Audio news for February 21st to February 27th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 21st to February 27th, 2010.


Home of last Roman king reportedly found outside Rome


Our first story is from Italy, where excavators may have found the remains of the residence of the Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last legendary king of Rome, on the slopes of an extinct volcanic crater.  Located about 12 miles from Rome, the palace is on the site of the ancient acropolis of Gabii where, according to legend, Rome's mythical founders, Romulus and Remus, were educated.  Dating to the Sixth Century BC, the building possesses the highest intact walls from the period ever found in Italy, standing at almost seven feet high.

Archaeologist Marco Fabbri of Rome's Tor Vergata University and colleagues from Rome's Archaeological Superintendency believe that rebels demolished the residence during the Roman revolt in 510 BC that ultimately led to the foundation of the Roman Republic.  The dig has revealed that the richly decorated monumental roof was dismantled and the building filled with rubble, allowing the palace to remain virtually intact.

The ongoing excavation so far has unearthed three disconnected rooms that most likely opened onto a porticoed area.  Under the building's extraordinarily well preserved floor slabs, eight round cells contained the remains of five stillborn babies.

Fabbri and his team hope to unearth the rest of the residence this spring.  In particular, they are looking to piece together the ornately decorated roof.  The already have found a terracotta fragment of the roof featuring the image of the Minotaur, an emblem of the Tarquins.  Fabbri notes this is a strong piece of evidence to support the hypothesis that the Tarquin family used the structure.

The archaeologists do not rule out the hypothesis that the building was home to generations of Tarquins, and believe its last occupant was Sextus Tarquinius, the son of Tarquinius Superbus or Tarquin the Proud.  Sextus Tarquinius is notorious for having raped Lucretia, the virtuous wife of his cousin Tarquinius Collatinus.  The Roman historian Titus Livius recounts that Lucretia, overcome with sorrow and shame, stabbed herself after the attack.  Her death sparked the revolt that put to an end the rule of kings over Rome.

According to Nicola Terrenato, professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan and currently heading another Gabii archaeological project, there is no doubt that the ruins belonged to the cultural context of the late, archaic kings or tyrants in central Italy.  Terrenato commented that even if the precise provenience was not 100 percent correct, this would not detract much from the scholarly value of this wonderful discovery.  Gabii's archaeological potential is enormous.  It is one of the largest cities in Latium or ancient central Italy, and it is completely unencumbered by later buildings. To date excavation covers less than 10 percent of the city.

Did the First Americans arrive via the high Arctic?


In a paper just publish in the journal Current Biology, a pair of University of Utah anthropologists are proposing that the first human migrants to the Americas came early and via the High Arctic.  

Describing the hypothesis as speculative but plausible, Dennis O’Rourke and Jennifer Raff suggest the first humans may have arrived as early as 25,000 years ago, using skin boats to follow the northern Siberian coast to northern Alaska and then across the Arctic Ocean coastline and up the major rivers such as the MacKenzie River into the interior.  This route would have led them down the eastern coastline of North America.

O’Rourke and Raff say they are offering this new hypothesis to open up the First Americans debate to consider new ideas.  They also think that their model helps explain a couple of facts that some other ideas don’t.  Specifically, they point to Bluefish Caves in the Yukon, where some researchers, but not a consensus, believe that people 25,000 years ago deposited stone flakes and butchered mammoth bones.  They also refer to the fact that most Clovis-age artifacts, dating around 13,000 years ago, are found in eastern North America.

The timing and routes of the first human populations in the Americas represents one of the most disputed and hottest topics in modern science.  Recently, opinion has been moving toward the notion of a West Coast migration, beginning perhaps 16,000 years ago, from the Asian and Alaskan coasts all the way down to Chile, where the Monte Verde site has a widely accepted date of 14,500 years.  Demonstrating that this migration happened is made difficult by rising seas at the end of the last Ice Age, so most sites that might have been occupied by coastal migrants would now be under water.  The new hypothesis of O’Rourke and Raff is sure to promote another round of scientific debate.


