Audio News for May 16th to May 22nd, 2010.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news May 16th to May 22nd, 2010.


Mexican burials date back nearly 3000 years


Our first story is from southern Mexico, where archaeologists digging into the ruins of a pyramid came upon a row of large, flat stones, which marked the wall of a tomb. Inside the burial, they found the remains of a prominent man, possibly a ruler, and two human sacrifices. They discovered another seemingly high-ranking adult, possibly a woman, on a landing just outside the tomb.

The discovery, made near the top of a 30-foot-tall pyramid, the highest structure at the central plaza of the ancient site at Chiapa de Corzo in the state of Chiapas, is located not far from the Guatemala border.

Lead archaeologist, Bruce R. Bachand of Brigham Young University, determined from the style of ceremonial pottery in the tomb that the burials occurred about 2,700 years ago. The find could be several centuries earlier than other decorated burials previously found in Mesoamerican pyramids. According to Dr. Bachand, the two principal skeletons bore the characteristics of persons at the very top of society. Red pigment and hundreds of jade ornaments adorned the individual inside the tomb. White jade or marine shell inlaid his teeth. Jade, pearl and amber covered the skeleton outside the tomb. The individual on the exterior landing had upper teeth inlaid with pyrite or fool’s gold. The sacrificial skeletons, an adult and a child, were unadorned and lacked ritual offerings.

Anthropologists who specialize in pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico and Central America believe that assessing the find’s full significance is premature, but agreed with Dr. Bachand that it was an important early example of social ranking in the region’s cultures and the rising political centralization under chiefs.

The tomb raises a tough question: What culture was responsible for it? Around 700 BC, several societies engaged in trading and raiding occupied the region, exchanging traditions and ceramics and otherwise interacting. Their elites formed coalitions and perhaps intermarried. The Olmec, renowned for their monumental sculpture, spread their influence inland from their base on the Gulf Coast. At one time, historians believed they were the dominant culture. The Maya were emerging in the south. Around Oaxaca, the Zapotec were creating an advanced culture centered around Chiapas. Dr. Bachand noted that many artifacts in the tomb were similar or identical to those found at the Olmec ruins of La Venta, in Tabasco. However, aspects of the burials differed from the Olmec culture. Some pottery and ritual practices appeared to be in a home-grown style. The tomb’s construction, a stone wall on one side with clay on the others, was unlike that of currently known Olmec tombs.

In a preliminary analysis, Dr. Bachand says he believes the culture of the tomb builders had Olmec roots, suggesting a need for further research at La Venta. Nevertheless, he raised the possibility that the discovery suggests the beginnings of a distinct Zoque culture, in which case the origin of some early Mesoamerican traditions may not be Olmec or Maya but Zoque, a previously undervalued society.

Four rare clay coffins found in Cyprus


Across the world in Cyprus, work crews accidentally unearthed four rare clay coffins estimated to be some 2,000 years old. According to Maria Hadjicosti, the country's Antiquities Department director, the coffins, adorned with floral patterns, date from the east Mediterranean island's Hellenistic to early Roman periods, between 300 BC and AD 100.

The coffins, dug up from an ancient cemetery in the eastern coastal resort of Protaras, are significant because they were untouched by grave robbers. Hadjicosti notes the undisturbed coffins will help add to the knowledge and understanding of that period of Cyprus history.
Similar coffins dating from the same period are on display in the capital's Archaeological Museum, while three others remain in storage there. Other items found at the site included human skeletal remains, glass vessels and terra cotta urns, indicating that the cemetery was in use over a long period of time.

The cemetery is one of several found throughout island's northeast, but scientists do not know which undiscovered settlement the bodies came from. Excavations on Cyprus have uncovered settlements dating back to around 9000 BC. Cyprus then saw successive waves of colonization, including Phoenicians, Mycenaean Greeks, and Romans and, in the Middle Ages, Franks and Venetians. Ottoman Turks conquered the island in 1571. It became part of the British Empire in 1878 before winning independence in 1960.

