Audio News for April 19th to April 25th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for April 19th to April 25th, 2009.


Great Wall of China “increases” by 180 miles


Our first story is from China, where a two-year government mapping study has revealed that The Great Wall of China is even more expansive than once thought.   According to information posted on the website of China’s national mapping agency, new sections have been discovered between Hu Shan Mountain in northern Liaoning Province, and Jiayu Pass in Western Gansu Province that add approximately 180 miles to the known length of the Great Wall.  The Great Wall stretches nearly 3,900 miles through China.

Experts used infrared range finders and GPS devices to find portions of the Wall hidden by hills, trenches and rivers.   The recently revealed sections of the Wall were built to guard against northern invaders during the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644.   

Chinese archaeologists have recently reported that centuries of sandstorms moving across this desert region are breaking sections of the Wall into “mounds of dirt” and in 20 years they may be completely gone.   These studies place most of the blame on destructive farming methods used in the 1950s that converted large expanses of northern China into desert.   To compound the problem, portions of the Wall in this area were constructed of packed earth, which is less durable against the elements than the brick and stone used in other parts of the Wall.

Tourists pose a different threat to the Wall.  State media reports that almost every brick on a frequently visited section of the Wall just north of Beijing that dates from the Ming Dynasty has been carved with people’s names or other graffiti.  In the last few years, China has started restoring parts of the Wall, in addition to inhibiting commercial development on or next to the time-honored structure.   

A new mapping project by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, in conjunction with the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, for the next year will be mapping sections of the Wall built during the Qin and Han Dynasties, which lasted from 221 BC to 9 AD.

Excavation on military road in Sinai reveals four ancient temples


Now we travel to Egypt, where archaeologists exploring an old military road in the Sinai have unearthed four new temples.  The temples were found amid the 3,000-year-old remains of an ancient, fortified city that may have been used to impress foreign delegations visiting Egypt.

The military road was once a link between Egypt and Palestine and is close to present-day Rafah, which borders the Palestinian territory of Gaza.  Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and soon to be Keynote Speaker for The Archaeology Channel International Film and Video Festival, said that early studies suggested the fortified city had been Egypt's military headquarters from the New Kingdom, which began in1569 BC, until the Ptolemaic era, a period lasting about 1500 years.

Among the discoveries is the largest mud brick temple found in the Sinai.   Located in Qantara, 4 kilometers east of the Suez Canal, it covers an area 70 by 80 meters and is reinforced with mud brick walls 3 meters  thick, according to Hawass.  It contains four hallways, three stone purification bowls and colorful inscriptions commemorating Pharaohs Ramses I and II.

The chief of the excavation team, archaeologist Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, said the temple might rewrite the historical and military significance of the Sinai for the ancient Egyptians.   He points out that the fortified city corresponded to the inscriptions about the military road, called the “Way of Horus,” found on the walls of the Karnak Temple in Luxor.  The features of 11 military fortresses that protected Egypt's eastern borders were described, but so far, only five of them have been discovered.  

The dig, a joint project with the Culture Ministry, was begun in 1986 to find fortresses along the military road.   So far, the area has provided archaeologists with numerous finds, including a collection of reliefs belonging to King Ramses II and King Seti I, rows of warehouses used by the ancient Egyptian army during the New Kingdom era to store wheat and weapons, and the first New Kingdom temple ever found in the northern Sinai.

Indus script may represent ancient language


Moving east to the Indus Valley on the border between India and Pakistan, the debate over the written script left by an ancient civilization has gone international.   The Indus people inhabited the Indus river valley from about 2600 to 1900 BC, making them contemporaries of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations.   As did those cultures to the west, they left written symbols on tiny stamp seals, amulets, ceramic objects, and small tablets.   Although this script has been known for almost 130 years, it has not yet been deciphered, and it has always been assumed that it is a linguistic script.   Scholars disagree whether these symbols are simply pictograms or represent samples of an ancient language.  Now computer scientists have entered the fray.   

In 2004, a paper titled “The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis” claimed that the short inscriptions have no linguistic content and are only brief pictograms depicting religious or political symbols.   The lead author of the paper offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could produce an Indus artifact with more that 50 symbols.   

The challenge of cracking this ancient code has been answered by a U.S.-Indian team of computer scientists and mathematicians which has led a statistical study of the Indus script, comparing the pattern of symbols to various linguistic scripts and nonlinguistic systems, including DNA and a computer programming language.  The results, published online Thursday by the journal Science, found the Indus script's pattern is closer to that of spoken words, supporting the hypothesis that it codes for an as-yet-unknown language.

Looking at the statistical patterns in sequences of Indus symbols, they calculated the randomness allowed in choosing the next symbol in a sequence.   Some nonlinguistic systems display a random pattern and others follow a strict order that reflect an underlying hierarchy.   Spoken languages usually fall somewhere between these two, following some order and using some flexibility.

In this study, the researchers compared a well-known compilation of Indus texts with familiar linguistic samples such as English, Sumerian, Old Tamil, and Sanskrit.   For each of these languages the randomness of their symbols order was calculated.   They repeated the process with non-linguistic samples, such as DNA sequences, bacterial protein sequences and an artificially created linguistic system, the computer programming language Fortran.  The results showed that the patterns within the Indus inscriptions fell roughly in the middle of the spoken languages and differed from any of the nonlinguistic systems.

These results increase the hopes that the Indus symbols represent a spoken language.

35,000 artifacts recovered from South Carolina bluff


Our last story for this week comes from South Carolina, where archaeologists led by Bill Green of the firm S&ME working alongside the Saluda River have found what appears to be a longtime meeting and trading spot for migrant tribes.   Over a period of 8 months, excavators recovered more than 35,000 artifacts, some estimated to be as much as 13,500 years old.   The finds include projectile points, pottery shards, and eating implements, along with traces of dwellings.  Nothing of this quantity and age has ever been found in the region, so the project archaeologists are quite excited.

Artifacts estimated to be 2,000 years old were found at a depth of only 3 feet, but older cultural deposits continued to be found down to a depth of 12 feet, indicating that the 10-acre Saluda site was used by migrating people for centuries, with the most recent finds being around 500 years old.  Similar gathering sites have been found, but none have produced this much material nor have their finds been as old.   

This site turned up in 2006 as part of a federally required search of land parcels of possible historic significance in areas near the Lake Murray dams, required of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. as part of a federal review of its lake operations.   These requirements became mandatory after 30 years had passed since the last review.   About 150 tracts around the lake and river were classified as possibly containing significant sites, but only one bluff was considered worth excavating by archaeologists.

In order to prevent vandalism and to keep curious visitors away, officials have not revealed the specific location of the site.   Half the actual excavation site is privately owned and SCE&G owns the other half, and it plans to ban any construction there.   After study and production of the project report, some of the artifacts will be offered to area museums for public display, while others will go to the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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