Audio News for March 15th to March 21st, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 15th to March 21st, 2009.


Teeth of Columbus’s sailors fill in details of first Spanish settlement


In our first story, a new study is extracting the chemical details of history from the teeth of several crew members of Christopher Columbus.  The sailors were three of a small group who settled on the island of Hispaniola in 1493, as part of Columbus’s second voyage to America.  The study of their teeth by a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison promises fresh and very personal insights into some of the earliest European visitors to the New World.  According to T. Douglas Price, professor of anthropology and the leader of the team, the study will tell us where these people grew up and what they ate as children.  The analysis of their tooth enamel has focused on three individuals among a larger group excavated almost 20 years ago from shallow graves at the site of La Isabela, founded by Columbus.  The burials were in what was once the church graveyard of the town, which lasted only five years.  Despite its brief existence, historians and archaeologists believe La Isabela was a considerable settlement with a church, public buildings, private dwellings and fortifications.  It is also the only known settlement in the Americas where Columbus actually lived.  Although the town has been the subject of previous archaeological studies, this new area of research is revealing fresh insights about those who sailed with Columbus and died on the shores of a strange new world.  Histories of La Isabela, in today’s Dominican Republic, had always suggested its population consisted only of men from the 17 vessels of Columbus’s fleet on his second visit to the Americas.  However, the first analysis of 20 burials revealed that among the residents of La Isabela were native Taíno Indians, women and children, and possibly individuals of African origin.  If confirmed, that would put Africans in the New World as contemporaries of Columbus and decades before they were believed to have first arrived as slaves.  The study performed isotopic analysis of three elements: carbon, oxygen and strontium.  Carbon isotope ratios provide reliable evidence of an individual’s diet at the time when the adult teeth were emerging in childhood.  High carbon ratios indicate a diet of tropical grasses such as maize, which at that time was grown only in the New World, or millet, eaten only in Africa.  Three of the individuals, males under the age of 40, had carbon isotope profiles that suggested such an African diet.  While it was known that Columbus brought an African slave on his voyages as his personal servant, the new evidence could mean Africans played a much larger role in the first documented explorations of America.  The skeletons also show signs of scurvy, which was common among 15th Century sailors who lacked vitamin C on their long voyages, as well as malnutrition and physical stress.  Chronicles of the voyage noted that most of the Europeans, including Columbus himself, fell sick shortly after landfall on Hispaniola.  Many subsequently died, perhaps becoming the first to be buried in the La Isabela church graveyard.

Underwater shape seen on Google Earth is huge medieval fish trap


In Wales, a massive ancient fish trap has been found in an estuary after it was spotted in aerial photographs on Google Earth.  Researchers believe the 853 foot long V-shaped structure of rocks could be more than 1,000 years old, and was designed to catch salmon and sea trout going up the River Teifi (TY-vee) at Poppit in Pembrokeshire.  Dyfed (DUV-id) Archaeological Trust and Pembrokeshire College are researching the site to find out more.  Aerial photographs taken by Toby Driver of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales at Poppit confirmed the trap.  According to Dr. Ziggy Otto, lecturer in the Coastal Zone and Marine Environment Research Unit at Pembrokeshire College, there is little doubt that this rather impressive and apparently manmade structure is a fish trap from medieval times or even earlier.  The structure, at all stages of the tide, is entirely underwater.  It appears to be made of locally quarried rocks, although underneath the heavy cover of algae and sea anemones, some may turn out to be boulders carried in by the last glaciation.  According to Otto, while its age is unknown, its present sub-tidal position shows that the trap may date back more than 1,000 years, to a time when sea level was lower.  Louise Austin, of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, called the find very important for its information on the early coastal economy, which relied heavily on fishing.  Exploratory dives found that part of the fish trap is buried in the sand.  Sedimentation and plant growth over the centuries has changed this manmade structure into a naturally functioning reef.  Only a few such traps are known to survive in Wales.  Recent aerial survey work has identified a handful of additional sites besides the Poppit example, but there are few opportunities to investigate and record in detail these important underwater sites.  Further dives will be conducted to complete a full underwater survey of the fish trap.

Underwater dig off Turkey maps out ancient city ruins


In Turkey, archaeologists are performing the first underwater excavation on a 6,000-year-old site on the west coast in the province of Izmir (IZ-meer).  Professor Hayat Erkanal (HY-et ER-ka-NAL), head of the Ankara University archaeology department, is directing the ongoing work at the pre-Classical ruins off the modern city of Liman Tepe (LEE-mahn TEP-pay).  Important sections of the city slid deep into the sea after a massive earthquake around 700 BC.  Erkanal’s archaeological team took diving courses before they began the excavation, which is being aided by advisors and equipment from Israel's University of Haifa.  The excavation at Liman Tepe is the third-largest ongoing underwater excavation in the world.  According to Erkanal, they stumbled upon parts of the underwater city by accident while working on another project nearby.  It is believed that the site includes a road and port structures from Greek and Roman times.  Liman Tepe was a hub of Aegean naval activity in the third century BC, in addition to every sort of land activity.  So far, finds include walls, residences and a building that might have been a palace, attesting to its size and political importance.  Next summer, researchers plan to attach cameras to the headgear of the archaeologists at work underwater in order to stream footage to monitors at the archaeologists' base with a wireless device so that the divers can speak with archaeologists on dry land.  This will let other archaeologists follow the underwater excavations.  When the team opens up a larger space for viewing the transmissions from beneath the sea, tourists also will be able to go snorkeling and watch the excavations below.

Grand Canyon archaeologists salvage sites threatened by erosion


Finally, we visit the United States, where an effort ongoing since 2006 in the Grand Canyon is saving artifacts from sites that the Colorado River is washing away.  Although the National Park Service typically leaves such artifacts alone, about 60 sites are currently being undercut by water or unearthed by wind erosion and lack of sand, as a result of the Glen Canyon Dam upriver.  National Park Service archaeologists and the Museum of Northern Arizona are working to uncover nine of the sites, most of which are about 1,000 years old.  The 1.2 million dollar project is being funded by park visitor fees.  After excavation to record and salvage artifacts, the homes and granaries (GRAN-uh-rees) will be reburied.  According to Jan Balsom, a deputy chief of science at the park, the project is not only producing a wide range of artifacts including gaming pieces, pottery, and even a bone from a bison, it has also discovered a kiva.  The archaeologists are also mapping the sediment, to complete the picture of flooding in the Grand Canyon since the last ice age.  One large pot was flown out of the canyon in a helicopter, but most artifacts are being taken by boat and vehicle to the park museum.  When archaeologists unearthed the kiva, a round room for sacred ceremonies that is not a common find around the Grand Canyon, a member of the Pueblo Zuni tribe was on site to observe.  According to the observer, such finds, and what has been learned about them, are adding solid evidence to support the traditional oral histories of these tribes, who have inhabited the Colorado River region for thousands of years.  Among the archaeological findings are evidence that their riverine ancestors harvested pinyon nuts, grew squash and corn, raised cotton, and played games of skill and chance.

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