Audio News from August 15th to August 21st, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 15th to August 21st, 2010.


2000 year old religious compound unearthed in France


Our first story is from France, where archaeologists working under a deadline since June in an area planned for urban development are unearthing an enormous religious site that may have been devoted to worshiping many gods. Excavators near the antique city of Vindunum, now Le Mans (Le mahn) in northwestern France, have revealed a vast religious compound containing remarkably well-preserved offerings.

The complex of temples that stood nearly 2,000 years ago is located on a flat two-hectare strip of land, in what is now Neuville-sur-Sarthe, (New vil sur Sart) 4 km to the north of Le Mans. According to Gérard Guillier, (Jay rard Guh ee ay), team leader from the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research, this is an exceptional discovery, the sort that all archaeologists dream of making once in their lives.

An aerial assessment revealed the shape of the ancient buildings in the wheat fields. Researchers followed this with underground probing and mechanical digging to clear the surface of the site. The blocks of limestone and sandstone from the antique buildings had disappeared, apparently used over the centuries for other buildings in the area. Only a few stones remain to give evidence of the original temple structures.

Given the size of the site, hundreds of pilgrims, possibly thousands, would have come here to honor the gods, notes Guillier. The names of the gods are unknown. Investigators have not located any statues or inscriptions, and the Gallic pantheon was as abundant as the Roman one. Lines drawn on the ground by the archaeologists bring the site to life. Red lines indicate the streets, paths and galleries that once connected the buildings, while blue circles mark the holes that held the pillars supporting the colonnade that led the visitors to the temples. A large E-shaped building once stood at the entrance to the site. It may have welcomed pilgrims, sold religious objects and housed the temple guardians.

One wide path scattered with iron slag, leads a few hundred meters south to the foundations of a circular fanum or temple measuring 12 meters in diameter. That round shape was rare in Gallo-Roman times and only a few such examples can be found in France. In fact, worshipers erected three temples sequentially during the Second and Third centuries. A pergola and a flight of steps would have led to the temple, which had stone walls around seven meters high covered by a tiled roof. Inside, the cella or central room held the statue of the god. Another fanum stood at the west, the oldest in the sanctuary, dating to the First Century. It was square, 15 meters wide and apparently in the Celtic temple tradition. Originally built in wood, builders added stone later, together with a cella surrounded by a gallery for circumambulation and a wall separating the sacred space from the profane. Fragments of colored plaster show on once painted walls.
Octagonal or square-shaped secondary "chapels" surrounded the temple. It is here that the archaeologist uncovered a stunning selection of objects placed as offerings. They include Gallic, Celtic and Roman silver coins, bronze and silver-plated bronze broaches, some jewelry including a gold ring with a green quartz stone representing a deity, as well as bronze keys, pottery and knives. Investigators also found a dagger, sledgehammers and hammers, possibly offerings from soldiers and iron dealers, who held high-risk occupations requiring more divine protection than others.

The archaeologists have another mystery to solve. They have uncovered several graves near the circular fanum, with funerary objects such as a glass bottle and a box for seals. Until now, archaeologists have never found temples and graves in such close proximity.


17th century “building boom” in Polynesia


We now move around the world to the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where, according to new research, ancient buildings quickly evolved from small temples to big pyramid-shaped temples in only 140 years, rather than four or five centuries as previously believed.

A team led by anthropologist Patrick V. Kirch of the University of California at Berkeley studied 22 temple sites made of coral on the island of Moorea, using a high-precision thorium/uranium process to date decorative facings as well as large blocks and religious offerings.

According to Kirch, this kind of coral dating is more precise than radiocarbon dating. Since builders collected the coral while it was alive and used it quickly, the date of final growth of the coral specimens provides the temple construction date within plus or minus four or five years. The best dates obtained with the radiocarbon method are plus or minus 45 or 50 years.

Kirch first used the coral dating technique in a Kahikinui, (Ka hee kee new ee) Maui, archaeological project that began in 1994. The early settlers there did not use coral as building blocks, but put placed a piece of branch coral on the offering altar when they dedicated temples. They sometimes put coral in the walls as well. Kirch’s team dated the coral pieces on platforms at Kahikinui to the end of the 16th Century and beginning of the 17th Century.

