Audio news from September 5th to September 11th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 5th to September 11th, 2010.


Roman baths in Turkey date to the early first century A.D.


Our first story takes us to Sagalassos, in modern-day Turkey, where archeologists led by Belgian archaeologist Marc Waelkens haves discovered the oldest known Roman baths in Asia Minor. Until now, researchers considered the Capito Baths in Miletus, built during the reign of Emperor Claudius between AD 41 and 54, the oldest known Roman-bathing complex in the area.

In addition to and beneath the previously unearthed Imperial Baths, which have a surface area of more than 5,000 square meters, a second complex has revealed itself. It is much older and smaller than the Imperial Baths and dates between AD 10 and 30, although probably built somewhat earlier, during the reign of Augustus or Tiberius. The complex measures 32.5 by 40 meters and is far better preserved than researchers initially thought. The original walls would have been at least 12 meters high, of which 8.5 meters remain erect today.

The larger Imperial Baths replaced these old baths, when Hadrian selected Sagalassos as the center of the Imperial cult for the province of Pisidia, to which the city belonged. This included the organization of festivals and games that attracted thousands, so that a new urban infrastructure became necessary in order to accommodate visitors to these events. Citizens inhabited Sagalassos until the 7th century AD, when earthquakes destroyed it.

The Roman bathing habits comprised a succession of a warm water pool, a hot water pool and a cold water pool. A separate space housed each pool--a tepidarium, a caldarium and a frigidarium, respectively. Excavations this past summer also revealed the façade of an important public building dating from the reign of Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 25 BC to AD 14, possibly the town hall of Sagalassos. Additionally, archaeologists determined that the Romans erected the triumphal arch, previously thought to pay tribute to Caligula, in honor instead of his uncle and successor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, and Claudius' brother Germanicus, Caligula's father.

The excavation team under Dr. Waelkens has been working at Sagalassos now for 21 field seasons.


DNA reveals contents of 2000 year old Greek “pharmacy” ship


In 130 BC, a ship filled with medicines sank off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. Archaeologists located its cargo 20 years ago and now, for the first time, archaeobotanists have been able to analyze the pills on board which the physicians of ancient Greece prepared. Discovered on the wreck in 1989, much of the medicine was still completely dry in the box of pills. DNA analysis show that each two-millennia-old tablet is a combination of more than 10 different plant extracts, from hibiscus to celery.

Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park analyzed DNA fragments in two of the pills and compared the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health. He was able to identify carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa, and yarrow. He also found hibiscus extract, probably imported from East Asia or the lands of present-day India or Ethiopia. According to Fleischer, archaeologists know that ancients used most of these plants to treat sick people. For instance, yarrow staunched the flow of blood from wounds, and Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician and pharmacologist in Rome in the first century AD, described the carrot as a panacea for a number of problems.

The mixture has also thrown archaeobotanists a few curve balls. Preliminary analyses of the ancient pills suggest they contain sunflower, a plant biologists did not believe existed in the Old World before Europeans discovered the Americas in the 1400s. If research confirms the finding, botanists may need to revise the traditional history of the plant and its diffusion. However, it is impossible for now to be sure that the sunflower in the pills isn't simply from recent contamination. Scholars and scientists often have dismissed the drugs described by the Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen of Pergamon as ineffectual quackery and expressed doubt on their possible effectiveness, which they attributed only to the presence of opium. Now, according to Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, we have physical evidence of their medications. Touwaide hopes to explore whether the plant extracts in the pills can treat illnesses successfully in modern day. He also hopes to discover therian, a medicine described by Galen in the second century AD containing more than 80 different plant extracts, as well as document the exact measurements ancient doctors used to manufacture the pills.


Burial mound complex located in Ontario


In Ontario, Canada, a team of archaeologists has discovered a 2,000-year-old burial mound complex on Jacob’s Island in Kawartha Lakes. To date, the team has discovered 35 burials, but nearly twice that many may exist at the site. The deceased include a mix of adult men, women, teenagers, and young children.

According to Professor James Conolly of Trent University, who is leading the team, these are community burials, revealing a cross section of the community buried here. The mound indicates that people in Ontario were living an egalitarian lifestyle at this time even though they were constructing cemeteries that are more elaborate. He notes that when researchers start to see complex burials in the archaeological record they are often associated with emerging hierarchies. This does not seem to be the case in Ontario where, the emphasis is more on community rather than on individuals.

Evidence of this complex first appeared in the fall of 2009, when a team of engineers, constructing a children’s camp in the area, came across bones. The engineers called in police and forensic experts, who quickly determined that the remains were of archaeological importance. In spring 2010, Trent University researchers investigated the area at the request of Ontario’s Cemeteries Regulation Unit.

The archaeologists are not excavating the skeletons. They are simply documenting them and leaving the burials in place. The complex was simple, comprising at least one 3 to 4 meter high mound, although originally up to three mounds may have been there. Unfortunately, the topsoil is mostly gone, ploughed away by agricultural activity over the last 150 years.

Today Jacob’s Island is located just 100 meters off the lake’s shore, but in ancient times, a land bridge possibly connected it to the mainland.  Archaeologists believe that, at the time of the mound complex construction, people were living a hunting-gathering lifestyle. The team found the pelvis and what may be the tibia of a black bear interred with the burials. Archaeologists found a projectile impact on the pelvis, indicating that someone using a spear hunted and killed the animal. The bear probably had a symbolic meaning, since it is not uncommon for bear teeth and bear long-bones to be included in burials as grave offerings.

Researchers also found evidence of feasting, including a roasting pit. The people appear to have been eating turtle, deer, fish, and perhaps even a dog. Conolly suggests that at certain times of the year, possibly summer or late fall, bands of people would come to these places to feast and bury their dead at community celebrations.

Irish monks may be linked to Egyptian Copts


Our final story is from Ireland, where scientists have found fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the leather cover of an ancient book of psalms unearthed from a peat bog. The papyrus in the lining of the Egyptian-style leather cover of the 1,200-year-old manuscript potentially represents the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Middle Eastern Coptic Church, according to a statement by Ireland's National Museum.

This finding poses many questions and confounds some of the accepted ideas about the history of early Christianity in Ireland. Raghnall O Floinn, head of collections at the Museum, regards the manuscript, now known as the "Faddan More Psalter,” as one of the top 10 archaeological discoveries in Ireland. A man using a mechanical digger to harvest peat near Birr in County Tipperary uncovered it four years ago, but researchers have only just now completed the analysis. The illuminated vellum manuscript encased in the leather binding dates from the 8th Century, but archaeologists do not know when or why it ended up in the bog where the chemicals in the peat preserved it. The question is whether the papyrus came with the cover, which appears to be in Egyptian style, or if someone later added it.

O Floinn said the psalter is about the size of a tabloid newspaper and about 15 percent of the pages of the psalms, written in Latin, has survived. The researchers believe the manuscript of the psalms is the product of an Irish monastery. They are not sure when it was placed in the leather cover. O Floinn commented that the cover could have had several lives before it ended up basically as a folder for the manuscript in the bog.

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