Audio News for September 27th to October 3rd, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 27th to October 3rd, 2009.


Revolving banquet hall of Emperor Nero is found


Our first story is from Italy, where archaeologists revealed what they believe are the remains of Roman emperor Nero's extravagant banquet hall.  New excavations suggest that this unique and impressive hall was a circular space that rotated day and night to emulate the Earth's movement.  The room is part of Nero's Golden Palace, built just outside of Rome in the First Century AD.  According to lead archaeologist Francoise Villedieu, the extravagant banquet hall was built for entertaining government officials, visiting dignitaries and other important people in the early Empire.  Nero, who was famous for his lavish and corrupt lifestyle, ruled from AD 37 to 68.  Excavations so far have turned up the foundations of the room with the rotating mechanism that lay beneath the floor, and part of an attached space believed to be the kitchens.  Speaking on a press tour of the closed dig, Villedieu told reporters that this is not comparable to anything known in ancient Roman architecture.  The location of the find atop the Palatine Hill, and the rotating structure that matches references in ancient biographies of Nero, make the connection to the emperor Nero very probable.  The partially excavated site is part of a sumptuous residence, known by its Latin name, Domus Aurea, or Golden House, which rose over the ruins of a fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64.  The main dining room measured over 50 feet in diameter.  It rested upon a 13-foot wide pillar and four spherical mechanisms that rotated the structure, probably using power from a constant flow of water.  The discovery was made during routine maintenance of the fragile Palatine area.   Latin biographer and historian Suetonius, who chronicled the times and wrote the biographies of 12 Roman rulers, refers to a main dining room that revolved day and night, in time with the sky.  This part of the palace offered a panoramic view over the Roman Forum and a lake, later drained by Nero's successors to build the Colosseum.  The palace sprawled over nearly 200 acres, occupying parts of four out of Rome's seven ancient hills.  Described by Suetonius as one of Rome's most cruel, depraved and megalomaniac rulers, Nero often indulged in orgies and, fancying himself an artist, entertained guests with his own performances of poetry and songs.  However, Nero did not enjoy the frescoed halls and gold-encrusted ceilings of his Golden Palace for very long.  It was completed in AD 68, the same year that the unpopular emperor committed suicide in the middle of a revolt.

Peruvian digs uncover temple with colorful murals


In Peru, a multicolored mural has come to light in the front elevation of a ceremonial temple located in the northern part of the Chotuna archaeological complex.  Located 10 miles west of the present city of Lambayeque, it features friezes with circular designs and the anthropomorphic wave, a distinctive icon of Lambayeque’s ancient regional culture.  According to the leader of the excavations, Carlos Wester, the building served a religious purpose and dates to the 9th and 10th centuries AD, which places it well within the period of the Lambayeque Culture.  Describing the discovery, Wester said that a platform emerged only after the systematic removal of a dune more than 15 meters high.  Evidences of polychrome surfaces, with a checkered pattern of red and cream, were found at the north-facing upper level of the platform.  These were the first signs of the mural’s discovery, and encouraged the team to continue excavations.  It took months to uncover the full structure and its friezes with their rich ornamentation of circular designs.  The Lambayeque culture flourished in the Andes between AD 700 and 1100, just after the decline of the Moche, and is known for its outstanding level of craftsmanship in gold.

Computer re-analysis of early Pacific canoes builds new picture of migration


Researchers studying the evolution of culture say their re-analysis of Polynesian canoe design suggests that New Zealand was partially settled from Hawaii.  The theory that Hawaii was the ancestral home of the Maori lost favor archaeologically more than 60 years ago.  However, new research published in the November Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests a route of Polynesian settlement that started in the far western islands and jumped to the far eastern islands before then working backwards towards the original point of origin.  Archaeologists have worked out that the Lapita peoples, probably from China and Southeast Asia, who colonized the Pacific islands between about 1400 BC and 900 BC, became the Polynesians who settled several island groups.  They migrated outwards, expanding from Tonga and Samoa, beginning about 500 BC, arrived in the Marquesas about AD 300, the Hawaiian islands by AD 800 to 900, and finally in New Zealand about 1200.  Stanford University researchers Marcus Feldman and Paul Ehrlich and biologist Deborah Rogers analyzed a 1930s study of traditional canoe design by A. C. Haddon and James Hornell.  This traced the distribution and changes in practical aspects such as outrigger attachments, construction technique, and keel shape as well as aesthetic elements like painting, designs and figureheads on pre-European canoes from many different island groups.  Canoe construction techniques persisted as the Polynesians spread and sustained their traditional techniques, but decorative features changed as they colonized new island groups.  The new study of this data shows scientists can measure the effects of this cultural evolution.  To do this, the researchers computed 10 million possible configurations of canoe categorization.  According to Rogers, the same methods could be applied to anything from pottery design and fishhook construction to social and legal structures.  Ehrlich noted that if science could shed insight into the mechanisms underlying cultural change, it might help modern cultures turn climate change insight into action, or avoid ill-advised wars.  As Ehrlich put it, this is not a paper about canoes so much as it's about discovering discernable, explicable patterns in history. 

Tucson area dig discovers entire irrigated field system


Our final story is from the United States, where the discovery of a prehistoric irrigation system in the Marana desert of Arizona is giving archaeologists a deeper look at one of the first groups of people to farm in the Tucson basin.  According to project director Jim Vint, the site is perhaps the earliest example of sedentary village life in the Southwest, where people depended on agriculture as a primary food source.  For more than 3,000 years, the elaborate ancient irrigation system has remained hidden deep beneath the sand in Marana.  It is said to be the most complex system of its kind uncovered in North America.  Researchers have uncovered dozens of fields where the actual holes can be seen where ancient farmers planted the corn.  According to geologist Fred Nials, the details are so complete, they can reconstruct the entire ancient irrigation system.  The site is being excavated because of a construction project, which is part of an expansion of the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Facility.  The excavation, conducted by Desert Archaeology, Inc., complies with state and county regulations requiring it before development of any land that may contain culturally significant sites.  According to Desert Archaeology President Bill Doelle, what the archaeologists found was more than they ever expected.  The usual find when digging in the flood plain is a main irrigation ditch that diverts water out of the river and just that ditch alone.  The team had no idea that they would find the whole field system preserved in the floodplain sediment.  Within this field system, which covers about 60 to 80 acres, the archaeologists were able to recognize the outlines of fields, canals, pits and housing sites by the different textures, colors and content that appeared in the soil.  The researchers have now discovered more than 200 individual maize fields and more than 170 canals of various sizes, preserved within six major layers of sediment.  The topmost or most recent layer dates to 800 BC, and the sixth layer down, which is about 13 feet underground, dates to about 1200 BC.  These pre-Hohokam peoples, thought to be ancestors of today's Tohono O'odham [to-HO-no OH-o-dam] Indians, depended on the river for their livelihood.  Many stone tools and animal bones also have been recovered, as well as human remains.  The collected artifacts will be analyzed and sent with photos, maps and other documentation to the Arizona State Museum.

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