Audio news for February 14th to February 20th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 14th to February 20th, 2010.


Hand-axes on Crete push seafaring back 100,000 years


Our first story is from the island of Crete, where early humans appear to have been going to sea much longer than anyone previously suspected.  Archaeologists say stone tools found on the island are at least 130,000 years old and possibly up to 700,000 years old.  This is not just the oldest evidence for very early seafaring in the Mediterranean, but it also forces some rethinking about the maritime capabilities of early humans, even possibly before Homo sapiens.  Since Crete has been an island for more than five million years, the ancient makers of these quartz hand axes, cleavers and scrapers must have arrived by boat.  If confirmed, the evidence pushes the history of Mediterranean voyaging back 100,000 years before what was previously known.  Past evidence has showed people reaching Cyprus, other Greek islands, and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.  The oldest previously established early marine travel anywhere was the migration of modern Homo sapiens to Australia, about 60,000 years ago.  Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou led the Cretan team that recovered more than 2,000 stone artifacts on the southwestern shore of Crete, near the town of Plakias.  According to Strasser, the style of the hand axes strongly resembles artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean (a-SHEW-lee-an) that originated with prehuman populations in Africa.  Strasser, an associate professor of art history at Providence College in Rhode Island, and co-leader Panagopoulou, from the Greek Ministry of Culture, were joined by Greek and American geologists and other archaeologists, including Curtis Runnels of Boston University.  Strasser presented the discovery last month at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.  A formal report will appear in Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.  The team began work two years ago hoping to find material remains of more recent artisans, no older than 11,000 years.  At first they found just that -- blades, spear points and arrowheads typical of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.  Then they found the hand axes.  

The research, if confirmed by further study, will change accounts of early human and prehuman movements and technology.  According to Dr. Runnels, who has worked for 30 years in Stone Age research, and analyzed the site along with three geologists, there is little doubt of the age of the site, and the tools must be even older.  The caves and cliffs around the site result from tectonic uplift, where the African plate goes under the European plate, and the geology has been well studied and dated.  Analyzing the layer in which the tools were found, the team determined that the soil had been on the surface 130,000 to 190,000 years ago.  Dr. Runnels considered this a minimum age for the tools themselves.  The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago.  Their presence in Europe is not seen until about 50,000 years ago.  Archaeologists can only guess who these toolmakers were, since 130,000 years ago, modern humans still shared the world with other hominids, such as Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis.  The Acheulean culture started with Homo erectus.  The standard view had been that Acheulean toolmakers reached Europe and Asia through the Middle East, passing primarily through modern day Turkey into the Balkans.  This new find, however, suggests that their migration was not confined to land.  In addition to sturdy watercraft, the early voyagers must have had the cognitive skills to travel these distances repeatedly in order to leave so many stone tools.

Bosworth battleground found, showing where Richard III’s death changed English history


In England, archaeologists have located the site of the Battle of Bosworth, and the very spot where Richard III became the last English king to die in battle, when he was killed by Tudor swords on August 22, 1485.  Close by this place, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII, with the crown that fell from the dying Richard's head.  The critical evidence, including badges of the supporters of both kings, sword mounts, coins and 28 cannonballs, was uncovered in the fields of Fen Lane in the Leicestershire parish of Upton, where no historian had looked before.  Fen Lane was once a Roman road linking Leicester and Atherstone, the towns from which Richard and Henry approached the battle.  The artifacts add up to more than the total found on all other medieval battle sites in Europe.  Archaeologists searched for the site for five years, using metal detectors over hundreds of acres and poring over evidence of medieval place names to match them to accounts of the battle.  Their finds suggest an expansive fight, with the two armies facing one another in irregular lines almost a half-mile long.  Frank Baldwin, the chair of the Battlefields Trust charity, noted that the discovery is as important to England as Schliemann discovering Troy.  The heart of the widespread site is more than a mile from the modern visitor center commemorating the battle.  From behind a barn came the largest cannonball, about the size of a grapefruit.  Another crucial discovery was a silver boar no bigger than a thumbnail, battered but still snarling fiercely after more than 500 years in the ground.  The badge came from the edge of a field called Fen Hole that in medieval times was a marsh.  The fen played a major role in the battle by protecting the flank of Henry Tudor's much smaller army.  After a charge in which Richard came within almost a sword's reach of Henry, he lost his horse in the marsh, the moment immortalized in the desperate cry Shakespeare attributed to him: "A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!"  According to Glenn Foard, the internationally known researcher who led the search for the site of the battle, the little boar was Richard's personal emblem, identifying one of the closest members of his staff.  The man wearing it would have fought and died at Richard's side.  Other finds include a gold ring and an inch of gilded sword mount from a weapon of such high rank that it can only have belonged to one of the aristocrats who led the battle forces.

