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

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


Hadrian’s Wall fort reveals enormous shrine


Our first story is from England, where an immense altar dedicated to an eastern cult deity has emerged during excavations at a Roman fort.  The four-foot high, one and a half ton, elaborately carved stone artifact was unearthed at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, built as part of Hadrian’s Wall between AD 122 and 130.  According to archaeologist Andrew Birley, chairman of the Vindolanda Trust, what should have been part of the rampart near the north gate of the fort turned out to be an amazing religious shrine.  A jar and a shallow dish are portrayed on one side of the altar, while the other side shows a god-like figure standing on the back of a bull, holding a thunderbolt in one hand and a battle axe in the other.   Romans called this deity Jupiter Dolichenus (DOL-i-KEEN-us), who was originally an ancient Middle Eastern weather god, known to Semitic peoples as Hadad (ha-DAD) and to the Hittites as Teshab (Teh-shab).  This war-like Anatolian Jupiter was popular among Roman soldiers for several centuries as a deity of military success and safety.  The altar’s inscription shows that it was dedicated by Sulpicius Pudens (sul-PICK-ee-us PYOU-dens), prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls.  According to Birley, Sulpicius was the commanding officer of the Roman military based at Vindolanda in the Third Century, and he may have erected the costly altar in thanks for fulfilling a vow.  Partial inscriptions from badly damaged Dolichenus shrines, all found in England, show this was a normal practice.  The Vindolanda shrine is unique, as it is located within the walls of the fort, something not encountered elsewhere, casting new light on ceremonial spaces inside Roman forts.  The discovery is important in part because there are no literary references to Dolichenus, so all that we know about the religion is from some 300 surviving inscriptions and sculptures from different parts of the Roman Empire.  The shrine at Vindolanda also includes a small feasting room and reveals evidence of animal sacrifice.  The altar stone is one of thousands of artifacts found from excavations at the fort and a settlement at Vindolanda.  Home to Romans from AD 85 until about 410, the fort has revealed the largest early archive of Latin documents, known as the Vindolanda tablets, related to military movements.   In the 1930s, the house at Chesterholm, where the museum is now located, was purchased by archaeologist Eric Birley, who was interested in excavating the site.  His sons, Robin and Anthony, and his grandson, Andrew Birley, have continued excavations into the present day.  Archaeologists estimate that it could take more than a decade of work before Vindolanda reveals all of its secrets.

Arizona highway encounters 15 Hohokam houses


Archaeologists in southern Arizona have discovered 15 prehistoric Hohokam (HO-ho-kahm) dwellings in an area soon to be covered by interstate highway construction.  According to Roger Anyon, program manager for the Pima County Cultural Resources and Historic Preservation Office, two sites are under evaluation for possible excavation. The exact locations, left undisclosed to protect them from vandalism, are on property owned by the Canoa Conservation Park.  The sites are not yet excavated, as the Cultural Resources office is waiting to hear from the Pima County Department of Transportation.  The department is attempting to redesign that part of the road project to avoid causing disturbance to the prehistoric settlement.  If plans do not change, archaeologists will conduct a complete excavation, similar to the one at the nearby Continental Hohokam Site that produced more than 500 artifacts in April of this year.  That site, comprising four dwellings, required excavation because a road-widening project was going to cover it.  However, the preference is to design construction to minimize the impact to archaeological resources.  The cultural resources office prefers to preserve in place rather than fully excavate a site.  That entails digging trenches to enable archaeologists to observe and record findings with minimal disturbance to the area, collecting few, if any, artifacts and then refilling the trenches with dirt.  Such a process is much less expensive and is the best option for conservation.  The pit houses were wood and brush huts built in pits dug one or two feet into the earth, which helped inhabitants keep cool in the region’s hot summer climate.  Pit houses varied in size and were generally built in clusters by the Hohokam, who lived in the Tucson basin from about AD 300 to 1450.  The Pima (PEE-ma) and Tohono O’odham (to-HOE-no OH-a-dam) tribes are their descendents.  More than 4,520 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites have been discovered in Pima County, most of which are Hohokam settlements, dating from AD 750 to 1450, according to the county’s Cultural Resources office.  Anyon expects to find out in the next few months if the road redesign will avoid the archaeological site.

