Audio News from August 22nd to August 28th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 22nd to August 28th, 2010.

Huge artificial “lakes” found in Mayan ruins


Our first story is from Mexico, where archaeologists discovered two artificial lakes, each capable of holding the water of 10 Olympic-size pools, in ancient Mayan ruins. Since 2009, researchers from Bonn and Mexico have been systematically uncovering and mapping the old walls of Uxul, a Mayan city. In the process, they came across the two 100-meter square water reservoirs. The lakes would have held enough water to support a population of 2,000 living in the city during the three-month dry season, the researchers say.

Iken Paap, archaeologist at Bonn University, directed the project with Professor Dr. Nikolai Grube, an epigrapher at Bonn University and Mexican archaeologist Antonio Benavides Castillo. Such monster pools, called "aguadas" are similar to present-day water towers in that they served to store drinking water. The people of Uxul seem to have thought of a particularly smart way to seal their aguada. Researchers found the bottom, at a depth of two meters, covered with ceramic shards practically without any gaps. However, they do not know yet whether this technique consistent throughout the entire aguada.

Uxul was not isolated in the jungle during its peak in the Classic period from AD 250 to 900. It sat in a densely populated area between the big Mayan cities of El Mirador to the south and Calakmul to the northeast. Its trade connections spanned present-day southern Guatemala and the Central Mexican Plateau.

The Maya lived in Uxul for several eras of the ancient Mayan culture. According to Paap, this year, they were able to excavate a sequence of layers that was over three meters deep, ranging from the late Pre-Classic to the Post-Classic periods. Inscriptions show that around AD 630, Uxul eventually fell under the control of the rival city Calakmul, about 26 kilometers away.
The team hopes to find out more about how that change in power affected the life of the Maya. The scientists are hoping that this and new studies on the drinking water system and history of vegetation will provide us with new insights into the living situation of the population of this Mayan city.

Family may have interred prehistoric “Iceman”


Shifting now to the Old World, a new study is suggesting that friends of the Iceman known as Ötzi carried him up the mountain. A 2001 discovery of a stone point in the Iceman’s left shoulder led many scientists to assume someone shot and killed him with an arrow as he attempted to flee through a mountain pass. However, a new analysis of the distribution of belongings around his body raises the possibility that he perished near family living at low altitudes, who took him to the mountains for interment as soon as the weather permitted. Hikers discovered his naturally mummified body frozen in melting ice in the Italian Alps in 1991. He lived just over 5,000 years ago.

According to archaeologist Alessandro Vanzetti of the Sapienza University of Rome and his colleagues, someone, perhaps family members, originally placed Ötzi on a group of stones that formed a platform about six meters uphill from the spot where hikers found him. Researchers propose the snow and ice that originally held the body in place partly thawed during occasional warm periods, sweeping the Iceman and some of his building, including a wooden bow and copper ax, off the platform. The body then gradually rolled downhill. Lodged against a boulder in the gully, Ötzi’s left arm twisted across his body at an odd angle.

Many researchers have never questioned the “disaster” theory of the Iceman’s death, so they haven’t searched for the original focus of scattering of the body and artifacts, notes study coauthor Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome.
Archaeobotanist Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck reported in 2000 that high concentrations of a binding material used in Ötzi’s equipment appeared not just in proximity of his body but also on a nearby ridge that includes the burial platform proposed by Vanzetti’s team. Biological anthropologist Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, argues that Ötzi probably died in the mountains alone close to where he suffered a deadly injury. The Iceman’s joints and spine display no dislocations that would have resulted from a downhill slide. Intact blood clots in his arrow wound would show damage if someone carted the body up the mountain, Zink adds. Bondioli counters that, if Zink is correct, warming and freezing cycles should have haphazardly spread out his belongings. Instead, a mathematical analysis of the position of artifacts recovered around Ötzi reveals two main concentrations of items, one at the proposed stone platform and another in the gully where his body lay. A backpack frame rested on the platform, trapped by a protruding rock. Clumps of human and animal hair, plant fragments, splinters of arrow shafts and an ax lay nearby. Researchers found remains of a grass mat, regarded as an overcoat by many, near Ötzi’s body. Vanzetti’s group believes the mat to be part of a funeral shroud. Ötzi’s belongings included an unfinished wooden bow and arrow shafts lacking points, making sense as burial offerings because a hunter could not have used them, the researchers add.


Ancient Chinese artifacts found in Kenya


Moving south to Kenya, an underwater archaeological team from the National Museum of China will visit in November to search for the legendary sunken ships of Zheng He, who sailed westward from China in a massive fleet in the early Fifteenth Century.

