Audio news from July 11th to July 17th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 11th to July 17th, 2010.


Well-preserved Mayan King’s burial opened


Our first story is from Guatemala, where a team of archaeologists led by Brown University’s Stephen Houston has discovered an exceptionally well preserved tomb of an ancient Mayan king. Located beneath the El Diablo pyramid in the city of El Zotz, the tomb dates from about AD 350 to 400. Carvings, ceramics, textiles, and the bones of six children, possibly sacrificed at the time of the king's death, filled the tomb.

The team suspected they were on the trail of something before they uncovered the actual burial chamber. When they sank a pit into the chamber of a small temple located in front of a sprawling structure dedicated to the sun god, an emblem of Maya rulership, they almost immediately hit a series of blood red bowls containing human fingers and teeth, all wrapped in some kind of organic substance that left an impression in the plaster. They then dug through layer after layer of flat stones, alternating with mud, which probably is what kept the tomb so intact and airtight. They lowered a bare light bulb into the hole, and suddenly Houston saw an explosion of color in all directions--reds, greens, yellows.

They had found a royal tomb filled with material Houston says he has never seen before: pieces of wood, textiles, thin layers of painted stucco, and cordage. Because the chamber was well sealed for over 1600 years, no air and little water had entered and a smell of putrification still remained.

The tomb measures approximately 6 feet high, 12 feet long, and four feet wide. It appears the tomb held an adult male, but the bone analyst, Andrew Scherer, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown, has not yet confirmed the finding. In addition, it seems that six children are in the tomb, some with whole bodies and probably two solely with skulls.

Though the findings are still very new, the group believes the tomb is likely from a king they only know about from hieroglyphic texts. Houston noted that from the tomb's position, time, and richness, and repeated constructions atop the tomb, this is very likely the founder of a dynasty. Houston says the tomb shows the ruler going into the tomb as a ritual dancer, with all the attributes of this role, including many small “bells” of shell with dog teeth as clappers.
He may have held a sacrificial blade in one hand. The stone tool researcher on site, Zachary Hruby, suspects Mayans used the blade for cutting and grinding through bone or some other hard material. An untested red organic residue covered its surface.

Much work remains since royal tombs are dense with information and require years of study to understand.


Oldest written document in Jerusalem unearthed


On the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, archaeologists have unearthed the oldest written document ever found in the Holy City. It is a tiny fragment of a letter possibly addressed to Akhenaten, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt during the 14th century BC.

Discovered outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the document is a minuscule clay fragment, measuring about one square inch, covered with cuneiform script in ancient Akkadian. Dating back some 3,400 years, the fragment appears to have been part of a tablet from the royal archives.
According to Wayne Horowitz, a scholar of Assyriology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, the script on the chip, which includes the words “you,” “you were,” “later,” “to do” and “them,” is of a very artfully written,indicating a highly skilled scribe most likely wrote it. The fragment is a contemporary of the 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century in Akhenaten’s archives at Amarna in Egypt.

The son of Amenhotep III and the father of Tutankhamen, Akhenaton introduced a monotheistic religion centered on the sun god Aton and overthrew the pantheon of older gods. The Amarna archives include tablets sent to Akhenaten by the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria, and provide details about the complex relationships between them. Among these tablets are six are addressed from Abdi-Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jerusalem.

According to Eilat Mazar, from Hebrew University, the tablet fragment from Jerusalem is most likely part of a message sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt. The find testifies to the importance of Jerusalem as a major city in the Late Bronze Age, long before its conquest by King David, Mazar notes. However, we should point out that other experts on ancient Jerusalem are less than convinced that the shard represents communication with Egypt and suggest that Mazar’s claims have political overtones.

The oldest known text previously found in Jerusalem was a tablet unearthed in the Shiloah water tunnel in the same area. Celebrating the completion of the tunnel, it dated back to the eight century BC. This tiny clay fragment predates that tablet by about 600 years.


Roman trade route “staging post” located in Tuscany


In the Tuscany region of Italy, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a complex they believe was once a bustling staging post on a major trade route mentioned by the ancient Roman writer Pliny.

Because of the size and layout of the building, as well as its location next to a river and a major Roman road, archaeologists conclude it was the well-known “Mansio ad Umbronem” or “Staging post on the River Ombrone'' written about by Pliny and another Roman writer known as Anonymous of Ravenna.

Mansios were usually stopping places on Roman roads maintained by the central government for the use those traveling on official business, but the descriptions of the Roman writers suggest this particular site may also have provided additional services. According to Pliny and the anonymous Ravenna writer, the Mansio ad Umbronem was a key point for the storage and redistribution of goods and material arriving by road and sea, thanks to the nearby port where the Ombrone once flowed into the sea.

Lending further support to the idea that this structure was the Masio ad Umbronem were more than 80 coins as well as dozens of fragments of metal and ceramic objects from across the entire Mediterranean and, in particular, from Africa. Of particular interest was a votive terracotta statuette representing the bust of the Greek-Egyptian god Serapis.

The discovery comes just a year after a similarly important find nearby in a nearby area of a temple complex dating back to the Fourth Century AD. Archaeologists believe the two discoveries are almost certain evidence of Roman settlements along the Tuscan coast that played a key role in linking inland towns with Mediterranean and African ports.

The mansio, built around AD 200, functioned for at least a couple of centuries.


18th Century ship found at Ground Zero


Our final story is from the United States, where archaeologists at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan are racing to dig out what appears to be the wooden hull of a stubby 18th Century ship. The last time archaeologists found such a momentous discovery was in 1982, when an 18th-century cargo ship was uncovered at 175 Water Street.

Construction crews stumbled upon the vessel earlier this week as they prepared foundations for the World Trade Center, Vehicle Security Center and Tour Bus Parking Facility site. Archaeologists from AKRF, the firm hired to document finds of interest, are spearheading efforts for the hull’s removal to safe ground and more detailed analysis.

According to Molly McDonald, the discovery began when a backhoe dug up curved timbers. Excavators quickly found the rib of a vessel and continued to expose the hull over the last week. The segment measures about 32 feet long and may have been dumped along with other landfill to expand the lower end of Manhattan into what used to be the waters of the Hudson River. In a stroke of luck for the archeologists, the weather in New York this past week has been damp. Had bright sun struck the hull’s ribs, they might have started to decompose immediately.

Excavation also has uncovered a large anchor, but it is not clear if belongs to the ship. Digging through layers of mud and oyster shell, excavators in addition have found a semicircular steel collar on a brick base that may have been inside the vessel as some kind of oven or primitive steam boiler.

While finding the boat remains is an incredible find, the fact they survived the scoops of construction machinery over the years is even more incredible.

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