Alpine hut gives clues to summer settlements in the Iron Age


Our next story is from a remote region of Switzerland, where archaeologists have excavated the ruins of the oldest hut in the Alps, a prehistoric discovery that dates back nearly 3,000 years.  The find in the Silvretta Mountains near the Austrian border gives scientists the oldest architectural proof that early Iron Age shepherds spent summers living among the rich alpine grasses, tending to herds and using milk to make cheese.  Carbon dating shows the hut was used as early as 800 BC, hundreds of years before the Roman invasions, when pile dwellings dotted Switzerland's lowland lakes and people were of pre-Celtic tribes.  Not much remains of the hut today, but Thomas Reitmaier, an archaeologist from Zurich University and his team spent the past three years painstakingly excavating its foundation, a dry-stacked stone structure that held wood walls and a roof.  The hut could have held four to six people.  According to Reitmaier, people have used these summer pastures for thousands of years, but the oldest proof of an actual shelter up until now is medieval.  The discovery is just one of more than a dozen finds that Reitmaier and his team came across during a project to find signs of ancient settlements in the Alps.  Reitmaier knew people had to be using the high pastures, so his team set out to find the architectural proof.  Archaeologists had already documented numerous prehistoric settlements in the Lower Engadine Valley, which is warmer, drier and a better location for habitation than other nearby valleys.  According to Reitmaier, it made sense that those ancient dwellers would have pushed into the high alpine regions in summer.  According to linguists, a prehistoric name for one of the areas, Fimba or Fimber, even means "fattening" or "rich," a reference to the good quality grasses for livestock.  Starting in 2007, Reitmaier set out to canvass the landscape north of those early Iron Age settlements by following valleys into high pastures near modern-day Austria.  Using binoculars, Reitmaier and his team looked for places in the high country where people might have wanted to live.  They saw something where the ground looked different from the rest of the area and dug a test trench.  The team quickly found charcoal and sent a sample back to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for testing.  It revealed the hut had been in use nearly 3,000 years ago.   Subsequent excavations uncovered another layer of ash about ten centimeters down, suggesting that at some point the hut had burned.   This summer the team uncovered clay potsherds.  They also discovered other archaeological sites, including a fire pit that may date to the Fifth Millennium BC, a time when people were just transitioning from hunting and gathering to domesticating livestock.  Botanists also worked on the site to help determine what the climate could have been like when the hut was in use.

New Roman shipwrecks found deep off Italian coast


Our final story is from Italy, where archaeologists have found five well-preserved Roman shipwrecks deep under the sea, with their cargo of vases, pots and other objects largely intact.  The ships, submerged between 100 and 150 meters, are off Ventotene (VEN-to-TEH-neh), a tiny island that is part of an archipelago between Rome and Naples.  Dating between the First Century BC and the Fourth Century AD, the ships carried amphorae, storage vessels used for holding wine, olive oil and other products, along with kitchen utensils and metal and glass objects yet to be identified.   The discovery is part of a new drive by archaeological officials to scan deeper levels of the sea and prevent looting.  According to Annalisa Zarattini (ZAH-ra-TEEN-ee), the head of the Culture Ministry's office for underwater archaeology, shipwreck discoveries are not unusual for the Mediterranean.  But these ships are better preserved than most.  They sank at a deeper lever than most known wrecks and were not exposed to the often vicious underwater currents.  The ships also sank without capsizing, allowing researchers to observe their cargo largely as it had been loaded.   The largest wreck measures more than 20 meters long.  The find sheds light on the trade routes of ancient Rome, marking the area as a major commercial crossroads.  The oldest of the ships has a cargo of wine amphorae from southern Italy, some stacked in their original position.  Another one was carrying moratoria (MOH-ra-TOR-ee-ah), large bowls used to grind grains.  Another was loaded with African amphorae carrying garum (GAH-rum), a flavorful fish sauce that was a standard condiment in ancient Rome.  The researchers used sonar technology to provide imagery of the seabed and then employed remotely operated vehicles.

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