Audio News for May 23rd to May 29th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news May 23rd to May 29th, 2010.


Roots of Egypt revealed in rich rock art of Saharan desert caves


Our first story is from the Sahara desert in Egypt, where archaeologists are studying prehistoric rock drawings, including dancing figures and strange headless beasts, looking for new clues about the rise of Egyptian civilization. Initially discovered in 2002 by amateur explorers, the cave holds 5,000 images painted or engraved into stone, in the immense, empty desert near Egypt’s southwest border with Libya and Sudan, nearly 600 miles southwest of Cairo. According to Rudolph Kuper, an archaeologist from Germany's Heinrich Barth Institute, the cave is known as the "Cave of the Beasts." Details of the work suggests the cave art is at least 8,000 years old, likely the work of hunter-gatherers whose descendants may have been among the early residents of the once wetter regions west of the Nile. The Cave of the Beasts is about six miles away from the Cave of the Swimmers, seen in the romantic film The English Patient, but has far more images, which are also better preserved. Archaeologists are studying the sandstone cave and other nearby sites to build a timeline to compare the culture and technologies of the various peoples who inhabited the area. According to Karin Kindermann, member of a German-led team who recently made a trip to the site, it is the most significant early cave art in North Africa. For many centuries, the eastern Sahara, a region the size of Western Europe, has covered western Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad, forming the world's largest warm, dry desert. Rainfall in the desert's center averages less than a tenth of an inch per year. However, the region once was much less arid. Around 8500 BC, seasonal rainfall created a savanna-like environment in the region, hosting many animals that attracted hunter-gatherers. By 5300 BC, the rains had stopped and human settlements drew back to the higher areas. By 3500 BC, the settlements disappeared entirely. Kuper and his team have been documenting the return of the desert, which ended 3,000 to 4,000 years of savanna life in the Sahara, forced people southwards into central Africa as well as eastwards into the Nile Valley, thus contributing to the foundation of Egyptian civilization. In a very long, slow movement, the annual rains began to lessen and skip years, which turned the previously swampy and inhospitable Nile Valley into a dryer and more attractive habitat. The slow shift of population out of the Sahara corresponds with the rise of sedentary life along the Nile. This blossomed later into the civilization of the pharaohs, which dominated the region for thousands of years and produced art, architecture and government that helped shape Western culture. Kuper and his team are recording the geological, botanic and archaeological data at the cave, including stone tools and pottery, to compare it to other sites in the Eastern Sahara region, adding new bits to a prehistoric puzzle. Paintings in the Cave of the Beasts appear to date before the introduction of domesticated animals, meaning they date to before 6000 BC. The visible artwork covers an area over 50 feet wide by nearly 20 feet high. Last October, Kuper's team scanned the cave by laser to capture high-definition, three-dimensional images. A test dig a few weeks ago uncovered yet more drawings that extend down more than two feet below the sand, adding more evidence of the rich prehistoric culture of the eastern Sahara.

Early food cooling system found in Chinese palace


In China, archaeologists in the northwest Shaanxi province found an emperor’s primitive icebox dating back at least 2,000 years. The icebox, unearthed in Qianyang County, is made from a set of clay rings, each measuring about 4 feet in diameter by 1 foot thick. According to Tian Yaqi, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology, the rings were set together in the ground to form the lining of a shaft about 6 feet deep. The shaft was unearthed about 10 feet underground, within the ruins of an ancient building that researchers believe was a temporary imperial residence during the Qin Dynasty of 221 to 207 BC. Tian explained that the shaft could not have been a well, because groundwater was much deeper than 10 feet in arid northwest China. The shaft appears to have been an ice cellar, known in ancient China as a "ling yin," a cool place to store food during the summer. Ling yins are described in a poem in the Book of Songs, a collection of poems from the Western Zhou Dynasty and the succeeding Spring and Autumn Period, about 1000-475 BC. According to the ancient poem, food kept in the ling yin would stay fresh for three days in the summer. If ice cellars were popular enough to be praised in poetry, it is reasonable that the emperor and court officials would have one in their sprawling residence. Covering an area of more than 5 acres, or 2 hectares, the site was discovered in 2006 by villagers building homes, and was fenced off by authorities for protection. Archaeological investigations began in March this year and ended last week.