The temples, or "marae" (mah-RAI), in the Society Islands are perfect for this technique as blocks of coral were the material for construction. The researchers found a clear progression of architectural change and increasingly elaborate temples on Moorea from AD 1620 to 1760, which they connected to political competition. The researchers believe the construction of these massive temples, with their ahu or altar platforms, reaching ever higher toward the heavens, was clearly an important part of the strategy of the chiefly elite to gain favor with the gods and to assert their power and prestige over their people. In addition, Kirch’s team believes political competition took place between the chiefs of Tahiti and Moorea. The largest temple built on Tahiti had 11 terraces and a big pyramid altar. Missionaries subsequently destroyed it.

The ones on Moorea escaped destruction and the largest measures 350 feet long with stepped altars and four or five terraces. The massive constructions used coral blocks 3 to 4 feet long. The researchers note that development of ritual architecture in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley is estimated to have taken more than 1,300 years, while the temple development on Moorea occurred within 140 years, according to the coral dates.

Kirch, author of "On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact," said the first settlement dates for the Society, Marquesas and Hawaiian islands are still being debated. Researchers may be able resolve the controversy by dating coral used by ancient Polynesians to make fishhooks.


New portrait statues located in China


Farther east, researchers at a huge ancient worship site in the depths of the Nanling Mountains in the southern Chinese province of Hunan have located a large cache of ancient stone statues, which outnumber the Qin Terracotta Warriors. According to Tang Zhongyong, Director of the Dao County Administrative Office, as reported in the government-issued People’s Daily Online, the site contains a large number of stone statues as well as unique technologies.

The statues are located at the worship site of Guizai Mountain. Guizai Mountain gets its name from the nearly 10,000 stone statues in the mountain, since the local people call these stone statues "Guizaizai."

The statues are portraits of civil officials, military officers, pregnant women and all kinds of common soldiers. Their height varies from 30 to 100 centimeters. Tang added that the Guizai Mountain stone statues are the largest group of stone portraits found in China. According to the statistics of the Chinese Stone Sculpture Museum and archaeology experts in Hunan, over 5,000 stone statues stand on the ground surface and a large number of stone statues lie buried about two meters below the ground.

In addition, artists carved more than 90 percent of these statues before the Qin Dynasty, which came to power in 221 BC. Artists carved about 30 percent of the statues in prehistoric times about 5,000 years ago, and carved others during the Qin, Han, Wei and Jin dynasties about 2,000 to 500 years ago.

Based on existing information and field investigations, archaeologists deduced that Guizai Mountain served as a large natural altar. Prehistoric people chose the site as an altar and following generations for thousands of years placed stone statues on it. The details of the latest discovery have not yet been released.


Archaeologists dive for the past in Florida


Our final story is from Florida, where researchers using diving gear and artifact-collecting bags are revealing secrets held underwater for 10,000 plus years. Archaeologists with the University of Miami and The Florida Aquarium are sweeping away the muck and uncovering evidence of prehistoric nomadic people in the water-filled basin above a deep, vertical underwater cavern. The artifacts could be 13,000 years old, dating from a time when wandering tribes crossed Florida. Their travels included stopovers Little Salt Spring, 90 minutes south of Tampa. Little Salt Spring drops more than 200 feet into the ground and researchers carefully uncover artifacts from a ledge 90 feet below the surface. The finds offer up glimpses of what life was like for Florida's first residents.

According to John Gifford an underwater archaeologist with the University's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, in the last ice age, between about 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, the water level was 90 feet lower then than it is today. It's generally thought that along that early beach area, early humans left their tools and whatever other artifacts they had at that site. The first major find, made more than three decades ago, was an enormous tortoise shell about 12,000 years old that appeared pierced by a spear.

The site has been under excavation by scientists at irregular intervals over the past three years, and have explored only about 6 percent of the submerged ledge. The work is painstaking and somewhat dangerous, but worth the effort, archaeologists say. Little Salt Spring is one of the most important archaeological sites in Florida. The sinkhole's water chemistry and temperature have created a unique, prehistoric submerged site where late Paleo-Indian and Archaic artifacts are unusually well preserved. The anoxic, or oxygen-free, environment at the bottom of the spring does not allow microbes and bacteria to live, so decomposition of organic material deposited there thousands of years ago is greatly reduced. Researchers find wooden and other organic tools, as well as animals' soft tissues and bones, preserved nearly intact in this one-of-a-kind environment.

In 2005, Gifford and his graduate students discovered two extraordinary archaic artifacts: a greenstone pendant and a carved stone that appears to be part of a spear thrower estimated to be 7,000 years old.

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