Audio news for January 10th to January 16th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for January 10th to January 16th, 2010.


Alexander the Great worn linen armor


In our first story, we learn that Alexander the Great and his soldiers might have worn the ancient equivalent of Kevlar armor.  New research presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America suggests that Alexander and his men protected themselves with linothorax, a type of body armor made by laminating layers of linen.

According to Gregory Aldrete, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, linothorax is somewhat of a mystery since, due to the perishable nature of the material, no examples have survived.  Nevertheless, Aldrede and his co-investigator Scott Bartell discovered that ancient records frequently mention it.  He noted that currently they have 27 descriptions by 18 different ancient authors and nearly 700 visual images on objects ranging from Greek vases to Etruscan temple reliefs.  He says this indicates that this type of linen armor thrived as a form of body protection for nearly 1,000 years, and that a wide variety of ancient Mediterranean civilizations used it.

The main visual evidence for Alexander wearing linothorax is the so-called "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii, in which the Macedonian king is depicted with this type of armor.  In his "Life of Alexander," the Greek historian Plutarch states that Alexander wore a breastplate of folded or doubled linen at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC.  That battle was a huge victory for the Greeks and led to the fall of the Achaemenid (Ah-kuh-MEHN-id) Empire.

According to the researchers, additional evidence suggests that linen breastplates were standard equipment in the Macedonian army.  When Alexander was in India, and received 25,000 new suits of armor for his army, he ordered the old worn-out suits burned.  This would only make sense if they had been made of fabric rather than metal.

In order to determine how wearable and effective this armor was in protecting its wearer, Aldrete and Bartell reconstructed several complete sets of linen armor using only material that was available in the ancient world.  They made the armor from flax plants that were grown, harvested and processed, spun and woven by hand.  For the glue, investigators chose to work with two simple glues that would have been readily available: glue made from the skins of rabbits and another from flax seeds.   Tests included shooting the linen with arrows and hitting it with a variety of weapons including swords, axes and spears.

The controlled experiments dispelled the myth that armor made out of cloth must have been inferior to metal.  In fact, the laminated layers function like an ancient version of modern Kevlar armor, using the flexibility of the fabric to disperse the force of the incoming arrow.  According to Heidi Sherman, linen expert and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, we cannot know with complete certainty how close the model is to the linen armor used by Alexander the Great's army, but several layers of fused linen can indeed withstand quite a rigorous battering.  Such armor would have provided ample protection under rather extreme conditions.


Mayan monument depicts victorious ruler


Now we go to the archaeological area of Lagartero in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where archaeologists have unearthed an intact 1000-year-old stela with the sculpted image of a Mayan ruler.

According to the National Anthropology and History Institute, the bas-relief shows the profiled image of a Mayan ruler dressed in a loincloth bound with a sash, and wearing sandals and a feather headdress.  He is standing over a bench holding a bag of incense in one hand.  At his feet, a smaller person with his torso opened lies on his back.  The Mayans used this image as a sign of sacrifice or of conquest.

Researchers discovered the stela while exploring a rectangular stone casket that people had plundered in pre-Columbian times.  The archaeologists also found a pair of large earthenware pots, one of which contained a smaller, unbroken pot.  Together with these ceramics, they discovered a polychrome plate and a black vase with a lid that contained offerings of jade objects, including two earflaps, a jointed turtle and a beaded necklace.

Archaeologist Sonia Rivero Torres, who heads the Lagartero archaeological project, noted that the stela, which measures 2 meters long, 55 centimeters wide and 6 centimeters thick, is the first complete one found on the site.

Lagartero flourished from the Classical Period to the Early Post-Classica, from about AD 300 to 1200 and was a key point for trading goods and products between the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico's central plateau.  Archaeologists working at the site have uncovered an enclosed ball court complete with five altars and various other architectural structures.

Free men built Egyptian pyramids


In Egypt, excavators have discovered tombs that reinforce the notion that free workers rather than slaves built the great pyramids. The tombs, on the Giza plateau at the western edge of Cairo, are 4,510 years old and lie at the entrance to a one-kilometer long necropolis.

According to Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the chief archaeologist leading the Egyptian excavation team, these tombs, built beside the king's pyramid, indicate that these people could not have been slaves.  If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs next to their king's.

The collection of workers' tombs, some found in the 1990s, belonged to workers who built the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre.  Earlier, Hawass had found graffiti on the walls from workers who called themselves "friends of Khufu,” another sign that they were not slaves.  Hawass noted that evidence shows farmers in the Delta and Upper Egypt had sent 21 buffalo and 23 sheep to the plateau every day to feed the builders, believed to number around 10,000, about a tenth of Greek historian Herodotus's estimate of 100,000.  According to Hawass, the farmers who sent the animals were exempt from paying taxes to the Egyptian government, but they were contributing directly to one of Egypt's national projects.  It must be recognized, of course, that this was a project organized by the Pharaoh himself, the head of government in Egypt.

The workers were employed for three-month stints, and the tombs, which date from the fourth and fifth dynasties of 2649 to 2374 BC, were for those who died during construction.   
Modern Egyptian authorities have long fought the stereotype of slaves building the pyramids, saying it undermines the skill involved in the construction, as well as the sophistication of ancient Egypt's civilization.

Indonesian temple reveals Hindu past


Our final story is from Indonesia, where archaeologists have uncovered a 1,000-year-old temple that could shed light on the country's Hindu past.  The intricately carved statues and reliefs found in Yogyakarta, in south-central Java, are some of the best preserved in Indonesia.

Workers laying foundations for a new library on the grounds of Yogyakarta's Islamic University realized the land beneath their feet was not stable.  The digging revealed an extraordinary find: still-standing temple walls located three meters underground.  Heavy rains then exposed the top of a statue of the god Ganesha in immaculate condition.  A few weeks into the excavation, archaeologists are declaring the temple and its rare and beautiful statues an important discovery that could provide insights into Indonesia's pre-Islamic culture.  A volcanic eruption most likely covered the temple around the 10th Century, about 100 years after construction.  The eruption preserved its statues and reliefs in better condition than other discoveries in Indonesia.

According to one of the researchers at the site, this temple is a quite significant and very valuable because no other excavations have located a temple as complete and intact as this one.  The statues are still in their original positions, unlike at other temples.  Now that they are exposed, the temple's contents need protection with 24-hour security.  Last November, thieves plundered the nearby Plaosan Temple.  They stole the heads of two rare Buddhist statues for trade with organized syndicates dealing in artifacts.  The university wants to open the site to the public once the dig is complete.  The future library at the site, undergoing redesign, will incorporate the Hindu temple.

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