Audio News for July 4th to July 10th, 2010.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 4th to July 10th, 2010.

Stone tools push back earliest occupation of Britain to nearly one million years


Our lead story is from Britain, where an impressive find of ancient flint tools in a beach in Norfolk has pushed back the date of England’s first known human occupation by up to 250,000 years. While digging along the northeast coast of East Anglia near the village of Happisburgh, archaeologists discovered 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into primitive cutting and piercing tools. The stone tools were unearthed from sediments that appear to have been laid down around 840,000 to 950,000 years ago, making these the oldest artifacts ever found in Britain. The flints were used by hunter-gatherers living on the flood plain and marshes that bordered an ancient course of the river Thames, long since dried up. The flints then washed downriver and came to rest at the Happisburgh site. The early Britons would have lived alongside saber-toothed cats and hyenas, primitive horses, red deer and southern mammoths in a climate similar to that of southern Britain today, though winters were typically a few degrees colder. According to Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, the tools from Happisburgh are in pristine condition. They are exceptionally sharp, which suggests they were not washed far downriver from where they had been dropped.

At the time, the population of Britain most likely numbered in the hundreds or a few thousand at most. The early Britons would have used the rivers as routes into the landscape, as most of Britain was heavily forested at the time. The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, overturns the long-held belief that early humans steered clear of chilly Britain and the rest of northern Europe in favor of the more welcoming climate of the Mediterranean. The only human species known to be living in Europe at the time is Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man," whose remains were discovered in the Atapuerca hills of Spain in 2008 and have been dated to between 1.1 and 1.2 million years old. The early settlers would have walked into Britain across an ancient land bridge that once divided the North Sea from the Atlantic and connected the country to now mainland Europe. The first humans probably arrived during a warm interglacial period, but may have retreated as temperatures dropped in ensuing ice ages. Until now, the earliest evidence of humans in Britain came from Pakefield, in Suffolk, where a set of stone tools dated to 700,000 years ago were uncovered in 2005. More sophisticated stone, antler and bone tools were found in the 1990s in Boxgrove, Sussex, which are believed to be half a million years old. The great migration from Africa saw early humans reach Europe around 1.8 million years ago and within 500,000 years, they became established in the Mediterranean region as evidenced by several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy.

The new find of stone tools was dated by the sediments that bury it. These sediments record a period of history when the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field was reversed, so that a compass needle would have pointed south instead of north. The last time this happened was 780,000 years ago, so the tools are at least that old. Analysis of ancient vegetation and pollen in the sediments has revealed that the climate was warm but cooling towards an ice age, which points to two possible times in history, around 840,000 years ago, or 950,000 years ago. Both dates are consistent with the fossilized remains of animals recovered from the same site.

Washington’s dining hall found in Valley Forge


Crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, archaeologists believe they’ve found evidence of a log cabin Martha Washington mentioned in a letter to a friend 232 years ago while she was visiting her husband in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When National Park Service archaeologists began digging behind Washington’s Headquarters this summer, they spotted soil discoloration marking the possible location of a log cabin General George Washington had built. According to Joe Blondino, field director for the park’s public archaeology project, this discoloration represents the trench that was dug to lay in the first log, the sill log, of the log cabin that was here. During the Continental Army’s stay at Valley Forge, Washington, his aides, servants and wife all lived and worked together in the army’s headquarters building. To ease the cramped conditions in what some historians have dubbed the “1778 Pentagon,” the general had a cabin constructed behind it, for Washington and his staff to use as a dining hall. The main building served as residence and war room for Washington, his family and his top aides during their six-month long Revolutionary War encampment. From December 19, 1777, to June 19, 1778, British troops had occupied Philadelphia. Martha Washington stayed at Valley Forge for four of those six months, and mentioned the cabin in a 1778 letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, which historians have now linked to the remains just found. Martha Washington described the General’s headquarters as very small, noting that after he had a log cabin built to dine in, their quarters were more tolerable than they were at first. Excavation leader Blondino noted their good luck in making the key discovery of the foundation discoloration on the first day of excavations, instead of the all too frequent circumstance of making the most exciting discovery on the final day of work. Now park employees are digging 5-foot-square grids to locate the remains of the rest of the structure, which is estimated to measure 24 feet long by 20 feet wide.