Recently, a land-based team arrived and announced they found some Chinese cultural relics in a local village, including "Yongle Tongbao," ancient Chinese coins used in the Ming Dynasty and minted during the 15th Century reign of the Yongle Emperor, the third Ming Dynasty monarch, who dispatched Zheng He on his naval mission. The China-Kenyan Lamu Islands Archaeological Project, sponsored by the National Museum of China, the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University and the Kenya National Museum, was officially launched in July 2010. The project's main purpose is to confirm the authenticity of some local villagers' claims that they are descendants of the ancient Chinese people and to salvage the ships in Zheng He's fleet that sank 600 years ago.

The archaeological team led by Qin Dashu, an archaeological professor from Peking University, arrived and began searching for Chinese cultural relics left in Kenya. After a month, the team located numerous artifacts, including the copper coins of the Ming Dynasty inscribed with the words Yong Le Tong Bao and minted between 1403 and 1424. The project chose an historic site near the Mambrui Village, Malindi, Kenya, as the excavation site. The most convincing evidence archaeologists have found are the coins and the Long Quan Kiln porcelain used only by the royal family in the early Ming Dynasty are the most convincing evidence archaeologist have found. Qin said that he has studied the place where the potters made the porcelain used in the imperial palace and the characteristics of the porcelain of the early Ming Dynasty. Now he says they have unearthed this type of porcelain in Kenya, which believes that it may be related to Zheng He.

As an official delegate to Africa, Zheng may have brought some imperial porcelain there as rewards or presents. According to historical records, during Zheng He's voyage to the Western Seas, known by most as the Indian Ocean, he carried large amounts of coins with him. The discovery has a significant meaning and is confirming evidence of China's trade with Africa in the Fifteen Century. As for the credibility of some local villagers claiming to be Chinese descendants, Qin notes, since word of mouth preserves African history, their claim is quite possibly true.


Possibly harbor found near Bent Pyramid


Still in Africa, our final story is from Egypt, where archaeologists have discovered a large structure just northeast of the 4,600-year-old Bent Pyramid that may be the remains of an ancient harbor.  The structure links to one of the pyramid’s temples by way of a 140-meter long causeway. A team from and the Free University of Berlin and the Cairo department of the German Archaeological Institute made the discoveries using magnetic survey and drill core soundings. The structure is mostly unexcavated and archaeologists have unearthed only a portion of the causeway. The structure is U-shaped, measuring 90 meters by 145 meters. Ancient Egyptians built it with mud brick and no wall on its east side.

The causeway runs due east of the temple and has a vaulted roof. It is the earliest known example of a roofed causeway used in an Egyptian pyramid complex. The interior of the causeway, with steep walls rises to a surprising height of almost three meters and contains a passageway more than tow and a half meters wide. Its walls are lined with undecorated white and yellow plaster that appears to have been maintained for a long time. The team said in a recent report that four phases of the plastering could be distinguished, which attests that builders renewed several times. From the state of weathering of the different plaster layers the archaeologists infer that the Egyptians used the causeway for a substantial period of time--at least 40 years.

According to Dr. Nicole Alexanian of the German Archaeological Institute, the structure might be a harbor or something similar. She notes that it may have been near the water, connected to the Nile River, and it is possible that ships could enter by a canal near the area. Known from later Egyptian pyramids, harbors may have served as a receiving point for the body of the pharaoh. However, the newly discovered structure probably did not serve during the burial of the Bent Pyramid’s creator, the pharaoh Snefru.  Egyptologists generally agree that Snefru’s final resting place was the Red Pyramid, located two kilometers to the north.

Archaeologists are not certain why Snefru built four pyramids.  The Bent Pyramid has an odd angle with a slope that looks as though it changed during construction. Some researchers believe it was an error made by workers trying to grasp new construction techniques. However, research done by the German team suggests that the geology of the plateau played a role in the pyramid’s unusual shape. Dr. Alexanian explains the ground had to be stable and this was a problem with the Bent Pyramid. The ground beneath the pyramid is not entirely stone, resulting in instability, which altered the angle of the pyramid. Evidence also exists that the pyramid builders changed the plateau to make it flatter, quarrying material from the east. The team writes in a conference abstract that the topography of the pyramid plateau cannot be explained by taking into account only fluvial processes like erosion. According to Alexanian, flattening the plateau artificially would have made the view from the cultivated area even more dramatic. People would have seen a flat, sharply edged, plateau, with a pyramid built on top and possibly a canal leading up to it, an awe inspiring site 4,600 years ago.

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