Audio News for February 15th to February 20th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news February 15th to February 20th, 2009.


Sinkhole water preserves clues to earliest Americans


Our first story is from Florida, where divers exploring a sinkhole have uncovered clues to what life was like for some of America's first residents.  John Gifford, a University of Miami professor took his team of underwater archaeologists diving into the prehistory of Little Salt Spring, 12 miles south of Sarasota, and found a veritable warehouse of well-preserved environmental, natural, historical, and archaeological remains, in the words of the state underwater archaeologist, Roger Smith.  The spring has been yielding such remains since 1977, when divers found the remains of a large, now extinct tortoise and a sharpened stake that may have been used by a hungry hunter to kill the animal 12,000 years ago.  The recent work produced the remains of a gourd that probably was used as a canteen by an ancient hunter about 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, from about 30 feet, or 9 meters, below the surface.   In 1986, Gifford and his colleagues recovered a skull with brain tissue, possibly an ancient burial, in shallow water near the spring.  Gifford is using DNA samples to determine genetic relationships and the date of the find.  The slaughtered remains of a giant ground sloth were found last year, and could indicate that Little Salt Spring was a sort of ancient butcher shop, according to Gifford, where hunters often killed and prepared their prey back when this was dry land.  The remains come from the earliest known period of human activity in the Western Hemisphere.  When Little Salt Spring was formed during the last Ice Age, sea level was lower and what is now the Florida peninsula was much wider.  Sources of freshwater were scarce.  Ancient Native Americans came to the sinkhole to drink the water and perhaps find a meal.  Sinkholes in Florida form when water from underground aquifers dissolves the porous limestone bedrock and pushes toward the surface. Eventually, the ground collapses into the water and an hourglass-shaped sinkhole is formed around the spring.

Volunteer excavators find new fragments of Maccabean era inscription


In Israel, an excavation has yielded three fragments of an inscription that are believed to be part of a royal proclamation called the Heliodoros stele.   The fragments, carved in Greek upon limestone, were found in a subterranean complex by volunteer participants in a program called “Dig for a Day,” sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority at the National Park of Beit Guvrin (BAY-it GOOV-rin).  Examination of the fragments established that they come from the lower portion of the Heliodoros stele, which is a proclamation by the Seleucid king, Seleucus IV, a successor to Alexander the Great’s empire in the Near East.  The Heliodoros stele, dating back to 178 B.C. and consisting of 23 lines inscribed in limestone, is considered one of the most important ancient inscriptions found in Israel.  The inscription is a royal order mentioning an individual named Olympiodoros, the appointed "overseer" of the temples in Coele Syria (QUAYL-a SEER-e-a), the name for Phoenicia at the time, which included Judea.  The orders were sent to a person named Heliodorus, thought to be the same one mentioned in the Book of Second Maccabees.   According to the story in Maccabees, Heliodorus, as the representative of King Seleucus IV, tried to steal money from the Temple in Jerusalem but instead was severely beaten as a result of divine intervention.  Three years later, Seleucus IV was assassinated and was succeeded by his son Antiochus IV, who was the ruler who, according to Second Maccabees, eventually issued an edict of persecution against the Jewish people and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem leading to the Maccabean Revolt.  Thus the edict shows the Seleucid government's involvement in local temples, adding important context to understanding the period leading up to the Maccabean Revolt, an event celebrated each year on the holiday of Hanukah.  The discovery also confirms the assumption that the stele originally stood in one of the temples located in the ancient city of Maresha, where Beit Guvrin National Park stands today.  

Maintenance at Mayan site finds new evidence of architectural evolution


In Mexico, specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History have discovered an earlier façade inside the Great Pyramid in Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) that shows the origins of the splendid Puuc (POO-OOC) style of the Late Classic period, from AD 900 to 1000.  According to Jose Huchim Herrera (ho-SAY oo-CHEEM eh-RARE-a), the leader of the Uxmal Archaeological Project, the finding is important for understanding the evolution of the Puuc architectural style, with its fine carved stone mosaics, thin and precisely cut, that decorate building facades across many different Maya cities.  Understanding this architecture’s development helps to trace its influence on zones far beyond the Puuc region. The early stage of development seen in the new discovery confirms the slow growth of a specialized system for mounting precisely cut and tenoned stone mosaics.  Such stone mosaics are much admired for their intricate details, which include twining serpent motifs, geometrical stepped frets, X shapes, and small columns assembled into friezes on the exteriors of many buildings.  The newly discovered design dates to between AD 250 and 500, and was found during maintenance work to retire a lighting system installed in the 1970’s.  According to Huchim Herrera, the simplicity of the design, which consists of a simple platform, a smooth vertical face, a two-piece molding and a two-elements cornice, had not been seen previously in Uxmal.  The new façade is on one of the substructures of the Great Pyramid, a construction known for its complexity.  Although only the north face of the monument has been restored, its different stages of construction, dating from Early Classic to Terminal Classic periods, have been studied.  In the Early Classic period, thick layers of modeled stucco were used to ornament a building.  By Late Classic, the decoration was based in carved stone with a thin stucco overlay.  The new finding has the thick stucco layers of Early Classic, with traces of red, blue and black coloring that help suggest the building’s original appearance.  The discovery came during replacement of a concrete floor laid in  1972 to avoid water filtration.  When the concrete was removed, it revealed a stone alignment which, when cleaned, exposed a section of frieze in the temple substructure.  A probe was then excavated to reach the base of the wall.  The explored area will be covered again to avoid structural alteration to the great pyramid.

Rare medieval waterwheel unearthed in East London


Our final story takes us to England, where a team at Limehouse Reach in East London has found a rare example of a medieval water-driven mill.  The wooden remnants were preserved in peat soil on the foreshore at Greenwich Wharf, opposite the area known as Millwall on the Isle of Dogs.  Experts have identified it as the foundation of a tide-powered mill, which would be the earliest one found for historic London.  The huge structure measures 30 feet by 36 feet at its base, and would have had a wheel diameter of 16 feet, an enormous size for a wooden structure of this type.  Analysis of tree rings has dated the trees used for its construction to 1194.  This represents an extraordinary example of medieval engineering.  Tidal mills worked by drawing in water from the river as the tide rose and releasing it as it fell, to drive the movement of the grinding wheel.  The mill at Limehouse Reach features a substantial fragment of intact waterwheel and an enormous trough to channel the water, which was shaped out of a single oak beam. The medieval carpenters’ construction marks are still clearly visible.  It was discovered during archaeological investigations by the museum’s team, working with contractors preparing for a new residential development at Greenwich Wharf.   Four mills in Greenwich are mentioned in the Domesday [DOOMs-day] Book in 1086, but it is not yet known if this is one of those sites, or an additional mill built as medieval London slowly expanded.  The remains of the structure have been dismantled, with each timber carefully recorded so it can be further researched.  Sections of the find that have been removed, including the trough and waterwheel, are now undergoing conservation treatment to preserve them from twenty-first century air and its pollution.

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