Audio News for April 5th to April 11th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 5th to April 11th, 2009.


Vast Mayan settlement located in Mexico


Our first story is from Mexico, where archaeologists are starting excavations of a great Mayan city in the archaeological area of Ichkabal on the Yucatan peninsula.

Previous digs in Ichkabal indicate the existence of a vast Mayan settlement made up of numerous buildings; the biggest of which measures approximately 656 feet wide at the base and 151 feet high.

According to National Anthropology and History Institute Director, Adriana Velazquez, the city’s construction began around 250 BC.  The director notes that while no architectural details are visible on the surface and all that can be seen are mounds covered by vegetation, their characteristics seem to indicate Petén-style architecture.  Complexes of this type consist of a stepped pyramid main structure, situated on the western side of a quadrilateral plaza or platform. The evidence suggests that hidden under the trees and jungle growth is a city covering about 11 1/2 square miles.

Velazquez commented that the site was undoubtedly the seat of an important political establishment, since in early cities, rulers always attempted to validate their power with great construction projects, similar to those detected here.  The team of archaeologists is currently excavating two of the chief structures.  Their work is expected to include minor structures in order to observe the city’s development and the purpose of the different buildings.

The authorities said that access to the excavations is currently restricted, although once the first stage of the work of recovery and restoration has been concluded in two years, the site may be opened to tourism.

Animal sacrifice co-existed with Christianity in Medieval Hungary


Our second story comes from Hungary, where ritually sacrificed dogs could shed light on religious customs not found in written records from the Middle Ages.
The new study reveals that approximately 1,300 bones from about 25 dogs were discovered in the 10th- to 13th-Century town of Kana.  The bones had been accidentally unearthed in 2003 during the construction of residential buildings on the outskirts of Budapest.

Researchers found ten dogs buried in pits and four puppy skeletons in pots buried upside down. According to study leader Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, these sacrifices probably served as amulets to ward against evil.  Another a dozen or so dogs were found buried under house foundations.  These animals likely served as construction sacrifices.

Daróczi-Szabó notes that during the Medieval era, it was customary in Hungary to lock sacrificial animals inside new houses or to slaughter the beasts as people moved in.  Dogs were popular sacrificial animals.  They symbolized loyalty, but they also stood for the deadly sin of envy. Previous evidence of animal sacrifices, even under churches, had been mostly isolated cases.  However, the new findings, described this month in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, show that sacrifice was not a rare phenomenon, but was practiced regularly in a Christian village.
Christianity came to rule the region after the first king of Hungary, Stephen I, began his reign in AD 1000.  Under his sovereignty, rituals such as animal sacrifices were unequivocally banned.  
According to University of Edinburgh archaeozoologist László Bartosiewicz, the fact that customs such as animal sacrifice persisted for centuries, side-by-side with the church, is surprising.

Upper Paleolithic flints discovered in Scottish field


Our third story comes from Scotland, where artifacts found near Biggar suggest humans roamed the area 3,000 years earlier than previously thought.  The earliest previous evidence of human habitation in Scotland was near Edinburgh, where hazelnut shells had been radiocarbon-dated to about 8,400 BC.

The stone flints found in the Biggar field are from the Upper Paleolithic period, or Old Stone Age.  During this time, nomadic humans hunted giant elk and reindeer using bows and arrows.  The flint tools were manufactured in a method that dates them to about 12,000 BC.

Similar tools have been found in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, but never before in Scotland.  According to Tam Ward, an amateur archaeologist at the site, the artifacts include piercing flints used for hunting and scraping flints used on hides.  The team led by Ward, an electrician who has been an amateur archaeologist for 30 years, spotted the site when they noticed a large number of artifacts on the surface of the ploughed field in 2005.  At first, it was assumed the items belonged to the Neolithic period, dating to about 3,000 BC, making them far less unusual.  It was not until recently that Dr. Alan Saville, a senior curator at the National Museum of Scotland, officially identified them as belonging to a far earlier age.

One clue came from the technique used to fashion the blades, known as "en eperon,” referring to a blade with a thick-ended butt at one end.

Ancient works of art discovered in Yemen


Our final story is from Yemen, where archaeologists have discovered ancient works of art in Humat Thiab, 30 miles to the east of Dhamar city.

The team from the General Organization for Antiquities and Museum in Sana’a and Dhamar, led by Ali Al-Sanabani, head of the museum in Dhamar, conducted the excavation.  According to archaeologist Ahmad Shamsan, Humat Thiab is a Himyarite city on a hill surrounded with fertile agricultural fields.  Much of the ancient city remains untouched.  The ancient wall of the city, a group of building foundations, walls and remnants of reservoir are still visible.

Shamsan notes that, based on an ancient text and preliminary evidence, the site dates from the first to the third century AD.  The excavations have uncovered the northern and eastern parts of a rectangular building built in black volcanic stones.  A slab of stone engraved with two oxen facing a tree known as the "tree of life", an incense burner made of volcanic stone and a small stone statue of a headless woman in a sitting position have also been unearthed.  The statue has two lines of Musnad script, the ancient Himyarite language, on her chest.

The findings are still under study and researchers are not yet sure of the purpose the building. The site has been a priority for the Museum to save before inhabitants in the area destroyed it.  In the past, people destroyed the site’s walls to use its stones to build their own houses in neighboring villages, or built new structures on top of the ancient ruins.

In Al-Aqmur, an inscription in Musnad script occupies the wall of the old mosque, which, according to Yemeni historian Mutahar Al-Eryani, dates back to around AD 281--the time of King Yasir Yahnam and his son King Shamar Yahrash.

The Himyarites were originally a Semitic tribe, speaking their own language, Himyaritic.  This language is still in use in a small area of southern Yemen and is important for understanding the ancient development of Semitic languages.  Dhamar is rich in antiquities and archaeological sites owing to the extensive human activity encouraged by its agriculturally fertile land and mild climate.

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