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

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


In Xanadu, a pleasure dome marks ancient capital


Our first story is from China, where archaeologists have sketched the layout of the first capital of Kublai Khan's empire of Xanadu.  According to Yang Xingyu, a senior archaeologist with the Inner Mongolia regional bureau of cultural antiquities, large-scale excavations over a three-month period have begun to show the layout of a moat in front of the Mingde Gate to the royal capital, as well as the tallest building, called Muqingge.  The capital city of Shangdu, or Xanadu as it was called by Marco Polo, was built in AD 1256 under the direction of Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.  He took his throne there four years later.  It became a summer resort after 1276, when the Yuan Dynasty moved its capital to present-day Beijing.  In 1358, a rebellion kindled a fire that destroyed the ancient city.  The current excavation program, the largest of its kind ever to investigate these ruins, covers 1500 square meters.  It is expected to take three years to unearth and restore some of the ancient structures of Shangdu.  According to Yang, the team found the royal mansion of Muqingge built on the site of a drained lake.  It shows features of Han style, since the Mongolian emperor mainly deployed Han workers to build Shangdu.  The Italian traveler Marco Polo described the prosperity of Yuan Shangdu in his book recording his travels, and ever since, the legendary city has intrigued writers and poets as well as archaeologists and historians.  The emperor Kublai Khan received Polo at Shangdu in 1275 through the gate of Mingde, which could only be passed through by members of the royal house and dignitaries.   The regional government has submitted an application for World Cultural Heritage status for the site.  Not only is it a major site, but according to Yang, the buildings of the Yuan Dynasty capital in Beijing drew on the plan and style of Shangdu, with similarities seen in many structures and even the names of the landmarks.

Chaco connection sought at Chimney Rock


In the United States, after more than three decades, archaeologists are once again excavating at the Great House Pueblo at Chimney Rock Archaeological Area in the San Juan National Forest of Colorado.  Steven Lekson, anthropology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, is leading the new effort to seek evidence to explain the significance of the nearly thousand-year-old structure.  Although often it is hard to find archaeological students willing to conduct fieldwork on a tight budget, the appeal of Chimney Rock has made this project financially feasible.  According to Lekson, many qualified volunteers have clamored to do this work for free because Chimney Rock is so famous.  One of the site's notable features is a tie to the major lunar standstill, an astronomical phenomenon marking the end of the moon's northern migration cycle.  Every 18.6 years from the location of the Great House, the moon will rise in a narrow window of sky framed by the giant rock spires that give Chimney Rock its name.   The most recent lunar standstill happened from 2004 to 2008.  The next chance to view a major lunar standstill at Chimney Rock will not take place until about 2022.  Earlier research at Chimney Rock carried out by Kim Malville, professor of astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences at the University of Colorado, proposes that periods of construction at the Great House corresponded with the dates of historic lunar standstills.  According to National Forest Archaeologist Julie Coleman, based on research from the 1970s, scientists believe it was constructed in time for the major lunar standstill in 1076, and rebuilt in time for the next lunar standstill around 1090.  Researchers have found pieces of burned beams they can carbon-date to help verify whether the major building episodes here correspond with lunar standstills.  A fascination with solar and lunar cycles is something many associate with the ancient architecture found at New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The archaeologists working at Chimney Rock hope to unearth other clues as to whether it was part of the Chacoan world.  According to Lekson, they have found hundreds of small ears of burned corn that can be chemically sourced to reveal nutrients in the soil where it was grown.  The speculation is that corn was grown all over the Four Corners to be transported to Chacoan cities.   Line-of-sight surveys have revealed that signaling between Chimney Rock and Chaco would have been possible from atop Huerfano (HWAIR-fa-no) Peak in New Mexico.  Despite these clues, Chimney Rock's place in Chacoan culture is still debated.  Because it lies north of the so-called “Adobe Curtain,” the high mountains along the New Mexico-Colorado border, some archaeologists still say no.  Lekson’s team, however, is working to uncover more evidence pertaining to the connection.

