Audio  news March 21st to March 27th, 2010


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


1400 year old Buddhist Temple found in Bangladesh


Our first story is from Bangladesh, where archaeologists have unearthed a 1,400-year-old Lotus Temple at Wari-Bateshwar, an ancient fort city and emporium in the northeastern part of the country.  The size and shapes of the bricks and other finds from the area suggests the site was a Buddha Vihara or monastery built in the Seventh or Eighth century A.D..

Expedition leader Professor Sufi Mostafizur Rahman of Jahangirnagar University says that the excavation is the first-ever proof that Buddhism flourished and was practiced in the Wari-Bateshwar region.

In 2001, the assessment of charcoal samples confirmed human habitation and industry in Wari-Bateshwar around 450 BC.  Archaeologists believe this early civilization lasted for 500 years, ending long before the construction of the temple, but was just the first of many phases of ancient settlement in the region.  The archaeology team excavated a small section of the temple last year.  The current excavation unearthed the perfectly square brick-built structure.  The excavators concluded the structure was a Buddhist Lotus Temple when they found an eight-petal lotus made of dressed red bricks embedded in an altar.  In Buddhism, the lotus or padma is an important symbol of many aspects of the path to enlightenment.  Artists frequently depict Buddha sitting on a fully blossomed lotus.  Excavators also found remnants of seven more brick-built lotuses and a 70 cm circumambulation path around the temple.  Circumambulation is a form of worship involving a circular procession.

The team of archaeologists is working to determine how long the temple survived in each settlement phase and why it was destroyed and rebuilt.

According to a copper plaque found in 1885 at Ashrafpur, which is seven km from the site, King Devakhadga, who reigned from about AD 658-673, donated land to four monasteries in the area.  Rahman says this might be one of the four sites.


New carbon dating method spares objects from damage


Researchers exploring the past have developed a new method to estimate the age of ancient mummies, old artwork, and other artifacts without causing harm to the object.  According to Marvin Rowe, research team leader and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University in College Station, the technique stands to revolutionize radiocarbon dating and expand the possibility of analyzing museum collections, which have previously been off limits because of their rarity or inherent value and the destructive nature of the current method of radiocarbon dating.  Rowe and his team announced the results of their new research at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Traditional carbon dating involves removing and burning small samples of the object.  Although it requires taking only minute samples of an object, even that damage may be unacceptable for some artifacts.  The new method does not involve removing a sample of the object.  Called "non-destructive carbon dating," the new technique eliminates sampling, the destructive acid-base washes, and burning.  Instead, scientists place an entire artifact in a special chamber with plasma gas.  The gas slowly and gently oxidizes the surface of the object to produce carbon dioxide for C-14 analysis without damaging the surface.

Rowe and his colleagues used the technique to analyze the ages of 20 different organic substances, including wood, charcoal, leather, rabbit hair, a bone with mummified flesh attached, and a 1,350-year-old Egyptian weaving.  The results match those of conventional carbon dating techniques.

Conventional carbon dating estimates the age of an artifact based on its content of carbon-14, or C-14, a naturally occurring and radioactive form of carbon.  Comparing the object’s C-14 proportion, which declines over time as the unstable atoms decay, to the proportion of C-14 known to occur in the atmosphere allows scientists to estimate the age of an artifact.  Both the conventional and new carbon dating methods can determine the age of objects as far back as 45,000 to 50,000 years.

4000 year old mummies in western China show European features


In the middle of a desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an astonishing 4000 year old cemetery.  The cemetery lies in the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses.  Their remains, buried in upside-down boats, are well preserved by the dry desert air.  Where tombstones might stand, their cemetery has a dynamic gathering of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The ancient people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown.  However, many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and the language they spoke.  The graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin.  The Taklimakan Desert, a harsh wilderness, occupies most of the basin.

In modern times, Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China, have occupied the region.  Ethnic tensions recently have arisen between the two groups.  The ancient mummies have become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th Century, have used them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs.  Li Jin, geneticist at Fudan University, stated in a 2007 report that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and South Asian origin.  The mummies in the cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin.  Carbon testing at Beijing University shows that the oldest part of the cemetery dates to 3,980 years ago.

