Audio News for July 26th to August 1st, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for July 26th to August 1st, 2009.


Scholar rediscovers Pompeian drama masks


Our first story is from Pompeii, where an Italian scholar has rediscovered a set of 15 mysterious life-size masks, which history overlooked for more than two centuries.
Originally unearthed in 1749, the heavy masks, which are suggestive of ancient Roman drama, are made of plaster.  The original discoverers unceremoniously stored them, along with other artifacts, in the Royal Palace of Portici, a town on the Bay of Naples.

According to Mariarosaria Borriello, the scholar who rediscovered them, the masks ended up being totally forgotten.  No one knows where they were unearthed in Pompeii.  Borriello notes the fact that the large plaster masks, all dug up in the same place, might suggest they belonged to an artisan's workshop.  A closer look at the artifacts revealed the plaster was carefully hand-worked.  Moreover, some of the masks have their mouth shut, an indication they were prototypes for the artisan who then produced lighter masks for actors to wear.  Two masks show letters in the space reserved for the mouth.  While the meaning of one is incomprehensible, the word “Buco” is very clear on the other.

The word refers to Buccus, a stock character from the earliest form of Italian farce, known as “fabula Atellana.”   The fabula Atellana took its name from town of Atella in the southern Campania region and was a style of entertainment that was popular from the second century BC to the fourth century AD.  It was an improvised farce and used masked actors, stock characters and conventional plots.  The mask of Buccus features very large cheeks and probably derives its name from bucca meaning mouth.  It represents one of the four stock characters, which include Pappus, the old fool, Maccus, the clown, Dossenus, the trickster, and Buccus, the braggart.  

No surprise—Elite priests ate better than common workers


Now we cross the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where new research shows that elite priests living in a stunning spiritual outpost high on a Colorado mountain ridge a thousand years ago likely had their meals catered by commoners living in the valley below.
New findings from the University of Colorado at Boulder at the Chimney Rock site suggest that resident elites dined on elk and deer, unlike the workers who constructed the site, who ate smaller game.  According to excavation leader, University Professor Steve Lekson, a complex social, economic and political network tended the royalty at Chimney Rock.  Chimney Rock is an "outlier" of the Chaco Canyon culture centered 90 miles away in northern New Mexico that ruled the Southwest with a heavy hand from about AD 850 to 1150.  Early analysis shows there might have been two different groups at Chimney Rock--those that built it and the elites that inhabited it.

Chimney Rock is one of numerous Chaco outliers in the Southwest and perhaps its most dramatic.  Located 1,000 feet above the nearest water source, the site has a Chacoan-like "Great House" and great kiva that some archaeologists believe the people built as part of a lunar observatory.

The 2009 project, which included the partial excavation of two rooms in the Chimney Rock Great House, turned up pottery, stone tools, animal bones, the remains of ancient timbers and scores of burned corn ears.  Although the site's rough occupation dates of about 1075 to 1130 were previously calculated using tree-ring dates from 15 timbers, additional wood beam segments recovered this summer should help to pinpoint different building episodes.

Although few Pueblo people were living in the area prior to AD 850, they began moving into the nearby valleys once Chimney Rock was established.  Brenda Todd, a doctoral student supervising the excavations, believes the people drawn to the area came in to serve the elites at Chimney Rock.  Moreover, the elites who were living here probably came from Chaco Canyon.  The link between Chimney Rock and Chaco was strong.  Timbers used in the massive Chaco Canyon great houses and great kivas may have originated from the Chimney Rock region, since there are few pine trees around Chaco Canyon.

Todd also hypothesized that workers may have delivered deer and elk from the forests around Chimney Rock to Chaco Canyon, as evidenced by bones found in ancient Chaco trash pits.  At Chimney Rock, inhabitants burned the rooms at the end of the occupation as standard practice.  However, they did not clear the rooms completely before abandoning them. One of the rooms contained an intact pot fixed into the floor and wall as a permanent fixture.  The room also contained the jawbone of a large bear, an animal that had spiritual significance to the Chaco culture.

Unlike Chaco Canyon, the hub of the Southwest Pueblo culture for about 300 years, Chimney Rock's occupation lasted only about 50 years.  For reasons still unknown, the Chimney Rock occupants abandoned the site about 1130.

Unusual limestone ritual cup found in Jerusalem


Our next story comes from Israel, where archaeologists have found a 2,000-year-old limestone cup inscribed with 10 lines of Aramaic or Hebrew script near the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Ritual cups were common in areas inhabited by priests, but usually they are unmarked or bear only a single line of text, such as a name.

According to archaeologist Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina, who led the dig along with James Tabor of the same school, 10 lines of text is unprecedented.  The script itself is not eroded or degraded, but researchers are unable to decipher it because the text is in an informal cursive script and apparently deliberately cryptic.  They know it contains the Hebrew word for God, Yahweh, indicating it was important to the priests who used it in rituals.  Gibson expects it to take two to six months to understand its meaning.

The site, the Gan Sobev Homot Yerushalayim national park, which overlooks the Kidron and Hinnom valleys and the Mount of Olives, has not been excavated since the 1970s.  The new dig has produced a series of building remains dating from the founding of the Temple by King Solomon in 970 BC through the Early Islamic Period that ended with the destruction of the Old City by Crusaders in AD 1099.  Excavators have located a housing complex with a purification pool and a well-preserved vaulted ceiling dating from the Second Temple Period, which lasted from 573 BC to AD 70.  Inside the house were three bread ovens dating to AD 70, the year the Roman emperor Titus and his troops sacked the city.  Archaeologists believe that this area of Jerusalem's Upper City was the priestly quarter during Second Temple times.  Ten murex snail shells used to produce the ox-blood-red argaman dye applied to priestly garments confirms this belief.  On the level above, the researchers found the remains of a fire pit made by someone who stayed on the site shortly after its destruction.   The team also uncovered a large arched building with a mosaic floor dating from the Byzantine Period which lasted from AD 135 to 638.  

Lost Roman city predates Venice


For our last story, we return to Italy, where aerial photographs have revealed the street plan of a lost Roman city called Altinum just north of the Venice Airport.  The images show the remains of city walls, the street network, dwellings, theatres and other structures.  They also disclose a complex network of rivers and canals that demonstrate how the people mastered the marshy environment in what is now the lagoon of Venice.

Archaeologists have known for decades that Altinum, a Roman-trading center that prospered between the 1st and 5th centuries AD at the north edge of the Venice Lagoon, lay below the farm fields.  Raised 2 to 3 meters above the surrounding marshy lagoon by centuries of human habitation, the city was approximately the size of Pompeii.  It dominated the region for at least 600 years before it became a part of the Roman Empire and its history could stretch back to the Bronze Age.  Altinum is the only large Roman city in northern Italy, and one of the few in Europe, not buried by medieval and modern cities.

Andrea Ninfo and colleagues from Padua University made the first detailed reconstruction of the city's topography and environmental setting.  Using visible and near-infrared aerial photographs, along with a computer model of the local terrain, the photos, taken during a severe drought in 2007, showed the presence of stones, bricks and other solid structures beneath the surface.  The results reveal that rivers and canals, including a large canal that cut through the center of Altinum, connected it to the lagoon, which surrounded the city.  Inhabitants built two gates or bridges into the walls encircling the city, providing further evidence of how the city's residents adapted to their marshy surroundings.  The researchers were also able to see harbor structures at the edge of the lagoon.  

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