Danish castle remains marks home of medieval boy king


In Denmark, a discovery on a Kattegat island is providing an important missing historical link. When archaeologists from the National Museum discovered the foundations of a small building at Bispegård on the island of Samsø, they did not realize initially that they had uncovered the remains of a castle that had belonged to a medieval king. The discovery of the castle of King Erik Menved, who reigned between 1287 and 1319, helps to fill in a hundred-year gap in the island’s history, according to Nils Engberg, head of the National Museum, and leader of the excavation crew. Engberg noted that with few written sources from that period of Danish history, the find is very significant for the history of Samsø, and is by far the biggest find made during the three years of excavations. When the archaeologists began to uncover the foundations, they thought that it belonged to a minor building. However, as they continued the dig to discover the building measures more than 60 feet along each side, they realized that the initial find was just a small part of a much larger complex. The researchers dated the find to 1290, and concluded that the castle was a replacement for a previous fortress on the island destroyed around 1289. Engberg believes that the king’s men abandoned the castle in 1420, and he hopes to trace more of its 130 years’ history as the dig continues. King Eric Menved was the son of Eric V and Agnes of Brandenburg. He became king in 1287 at age 12, when unknown assailants murdered his father. Since Eric was only 12 years old, his mother ruled for him until 1294.

Miniature ivory mask is from pre-Eskimo culture


Our final story is from the Canadian Arctic, where archaeologists are turning up new information on Tunit (TOO-nit) Culture. Researchers believe that the Tunit, who are referred to by that term in Inuit stories, flourished in the arctic during ancient times, vanishing around the 14th Century AD, although a small isolated Dorset community apparently survived on a remote Hudson’s Bay island until around 1902. Archaeologists first encountered their remains in 1925 at a place called Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. They named them the Dorset, a term still used today.  The Dorset, or Tunit, developed some of the special technologies that allowed early peoples to survive in the harsh arctic environment. They used harpoons and lances to hunt down walrus and other animals. They constructed semi-subterranean houses made of stone and sod as sturdy shelter from the winter elements. Recent research by Dr. Patricia Sutherland suggests that the Dorset even developed a trading relationship with the Norse, who arrived in the Arctic around AD 1000.
Why the Dorset vanished is still a mystery. Climate change, which warmed the arctic, may have been a reason. An eastward migration of the Thule [TOO-lee], ancestors of the Inuit, around AD 1000, probably also played a role, and the Inuit today tell traditional stories about how their ancestors drove out the Tunit. One proposal is that the Dorset succumbed to diseases brought to North America by the Norse, in a foreshadowing of the fate shared by other Native American groups hundreds of years later, after Columbus reopened the New World to European invasions.

The most recent find is from the Nuvuk Islands, off the northern tip of the province of Quebec, near the modern day settlement of Ivujivik (ee-VOO-je-vik). Teams of archaeologists from the Avataq (AH-vah-tach) Cultural Institute and Laval (la-VAL) University, including nearly a dozen local high school students learning about archaeology, have been exploring the islands. They have uncovered two Dorset houses, each measuring nine meters long, and dating back 1,500 and 800 years. Constructed of stone and sod, the houses were sunk partly into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s insulation. One of the most intriguing artifacts found is a 5 centimeter long small ivory mask of a human face, known as a maskette. It’s the first complete maskette found in northern Quebec in more than 50 years, and was likely the possession of a shaman (SHAY-mun). It has a hole near the top and probably was worn like an amulet. Cut from walrus ivory, its diminutive details are crafted with great skill, showing the two nostrils, mouth, ears and eyes. The maskette has an “x-ray motif,” lines that run across it, commonly seen in art from this time period. According to archaeologist Susan Lofthouse, the lines may represent tattoos that indicate that the face is a woman’s. Additional evidence that the maskette represents a woman is a round shape at the top of the mask, resembling the bun or topknot that, historically, Inuit women wore on top of their heads.

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