Audio News for October 11th to October 17th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for October 11th to October 17th, 2009.


Central Canadian campsite yields evidence of early dinner recipe


Our first story is from Canada, where an archaeologist in Edmonton has discovered an intact 2,000- year-old campsite with enough remains of their cooking activity to guess the recipe the ancient people used for their soup.  According to Gareth Spicer, principal archaeologist with Calgary-based Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management, the black circle of ash, scattered bison bone fragments and chipped rock does not count as a major scientific discovery.  However, the site has enough diverse facets to tell a story about a small group of people who camped by the river for several days.  Spicer noted that this does not happen often.  All the pieces fell together at the site.  In a five-day dig last May, Spicer’s team found evidence that showed that a small family group camped at the spot for a couple of days before moving on.  At the time they were there, more than 2,000 years ago, the site was right on the edge of the river, and the pollen record shows it was surrounded by currant shrubs, chokecherry and roses.  A broken spear point and more than 150 small sandstone and quartzite fragments, each about the size of a fist, were left behind in a scatter on the blackened earth.  The fragments show signs that they were heated in a fire, and then cracked as they were dumped into cold water, in the technique many cultures used to boil water before they had clay pottery or metal pans.  Spicer sent several of the cracked rocks away for testing.  Found on the rocks, but not in the soil around them, were traces of pronghorn, rabbit, whitefish and trout, wild onion and sunflower, indicating that the residue is likely from a soup combining all these ingredients.  To find the age of the fire, fragments of several buffalo ribs and a leg bone found nearby at the same depth in the soil were used.  Radiocarbon dating returned two dates, 2010 and 2030 BP.  Those results date the camp to about the time that Julius Caesar was invading Britain, or when the Han Dynasty held power in China.  Outside Edmonton, meanwhile, a family moving slowly along the river was having a hearty fish, meat, and vegetable stew for dinner, in a quiet, leafy, lightly inhabited valley.

Long abandoned quarry in Crete could be the real Labyrinth


On the Greek island of Crete, the elaborate network of underground tunnels in an abandoned stone quarry bolsters the claim that this could be the original site of the ancient Labyrinth, the mythical maze that housed the half-bull, half-man Minotaur (MINE-uh-taur) of Greek legend.  An Greek and English team of scholars, just back from a field investigation of the complex, believes that the ancient quarry, near the town of Gortyn (GOR-tuhn), has just as much claim to be the place of the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos (K-NOSS-us) 20 miles away.  The palace associated with the legendary Minos (MINE-oss) has also been synonymous with the Minotaur myth since its excavation a century ago.  Over 600,000 people a year visit the ruins at Knossos where one of the most famous legends tells of King Minos supposedly constructed the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a fearsome creature born out of a union between the king's wife and a bull.  Nevertheless, the researchers behind the latest quest to find the Labyrinth believe that the cave complex near Gortyn, which was the ancient Roman capital of Crete, could be an equally probable candidate for the site of the Labyrinth.  That is, if there is indeed any truth in the idea that the myth was based on a real place and a real king.  According to Nicholas Howarth, the Oxford University geographer who led the team, there was a danger of Gortyn being lost from the story of the Labyrinth because of the overpowering position that Knossos had taken in the legend.  That famous association was cultivated by Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who excavated the site between 1900 and 1935.  According to Howarth, people come not just to see the controversial and scenic ruins as Evans reconstructed them, but also to seek connection to the mythical past of the Age of Heroes.  The Oxford team worked with the Hellenic Speleological Society to investigate the cave complex at Gortyn, which had recently been visited by archaeological thieves planning to dynamite one of the inner chambers in hope of discovering a hidden treasure room.  The caves, known locally as the Labyrinthos Caves, consist of about two and half miles of interlocking tunnels with widened chambers and dead-end rooms. Travellers looking for the Labyrinth have visited them since medieval times.  However, since Knossos was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, they were neglected, and were even used as a Nazi ammunition dump during the Second World War.

Middle-eastern murals capture Crusader ideas of heaven and hell


Just to the east, in Syria, archaeologists have discovered two Crusader-era murals depicting heaven and hell in a medieval church on the coast.  The rare discovery could provide new information about the Christian knights who battled Muslims for control of the Holy Land hundreds of years ago.  Specialists are now restoring the 12th-Century paintings discovered by a joint Syrian-Hungarian team excavating a Crusader fortress on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean in the eastern city of Tartous (tar-TOOSE).  The murals, which measure approximately 8 feet high by 12 feet wide, were hanging on each side of the altar of a medieval chapel in the al-Marqab (al mar-KHAWB) Citadel and had amassed thick layers of dust and dirt.  According to Marwan Hassan (MAR-wan hah-SAHN), head of the Department of Antiquities in Tartous, the panel representing hell shows people being punished terribly.  Some are being tortured inside a wheel covered with knives, others are being hanged and burnt.  The mural portraying heaven is a striking contrast, with saints surrounded by pale, serene colors.  According to Hassan, the Crusader murals are significant because they are the first ones found in the Middle East depicting heaven and hell.  Michel Makdisi (mahk-DEE-zee), head of excavations at Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities, pointed out that since Crusaders did not stay in one place for a long time, it is very rare to find such paintings left behind by them.  With their fine detail and good condition, these paintings will provide significant information about the traditions and beliefs of the Crusaders.  Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade in AD 1095 to establish Christian control of the Holy Land.  European Crusaders soon took Jerusalem, but they lost it as quickly to the 1187 campaign of the famed Muslim leader Saladin (sal-ah-DEEN).  The al-Marqab Citadel in Tartous, located 150 miles northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, is where Richard the Lionheart, the famous king of England, landed a few years later at the beginning of the Third Crusade, which sought in vain to reverse Saladin's capture of Jerusalem.

Louisiana students dig into Civil War siege position


Our final story is from the United States, where Louisana State University students are studying Union Siege Battery 8, at the Port Hudson State Historic Site north of Baton Rouge, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.  Federal troops fired 12-inch Napoleon cannons and highly accurate 3-inch ordinance rifles at a Confederate position known as Fort Desperate.   Union forces surrounding Port Hudson tried two all-out assaults against the position on May 27 and June 14, 1863, but the defenders held their ground.  Union commanders then settled on a siege strategy to force the entire garrison to surrender, which resulted on July 9.  According to LSU archaeology graduate  student Brian Hess, battlefields can hold considerable debris.  What was trash to the combatants becomes valuable data to researchers.  The Port Hudson project forms the basis of Hess’s master's thesis, which will add to understanding of the construction of Civil War earthworks.  Archaeologists have studied the Fort Desperate position, but not much is known about the gun batteries that faced the position.  Union Siege Battery 8 is visible on the hiking trail to Fort Desperate but is concealed by large trees and underbrush.  One project goal is to determine the battery’s precise boundaries.  Hess and the park employees also hope they can find evidence of a zigzag trench, or sap, that historical accounts say the Union troops dug from the battery to within a short distance from the Confederate lines.  According to Port Hudson Curator Mike Fraering, Union troops would have filled in the trench after they took Port Hudson to prevent Confederate troops from counter-attacking.  No one knows exactly where it started or ended.  A group of students and volunteers working under Southeast Regional Archaeologist Rob Mann, who is also with the university, meticulously excavated five square-meter sections of one gun position in the battery to begin the latest phase.  They are looking for signs of a possible structure that would have been erected as cover for the gunners.  According to Mann, the project will also produce a digital topographic map of the area that the park staff can overlay with historical maps to gain a better understanding of the battle positions.

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