Audio News for September 6th to September 12th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 6th to September 12th, 2009.


Easter Island home to original “red hats”


Our first story is from Easter Island, where two archaeologists believe they have solved one ancient puzzle surrounding the Island’s famous statues—the mystery of the red hats.

The presence of the large disks of red stone has been one of the great mysteries of the island since European archeologists began studying it a century ago.  Researchers believe the first hats appeared between AD 1200 and 1300, which coincides with an important increase in the size of the statues on the island.  The hats each weigh several tons and their red color symbolizes high birth and status.  The early residents of the island carved them from red scoria, a type of volcanic pumice.  

While the meaning of the statues is not conclusively established, Dr. Sue Hamilton from University College London believes the hats might represent a plait or topknot worn by the elite chieftains who were fighting for power and pride.  To represent the struggle, the elite built ever-taller statues called moai, to honor their ancestors.  The hats possibly added to existing structures to increase their height.

Dr. Hamilton, along with Dr. Colin Richards from the University of Manchester, made a breakthrough in solving the mystery by reconstructing the journey taken by the sculptured rocks along an ancient road that lead to a sacred quarry where ancient Easter Islanders mined the material to construct the statues.

According to Dr.  Richards, the quarry had a sacred context as well as an industrial one.  The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living thing and after they carved the rock, they believed spirits entered the statues.  Dr.  Hamilton notes that chieftain societies tend to be highly competitive.  Researchers think that the Easter Islanders were competing so much that they over-ran their resources.

Richards and Hamilton are the first British archaeologists to work on the island since 1914 and they are joint directors of the Rapa Nui or Easter Island Landscapes of Construction Project.  They will be working on the island over the next five years.  Located 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile, the island is one of the world's remotest places inhabited by people.   

Giant statue of Apollo revealed at World Heritage Site


Now we jump to southwest Turkey, where researches have unearthed a colossal statue of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, light, music, and poetry at the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis.  According to team leader Francesco D'Andria, director of the Institute of Archaeological Heritage, Monuments and Sites at Italy's National Research Council in Lecce, this statue of Apollo is an exceptional find.

Colossal statues were popular in antiquity, as evidenced by the lost giant statues of the Colossus of Rhodes and the Colossus of Nero.  Most vanished long ago and people later recycled the stone in other building projects.  Such statues are extremely rare in Asia Minor.  Only a dozen still exist.

Split at the waist in two huge marble fragments and missing its head and arms, this image of Apollo dates to the 1st century AD.  Sitting on a throne and holding the cithara or lyre with his left arm, he is wearing a superbly draped tunic.  The cloth has a transparency effect to reveal well-defined muscles.

The colossal statue was probably the main sculpture at the sanctuary of Apollo.  Inspired by the great classical masterpieces, the artist did not pay the same detailed attention to the back of the statue.  D'Andria notes that this indicates that people viewed the image only from the front and those in charge of the sanctuary probably placed the sculpture against a wall.  Standing at more than four meters in height, the statue might have been one of the most striking sights in the city.   
The god Apollo was important since residents of Hierapolis recognized Apollo as their divine founder although Eumenes II, King of Pergamum, actually founded the city around 190 BC.   
Francesco Gabellone, an architect at the National Research Council in Lecce and his team are working on "Virtual Hierapolis," a project that makes it possible to tour virtually the ancient city as it appeared during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when it was reconstructed following a devastating earthquake in AD 17.  The statue of Apollo will be included in the virtual reconstruction.

Hierapolis survived until 1334, when another earthquake forced its complete abandonment.  

Early humans used flax 34,000 years ago


Not too far away, in the Republic of Georgia, a team of archaeologists and paleobiologists has discovered flax fibers that are more than 34,000 years old, making them the oldest fibers used by humans.

The team discovered the fibers during excavations in a cave.  According to the researchers, early humans did not farm the flax, but collected it from the wild, using it to make linen and thread.  Team leader Ofer Bar-Yosef says flax fiber was a critical invention for early humans.  They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets, items mainly used for domestic activities.  The items increased early humans’ chances of survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of the region.  The flax fibers could sew hides together for clothing and shoes, which were necessary to tolerate cold weather.  In addition, the fibers could make packs for carrying basics that would have increased and eased mobility, offering an advantage to a hunter-gatherer society.   
The twisting of some of the fibers indicates the people also made ropes or strings.  Early humans used the plants in the area to dye or color the fabric or threads made from the flax.  Today, the remaining fibers are not visible to the unaided eye, because the garments and items sewed together with the flax have long ago disintegrated.

The team discovered the fibers by examining samples of clay retrieved from different layers of the cave under a microscope.  The discovery of such ancient fibers was a surprise to the scientists.  Previously, the oldest known were imprints of fibers in small clay objects found in Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic some 28,000 years old.  Bar-Yosef and his team used radiocarbon dating to date the layers of the cave as they dug the site, revealing the age of the clay samples.  They found additional flax fibers in more recent layers that dated between 21,000 and 13,000 years ago.  Bar-Yosef's team began the excavations of this cave in 1996, and has returned to the site each year to complete this work.

Bar-Yosef, George Grant MacCurdy and Janet G. B. MacCurdy from Harvard University jointly led the excavation, along with Tengiz Meshveliani from the Georgian State Museum and Anna Belfer-Cohen from the Hebrew University.  Eliso Kvavadze of the Institute of Paleobiology, at the National Museum of Georgia, performed the microscopic research of the soil samples where the excavators discovered numerous flax fibers.   

Ancient synagogue located near the Sea of Galilee


Our final story is from northern Israel, where archaeologists have discovered one of the world's oldest synagogues.  The site, unearthed in preparation for construction of a hotel near the Sea of Galilee, is 2000 years old and dates from 50 BC to AD 100.

In the center of the 120 square meter main hall, archaeologists discovered an extraordinary stone carved with a seven-branched menorah.  According to excavation director and Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the menorah engraving is the first of its kind discovered from the Early Roman period.

The site joins just six synagogue locations that are know to date from the same time.  Synagogues from this period were extremely rare because people visited the main temple in Jerusalem three times a year instead of attending local houses of worship.

Avshalom-Gorni hypothesized that an artist who had visited the main synagogue in Jerusalem, known as the Second Temple, engraved the menorah.  In addition to the engraved stone, researchers discovered vividly colored, preserved frescoes on the walls.  The synagogue was found in area called Migdal, a historically an important settlement along the Sea of Galilee. Migdal is mentioned in ancient Jewish texts as playing a major role in the Great Revolt, when Jews attempted to rebel against Roman rule.

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