Audio News for September 13th to September 19th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 13th to September 19th, 2009.


Shrines on rocky Hawaiian islet are still a mystery


Our first story is from the Hawaiian Islands, where researchers on a rare expedition to a currently uninhabited rocky outpost north of the main islands found a partially finished human stone carving and the remnants of what may be an artisan’s workshop.  The findings at the remote Mokumanamana (MOH-koo-MAH-na-MAH-na) Island, 460 miles northwest of Honolulu, were part of the most extensive archaeological survey of the tiny area in 85 years.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologist Anan Raymond a carried out the survey with University of Hawaii anthropology doctoral student Kekuewa Kikiloi (KEH-ku-EH-wa KIH-kih-loh-ee) in an 18-day stint on the 46-acre island, which is devoid of fresh water or trees.  The windswept rocky isle is desolate except for the ruins of ancient heiau (HEY-au), prominent shrines that line the top of a ridge running along the spine of the island.  According to Kikiloi, it is somewhat of an archaeological mystery as to how people survived on this island in the past and constructed the huge monuments.  The newly discovered carving resembles other stone figures found on Mokumanamana over a hundred years ago, in 1893.  The purpose of the images is still unclear, as the island was historically uninhabited, despite its many shrines, and the stone figures are unlike any other objects in the Hawaiian Islands.  In general, in the Hawaiian religious tradition, images were a focal point during prayer and worship of gods.  The partially unfinished figure found has a blank face, as though the artist did not get around to carving facial features.  The left arm has apparently broken off.  The workshop was far from the shrines, and Dr. Raymond believes someone may have been working on the figure to take to one of the shrines when it was finished.  It is uncertain when humans lived on the island or if they had a long-term settlement there.  However, Kikiloi noted coral objects on a nearby island, which he believes was a construction staging area for the Mokumanamana's heiau, date to the 1500s.  Mokumanamana has an unusually high concentration of the memorials, at least 34 on just 46 acres.  Kikiloi believes Hawaiians built the shrines there because Mokumanamana is considered the gateway to the afterlife.  Mokumanamana lies on the Tropic of Cancer, and this means the sun, which represents life and death in Hawaiian tradition, goes directly over the island on the summer solstice.  In addition, the Tropic of Cancer, known as "Ke ala nui polohiwa a Kane" (KAY AH-la NOO-I POH-loh-HEE-wa ah KAH-neh) in Hawaiian, or "The Dark Shining Path of Kane," is a metaphor for the path to the afterlife.  Mokumanamana is one of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is inside the Papahanaumokuakea (pah-pa-HAH-na-oo-moh-koo-ah-KAY-ah) Marine National Monument created by President George W. Bush in 2006.

Hellenistic town of Tel Dor includes fine carving of Alexander


In Israel, an extraordinary miniature portrait of a young, determined, vibrant Alexander the Great has emerged during excavations at Tel Dor.  Engraved on a vivid red gemstone, the finely carved diminutive portrait is 2,300 years old, which dates it to around or after the Macedonian king's death in 323 BC.   Measuring less than a half-inch long, the piece was found by a University of Washington student in the remains of a large public building from the Hellenistic period at Tel Dor, an archaeological site once a major port on Israel's Mediterranean coast.  The village, about 30 kilometers south of Haifa, would have been one that Alexander the Great passed through in 332 BC on his way to Egypt.  Dor submitted to Alexander without resistance and remained a center of Greek culture in Israel for about two centuries, until conquered by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea, in 100 BC.   The newly discovered carving shows the delicate skill of Hellenistic minor arts, with the head carved in left profile.  The young king’s highly attractive features include wavy locks of hair, wide, deep-set eyes with an intense stare, high brows and a fine-cut neck.  The distinct facial features of the work helped the researchers identify the subject as the legendary conqueror and emperor.  However, there was more.  According to Jessica Nitschke, the professor of classical archaeology at Georgetown University who identified the engraving as Alexander, there is a diadem, a white cloth band tied around the head, which marks this portrait undoubtedly as a Hellenistic ruler.  In addition, in the lower right hand corner, below a break in the stone, traces of a radiate [RAY-dee-et] crown appear.  The radiate crown style is found only on images of Alexander the Great, though rarely, and with the Ptolemies of Egypt, more commonly.  However, the facial features of this piece do not conform to the many known images of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt.  The gem, which is probably carnelian, would have originally been set in a gold ring.  Although Alexander used his image as a propaganda tool, resulting in numerous portraits distributed throughout his empire, gem portraits of the Macedonian king are quite rare.  This is one of the few portraits uncovered in a controlled excavation, and in a well-documented Hellenistic context.

