Audio news from August 8th to August 14th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 8th to August 14th, 2010.

Northwest Montana bison jump offers new look at Blackfeet history


Our first story is from the United States, where archaeologists and Blackfeet tribal members are unearthing a huge complex where bison were stampeded over a cliff at least 1,000 years ago in northwestern Montana. Researchers say the 9-mile-long hunting complex in the southeast corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation starts with a well-preserved drive-line system that served to steer bison toward a cliff-edge jump to their deaths. Also being recovered are the evidence of success in the form of bison bones, and the remnants of two campsites with hundreds of tepee rings. Maria Nieves Zedeño, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology and Bureau of Applied Research, said it is one of the best-preserved drive-line systems she has seen. The site lies on a remote plateau in the northern Rocky Mountains, overlooking the Two Medicine River. Researchers believe it could become one of the most significant and largest Blackfeet heritage sites in the region. The project focus goes beyond the bones and artifacts to study the land where the hunters worked, lived and engineered the complex hunting system. Communities that lived in the area between AD 1050 and the 1600s used bison jumps to kill groups of bison for food and hides. Typically, scouts located the herds and drove them toward the drive-lines, created to funnel the stampeding bison toward and over a cliff. Most of the bison died in the fall, and hunters waiting at the bottom finished off the animals that survived. According to Zedeño, other kill sites in the area have been destroyed by bone collectors or are on private land. Work at the Two Medicine kill site includes excavations at the base of the 30-foot cliff the bison were driven over. Another area, about 20 feet away, has produced artifacts that indicate it was a processing area. Artifacts here and in a campsite with over 650 tipi rings will reveal crucial information about social and religious aspects of the societies that used the region. One exciting find is a grouping of bison scapulas that were intentionally lined up, but the significance of this practice remains unclear so far.

Earliest Phoenician outpost may lie in Libya


Across the Atlantic Ocean, library research has led to a new hypothesis about the site of Aüza (ah-OO-za), the earliest city of the Phoenicians in North Africa. Aüza existed 3,500 years ago, as long known from written records, but its exact location has never been proven. Now, after intensive study of ancient maps and records, emeritus classics professor Sir John Boardman of the Beazley Archive at Britain's University of Oxford believes he’s been able to locate the most likely site for the ancient city, and it’s in a different spot from what archaeologists previously have thought. Past historians had surmised that this early outpost of the famed Mediterranean traders lay far to the west of their Middle Eastern homeland, beyond Carthage in what is now Tunisia. Boardman’s research suggests, however, that Aüza lies at a site known as Aziris, much nearer to both Egypt and Phoenicia, the home base of the ocean-going traders, which centered in modern-day Israel and Lebanon. Aüza was a port city whose purpose was to give the Phoenicians a foothold on the continent of Africa. According to Boardman, the site of Aziris, along the eastern coast of modern Libya in the ancient region of Cyrenaica, would have provided the advantages of good docking, a defensible promontory, and easy access inland. The Phoenicians were a seafaring people that flourished from 1550 to 300 BC. Well known for their shipbuilding and seamanship, they were expanding into the western Mediterranean at the same time as the classical Greeks, and while it is fashionable to think they were in rivalry, Boardman says it's more likely their relationship was friendly. The Phoenicians were the first civilization to use an alphabet widely, spreading their system of writing throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and thus providing the ancestor of almost all modern western alphabets. Confusion over the location of Aüza likely stems from the many names that Aziris has gone by over the ages, coupled with poor details identifying where Aüza actually was. Though Boardman agrees he cannot be sure he has gotten to the bottom of the matter, he thinks Aziris is the most likely place to have hosted Aüza. Boardman’s research is summarized in the August issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

