinary scene shows a naked man wearing an ivy crown and holding a lotus flower in his right hand.  In his left hand, the mysterious character holds a lituus (LIHT-you-us), a crooked cane that was used by the augurs as a cult instrument in ancient Rome.  The augurs were religious officials who observed natural signs, such as the flight of birds, in order to interpret them as indications of divine approval or disapproval.  The mosaic’s inclusion of symbols such as the lotus flower and the ivy crown might hint that it was a private room dedicated to the cult of oriental gods.  According to Luigi Malnati, superintendent of archaeological heritage in Emilia Romagna, such pagan scenes must have been pieced together before AD 380, the year when the emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the state religion.  A series of decrees in AD 391-392 banned and punished pagan cult practices within the empire.  The team of scientists hopes more clues to the meaning of the scenes might come to light as they continue to dig.  Once fully removed and restored, the mosaic will be put on display at a local museum.

Subsurface evidence shows Nasca lines may be tracks from ritual prayer


Ancient, intricate geometric patterns stamped on the surface of a desert in Peru have long been thought of as messages to the gods, or possibly as markers that tracked celestial objects.  Now new details about these marks, called geoglyphs, suggest they may have been made through a kind of walking prayer.  The Nasca lines are a group of lines, giant trapezoids, and figures of humans, plants and animals in a desert 250 miles south of Lima.  They were created between 400 BC and AD 650 by the removal of reddish oxidized stones from the desert pavement to reveal the lighter sand beneath.  Tomasz Gorka of Munich University in Germany analyzed five geoglyph complexes near the city of Palpa, focusing on the large trapezoidal structures etched on the plains there.  He measured anomalies in the Earth's magnetic field caused by changes in soil density at various depths.  The team walked the entire site, an area of about 150 acres, using hand-held sensors.  According to Gorka, they found other lines, in the interior of the trapezoid structures, which were not visible from the air.  What’s visible today is simply the most recent stage of a prolonged construction process, during which the whole complex of drawings was constantly added to, remodeled, obliterated or changed by use.  Some of the lines produced stronger magnetic anomalies than others, which suggests that the soil beneath was compacted by people walking back and forth during prayer rituals. Team member Karsten Lambers of the University of Konstanz in Germany sees a link between this activity and the placing of ceramic vessels along the lines, perhaps as offerings.  Gorka presented his team’s findings at an archaeological geophysics meeting in London last month.

New project seeks evidence of lost kingdom in Japan


Our final story is from the Nara Prefecture of Japan, where history enthusiasts are being asked to help fund an archaeological project to uncover one of the country's great mysteries, the location of the ancient Yamatai kingdom, once ruled by the legendary queen Himiko.   The Sakurai city board of education announced it would start a full-scale excavation of the central part of the Makimuku ruins, estimated to date from the late Second to early Fourth Century AD.  Because of the city's tight finances, it has been soliciting tax donations under a system that allows taxpayers around the country to divert part of their residential property tax to a local government of their choice.  The ruins, spreading out over a one by one and a half mile area, include six keyhole-shaped burial mounds.  One of these, according to some researchers, is the resting place of Himiko, whose life in the third century AD remains shrouded in mystery.   Ancient Chinese texts describe her as a shaman queen, whose rule brought an end to a period of war and turmoil, but little else is known about her and scholars have intensely debated the location of the Yamatai kingdom.  Excavations will cover an area where traces of a shrine-like structure were unearthed 30 years ago, but not the burial mounds.  City officials say a large-scale palace could have stood in the structure's neighborhood.   Hopes are that the research will help determine if the Yamatai kingdom was located here or elsewhere in the Kinki (KIN-kee) region.  Some theories place it in northern Kyushu, where there is a strong claim to the kingdom among residents and local authorities.  According to the Sakurai education board, 160 studies of the ruins have taken place since 1971, and only 5 percent of the entire ruins have been covered by those studies.  One study, a survey in 1978 by the Nara prefecture’s Kashihara Archaeological Institute, found traces of a shrine-type structure from the early to mid-Third Century measuring 4.4 by 5.3 yards.  On one side of the main structure were traces of a smaller, secondary hall.  That research was limited in scale, however, because it was carried out only in order to allow parking lot construction.   Now the board plans a full-scale excavation of the structure's vicinity, about 450 square yards in area, which will continue through late March.   The research area will be expanded in April and the study will continue for several years.

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