Mayan rubber making shows very modern knowledge of its chemistry


In a modern study of ancient technology, MIT researchers have tested how ancient Mesoamerican peoples made different kinds of rubber from latex some 3,500 years before modern patents on vulcanization. The newly completed study comes from two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, archaeologist Dorothy Hosler and Michael Tarkanian of Materials Science and Engineering. Their work demonstrates that pre-Hispanic Mesoamericans not only invented rubber, but also may have used different systems of chemical processing to enhance rubber’s properties. Different blends probably were used to produce strong, wear-resistant rubber for sandal soles, a more pliant, bouncy mix for balls used in the famous games, and wide rubber bands with optimal resilience and strength for attaching stone axe heads to wooden handles. Hosler and Tarkanian’s new research follows up on a 1999 study with colleague Sandra Burkett, published in the journal Science, which showed that Mayans learned to blend rubber at least 3000 years earlier than the modern vulcanization process patented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, which uses rubber sap and sulfur blends. When the Spanish invaded Central America in 1521, the tough yet springy substance was completely new to them. The Mayans had been making it for more than 3000 years, however. Showing an understanding of practical chemistry completely equal to Charles Goodyear’s, Mesoamericans were the original latex engineers. The properties of rubber starts with latex, the sticky sap of the native rubber tree. Rubber tree sap dries into a brittle solid that contains an oily chemical called isoprene, which when mixed with juice from a morning glory vine, creates what is now known as a polymer. The chemistry is similar to that of modern vulcanization, in that the juice of the morning glory vine causes cross-linking of molecules, which keeps the rubber elastic by preventing formation of the compounds that turn the latex brittle. In the new research, Tarkanian and Hosler set up their own processing facility at MIT, and experimented using raw materials collected during field trips to Mexico. By varying the proportions of local rubber tree sap and morning glory juice, they obtained different kinds of rubber. A half-and-half blend of latex sap and morning glory juice produces maximum bounce, perfect for the rubber balls, while a three-to-one mix is the most durable material, ideal for sandals, and pure sap works best for rubber bands and adhesives. The Mesoamericans would have worked out these properties through trial and error. According to Tarkanian, records from the time of the Spanish invasion show a large rubber industry in the region, producing 16,000 rubber balls each year, many rubber statues, sandals, bands and other products. Archaeological digs in the region have produced a few rubber balls, up to a foot across, the oldest dating back to 1600 BC. The balls are now hard and brittle with age, however, so their physical properties cannot be tested. The few other rubber artifacts found are severely degraded as well, and Mayan rubber sandals are known only from written accounts. Thus, the MIT researchers had to use laboratory experiments to demonstrate that varying the formula can change the rubber’s properties. In order to prove that the Mayans actually did this, more evidence will be required, either from early accounts, or through chemical analysis of better-preserved artifacts. The complete study will be published in the journal Latin American Antiquity.

Etruscan home is best ever found


Our final story is from Italy, where an ancient Etruscan home dating back more than 2,400 years Our final story is from Italy, where an ancient Etruscan home dating back more than 2,400 years was unearthed at ancient Vetulonia (vet-you-LONE-ee-ah), 125 miles north of Rome. Archaeologists say it is rare to find an Etruscan home intact. Based on six Roman and Etruscan coins found in the multi-room home, archaeologists infer that the house was built between the third and first centuries BC, and collapsed after 79 BC, during the Roman civil wars of Sulla’s time. Excavation of the home has revealed much about Etruscan daily life and construction techniques. According to Simona Rafanelli, director of the Isidoro Falchi (iz-ih-DORE-oh FAL-key) archeological museum in Vetulonia, these are the best Etruscan house remains ever found. From an archaeological and historical point of view, this is extremely important because understanding of Etruscan building construction has been relatively unknown till now, due to lack of evidence. This site has enough evidence to reconstruct the entire house, which had walls of sun-dried brick above a basement or cellar, packed-earth floors, and at least one upper story held up with heavy timber framing, based on the many large iron nails found. The very large cellar appears to have been used for the family’s food supply, with one corner holding an intact giant earthen grain jar and another revealing an olive press. Also found in the house were many other fragments of pottery and metal artifacts.

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