Audio news April 11th to April 17th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news April 11th to April 17th, 2010.


High official’s tomb shows life in lower Egypt


Our first story is from Egypt, where the intricately decorated burial tomb of an ancient royal scribe has been unearthed near Ismailia, 120 kilometers east of Cairo.  According to Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the burial dates to the 19th Dynasty, the time of Ramesses the Great, from 1315-1201 BC, and is the first Ramesside-period tomb found in Lower Egypt.  Built of mud bricks, it comprises a rectangular room with a domed ceiling of stone and a deep square-shaped central shaft.  In it, Egyptian archaeologists found a large limestone sarcophagus covered with inscriptions.  The inscriptions identify the deceased as Ken Amun, the overseer of the royal records during the 19th Dynasty.  The tomb’s walls also bear the titles of the deceased and the names of his wife, who was called Isis.  The inscriptions reveal that she was a musician for the god Atum.  The walls are also decorated with reliefs of funerary scenes from the Book of the Dead, ending with the famous vignettes from Chapter 125 that show the critical judgment ceremony called the weighing of the heart.  This involved comparing the weight of the deceased’s heart to a feather of Maat, goddess of justice, truth and order.  If the heart is lighter than the feather, the deceased is worthy of the company of the gods.  If the scale holding the heart plunges downward with the weight of its sins, it fails.  The crocodile-headed demon Ammit devours the heart and the deceased is condemned to an existence between worlds.  Other important scenes in the tomb include a depiction of the goddess Hathor in the shape of a cow as she emerges from the Delta marshes, as well as a scene of the four sons of Horus, believed to protect the stomach, liver, intestines, and lungs of mummified bodies.  The scenes and titles in the tomb show that Ken Amun was not just keeper of the royal records, but a well-regarded man.  Dr. Hawass noted that the find will help provide information about the history of the Delta and the relationship between this area and the eastern border of Egypt.  While conservation and restoration work begins at the tomb, excavations will continue at the site, which also holds 35 other tombs from the Roman period.  

Mayan home rebuilding cycles are physical record of beliefs


Shifting to Central America, a new study in Belize is revealing that illiterate Maya commoners found a way to record their own history, by burying it within their homes.  With a study of the objects in the layers of floors in homes occupied more than 1,000 years ago, in the central region of Belize, archaeologist Lisa Lucero has begun to decode these stories.  Mayans in the Classic period, from AD 250-900, regularly ended the life of their homes by leveling the walls, burning the floors and then placing artifacts and sometimes also human remains on top of the burned floor, before burning the entire remains again.  Evidence suggests that these rituals occurred every 40 or 50 years and likely marked important dates in the Maya calendar.  After this formal act of termination, the family built a new home on the old foundation, using broken and whole vessels, colorful fragments, animal bones and rocks to mark important areas and to provide ballast for a new plaster floor.  According to Lucero, a University of Illinois anthropology professor, while Mayan royals recorded their history in writing and in imagery carved on monuments, the commoners had their own way of recording their own history.  Their house rituals commemorated not only their history as a family, but also their place in the cosmos.  Lucero calls this a kind of de-animation and reanimation of the home, which marked the passage of time and the cyclical nature of life.  Anthropologists have known for decades about such rituals, but Lucero chose to look more closely at how the arrangement, color and condition of the buried artifacts lent them their symbolic meaning.  She and her team found about a dozen human remains in the two homes they excavated in a small Maya center in central Belize.  Occupation of the homes took place from about AD 450 to 1150.  Burial in the home was common among the Maya, but only the remains of a few family members are found there.  As yet undiscovered are cemeteries for the rest of the dead.  The ritual included removing bones from earlier ancestors to place them somewhere else, or removing pieces and keeping them as mementos. No evidence exists that high status individuals were specifically selected for burial in the home, however.  It appears more likely that family members who died on or near important dates were placed there for the termination and reanimation rituals.  The team found full or partial skeletons of men, women and children, with artifacts arranged around and even on top of the bodies.  Some bodies lay flat, but others were in a sitting position that may have signified a higher status.  Some of the bones were removed, most often the spine and the pelvis.  Black is the color of the west, death and the underworld, but Lucero never found black objects in or near a burial.  This confirms that just as the Maya believed in a cyclical way of living, they didn’t think of people as dying so much as becoming ancestors.  Colors such as red, representing the east, life and rebirth, are thus more common in the burials; sometimes in the form of an unbroken red vessel inverted over a skull or kneecap, or as red artifacts found on the east side of the body.  Ceramic vessels were a very significant part of the dedication rites.  Lucero found bowls and jars in perfect condition, which were apparently manufactured specifically for the occasion.  For house termination rites, archaeologists also found used vessels with their rims broken off, jars lacking bases or necks, and vessels stacked in groups of three.  The rimless vessels caught Lucero’s interest, because other studies have also found incomplete vessels at temple sites, with the missing pieces located in nearby homes.  Removing the rims may have been a way of de-animating them as well as giving a piece to somebody else.  Lucero notes that perhaps the Maya revered the fragments of vessels or the bones of their ancestors in the same way that people today hold on to, and cherish, religious relics.  The new analysis supports her hypothesis that many of the elaborate rituals performed by Maya rulers and elites had a basis in the domestic rituals of their subjects.  Nearly everything royal emerged, developed, or evolved from domestic practices, she notes.  Her complete study appears in the new issue of the Journal of Social Archaeology.