People of ancient Mexican city turned bones of their relatives into tools


In Mexico, archaeologists have been startled to discover that people at Teotihuacan used human bones, likely from their newly dead relatives, to make buttons, combs, needles, spatulas, and dozens of other everyday utensils. The discovery comes from a new analysis of 5,000 bone fragments found in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, 48 kilometers northeast of Mexico City. Thigh bones, shinbones, and human skulls were transformed into household items shortly after death, noted team leader Abigail Meza Peñaloza (MAY-sa pain-ya-LOH-sa) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico or UNAM (OO-nahm). According to Peñaloza, the Teotihuacanos (TAY-oh-tee-wa-KAHN-os) used different types of stone knives to finely remove the flesh and muscles from the bones. The bodies had to be as fresh as possible, she added, because after a person dies, his or her bone quickly becomes too fragile to sculpt. The Teotihuacan metropolis in Mexico, also known as the City of the Gods, is one of the largest ancient urban centers of the ancient Americas. The city flourished between about 100 BC and AD 650, long before the rise of the Aztecs. The Teotihuacanos practiced human and animal sacrifices, as evidenced by bones buried in the city's temples, left from offerings to the gods. According to the UNAM team of analysts, the fragments date to the Classic period of the city's zenith, between AD 200 and 400, and show only marks left by the de-fleshing process, with no signs of ritual sacrifice. In addition, the bones used to make the artifacts appear to be from locals, traditionally buried under the floors of their family homes. When Peñaloza compared a number of frontal sinus bones, which is such a unique bone that it works almost like a fingerprint, she found that those used in the artifacts were identical with those from buried skeletons. However, they did not match samples from skeletons of sacrificed foreigners. This indicates the bone artifacts were from fellow Teotihuacanos. Only the bones of adults in their prime were used to make artifacts, possibly because children’s' bones are too fragile, while the bones of the elderly may be weakened by age-related diseases like osteoporosis. The bone tool makers preferred to use bones from healthy adults, all of whom appear to have died of natural causes. Since life expectancy in that era was short, this meant people in their 30s. So far, the UNAM archaeologists have not discovered who worked at the bone factory, or what happened to the removed flesh. The team will use isotope analysis to figure out where the people whose bones became utensils likely lived. By looking at the types of strontium and oxygen atoms found in adult teeth, for example, the researchers can tell where people drank water, and thus whether they lived most of their lives in Teotihuacan or had moved there from other communities.

Stone Age house at Star Carr is Britain’s earliest


In our final story, archaeologists working on Stone Age remains at a site in North Yorkshire say it contains Britain's earliest surviving house. The team from the Universities of Manchester and York revealed that the home they have unearthed near Scarborough dates to at least 8,500 BC, when Britain was still part of the continent of Europe. Ten feet in diameter, the round structure lies next to an ancient lake at Star Carr, a famous early Mesolithic site originally excavated from 1949 to 1951 by Grahame Clark of Cambridge and comparable in archaeological importance to Stonehenge. The team is currently excavating a large wooden platform next to the lake, made of timbers that show signs of being split and hewn. The platform is the earliest evidence of carpentry in Europe. The house predates Britain's previously oldest known domicile at Howick, Northumberland, by at least 500 years. The house, at which excavations began two years ago, is marked by postholes around a central hollow, which was once filled with organic matter such as reeds, and possibly held a fireplace. Hunter-gatherers inhabited the site just after the end of the last ice age, for as long as 200 to 500 years. According to the team, they migrated from an area now under the North Sea, hunting animals including deer, wild boar, elk and enormous wild cattle known as aurochs (OUR-ox). Although they did not cultivate the land, the inhabitants did burn part of the landscape to encourage many new shoots that would bring more animals, and they kept domesticated dogs. Dr. Chantal Conneller and Barry Taylor from The University of Manchester, along with Dr. Nicky Milner from the University of York, have been working at the site since 2004. Dr. Milner noted that the site probably had more than one house, with many people living here. The peaty soil around the wooden platform has preserved numerous associated artifacts of stone, wood and antler, including a boat paddle, arrow tips, and the tops of red deer skulls which were worn as masks or head-dresses in ritual activities. According to Dr. Conneller, the find changes our ideas of the lives of the first settlers to move back into Britain after the end of the last Ice Age. The previous belief was that people moved around a lot and left little evidence. The new site dramatically shows that they built substantial structures and had some attachment to particular places in the landscape. The peaty landscape of the ancient lake is drying out, however, meaning that time is running out for the fragile artifacts and sites. The English Heritage organization, which is preparing to list the site as a National Monument, recently entered into a management agreement with the farmers who own the land at Star Carr to help protect the archaeological remains.

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