Toba super-eruption may not have caused mass extinction


Now we jump to India, where newly discovered archaeological sites reveal how people lived before and after the massive Toba volcanic eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago.  The international, multidisciplinary research team, led by Oxford University in alliance with Indian institutions, unveiled what it calls “Pompeii-like excavations” beneath the Toba ash.  The Toba eruption, referred to as mega-colossal, may have reduced worldwide temperatures by 3.5 degrees Celsius for several years and potentially caused massive ecological damage in many places worldwide.

The seven-year project examined the environment humans lived in and their stone tools, as well as the plants and animal bones of the time.  The team has concluded that many forms of life survived the super-eruption, which contradicts other research suggesting significant animal extinctions and genetic logjams.

According to the team, a potentially ground-breaking implication of the new work is that the species responsible for making the stone tools in India was Homo sapiens.  Stone tool analysis has revealed that the artifacts are cores and flakes, classified in India as Middle Paleolithic and similar to those made by modern humans in Africa.

Project director Dr. Michael Petraglia, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, notes that although research is still looking for human fossils to definitively prove the case, they are encouraged by the technological similarities.  This suggests that human populations were present in India prior to 74,000 years ago, or about 15,000 years earlier than expected based on some genetic clocks.

An area of speculation about the Toba super-eruption is that it almost resulted in the extinction of humanity.  The fact that the Middle Paleolithic tools of similar styles are found right before and after the Toba super-eruption suggests that people who survived the eruption were the same populations, using the same kinds of tools.

The research agrees with evidence that other human ancestors, such as the Neanderthals in Europe and the small-brained Hobbits on Flores Island in Indonesia, continued to survive well after Toba.  Although some scientists have hypothesized the Toba volcano led to severe and wholesale environmental destruction, the new research in India suggests that a variety of ecological settings was present, and some areas experienced a fairly rapid recovery after the volcanic event.

The team has not discovered much bone in Toba ash sites, but in the Billasurgam Cave, the researchers have found deposits they believe range from at least 100,000 years ago to the present containing animal bones from wild cattle, carnivores and monkeys.  Researchers have also identified plant materials in the ash sites and caves, yielding important information about the impact of the Toba super-eruption on the ecological settings.

Dr. Petraglia concludes that this new information questions the idea that the Toba super-eruption caused a worldwide environmental catastrophe.  That is not to say that there were no ecological effects. There is evidence that the ash temporarily disrupted vegetative communities and it certainly choked and polluted some fresh water sources, probably causing harm to wildlife and maybe even humans.


Ancient resident of Roman Britain of African origin


Our final story is from the United Kingdom, where archaeologists have revealed the remains of a high status woman of African origin who lived in York during Roman times.  Her sarcophagus of stone was a sign of immense wealth in Roman Britain.  Scientific research techniques have established that a lavish grave containing a woman’s skeleton, an ivory bangle, perfume bottle, mirror and jewelry belonged to a North African member of York’s high society in the 4th Century.  The analysis of isotopes from the teeth revealed that water she drank during her childhood held minerals likely found in North Africa.  Skull measurements ascertain the “Ivory Bangle Lady” was black or of mixed race.

Her well-preserved remains showed that she was about five feet tall and between 18 and 23 years old.  The skeleton showed no signs of a violent death and muscle markings showed that she had not lived a laborious life, suggesting privileged circumstances.  Among the goods found in her grave was a bone with the inscription “Sor ave vivas in Deo” or “Hail, sister, may you live in God,” suggesting that she may also have been a Christian.

Researchers from the University of Reading’s [RED-ing] department of archaeology believe that the ivory bangle, an artifact rarely found in Roman Britain, may have been a memento of home.  According to researcher Hella Eckardt, analysis of her and others like her contradicts assumptions about the make-up of Roman-British populations as well as the view that African immigrants were of low status, male and likely to have been slaves.  She says that inscriptions from that period show that African people were most often members of the Roman army.  Consistent with this, the latest research on a series of skeletons showed that African men had immigrated to Britain, invariably with the Roman Army, and had brought their wives and children.  

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