Audio news for November 8th to November 14th, 2009.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for November 8th to November 14th, 2009.

New Mayan murals offer rare glimpse of the commoner’s life


Our first story is from Mexico, where recently excavated Mayan murals are giving archaeologists an extraordinary look into the lives of the ordinary ancient Mayan people. The murals were uncovered during the excavation of a pyramid mound structure at the site of Calakmul (cah-lahk-MOOL), near the border with Guatemala. According to Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, even though the Maya have been studied for more than a century, this is the first time researchers have seen anything like this. The new murals are a departure from a well-established tendency for the Maya, like many civilizations, to dedicate far more attention to depicting the lives of the ruling classes, the royalty, religious orders and artisans, than the lower orders that made up the bulk of society. The new murals were found on the walls of one layer of the mound structure, which following the Mayan custom was built over the top of older structures, like the layers of an onion. The layer with the murals appears carefully preserved, with a layer of clay over the murals, apparently to protect them. The images on the mural show people engaged in everyday activities, such as preparing food. Hieroglyphic captions accompany each image, labeling each individual. In each case the term "aj," meaning "person," is followed by the word for a foodstuff or material. For example, the terms "aj ul" or "maize-gruel person" shows a man with a large pot, dish and spoon, and the term "aj mahy" or tobacco person shows two men, one with a spatula and the other with a pot that likely holds a form of the tobacco leaf. Such scenes have not been seen in Mayan paintings before, although some of this information has survived among the language and knowledge of the modern descendants of the ancient Mayas. Some of the hieroglyphs were new to researchers, however. Important new words include those for maize and salt, key staples of the Mayan diet. Whether other such murals are hidden in mounds in the jungles of Central America is not known, but Martin and other archaeologists believe the chances are rare. Martin’s team is not yet sure what the structure was or why the mural was painted and preserved. However, they hope to learn more as they continue to excavate more layers of the pyramid and uncover more of the mural. The findings were published in the United States in the Nov. 9 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Early building raises new debate over ancient Japanese locations


In Japan, the site of a Third-Century building found in the Makimuku ruins has renewed debate over the location of Yamataikoku, a mysterious and powerful country once ruled by warrior Queen Himiko. The discovery, announced by the Sakurai city board of education, in the Nara region, has strengthened the theory that the Kinai area was home to Yamataikoku, a country described in part of a Chinese book, The History of the Three Kingdoms, written by Chen Shou in the late Third Century AD. Supporters of the Kinai theory say the building, measuring about 20 by 12 meters, could have been a central facility in Yamataikoku. However, opponents argue that Yamataikoku was in Kyushu, and that a large building alone does not prove the Makimuku ruins were the center of the ancient country. The lack of major buildings in the Makimuku ruins, which date back from the late Second Century to the early Fourth Century, has been a weak point in the Kinai theory, because the History of the Three Kingdoms described Yamataikoku as having a palace, a watchtower and castle fences. The newly discovered building is not only the largest at the site, it is also the biggest discovered in Japan from the early Third Century, the period of Himiko's reign. The building was dated from pottery found in a later ditch that cuts into the building and dates from the mid-Third Century. According to the officials announcing the finds, the building is aligned with three smaller buildings that are also from the early Third Century, and were discovered in earlier work at the west end of the ruins. The central axis of each building forms a straight line, so that each building faced the same direction. Such careful planning was common for palaces and temples during later time periods, but not in the early Third Century. Taichiro Shiraishi, director of the Chikatsu Asuka Museum in Osaka Prefecture, believes the orderly alignment of the buildings from east to west is proof that they were part of the Yamataikoku royal palace. While only about 5 percent is excavated, work is now under way in a 390-square-meter area of the central part of the ruins. Skeptics, however, question the accuracy of the pottery date, which they claim is typically placed about a century too early. In addition, sites with large buildings have been found in Kyushu as well, so large buildings alone cannot be taken as a secure association with Yamataikoku. According to Yasutami Suzuki, a professor of ancient history at Kokugakuin University, while the Kinai theory has gained popularity through archaeological research such as this, specific artifacts symbolizing royal power need to be unearthed to prove a site was indeed the center of Yamataikoku.

