Audio News for October 4th to October 10th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for October 4th to October 10th, 2009.


Ancient Roman Population may be smaller than believed


In our first story, new research indicates that the population of ancient Rome may have been smaller than is sometimes suggested.  University of Connecticut theoretical biologist Peter Turchin and Stanford University ancient historian Walter Scheidel looked at the number of coin hoards, the bundles that people buried to protect their savings during times of great violence and political strife, to develop a mathematical model to project population dynamics before and after 100 BC.   Their conclusion shows a declining population after 100 BC.

According to Turchin and Scheidel, the chronological distribution of unrecovered coin hoards is an excellent alternative for the level of internal warfare and unrest, and consequently a key indicator of population size.   In their view, little catastrophes happening to small people, in accumulation, can give us a very good idea of what happened to the society as a whole.  

We know much about the First Century BC in Italy, including biographies of the great figures of the time such as Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, and Horace.  This was a period of unrest and civil war during the transition from the Republic to the Empire.  However, some basic facts, such as the approximate population size of the late Roman Republic, remain the subject of intense debate.   Depending on who historians believe was counted in the early Imperial censuses, such as adult males or the entire citizenry including women and children, the Italian population either declined or doubled during the first century BC.  The research of Turchin and Scheidel suggests a declining population after 100 BC.

A definitive answer is important.  If a high count is correct, it would have huge ramifications for the popular belief of the economic scope and social formation of ancient Rome.   Scheidel, a professor of humanities and expert on Roman history, notes that this may seem like an unfathomable dispute, but it isn’t really, because the difference is so large: 200 percent.

Turchin’s and Scheidel developed their model using census data of the period before 100 BC, when Roman population history is relatively undisputed.  The model’s path successfully captured major trends during that period, including the short-lived population increase before the Second Punic War, demographic contraction during the war, and sustained population growth in the Second Century BC.  They then tested the model using coin hoard data after 100 BC and found that the trajectory mirrored the numbers proposed by supporters of the low-count theory.  Turchin concluded that judging by the number of hoards found during the first century BC, this period was as calamitous as the war with Hannibal.  It was even worse, because there was not just one, but two large clumps of hoards.  It is very difficult to imagine how a population could grow during a period of such violence, and the model provides a precise quantitative statement of this.

Possible Goth mercenary found in Britain


In the United Kingdom, a late Roman Period body unearthed in Gloucester in 1972 has stunned researchers after tests strongly suggested he was a Goth warrior from Eastern Europe.  The Goths were a Germanic people originating in the Baltic area that moved southwards and settled to the north of the Black Sea, where in the Third Century AD they attacked the territory of the Roman Empire.

The man, aged 25 to 30, had always baffled archaeologists.  On initial findings, researcher thought his elaborate silver belt fittings, shoe buckles and inlaid knife came from an area between the Balkans and Southern Russia.  Chemical tests now prove he was from east of the River Danube.  This has led historians to suggest he was a Goth mercenary in the Roman Army.  His large bones date to about AD 400, just 10 years before Rome itself fell to Visigoth invaders, and tests showed he was mostly vegetarian.  Other evidence indicates he lived in very cold regions as a child.  His remains, discovered in a mausoleum, suggest he was a man of high social status and power.   According to David Rice, archaeology curator at Gloucester City Museum,  to have such an unusual person living there, Gloucester must have been a more important place in Roman times than previously thought.

Bluestonehenge may be Stonehenge crematorium


For our next story. We remain in the United Kingdom, where archaeologists have discovered a site they call “Bluestonehenge” on the banks of the River Avon just over a mile from the original Stonehenge.  Named for the color of its long-gone stones, the 5,000-year-old ritual site, ten meters in diameter, may have been a key stop along an ancient route between a land of the living, several miles away, and Stonehenge, a domain of the dead.
Builders made the circle of an estimated 25 bluestones from a hard dolerite rock and carved the four-ton megaliths from ancient quarries in the Preseli Mountains of Wales, 240 kilometers away.  A henge, an earthwork with a ditch and bank, surrounds the area and researchers cautiously date it to 2400 BC.  However, flint arrowheads found at the stone-circle site are of a type suggesting the rocks were erected as early as 3000 BC.  Dates that are more precise will have to wait until prehistoric deer antlers, used as pickaxes at Bluestonehenge, have been radiocarbon dated.  The work force and logistics required to transport the stones suggests they had deep significance to ancient Britons.   Unlike Stonehenge, which aligns with the sun at the summer and winter solstices, Bluestonehenge shows no sign of a particular orientation, or even an entrance, the team reported.  Nor does any evidence suggest that people lived at the site.  No pottery, animal bones, ornaments, or relics have appeared, such as those unearthed at the nearby Stone Age village of Durrington Walls, found near Stonehenge in 2007.   

However, Bluestonehenge's empty stone holes, filled with charcoal, indicating that large amounts of wood were burned there, signified, perhaps, a prehistoric crematorium.  Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in the U.K.  proposes that Stonehenge represented a "domain of the dead" to ancestor-worshiping ancient Britons.  He believes that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge.  The excavation team believes Stonehenge incorporates the 25 bluestones that originally stood at Bluestonehenge.  Only a few bluestone pieces were found at the new site.  The archaeologists speculated that the builders dragged Bluestonehenge's stones along the avenue to Stonehenge during a major rebuilding phase around 2500 BC. 

A dozen Pre-Columbian graves discovered in Peru


Our final story is from Peru, where a team of archaeologists with the National Institute of Culture has discovered a dozen graves and an equal number of pre-Columbian earthen enclosures at a complex located in an urban district of the ancient city of Cuzco in the archaeological site of Qata Ccasapata Llacta [KAW-ta Kaw-sa-PAW-ta LAWK-ta].

Qata Ccasapata Llacta, which means “village at the summit where it is cold,” dates back prior to the Incas, who began as a tribe of the Killke [KILL-kay] culture in the Cuzco area around the 12th Century AD.   The architecture is rustic and features reused material dating back to the local Killke culture, which preceded the Incas.  The team found other elements including small patio-like spaces, passageways and terraces.  

According to local reports, the ancient people who served the elite in Inca times lived at the satellite settlement.  It is located in the northwestern part of Cuzco city, near a ravine and overlooking a housing community.  According to archaeologist Carmen Concha Olivera, an altar at the site may have served as a place of worship for the inhabitants of the village.  Archaeologists believe one of the 12 graves contains an important person, because a large funerary urn held the skeletal remains along with 10 metal, ceramic and stone objects.  Located alongside a stone incense burner and surrounding the urn were three graves of children who mourners may have sacrificed, as well as the remains of a woman who could have been the man’s wife.  The team found most of the graves inside the earthen enclosures, but they located others underneath patios, stairs and footpaths.  The team found seven of the graves perfectly preserved, but robbers had looted the other five.   

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