Danish students find vast Iron Age site


Across the Atlantic Ocean in Denmark, a research exercise for archaeology students has uncovered the bones of around 200 bodies dating from the Iron Age.  The simple three-week exercise for the students at the University of Aarhus developed into a unique excavation project.  The remains, found at the dig site near Skanderborg in Jutland, date back around 2,000 years.  The Illerup River Valley was a deep lake about 10 hectares in size during the Iron Age and previous digs have established it was used as a major sacrificial site during that period.  The student dig began in mid-June and immediately began turning up human remains.  According to team leader Ejvind Hertz, a curator at Skanderborg Museum, this represents a defeated army that was sacrificed to the lake.  The majority of remains are large arm and leg bones, skulls, shoulder blades and pelvises.  Hertz estimates that the 200 victims found so far are just a small fragment of what lies in the area, which has only been partially excavated.  The total could run to well over a thousand.  The valley was first drained in 1950 and was studied intensely by archaeological teams between 1975 and 1985.  At that time, approximately 15,000 weapons and military objects were discovered.  According to Hertz, the latest find is unique as it is unusual to find the bones of sacrificial victims without their weapons and it is very unusual as there has been no other find of this size in Western Europe.  He believes the new discovery points to the river valley being used as a major sacrificial site.  The Illerup River Valley could be considered a central sacred place, with one god that victims were sacrificed to and another god further along the valley that received the sacrifices of their weapons.  The excavation was extended to four weeks so that archaeologists could remove the bodies.  Hertz hopes the dig will act as a preliminary survey for a much larger, extensive excavation in the future.

In Etruscan woman’s tomb, imported cosmetics are 2,000 years old


Our final story is from Italy, where archaeologists have discovered lotion over 2,000 years old, intact inside the cosmetic case of an Etruscan aristocrat.  Details of the discovery, first made four years ago in a necropolis near the Tuscan town of Chiusi (key-YOU-see), were only recently made public after researchers completed a chemical analysis that identified the original compounds in the ancient ointment.  Dating to the second half of the Second Century BC, the undamaged tomb was found sealed by a large terracotta tile.  A painted inscription gave the name of the deceased as Thana Presenti Plecunia Umranalisa (TA-na pre-SEN-tee ple-CUE-nee-ah um-ra-na-LEE-sa).  In the report, one of the researchers notes that from the formula of the name, Thana Plecunia was the daughter of a woman named Umranei (um-rah-NAY-ee), a member of one of the most important aristocratic families of Chiusi.  The wide rectangular niche tomb represents the noble origins of the deceased.  The ashes of Thana were in a small travertine urn, decorated with lavish leaf elements and the head of a female goddess.  Nearby, researchers found a cosmetic case, decorated with bone, ivory, tin, and bronze.  The case was filled with prized personal objects: a couple of bronze finger rings, a pair of tweezers, two combs and an alabaster vase-shaped jar of Egyptian origins.  According to Erika Ribechini (ree-ba-KEY-nee), a researcher at the department of chemistry and industrial chemistry of Pisa University, the entire contents of the cosmetic case were found under a clay layer that was deposited over time.  This made it possible for the ointment to survive almost intact despite the vessel having no cap.  Solid, uniform and pale yellow, the ointment revealed fatty acids in high quantities.  Ribechini noted that this is unique in archaeology. Even after more than 2,000 years have passed, the oxidation of the organic material has not yet been completed; likely due to the sealing of the vessel by the clayish earth.  Analysis established that the contents of the vessel consisted of a mixture of natural resins and lipids, including pine resin and also mastic resin, from sumac trees.  The lipid was a vegetable oil, most likely moringa oil, used by the Egyptians and Greeks to produce ointments and perfumes.  Since moringa trees were not found in Italy, but are native to Sudan and Egypt, and given the Egyptian origins of the alabaster jar, the researchers concluded that the ointment was imported to Etruria.  Ancient Etruria stretched from modern day Tuscany to Umbria.  The imported vessel and its exotic ointment attest to the high social rank of Thana Plecunia and her family.  The cosmetic case probably commemorated an important moment in the life of this aristocratic woman, namely, her wedding. The team’s findings were reported in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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