Despite the political conflict over the mummies’ origin, the researchers said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China.  All the men analyzed had a Y chromosome now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China.  The mitochondrial DNA, passed down the female line, represented a Siberian lineage and two that are common in Europe.  Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, the team concludes the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.  
The Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman discovered the cemetery in 1934, and then researchers forgot it for 66 years.  Archaeologists excavated the site from 2003 to 2005.  As they dug through the five layers of burials, they came across almost 200 poles, 13 feet tall.  Many had flat blades, painted black and red, in the shape of oars.  At the foot of each pole were indeed boats, lying upside down and a covered with cowhide.  The bodies, still wearing their burial clothes, were inside the boats.  They wore hefty woolen capes with tassels and leather boots and felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, resembling Tyrolean hats of the European Alps.  The clothes beneath were woolen loincloths for the men and skirts made of string strands for the women.  Within each boat-coffin, researchers found grave goods, including skillfully woven grass baskets, adeptly carved masks and bundles of an herb used in rituals or as medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or at its side.  Archaeologists concluded the shape of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.  The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops, which appear to be symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats.

Dr. Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin, says that the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was a believable analysis.  The buried people’s evident reverence of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility.  Nevertheless, they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, because they buried several women in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.  Living in harsh surroundings, infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great.  Women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood might be particularly revered.
Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe.  Boat burials were common among the Vikings and the string skirts and phallic symbols are known from Bronze Age burials of northern Europe.  The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago.  They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around AD 400.
 The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages.  Researchers have found manuscripts written in Tokharian in the Tarim Basin, where it was spoken between about AD 500 and 900.  The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is a clear continuity of culture.  An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opened on March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.  It is the first time people outside of Asia will be able to view the mummies.


Strange stones spheres evaluated for UNESCO


Our final story is from Costa Rica, where a University of Kansas professor is investigating the mysterious ancient stone spheres of the region.  John Hoopes, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Global Indigenous Nations Studies Program, and colleagues evaluated the stone balls for UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization that might grant the spheres World Heritage Status.  His report will help determine if sites linked to the massive orbs should be preserved and promoted because of their outstanding value to humanity.

Hoopes, who researches ancient cultures of Central and South America, is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Costa Rican spheres.  According to Hoopes, the earliest reports of the stones come from the late 19th Century, but no one reported the stones scientifically until the 1930s.  They remained unknown until the United Fruit Company began clearing land for banana plantations in southern Costa Rica.  Around 300 balls exist, the largest weighing 16 tons and measuring eight feet in diameter.  The Diquis Delta region is home to many clusters.  Some remain untouched in the original places of discovery, but erosion, fires and vandalism have damaged others.

Scientists believe the native population first created the stones around AD 600 and most date to after AD 1000 but before the Spanish conquest.  Hoopes notes they date the spheres by pottery styles and radiocarbon dates on archeological deposits associated with them.  One of the problems with this methodology is that it tells you the latest use of the sphere but it does not tell you when artisans made it.  People can use objects for centuries and researchers can then find them sitting where they were abandoned thousands of years later.

Speculation and pseudoscience have plagued general understanding of the stone spheres.  For instance, publications have claimed that the balls are associated with the lost continent of Atlantis.  Others have alleged that the balls are navigational aids or relics related to Stonehenge or the massive heads on Easter Island.  In reality, archaeological excavations in the 1940s found the stone balls linked to pottery and materials typical of pre-Columbian cultures of southern Costa Rica.  Hoopes points out that we really do not know why people made the spheres, but he has created a Web page to counter some of the misconceptions about them.  The people who made them did not leave any written records.  The culture of the people who made them faded away shortly after the Spanish conquest.  No myths, legends or other stories told by the indigenous people of Costa Rica explain why people made these spheres.  Researchers believe the main technique used in their construct was pecking and grinding and hammering with stones.  Some spheres still have the marks left by the blows of the hammer stones.  

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