Early Americans show carbon footprint, too


In the United States, a study led by Ohio University scientists suggests that early Native Americans left a bigger carbon footprint than previously thought, providing more evidence of human impact on global climate long before the modern industrial era.  Chemical analysis of a stalagmite found in the Buckeye Creek basin of West Virginia suggests that native people contributed a significant level of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through land use practices.  The early Native Americans burned trees to actively manage the forests to increase the yield of nuts and fruit, which were a large portion of their diets.  According to Gregory Springer, a geology professor at Ohio University and lead author of the study published in the recent journal The Holocene, these early Americans had achieved a sophisticated level of living that has not yet been fully appreciated.   They knew how to get the most out of the forests and landscapes they lived in all across North America, not just in a few locations.  Initially, Springer and his collaborators in the research, from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Minnesota, were studying historic drought cycles in North America using carbon isotopes in stalagmites.  Unexpectedly, the carbon record contained evidence of a major change in the local ecosystem beginning at 100 BC.  This intrigued the team because an archeological excavation in a nearby cave had yielded evidence of a Native American community there 2,000 years ago.  Springer recruited two Ohio University graduate students to examine stream sediments, and with assistance of Harold Rowe of the University of Texas at Arlington, the team found very high levels of charcoal beginning 2,000 years ago, as well as a carbon isotope history similar to that in the stalagmite.  The evidence suggests that Native Americans significantly altered the local ecosystem by clearing and burning forests, probably to make fields and enhance the growth of nut trees.  This contrasts to the common idea that early Native Americans had little impact on North American landscapes.  They were better land stewards than the European colonialists who followed, Springer notes, and this is partly why their influence goes unnoticed.  However, they also cleared more land and burned more forest than previously thought.  This long-ago land clearing would have affected global climate, Springer added.  Ongoing clearing and burning of the Amazon rainforest, for example, is one of the world's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  Prehistoric burning by Native Americans was less intense, but still a source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Early Dartmoor sites show Stonehenge links


Our final story is from southern England, where spreading across the hills of Dartmoor in Devon are around 80 rows and circles of standing stones, which have long suggested some kind of connection to Stonehenge.  A new study now has documented several similarities between one of these monuments and Stonehenge, 180 kilometers to the east, to argue they are the work of the same society.  The row of nine stones on Cut Hill was discovered in 2004, on one of the highest, most remote hills of Dartmoor National Park.  According to Andrew Fleming, president of the Devon Archaeological Society, the site is on easily the most spectacular hill in north Dartmoor.  If you were looking for a distant shrine in the center of the north moor, this prominence is where you would put it.  Ralph Fyfe of the University of Plymouth and independent archaeologist Tom Greeves have carbon-dated the peat surrounding the stones, with results that suggest at least one of the stones had fallen, or been placed flat on the ground, between 3600 and 3440 BC, and another in the period from 3350 to 3100 BC.  This is surprising to archaeologists, who, on the strength of artifacts found nearby, had assumed that Dartmoor monuments like Cut Hill and Stall Moor dated from the Bronze Age, around 2100 to 1600 BC.  Instead, Fyfe suggests that Cut Hill is from the Neolithic period, the same era as Stonehenge’s construction, although a few centuries before the first phase of Stonehenge.  Unlike Stonehenge, the 2-meter-tall Cut Hill stones lie flat on the ground, parallel to each other and between 19 meters and 34.5 meters apart.  Packing stones discovered at the end of one of the megaliths suggest at least one of them stood erect at some point, and the regularity of their current layout makes deliberate placement likely, Greeves noted.  In addition, the stones' alignment with the summer and winter solstices seems identical to that of the well-known calendrical monuments, including Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland, and Maes Howe in Scotland.  

That wraps up the news for this week!
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