Audio news from June 20th to June 26th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 20th to June 26th, 2010.

Catacombs art may be original depictions of apostles


In our first story, new laser technology has revealed what may be the earliest known paintings of the faces of the Christian apostles. The images, in a branch of the catacombs of St. Tecla near St Paul's Basilica, just outside the walls of ancient Rome, were painted at the end of the 4th Century or the start of the 5th Century. Archaeologists believe these images may have been among those that most influenced later artists' depictions of the faces of the most important early followers of Jesus. According to Professor Fabrizio Bisconti, head of archaeology for Rome's numerous catacombs, which are owned and maintained by the Vatican, the frescoes have been known for some time but the new details only came to light during an art restoration project that started two years ago. Older paintings of the apostles show them in a group, with smaller faces whose details are difficult to distinguish. The newly discovered icons are full-face paintings of St.Peter, St.Andrew, and St.John, who were among the original 12 apostles, and St. Paul, who became an apostle after Christ's death. The portraits show the same characteristics as later images, such as St. Paul's balding head, pointy beard, and rugged, wrinkled and elongated forehead. Given their age, this indicates that these may be the icons that set the standard for later depictions. The four circular paintings, each about 50 cm in diameter, are on the ceiling of the underground burial place of a noblewoman who is believed to have converted to Christianity at the end of the same century when the emperor Constantine made it legal. The frescoes were covered with a thick patina of powdery calcium carbonate caused by extreme humidity and lack of air circulation. According to lead restorer Barbara Mazzei, extensive analysis was carried out before deciding to use a laser like an optical scalpel, to make the calcium carbonate fall off without damaging the paint. The laser created a small explosion of steam when it interacted with the calcium carbonate, which made it detach from the surface. The result was stunning new clarity in images that were previously blurry and opaque. The wrinkles on St. Paul's forehead, for example, are clear and the whiteness of St. Peter's beard has re-emerged. Other Bible scenes in the tomb, such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead or Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, are now also much clearer and brighter. Mazzeir said that paintings inside catacombs are typically very faint paintings, usually white, with few colors. The St. Tecla catacombs uses surprisingly vivid colors. The tomb, which lies in a web of catacombs under a modern building, is not yet open to the public because of continued work, difficult access and limited space. Bisconti said that for now, the new discoveries will available for viewing only by specialists.

Early Canadian burial documents antiquity of migratory northern lifeway


Now we cross the Atlantic to Canada, where a 4,600-year-old burial in a remote region could hold the key to how ancient Canadians lived. The remarkable find is from the mouth of the Bug River, near Big Trout Lake, Ontario. Today the region is home to the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug (KITCH-en-ooh may-KOO-sik in-NIN-u-wug), a First Nation tribe of some 1,200 people. Local fishermen discovered the burial when water levels fell at the lake, exposing the skeleton. The site is currently being documented by an archaeological team from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. The discovery is particularly rare as Canadian ethics laws largely forbid excavations of burials. The skeleton is that of a man in his late 30s or 40s around five and a half feet tall. According to team leader Scott Hamilton, the man had a very robust, muscular build, and was of high status, judging by the formality of the burial, which includes a flat slab of granite and red ochre on the bones and the nearby sediment. The color appears to have been applied to the man’s body before burial, in a practice seen elsewhere in prehistoric North America as well as in the rest of the world. Isotope testing has so far shown that the man enjoyed a fish-based diet, with a side of hunted land mammals such as caribou. The spartan lifestyle, and migratory nature of food animals, meant Ontario's prehistoric tribes traveled huge distances in small numbers. This seasonal cycle was typical for sub-Arctic peoples, whose high mobility allowed them to place themselves on the landscape where they could predict resources would be available and follow the yearly cycles of availability. First Nation Chief Donny Morris announced that after tests are completed, the man will be reburied in the traditions of his forebears.

Sunken ship in Lake Michigan is intact 112 years after its loss


Just across the border in the US, the ghostly silence at the bottom of Lake Michigan has revealed a sunken ship that was unknown until divers discovered it, 112 years after its loss. The deckhouses are gone, the smokestack has tipped over, but a wheelbarrow used to move cargo still lies on the boat's surface. Though the name couldn't be seen on the stern by divers who recently documented the vessel, its length and unusual characteristics point to only one possibility, the L.R. Doty, which until last week, was the largest wooden ship that had been unaccounted for in Lake Michigan. The 291-foot-long cargo ship was carrying a load of corn when it sank during a ferocious storm on Oct. 25, 1898. All 17 people aboard and the ship's two cats, Dewey and Watson, were lost. According to Brendon Baillod, a Great Lakes maritime historian who spearheaded the search, the ship was nearly new and vanished with no real explanation. He wanted to solve that mystery of why she disappeared in a Lake Michigan storm that she should have been able to handle. A fishing boat had reported snagging lines on an object in that spot in 1991 and the report was noted by shipwreck explorers. Early this year, Baillod, who is president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association, while publishing his newest book on Great Lakes shipwrecks, "Fathoms Deep But Not Forgotten: Wisconsin's Lost Ships," decided to take another look at that site. With the help of Jitka Hanakova, who owns and operates the scuba diving charter Molly V, the area was searched with a fish finder. They found the large bump on the lake bottom in May in about 320 feet of water in southern Lake Michigan, some 20 miles from the mouth of Oak Creek. Last week, the weather was calm enough for teams of divers to descend for a better look. What they found was an intact ship still sitting upright, in remarkable condition after more than a century underwater, thanks to the frigid waters of the Great Lakes, which are an effective preserver of wooden objects, including this wooden ship.