Tomb of Peruvian priestesses holds unexpected man


Our next story is from Peru, where archaeologists unexpectedly discovered a man among the powerful priestesses of the pre-Inca Moche society.   The burial of a rattle-wielding elite male was surrounded by human and llama bones inside a unique double-chambered tomb that dates to AD 850.  According to archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters (loo-EES HIGH-meh cah-STEE-yo BOO-ters), of the Catholic University of Peru, the tomb contained a wooden coffin decorated with a copper lattice and a gilded mask, sitting on a raised platform.  His team has carried out research for 18 years in San José de Moro and was expecting another female.  The site has so far revealed seven royal priestess burials, evidence of the powerful role of women in Moche society.  The Moche people were a loosely organized society of farmers in the coastal areas of Peru from about AD 100 to 1000.  Since 1991, Castillo has excavated in the regional ceremonial center and cemetery for elite Moche in the northern coast's Jequetepeque (HAY-kay-teh-PAY-kay) Valley.  This year the team began the detailed work involved in documenting the first known double-chambered Moche tomb.  Moche pottery often depicts the ritual of funerals, in some of which a coffin is lowered into a tomb similar to the one that held the rattle-wielding male.  The funerals, Castillo noted, were the occasion of celebration as they marked the seamless change of power from one ruler to the next.  Living priestesses probably performed the burials at annual festivals held at San José de Moro.  At the newly explored tomb, researchers found a ramp that led into the first chamber, which contained the bones of a young human male on one side and those of a llama in a corner.  The human and the llamas may have been sacrificed for the purpose of the burial.  Ceramic bowls measuring 38 centimeters wide crowded the floor along the walls and filled alcoves.  The large bowls were overflowing with smaller, thick-walled ceramic bottles.  The contents of these bottles, heated up and dropped into liquid-filled bowls, would give off steam to create a misty effect, similar to a smoke machine, as bodies descended into the tomb during the funeral.  A sealed door closed off the entrance to the second chamber.  Inside that second room, painted red and yellow, the archaeologists found the remains of two females and a male in simple burials.  The trio may have been sacrifices, but for now, the team is unsure of their exact roles.  Another unidentified young male sat cross-legged in the room, and a lone mask lay out in the open.  The mask is similar to the one found on the elite male's coffin, making Castillo suspect the mask might have been left behind from another coffin that had been mysteriously removed.  Inside the elite male's coffin, his bones, a mask, a long stick with hanging bells, and other metal objects were in disarray, suggesting the coffin endured a long, bumpy journey before arriving at the tomb complex.  The discovery of an elite male burial among the priestesses has Castillo and his colleagues searching through Moche artwork for an explanation.  The long stick with bells looked remarkably similar to a rattle held by a well-known archetype in Moche art known as Aia Paec (AYE-ah PAYK), or "Wrinkle Face."  Paec is a central figure in burial scenes, often shown lowering a coffin into a tomb along with another human-like character named Iguana.  Typically, alongside Iguana is a female, probably one of the priestesses, depicted as presenting a decorative shell to a leader, which may symbolize the transition of power.  So many of the known Moche elite burials are female that some archaeologists believe women dominated the Moche power structure.   As both men and women rulers are represented in Moche artwork, it is hard to believe that the civilization was strictly ruled by women, Castillo notes.  But anthropologist Steve Bourget (Bour-zhay), an authority in Moche art at the University of Texas, suspects the male in the coffin was not the tomb's primary resident.  He cites the fact that the male's coffin was found against the wall of what seems an unusually empty chamber.  Bourget thus hypothesizes that some of the tomb's inhabitants were relocated during late Moche times, when Moche society was transitioning to a power structure ruled by kings surrounded by influential women.  The layout of the tomb complex, Bourget believes, is suggestive of such a king's tomb surrounded by satellite tombs for priestesses.  This type of power structure was prevalent in coastal Peru's succeeding cultures, the Chimú (chee-MOO) and later the Lambayeque (lom-buy-EH-kay).  Project director Castillo, however, believes that the newfound male could instead be part of a more complex burial layout that would put the Moche man on equal footing with the priestesses.

Early Bulgarian shrine may have Minoan connections


Our final story is from Bulgaria, where researchers have uncovered an enormous cult complex at the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon (per-PAIR-i-kon).  According to team leader Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov (NICK-o-lie of-CHAR-off) the unique cult complex suggests a connection between Ancient Thrace and the civilization of Minoan Crete.  The newly discovered complex spreads over an area of 12 square kilometers and consists of at least nine altars, each two meters in diameter.  One of the altars discovered, built of 1.5 to 2-meter-thick stone plates, may be the largest altar in Southeast Europe.  Archaeologists dated the findings to around 1500 BC, based on objects discovered around them.  This puts Perperikon’s use in the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, the same time as Ancient Egypt and the civilization of Mycenae and Minoan Crete.  According to Ovcharov, the ancient Thracians practiced fire rituals on the altars, similar to those practiced at the same time in Egypt, on Crete, and in the Hittite state in Asia Minor.  This summer’s research also identified items from the late Roman Empire and from a thirteenth to fourteenth-century medieval citadel, which shows that Perperikon continued as an important center through succeeding historical periods.

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