Copper workshop found at Cahokia mound


An 800-year-old copper workshop has come to light at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.  The workshop is in Mound 34, about 200 yards east of the huge, very well-known Monk's Mound, and dates to the Mississippian era, which reached its zenith about AD 1250.  Mississippian culture flourished throughout the middle and southern regions of the U.S., with Cahokia’s mounds marking a city of perhaps 20,000.  According to James A. Brown, professor of archaeology at Northwestern University, the discovery in Mound 34 is the only copper workshop yet discovered.   Brown and his co-leader John Kelly, of Washington University in St. Louis, have led an eight-year investigation to find the workshop and excavate the often minute particles and bits of copper that were left behind.  According to Brown, the copper workshop was solely for religious purposes, to produce ornaments for those who participated in significant ceremonies that probably occurred atop the mounds.  The symbols and figures on copper ornaments, also found on pieces of pottery and decorated shells, always depict otherworldly beings.  The copper decorations have turned up throughout Illinois and the southeast United States.  Forms include triangular, 8-inch long-earrings embossed at the ends with a human face, headdress ornaments depicting stylized birds, and even tiny, carefully crafted copper ovals that may have been applied to a leather belt or cape.  

The copper workshop was previously found, then lost, 60 years ago, by a self-taught local archaeologist, whose sometimes heavy-handed techniques included bulldozing.  He found two copper workshops, but because he also thought such workshops were already well-known he left only rudimentary maps, and it took decades to relocate the one at Mound 34.  The rediscovery has gained national attention and funding from National Geographic Society for the ongoing research.  Dark circular stains found in the soil of the 3-by-6-foot workshop area may be from tree stumps used as anvil bases.  Brown and Kelly believe a flat anvil stone was placed on a leveled off stump, and a palm-sized hammer of very hard basalt was used to pound the raw copper flat.  Experimental archaeology shows that this method, plus a lot of muscle power, can be used to work the copper lumps, which probably came from the Great Lakes.  Metallurgical inspection under an electron microscope shows the molecular structure of the copper artifacts was altered by annealing, a process of repeated heating and cooling, just as a later blacksmith worked iron.  

One goal at Cahokia is to determine its role in the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, the series of ancient cities and mounds that reached from Wisconsin through Illinois and into Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia.  The copper workshop is being studied for the light it sheds on fragments of an engraved drinking cup found at the top of Mound 34.  The cup is made from a conch shell, probably from the Gulf of Mexico, and bears a distinctive arrow-like symbol with a circle in the arrowhead.  This symbol first turned up on the walls of rockshelters in Wisconsin and east-central Missouri with associated dates of about AD 1000, more than two centuries before Cahokia’s peak.  The engraved arrows may have functioned like an advertising logo today, to tie the ancient civilization to a symbol recognized by all.  The religious leaders, who are thought to have lived atop the mound, drank from the ceremonial cups, and used decorative copper items also bearing the marks of their high rank, made in the workshop below the mound.  The workshop and shell cup fragments hint that Cahokia may have been the center and not just an outlying fringe of the ancient Mississippian culture.  Unlike many other Mississippian sites, which were heavily and often brutally excavated in the past, most of Cahokia still lies buried, with only an estimated 1 percent of the site so far known.

Italian site may have held the tree of the Golden Bough  


In our final story from Italy, archaeologists may have found a stone enclosure that once protected the legendary "Golden Bough" of Roman times.  In Rome’s mythology, the bough was a tree branch with golden leaves that enabled the Trojan hero Aeneas to travel safely through the underworld, in his quests that led to his founding the city of Rome.  The stone enclosure remains were discovered during excavation of a religious sanctuary built in honor of the goddess Diana, near an ancient volcanic lake in the Alban Hills, 20 miles south of Rome.  Researchers believe the enclosure by Lake Avernus protected a huge cypress or oak tree sacred to the ancient Latins, the powerful tribe that ruled the region before the rise of Rome.  The tree was mentioned in the myth of Aeneas, who plucked a branch bearing golden leaves to protect himself when he ventured into Hades to seek counsel from his dead father.  In a different, more historically grounded tale, the Latins believed the tree symbolized the power of their priest-king.  Anyone who broke off a branch, even a fugitive slave, could then challenge the king in a fight to the death.  If the king died in the battle, the challenger assumed his position as the tribe's leader.  

According to Filippo Coarelli, a recently retired professor of archaeology at Perugia University, and leader of the team, the enclosure was unearthed after months of excavations in the volcanic soil near Nemi (NAY-mee).  Pottery around the stone feature dates it to the mid to late Bronze Age, between the 12th and 13th centuries BC.  According to Professor Coarelli, the numerous pottery pieces are votive or ritual in nature, which along with the location confirms that it was a sacred structure.  The stone enclosure is in the middle of an area that contains the ruins of an immense sanctuary dedicated to Diana, the goddess of hunting, along with the remains of terracing, fountains, cisterns and a nymphaeum.   According to Christopher Smith, the head of the British School at Rome, the discovery adds to evidence about this extraordinarily important sanctuary, where the Latins gathered to worship up until the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BC.  Virgil’s narrative of the golden bough comes from his epic, the Aeneid, written during the reign of the Emperor Augustus five centuries later.  Aeneas was said to have journeyed from Troy to Italy, where he eventually founded the city of Rome.  Along the way, the sibyls or seers at the sanctuary told Aeneas to go to the underworld, bearing the branch of gold as a token for safe passage into the land of the dead and back.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at , where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!