Audio News for May 17th to May 24th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 17th to May 24th, 2009.


2000 year old footprints reveal chaos of war


Our first story comes from China’s first interprovincial road, where newly discovered footprints, apparently left by men, women and children, have helped recreate a war scene that occurred at least 2,000 years ago.
The footprints, the smallest of which were believed to belong to children around six years old, were found by excavation alongside vehicle tracks on a 700-km military dirt road built under the reign of Qin Shihuang (Chin She-huang)  the first emperor of a united China.  His best-known legacy is an underground army of terracotta figures and horses.

Zhang Zaiming, (Jhang Dzi-ming) a researcher with Shaanxi (Sha-an-she) Provincial Institute of Archaeology, also found an arrowhead close to the footprints and noted that the location of the weapon suggested it targeted those who left the footprints.  It was a chaotic scene, with men trying to fight back enemies and women running after panic-stricken children.

Primitive buildings, believed to be barracks or military service stations, also were found near the footprints in the 50-meter stretch of the road that was uncovered.  The footprints, arrowhead and buildings all dated back roughly to the Qin (Chin) Dynasty, between 221 and 207 BC, or Western Han (Hahn) Dynasty between 206 BC and AD 24.   Zhang reported that a Han Dynasty coin turned up in the same pit.
Existing historical records indicate that army men were not allowed to take their family to the barracks until at least 800 years later, in the Tang and Song dynasties, between AD 618 and 1279, but the new findings have caused researchers to ask whether China's dictatorial "First Emperor" may have allowed soldiers to take their families to barracks.

Zhang and nine colleagues have just finished a two-month hike in the mountainous areas of Fuxian (Fu-she-an) County to search for heritage items that carried history of the First Emperor's military route.

300,000 people reportedly built the military route, linking Xianyang (She-an-yan) in today’s Xi’an (She-an) with Baotou City in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, between 212 and 210 BC.  It was originally built for Qin soldiers to march northward in combat with the Huns who lived in today's Inner Mongolia and Mongolia.  The road was known as "Qin Emperor's direct road," although the emperor himself died on a long journey shortly before it was completed.  His remains, however, were sent back to the ancient capital Chang'an (Ch'ang-an) along this road.

The route, which now lies buried under mountain villages and modern highways, is recorded in nearly every history book in China.

Mercury pollution in Peru predates industrialization


Now we travel to the Peruvian Andes, where the study of ancient sediment from high altitude lakes has revealed that mercury pollution occurred long before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Two seasons of field work in Peru have provided the first unambiguous records of pre-industrial mercury pollution from anywhere in the world.  This research is led by University of Alberta PhD student Colin Cooke of the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, whose research was funded by the National Geographic Society and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  According to Cooke, the idea that mercury pollution was happening before the industrial revolution has long been hypothesized on the basis of historical records, but never proven.

Cooke and his team recovered sediment cores from high elevation lakes located around Huancavelica (Wan-ka-vay-LEE-ka) which is the New World's largest mercury deposit.  By measuring the amount of mercury preserved in the cores, they were able to reconstruct the history of mercury mining and pollution in the region.  

This new research appears to show that mercury mining, smelting and emissions go back as far as 1400 BC, surprisingly well before the rise of any complex or highly stratified society.  This result differs from current thinking, which holds that mining arose only  after these societies emerged.  Mercury was necessary for the extraction of silver from the ores produced in Peru’s silver mines.

Initially, mercury pollution was in the form of mine dust, largely resulting from the production of the red pigment vermillion, which covered gold objects buried with Andean kings and nobles.  However, following Inca control of the mines in AD 1450, mercury vapor began to be emitted.  According to Cooke, this change indicates that mercury pollution could be transported over much greater distances and could have been converted into methylmercury, which is highly toxic.

The bottom line for Cooke is that these results confirm the existence and magnitude of pre-industrial mercury pollution and clarify our understanding of how mining and metallurgy evolved in the Andes.

New dating method proves both simple and accurate


Our next story focuses on a remarkable new way to reveal the age of some ancient relics.  
Fire and water are all that is needed to accurately date some types of archaeological remains, say teams of scientists from the universities of Manchester and Edinburgh.  A surprisingly simple new technique can help archaeologists date remains that are thousands of years old, as well as reveal where other techniques go wrong.

Fired clay material such as bricks, tile and ceramics represent an important sample of the remains unearthed at archaeological digs, but they are notoriously hard to date accurately.  Carbon 14 dating can be used only on organic material and techniques that exist to date ceramics are extremely complex.  This is where the new technique shines.
From the moment they are fired, ceramics begin to absorb moisture from the environment that causes them to gain mass.  Using a technique they call rehydroxilation dating, researchers led by Dr. Moira Wilson from the University of Manchester found that heating a sample of the relic to extreme temperatures causes this process to be reversed.   In other words, all the moisture it has gained since it was fired is removed.  After heating, Wilson and her team used an extremely accurate measuring device to monitor the sample as it began to recombine with moisture in the atmosphere.  They then used a calculation based on physical laws to predict how long it would take for all the water lost in heating to be reabsorbed, and so reveal the true age of the sample.
To test their new technique, the scientists teamed up with the Museum of London and tried it out on samples of known age.  They successfully dated brick samples from the Roman, medieval and modern periods.  The method was so accurate that, according to Wilson, it could become the way in which such artifacts are dated in the future.

So far, the technique has been used with specimens that are as much as 2000 years old, but has the potential to be used on much older artefacts, says Wilson, even those dating back 10,000 years.

What's more, the technique has revealed a flaw in previous dating verdicts.  When clay objects are submitted to extreme temperatures, and moisture removed, this internal clock is reset.   This means that objects that have been subjected to extreme heat, such as a fire are often, in truth, much older.

The technique has far-reaching implications.  For example, one application would be the detection of fake ceramic artifacts.  And if an object has a precisely known age already, the method could help establish the mean temperature of the material over its lifetime.  This could make the method a useful tool for climate change studies.

40 Who is Menachem (Men-AWK-em) and what was he doing with a water jug?

Finally, we jump to Israel, where archaeologists have discovered a biblical-era handle of a water pitcher with an ancient Hebrew inscription of the name "Menachem," (Men-AWK-em) .  This is the first time a handle bearing this name has been found in Jerusalem.  The handle is dated somewhere between the Canaanite era (2200 to 1900 BC) and the end of the first Temple Period (the 7th to 8th centuries BC).  The discovery took place at the site of a new girls' school being constructed in the eastern part of Jerusalem.

Scientists at the Israel Antiquities Authority now are trying to determine the historical context of "Menachem," whose name is inscribed in ancient Hebrew.   According to Dr.  Ron Be'eri, who is supervising the dig, this discovery joins similar names that have been found inexcavations in the Middle East, particularly in Israel," said.  The names 'Menachem' and 'Yenachem' express comforting, such as over the death of loved ones.

Be’eri reports that these names have been seen before, going back to the Canaanite Period.  The name 'Yenachem' appears on an Egyptian clay vase from the 18th Dynasty , between 1550 and 1292 BC, and the name 'Yenachmu' is mentioned in the Amarna letters from the 14th century BC), an archive of clay tables found in upper Egypt, as that of the Egyptian representative on the coast of Lebanon.

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