Audio news from June 27th to July 3rd, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 27th to July 3rd, 2010.

Ice melt reveals 10,000 year old weapon


Our first story is from the United States, where a 10,000-year-old wooden hunting weapon has emerged from a thawing ice patch. To the untrained eye, the weapon might look like a small branch that blew off a tree in a windstorm. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Craig Lee, a research associate with University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research who found the atlatl dart in a melting ice patch high in the Rocky Mountains close to Yellowstone National Park.

The dart is from a birch sapling and still has personal markings on it from the ancient hunter. When shot, the 3-foot-long dart had a projectile point on one end, and a cup or dimple on the other end that fits with a spur on the atlatl. The hunter used the atlatl, a throwing tool about two feet long, for leverage to achieve greater velocity.

Lee, a specialist in the emerging field of ice patch archaeology, noted that climate change has increased global temperatures and accelerated melting of permanent ice fields, exposing organic materials that have been entombed in the ice for 10 millennia. Researchers did not realize until the early 2000s that there was a potential to find archaeological materials in association with melting permanent snow and ice in many areas of the globe. Lee explains that as glaciers and ice fields continue to melt at an unprecedented rate, increasingly older and significant artifacts, as well as organic material, emerge from the ice that held them for thousands of years.

Over the past decade, Lee has worked with other researchers to develop a geographic information systems model to identify glaciers and ice fields in Alaska and elsewhere that likely hold artifacts. They pulled together biological and physical data to find ice fields possibly used by prehistoric hunters to kill animals seeking refuge from heat and insect swarms in the summer months.

Later this summer, Lee and University of Colorado student researchers will travel to Glacier National Park to work with the Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet tribes and researchers from the University of Wyoming to recover and protect artifacts that may have recently melted out of similar locations.

Tunnel in Pharaoh’s tomb dead ends


Across the world in Egypt, archaeologists finally have reached the end of a mysterious tunnel in the tomb of Seti I. The apparently unfinished tunnel suddenly stopped after 174 meters, dashing hopes it would lead to the pharaoh's secret burial site.

Strongman-turned-archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni first discovered the tomb, located in the Valley of the Kings, in 1817. However, despite being one of the site's most spectacular features, the strange tunnel remained unexcavated until the 1960s. At that time, a team led by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul took a wrong turn and workers abandoned the project about 130 meters in, fearing that further digging could bring the tomb crashing down. Nevertheless, a new excavation led by Egyptian antiquities chief Dr. Zahi Hawass in 2007 discovered a descending passage into the partially excavated tunnel.

The team unearthed countless 18th Dynasty artifacts including shabtis, pottery fragments, limestone cartouches of Seti I and a model boat made from faience. Using a mining car system and metal beams for support, they eventually cleared the passage, revealing a 54-step staircase. Red graffiti covered three of the steps. In addition, they discovered was a second 6-meter staircase. At its entrance was a false door inscribed with hieratic instructions for the tunnel's builders to (quote) Move the door jamb up and make the passage wider.(unquote) The seemingly unfinished staircase ended abruptly. According to Dr. Hawass, the second staircase was a surprise. He believes Seti I was trying to construct a secret tomb within a tomb at the end of the tunnel when he died, and that his son Ramesses II halted construction to bury his father.
In spite of the tomb's ornate wall paintings, it also contained a large number of preliminary sketches of paintings which were never added, furthering the case that work on the tunnel terminated abruptly. Dr. Hawass has speculated the tunnel was a symbolic path to the hidden tomb of Sokar, a god of the underworld. However, a connection with Seti's son, Ramesses II, is also likely.

Dr. Hawass now has turned his attentions to the tomb of Ramesses II, believing he made his own secret burial within his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Evidence of copper smelting extends back 7000 years


Moving to Serbia, an archaeological team led by Miljana Radivojevic and Thilo Rehren of University College London has discovered pieces of copper slag, which pushes back the known record of copper smelting by about 500 years. Dating to 7,000 years ago, the site also suggests that copper smelting may been invented in separate parts of Asia and Europe rather than spreading from a single source.