The cargo of corn, harvested from Illinois farms and destined for Ontario, Canada, is still in the hold, though it now has a layer of marine muck on top of it. Built in 1893, the L.R. Doty was in the largest class of wooden vessels in existence on the Great Lakes at a time when the maritime highway was as significant for commerce as today's interstate highway system. Steel arches were embedded in the hull to provide extra stability, which may be why its captain might have felt confident in the unusually bad weather that autumn night, five years after the ship came into service. Technical divers, breathing a special blend of mixed gas with equipment required to dive so deep, shot video of the wreck site and snapped photos that give clues that could explain how and why the Doty sank in a storm so fierce it damaged part of the Milwaukee break wall and destroyed the boardwalk in Chicago. As Jitka Hanakova descended to the ship in the 41-degree water, she couldn't see anything until she had swum down more than 200 feet. According to Hanakova, owner of a company called Shipwreck Explorers, the wreck is exciting not only because for any diver, finding a new wreck that no one has previously seen is like a diver’s Holy Grail, but also because in the murk, this one shows up suddenly, like the ghost ships of legend. The L.R. Doty carried 107,000 bushels of corn and was pulling a schooner called the Olive Jeanette when the tow line broke in a gale as the ships passed Milwaukee. As waves reached 30 feet, the Doty's captain swung his large ship around in a big arc to search for the smaller vessel, which ultimately survived the storm. The L.R. Doty, however, was never seen again. Clues from the wreck suggest the Doty's rudder chain broke, probably when it was hit broadside by a large wave. According to Baillod, the ship's wooden hatch covers either collapsed inward or were torn off in the storm when huge amounts of water washed over the deck, Baillod said. This is the same thing that happened to the famous ship Edmund Fitzgerald, which had steel hatch covers. As the L.R. Doty sank beneath the waves, its stern struck first, pointing away from its heading to the Straits of Mackinac (MACK-in-AW), and the rudder was found set hard to port. Hanakova plans more trips to the shipwreck this summer so divers can further document the site with video and photos and penetrate the interior, which is likely filled with the sailors' equipment. It's also possible human remains are still on the wreck, so divers are treating it as a gravesite. Like all old shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters, it belongs to the state and is protected, meaning artifacts cannot be retrieved. Baillod plans to start efforts soon to place the L.R. Doty on state and national registers.

Long lost halls of Denmark’s most famous king are found


In our final story for the week, archaeologists from Århus (ORE-hoose) university in Denmark are using words like “sensational” to describe the find of the remains of Harald Bluetooth’s royal residence. The location of the medieval Danish king’s ruling seat has been a matter of speculation for centuries, and is now believed to have been uncovered close to the ancient Jelling (YELL-ing) complex with its famous runic stones, early buildings, and tombs, in southern Jutland. The remains of the ancient wooden buildings were uncovered in the northeastern corner of the Jelling complex, which comprises royal burial mounds, standing stones in the form of a ship, and runic stones. Formally known as Harald I, king Harald Gormsson ruled Denmark from AD 940 to 985, and according to old histories, conquered Norway and converted it to Christianity after first uniting Denmark’s fractious tribes. More recently, his skill at unifying diverse people’s was commemorated in the name of the Bluetooth interface developed by Ericsson for unifying wireless communications, and Harald’s fame is commemorated in the device’s logo, which itself unites the runic letters hagall (HAEL) and bjarkan (B-YAR-kan), the initials H and B of Harald’s name. According to Mads Dengsø Jessen, the archaeologist from Århus University who led the dig, four buildings from Harald’s time have now been discovered at the site. The buildings are characteristic of the round fortresses built in what is known as the Trelleborg style, for the poles that line the outside. According to Jessen, this discovery confirms that it is a large complex, and the strict geometrical construction is typical of Harald’s work. Archaeologists have yet to identify which remains are Harald’s hall, but Jessen believes they can be found under the existing Jelling Church, where the remains of a large wooden building were discovered on a previous dig. Archaeologists had speculated that the wooden building was a church, but because of its location in relation to the newly uncovered longhouses, Dengsø Jessen now thinks that it is almost certainly Harald Bluetooth’s royal hall. Jelling is revered as the cradle of the Danish kingdom, and the larger of the two runic stones which is often described as the baptismal certificate of the Danish nation directly refers to Harald Bluetooth and his conversion of the country to Christianity. The second Jelling stone includes the first written reference to Denmark in the country.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!