Audio news from May 9th to May 16th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 9th to May 16th, 2010.

New 3-dimensional map of Robin Hood’s old stomping grounds


Our first story is from the Nottingham caves in England, where historians believe the legendary Robin Hood may have spent some time in prison, and where medieval brewmeisters made beer. Archaeologists from Trent & Peak Archaeology and The University of Nottingham are conducting the survey in an effort to create a three dimensional, color animation that internet visitors can use to tour a network of caves. Laser scanners that can create 500,000 survey points per second have been recording these caves, which early area residents chiseled by hand into a sandstone formation known as the Sherwood Sandstone. Visitors have not seen some of these caves for hundreds of years.

Investigators know of at least 450 caves. Some of these are national monuments and others are still in use as pub cellars. The researchers’ goal is to be able to map these 450, and perhaps many more, within the next two years. In an attempt to discover more caves, the team is encouraging the people of Nottingham to contact them if they happen to have such a cave or tunnel in their backyard or near their office. If researchers go on location, they will likely arrive by bicycle as they are using trailer-pulling bicycles to get themselves and their laser equipment around the city.

This project will update information gathered in 1980 by the British Geological Survey, and expand appreciation for the caves by showing residents and visitors what a distinctive resource they are. The Greater Nottingham Partnership, English Heritage, The University of Nottingham and Nottingham City Council are funding the project.

Re-thinking the mysteries of Easter Island


Now we go to Easter Island, where researchers from Britain are swapping Thor Heyerdahl’s 50-year-old idea that inhabitants used a network of roads to transport the enormous statues, or moai, for a 100-year-old proposal that Easter Islanders primarily used the roads for a ceremonial function. British archaeologist Katherine Routledge introduced the older of the two hypotheses in 1914. She began, but did not complete, the first real survey of Easter Island.

Manchester University’s Colin Richards and University College London’s Sue Hamilton believe that Routledge’s theory makes sense because the roads from many different areas of the island all lead to the Rano Raraku volcano. Easter Island inhabitants believed that volcanoes were entrances to the underworld, a mythical land called Hawaiki where many Polynesian cultures believe they came from. So the volcano would have been the ceremonial center of the island. Easter Islanders lined up the moai, which are representations of dead ancestors, along the roads so that they would face anyone who walked along it, and as the roads approach the volcano their numbers increase, which Richards and Hamilton believe indicates increasing levels of holiness.

Also in question was Heyerdahl’s proposal that the statues explorers found lying on their faces and on their backs were abandoned during their transportation. Richards and Hamilton used geophysical survey equipment to send electricity down into the soil and measure how strongly the soil opposed the flow of electric currant. The compiled data created a map of an ancient soil surface. What they found was that the horizontal statues had merely fallen off the platforms that they had once stood on. Furthermore, the researchers do not believe that the inhabitants used the roads to transport the statues at all. They refer to previous excavations that indicated that the roads are concave, which they believe would make it very difficult to move heavy objects along them. Why the roads are concave is not known, and neither is the method by which the statues were transported, which, Richards believes, we will never know.

Important new finds from the heart of Mesoamerica


Now we head north to Guatemala, to the site of the ancient Maya city of Tak’alik Ab’aj, where archaeologists have found a collection of miniature ceremonial heads carved out of jade. The city itself is a wonder because of its long and significant status in ancient times. It was an important center of culture and trade for 1700 years, from 800 B.C. to A.D 900. It was witness to the Olmec culture, which disappeared, for reasons not yet known, around 400 B.C., and played a significant role in the beginnings of the Maya culture.

Earlier excavations at what researchers are calling Structure 6, which they identified as one of the major ceremonial buildings at Tak’alik Ab’aj, revealed several finely crafted artifacts, which appeared to have been offerings. The items included a small pedestal stone sculpture, intentionally broken stone grinding artifacts probably used to grind cacao or maize, a few pieces of jade and a mirror fashioned out of pyrite as well as ceramic vessels. A stepped fret design decorates the most impressive of the vessels. Archaeologists found the artifacts in the fill dirt that builders used in the construction of one of the final versions of the structure.

In this excavation, also in Structure 6, the archaeological team found an offering of 3-dimensional jadeite heads, made of small, carved pieces which fit together like a puzzle to form a kind of sculptured mosaic. Mayan rulers wore these miniature mosaic heads on their waist belts, as is commonly depicted in Maya stelas. Further confirmation of this comes from a find at Structure 7 of a feature, probably the most sacred, where investigators found a blue jadeite mosaic head in a royal burial. The people who buried the body positioned the head in the waist area of the body. These ceremonial waist belts are part of a ceremonial outfit, including the better known headdress, which was worn by royalty.

A very intriguing part of the discovery at Structure 6 is that the miniature ceremonial head appears to be wearing its own headdress in the form of another mosaic that represents the head of a bat. That makes this particular artifact unique and adds importance to the entire site, as the quantity of these ceremonial heads here surpasses those of all other sites in Mesoamerica. These artifacts, in combination with the hundreds of other works of sculpture at this site, and the repeated use of a particular stepped fret design, represent an exhibition of great wealth and power. All of this evidence put together suggests a connection to the most powerful ruler in the history of Tak’alik Ab’aj, called the “Lord of the fret design” and whom historians have yet to name.

Ancient aqueduct re-discovered in Jerusalem


In our final story we go to Jerusalem, where researchers have rediscovered a segment of the ancient aqueduct, which the city planners in ancient and medieval times used to deliver water to the Temple Mount. The Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating at the site as part of an archaeological rescue operation in preparation for work on the city’s modern water system. They announced the discovery of an arched bridge that was part of the ancient water system of Jerusalem that was maintained in the Middle Ages. The bridge comprises nine arches, two of which have been uncovered, which reach a height of 3 meters. The sultan Nasser al-Din Muhammed Ibn Qalawun built the bridge in AD 1320. Researchers used an inscription on the bridge to confirm this fact. The inscription says the “new” bridge replaces an earlier bridge that dated to the time of the Second Temple period and was part of the original aqueduct.

Excavation director Yechiel Zelinger remarked that the bridge that they are currently uncovering was visible at the end of the 19th Century, as evidenced by photos taken at the time, but was covered up in the 20th Century. The route of the aqueduct is well known to scholars, as large parts of it are documented to have run along the edge of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood and on the incline next to the Old City’s western wall. The builders constructed the bridge to sustain the elevation of the water channel.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the Nature and Parks Authority, plans to expose the entire length of the bridge and conserve it as part of the development of the Sultan’s Pool, which was created by a dam in the valley of the son-of-Hinnom, on the west side of the city walls built by Ottomon Sultans. The Antiquities Authority is preserving the bridge to emphasize the importance of the water supply to ancient Jerusalem.

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