Audio news for November 15th to November 21st, 2009.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for November 15th to November 21st, 2009.

Greek temples tended to face the dawn


Our first story comes from Greece, where an investigation into temples built by Greek colonists in Sicily has found strong evidence that the Ancient Greeks deliberately built their temples to face the rising Sun. Although most of these shrines face east, some academics have questioned whether this alignment reflected a deliberate plan. Critics of astronomical theories have pointed out that some temples face north, south or west, and argue that their orientation was not important to the Greeks.

Research by Dr. Alun Salt of the University of Leicester found that 40 of 41 temples that he analyzed in Sicily were oriented towards the eastern horizon, an alignment that is almost impossible to explain by chance, and probably followed a religious convention founded on astronomy. The sole exception was the Temple of Hekate. This temple may honor a Moon goddess, which would explain the different orientation. Temples laid out in accordance with astronomical phenomena could have highlighted the role of gods and goddesses as arbiters of nature, or helped priests to interpret celestial omens. They could also have helped in observations needed to calibrate the religious calendar.

Dr Salt also examined data for Greece, collected by Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon. Though there were more exceptions, he again found a highly significant bias towards east-facing layouts. Dr. Salt said that while the reasons for this preferred layout have still to be established, he suspects that astronomical factors played a significant part. Priests may have been looking in the sky for omens, but the orientation might have a practical purpose as well. The sun would illuminate an eastern-facing temple at dawn so that the priests would not be working in darkness.

In Sicily, Greek colonists far from the mainland would have been building their temples from scratch. They may also have been keen to conform very tightly to correct Greek architectural practice as a political statement of their Hellenic nationality. In Greece itself, the less consistent orientation of temples could reflect local geographical circumstances, or the way people built temples on top of older shrines that earlier worshipers laid out according to a different cosmological and religious system.

Many dedications of statues and treasuries at important shrines such as Delphi and Olympia come from Greek communities outside Greece that were keen to advertise their national identity, and strict interpretation of religious architecture could be part of the same phenomenon, he said.
Efrosyni Boutsikas, of the University of Kent, disputes Dr. Salt’s conclusions. She said that her own analysis of 107 temples in Greece showed that only 58 per cent faced east, which indicates no general orientation pattern. She added that Greek religion was not uniform and had many local manifestations.

Humans used Cascade Range nearly 10,000 years ago


Now we go to the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where research reveals early human use at high elevations. A dig near Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park has revealed evidence that humans used that area 9,600 years ago. At Mount Rainier National Park, a site on the northern slope of that mountain has produced artifacts dating back 7,600 years. Both sites are about 5,400 feet in elevation.

For years, archaeologists believed prehistoric peoples lived only in lowland areas. The argument was that the elevation, unpredictable weather and rugged terrain made places such as Mount Rainier a poor option for food-gathering and settlement, says Greg Burtchard, Mount Rainier’s archaeologist. But these new sites are helping researchers refine theories on where, when and why Indians traveled through the mountains.

Among the discoveries are small stone blades used to make knives, sharp-edge stones used to scrape animal hides, projectile points, stones from fire rings, and animal bones and teeth. A piece of white translucent stone no bigger than an adult’s thumbnail, discovered in 2007, has become one of the most important artifacts to come from the Mount Rainier site. The piece of chalcedony, a silica mineral, is one of thousands of artifacts and pieces of debris found by Burtchard and his team at a site near Buck Lake. Dating back 7,600 years, it is the oldest known evidence of human use on the mountain. The previous oldest artifact dates to 5,600 years ago.
An ancient artisan flaked off sharp pieces of the chalcedony and glued the razor-edged pieces to wood or bone with tree resin to make a knife.

Evidence indicates that the Buck Lake site was used seasonally for gathering plants and animals for food, Burtchard said. The Indians likely lived in woven mat-and-wood frame structures or bark slab structures. There is no evidence of permanent structures.

Mesolithic blades excavated in England


Our next story comes from a recently excavated Mesolithic site in England, which may date from as early as 9000 BC, a time well before farming cultures arrived. The site was excavated during 2009 in advance of a residential development. Initial trenching work identified several worked flint blades of characteristic Mesolithic type, in an unworn and undisturbed state. Further work confirmed thatthese rare flint finds rested in a soil of Mesolithic age.

Excavation targeted an area just ten meters square, where researchers identified the limits of the flint scatter from test results. Within this small area, researchers found a charcoal-rich former hearth and also several post molds and arcs of stones that may show the position of tent-like structures. The excavators also found burnt animal bone and further charcoal chips indicating cooking activities. Over 5000 worked flints came from this small area, including flint cores used for tool creation, blades, small chips from tool-working, and scrapers, piercers and microlith tools used in composite arrowheads. The Mesolithic people occupying this site were making and repairing broken flint weapons and tools on a large scale. Some of the microlith projectile points have impact fractures indicating hunters used them as arrowheads and then recollected them to use them again.

The worked flint, animal bone and charcoal will allow archaeologists to identify the flintworking processes, the different animals that the people hunted, and the environment at the time of the Mesolithic hunters.

Three pre-Columbian tombs found in Costa Rica


Our last story comes from Costa Rica, where researchers have uncovered a cemetery constructed by during the pre-Columbian era. Researchers from the National Museum, led by archaeologist Francisco Corrales, proved the existence of a funeral complex divided into three sectors. Teams have excavated two of the sectors, which appear to be completely intact. The archaeological site, called the Liceo Site, includes three cairns or mounds of stone used to cover a grave.

According to Corrales, the Huetares tribe, the native group inhabiting the area, built the cemetery between AD 300 and 800, during the La Selva Phase, when a complex social organization was headed by chiefs. The two excavations carried out so far revealed two very different mound configurations. The first has no definite form while the second is an oblong mound. According to the researchers, these variants may have something to do with the social and economic status of those buried in the areas.

River stones used to cover the graves come in different sizes and grades that define the spaces. The medium-sized stones give shape to the structure and the small ones, known today as “coyolillos” serve to seal the mounds.

So far, researchers have found 59 ceramic artifacts, including whole pieces and fragments of objects that served as funeral offerings, but also everyday utensils. Pots, pans and tripods are the most common artifacts, and most are painted in two colors. Many of them have animal motifs.

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