Peruvian pyramid home to the living, not burial site for the dead


Now we skip back across the Atlantic to Peru, where the archaeologists who uncovered a 1,400-year-old pyramid say that the finding is particularly unusual because people seemed to have lived on the flat-topped pyramid, which contains a profusion of artifacts, murals and human remains.
The pyramid, discovered by Professor Edward Swenson of the University of Toronto, is located at Huaca Colorada, meaning colored hill. So far it is only partially uncovered, but according to Swenson, the biggest surprise is that they found elite residences at the top of the Moche culture pyramid. Anthropologists know that the Moche used pyramids for burials and ritual activity, so everyday living was a surprise.

No more than 25 people lived in the complex, which was complete with patios, a kitchen, and stands for ‘paica’ or large vessels for storing water and corn beer. Several murals covered the corridors at the pyramid's high point. The best preserved of these depicts a Moche warrior carrying a club. Other murals include a depiction of what appears to be a cactus with two mountain peaks and a rainbow, and a representation of two litter-bearers carrying a person.

Researches also discovered evidence of ritual sacrifice at the site. They found the skeletons of three girls, and parts belonging to four other individuals, on a platform at the top of the pyramid. The girls, buried with beads around their necks and their feet, were close together, suggesting someone must have bound them. Charring on the girls' knees indicate that their bodies were subject to ritualistic burning. This evidence raises the possibility that Moche sacrificed the girls as part of a ritual, something relatively common among the Moche. However, physical anthropologists examining the skeletons could find no evidence of trauma. This means the girls either died naturally or someone killed them in such a way that their bones do not show any evidence.

To the south of the pyramid, the team found a large number of copper artifacts including spatulas, knives, smelting receptacles and ornaments. Swenson believes the power of these elites could very much have been grounded in control of copper production. Huaca Colorada is near the coast of Peru, where copper is scarce, so the site’s rulers would have had to trade with people living in the mountains, at least 200 km to the east.

Huaca Colorada appears to be undefended. The team found no walls and no sling-stones, unlike many of the sites built on the coastal hills. The area surrounding the settlement was mostly flat, offering little resistance from invaders. Warfare prevailed in the Moche world, but perhaps, for some unknown reason, Huaca Colorada and its pyramid were off-limits to invaders. Excavation work continues at the site, and researchers will conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey on the pyramid this summer to determine its size.

Ancient Egyptian women may have had active cottage industry


In our final story, an Australian team found that women of ancient Egypt during the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten were not content with just managing the household but also kept the budget in the black through some home-based manufacturing.

According to Archaeologist Dr Mark Eccleston, Egyptian faience, a fine-glazed quartz ceramic of distinct turquoise color, was a common material used in items ranging from simple beads to religious artifacts. While it is known that larger factories were used to produce faience, his research has shown that people also could produce less prestigious pieces in ovens in household courtyards. He notes that an increasing amount of evidence shows that ordinary Egyptians did the work in the home to provide extra income for the household. Large state industries were effectively sub-contracting labor and the household would get something in return, such as more food. Because women did work in the home, he believes women, and possibly even children, undertook these cottage-type industries. Among the evidence, he points to artifacts made from faience found in household courtyards.

Eccleston also has shown that home cooking of faience is possible by demonstrating this in a replica 1300 BC bread oven. Eccleston says faience remains a mysterious material to archaeologists as no one knows who made it or what materials they used to create it. In his project with La Trobe University physicist Dr Peter Kappen, Eccleston placed small faience beads in a synchrotron beam, a kind of particle accelerator, to determine the raw materials and their source. Eccleston notes a synchrotron can reveal levels of detail never before possible about the structure of raw materials used to make ancient glazes and the minerals used to color them. From information about raw material sources, answers should emerge regarding the economy of the trade in bronze and other metals, how people set up these industries and how they distributed materials throughout society for different purposes. Eccleston’s work has shown that copper is faintly present in the glaze, raising questions about the method of its extraction. He believes it may be that craftsmen were leaching copper out of bits of metal in some solution. The collaborators will now test a number of solutions, including urine, to see if they can achieve a similar result. Researchers aim to replicate the creation of faience in the laboratory using a mineralized solution and then compare this with ancient faience, to see if they have found the right recipe.

According to Eccleston, one goal of their study is to demonstrate the success of the manufacturing technique and then to compare their results with artifacts in the Berlin museum from Akhenaton’s capital of Amarna, excavated by German archaeologists about a 100 years ago.

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