Newly discovered Tennessee fort was a stop on the Trail of Tears


The United States Forest Service has begun to unearth the remains of a fort used to house Cherokee Indians making their way along the Trail of Tears more than 170 years ago. The land where Fort Armistead once stood in Monroe County, Tennessee, has never been plowed or developed, so walking the trails there and passing the numerous springs used by the Cherokee is like traveling back in time, according to Forest Service archaeologist Quentin Bass. Under Bass’s direction, the locations of blockhouses, a parade ground, a powder magazine, barracks and storage pits have been identified at the site of the fort by archaeologists and volunteers working together to excavate the structures and many artifacts left by both soldiers and Cherokees. The Forest Service purchased the 26-acre site in 2005 from the Dalton family. According to Kathleen Dalton, the family had heard rumors of a fort on the property, and discovering artifacts at the site, they felt the land should belong to the public. Bass noted that no one outside of this area knew about the location, which was carried down solely through oral tradition. Representatives of three Cherokee tribes met at the fort's remains a year ago and commented on the beauty of the site that held such tragic memories for their people, pointing out rare species of mushrooms, herbs and medicinal plants used centuries ago by American Indians and still growing there today. The trail leading through Fort Armistead had been used by American Indians for centuries and may have been used by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. It was the lowest gap through the Appalachian Mountains. Fort Armistead, was built in 1832 to protect the Cherokees and keep white settlers out of the area after gold was found along Coker Creek. However, in 1836, the function of the fort changed and it became a stop on the Trail of Tears, the campaign of forced removal of the Cherokees from their lands in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. Plans for the site are being developed, but many Cherokees are advocating keeping it as a walk-in-only site to maintain its solitude and the atmosphere of reverence.

Canaanite palace mural shows early Minoan connection


Our final story is from Israel, where a vivid blue background in a 3,600-year-old wall painting shows a preference for Minoan colors and style. The remains of the mural were found during recent excavations at Tel Kabri in the ancient land of Canaan. This fresco joins others of Aegean style that have been uncovered during earlier digs at the Canaanite palace here, according to Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, who directs the excavation. Yasur-Landau believes that the style change is evidence of a conscious decision by the city's rulers, who wished to associate with Mediterranean culture rather than continuing with Syrian and Mesopotamian styles of art, as did other cities in Canaan. The Canaanites were living in the Levant, but some were developing a European affinity to go with their trade connections. The remains of the Canaanite city around the central tell have also been unearthed and date from the Middle Bronze Age or about 2000 to 1550 BC. Tel Kabri itself functioned as a palace in the center of the city for use by its rulers. One unique feature of Kabri is that after the city’s abandonment, no other city was ever built over its remains. As a result, this is the only Canaanite city that can be excavated in its entirety. The palace, measured with geophysical tools at 1 to 1.5 acres, is the only such palace of this period that offers an opportunity for being fully excavated. The preservation of the city enables a complete picture of political and social life in the Canaanite period. Artifacts as well as architecture strengthen the assumption that the city not only had trade relations with Mediterranean kingdoms, but also preferred to be culturally associated with them. Additional finds during the past season illuminate other views of day-to-day life in the Canaanite city. Researchers determined that the rulers had seized privately owned lands to build both the palace and a ceremonial path surrounding the palace. The excavation of a corridor discovered last year revealed pottery vessels, including storage jars, shallow bowls, cups, and jugs. Possibly a storage area, the corridor was blocked off during ancient times, so that remnants of the original contents of the storage vessels remain. Dr. Yasur-Landau’s team has sent substance remains to experts for analysis, to learn more about the diet of Canaan during this time.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!