Chemical and microscopic analyses of previously unearthed material from Serbia’s Belovode {BEL-oh-VOH-da] site have identified pieces of copper slag, the residue of an intense heating process used to separate copper from other ore elements. The raw material came from nearby copper-ore deposits in Serbia or Bulgaria.
At southeastern European sites, researchers have found large numbers of copper artifacts dating to more than 6,000 years ago. Rehren’s proposal challenges a conventional view that copper smelting spread to Europe after originating in or near the Fertile Crescent region known now as southern Iran. Archaeologists have dated copper smelting in the Middle East to about 6,500 years ago. Although Belovode now stands as the world’s oldest known copper-smelting site, that status probably will not last, remarks archaeologist Benjamin Roberts of the British Museum in London. He predicts it’s likely we’ll see copper-smelting evidence at least contemporary with Belovode from the Fertile Crescent once research programs are in place at well-excavated sites.
Copper smelting may have originated in what is currently Turkey, comments archaeologist Christopher Thornton of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By 10,000 years ago, people living there were making beads and other ornaments from copper ore and heating the ore at low temperatures to make it more pliable.

Roberts and Thornton believe that early peoples invented copper making in one spot, in either Turkey or the Middle East. Rehren’s group is now examining possible copper slag from sites in Turkey and Iran that date to 7,000 years ago or more. Radiocarbon dates for animal bones excavated at Belovode indicate people occupied the site from 7,350 to 6,650 years ago.
Jewelry and other finds come from southeastern Europe’s ancient Vinča [VEEN-cha] Culture, known for having used copper vessels and other metal items. A drop of once-molten metal found in a Belovode house contained pure copper, the researchers add. Lead-isotope ratios of the Belovode slag and the copper drop link them to ore deposits in Serbia and Bulgaria. Since archaeologist have not found smelting chambers at Belovode, such as elongated ceramic cylinders recovered at newer Copper Age sites of southwestern Asia, the scientists speculate Vinca residents may have dug pits for copper smelting.

War chariot piece suggests biblical identification of ancient city in Israel


In our final story this week from Israel, researchers have solved the mystery of a 3,200-year-old round bronze tablet with a carved face of a woman. Unearthed at the site of El-Ahwat in central Israel, the piece now is identified as part of a linchpin that held the wheel of a battle chariot in place. Scientist Oren Cohen of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa cracked the case. According to Professor Zertal of that University, such identification reinforces the claim that a high-ranking Egyptian or local ruler lived at the location, and is likely to support the idea that the site is Harosheth Haggoyim, the home town of Sisera, the Canaanite army leader mentioned in Judges 4 to 5 of the Bible.

A cooperative delegation from the universities of Haifa and Cagliari in Sardinia, headed by Prof. Zertal, excavated the site from 1993 to 2000. The excavated city dates back to the end of the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age of the 13th to 12th centuries BC. The city’s unique fortifications, passageways in the walls, and rounded huts make it foreign in the Canaanite landscape.

Professor Zertal proposes that, based on these unusual features, the site may have been home to the Shardana tribe of the Sea-Peoples, who, according to some researchers, lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, Sisera’s capital city. It was from there that the army of chariots set out to fight the Israelites, led by Deborah the prophetess and General Barak.

Researchers found the round, bronze tablet, measuring about 2 centimeters in diameter and 5 millimeters thick, in a structure referred to as the Governor’s House. The tablet features the carved face of a woman wearing a cap and earrings shaped as chariot wheels. When excavators initially found it in 1997, they realized it was the broken end of an elongated object, but it wasn’t until Cohen began a study of ancient Egyptian reliefs depicting chariot battles that he realized the Egyptians decorated the bronze linchpins fastening the chariot wheels with the faces of captives, foreigners and enemies of Egypt. He also noticed that these decorations distinguished those chariots as used by royalty and high status people.

According to Professor Zertal, this identification of the linchpin demonstrates that high ranking officials at El-Ahwat possessed war chariots and supports, but does not prove, the idea that this was Sisera’s home base, from which he launched his biblical attack on the Israelites.

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