Audio news from September 19th to September 25th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 19th to September 25th, 2010.


Greek god found on ring in ancient Israel


Our first story is from the site of Tel Dor, in northern Israel, where excavators have discovered a rare bronze signet ring bearing the face of the Greek sun god, Apollo.  According to team leader Dr. Ayelet Gilboa, Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, the ring is a piece of high-quality art.  The excavation team led by Dr. Gilboa along with Dr. Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recovered the ring from a waste pit near Hellenistic structures.  Layers of earth and corrosion covered the piece and the archaeologists had no hint that it would reveal the figure of a god.  

After conservators cleaned the ring, the profile emerged of a beardless young male with long hair, wearing a laurel wreath.  Dr. Jessica Nitschke, professor of classical archaeology at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and Dr. Rebecca Martin, assistant professor of art at Southeast Missouri State University, examined the ring and confirmed that the image is that of Apollo, one of the most important of the Olympian gods in Greek mythology.  Apollo was not only the sun god; he was also the god of light, music, and song.  

The ring dates back to the 4th or 3rd century BC.  At that time, owners used such rings as seals or dedicated them to the temple of the god imprinted on the ring.  Unearthed in an urban environment and at an organized dig, the ring is of great significance, since most small pieces of art originating in the Near East and in circulation are of unknown origin.  They either have moved through illegal antique trade circles or museums and collectors purchased them before scientific research began.  

Discoverers found the ring in the same area as a small gemstone with an engraved image of Alexander the Great and a rare, superb Hellenistic mosaic floor.  These discoveries link to a nearby grand, elite structure currently under excavation.

The finds indicate that fine art objects were not limited to the main Hellenistic cities, such as Alexandria in Egypt or Antioch in Syria, where main populations were Greek, but also spread to smaller centers, such as Dor, primarily inhabited by local Phoenicians.

The town of Dor was an important port on the Mediterranean shore from 2000 BC until AD 250.  Greek-style art, such as signet rings and miniature gems, began to appear at the time of the Persian Empire of the 6th to the 4th Century BC and became more common after Alexander the Great conquered the region.  Alexander passed through Dor on his journey from Tyre to Egypt in 332 BC.  Subsequently, the town of Dor became one of the centers of Greek culture in Israel, and that culture left its mark even after Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea, conquered Dor around 100 BC.

Excavators have worked at Tel Dor continuously for 30 years.  The Israel Nature Parks and Authority is in process of declaring it a National Park.


Peruvian temples point to 4000-year-old civilization


Moving the Western Hemisphere now, a team of Peruvian archaeologists reportedly has discovered two 4000-year-old ceremonial temples in Peru’s northern jungle.  If the dating is correct–and the basis for this dating is yet to be reported-- they may be part of the most ancient civilizations in the country.   

According to team leader Quirino Olivera, researchers found 14 burial vaults that contained the skeletons of newborns and adolescents placed there as offerings at different times over the course of the 800 years these buildings were in use.  

Researchers identify the bodies with the Bracamoros Culture, which occupied part of the current Ecuadorian province of Zamora Chinchipe and the Peruvian regions of Amazonas and Cajamarca, where the temples are located.  

The villagers of Jaen used the site as a rubbish dump until the team of archaeologists led by Olivera decided to excavate, following the trail of fossil and ceramic evidence found in recent decades.  

As the work was getting started last May, excavators found large semicircular walls built with a mixture of mortar and stones weighing 200 kilograms.  An early fresco technique adorned the perfectly aligned walls, which builders apparently constructed in eight different phases.  

Olivera expressed the opinion that if they keep digging, they could find vestiges of civilizations spanning back to 4,000 BC and  preceding the Chavin, Caral and Ventarron cultures, since neither in the Andes nor on the coast have researchers found temples that are this ancient or with these characteristics.  The temples, located in the areas of Montegrande and San Isidro, are the first archaeologists have found in a region where jungle meets mountains.

In the coming weeks and months, we should expect to hear reactions and comments from other archaeologists on these interpretations.


Stone Age sites may be trampled out of context


A new study is suggesting that archaeologists who interpret Stone Age culture from the location of ancient tools and artifacts may need to reanalyze some of their conclusions.  According to archaeologist Metin Eren, a graduate student at Southern Methodist University, the study examined the impact of water buffalo and goats trampling artifacts into mud.  In seeking to understand to what extent artifacts can be disturbed, researchers documented how animal trampling in a water-saturated area can result in a shocking amount of disturbance.  

Unfortunately for archaeologists who study the Stone Age, artifacts left behind by prehistoric humans do not stay put.  Over thousands or even millions of years, all sorts of geological or other processes can move artifacts out of place.  The movement distorts the cultural and behavioral information that was contained in the original artifact patterning, what archaeologists call "context."  Archaeologists must determine whether artifacts are in their original context, and thus provide reliable information, or if they've been disturbed in some way that biases the analysis.  
This new study showed that animals' hooves pushed artifacts as much as 21 centimeters into the ground, resulting in a variation that could equate to a difference of thousands of years in interpreting a site.  The scientific paper question how prevalent saturated substrate trampling might be, and how it has affected the context, and resulting interpretation, of Paleolithic sites throughout the Old World given that during the Lower and most of the Middle Pleistocene, hominids often camped near water sources or in areas that receive lots of seasonal rain.  
The idea that animal trampling may reorient artifacts is not new.  Dozens of trampling experiments in archaeology have examined how walking over them may affect artifacts.  These have involved human trampling and the trampling of all sorts of animals, including elephants, in dry sediments.  However, this latest study added a new variable to the mix--the trampling of artifacts embedded in ground saturated with water.  

Researchers doing archaeological survey work in the Jurreru River Valley in southern India noticed that fresh prints peppered the stream banks as well as hardened hoof prints left over from the previous monsoon season.  Seeing that the tracks sank quite deeply into the ground, the researchers began to suspect that animal trampling on the edges of water bodies could significantly displace stone artifacts from their original locations in a different way than in dry sediment.

Given the importance of artifact context in the interpretation of archaeological sites, including their age, it seems like an obvious thing to test for, but to the researchers’ surprise, it never had been.  

Eren and seven other researchers tested their idea by scattering replicated stone tools over both dry and saturated areas of the valley.  They then had water buffalo and goats trample the mock sites.  Then they excavated the tools and measured the location of the tools and their angle in the ground.  The researchers found that tools salted on ground saturated with water and trampled by buffalo moved up to 21 centimeters vertically.  Tools trampled by goats moved up to 16 centimeters vertically.  

Given that artifacts embedded in the ground at vertical angles appear to be a diagnostic marker of trampling disturbance, the researchers concluded that archaeologists should identify and reanalysize sites with water-saturated sediments.

Archaeologists “nose out” evidence of cultural exchange on Chinese empress’s coffin


Our final story is from Shaanxi Province, in central China, where archaeologists have “nosed out” new evidence of international cultural exchange.  Engraved on the Empress Wu Huifei’s 1,300-year-old stone coffin are four European-looking warriors with deep-set eyes, curly hair and over-sized noses; physical characteristics Chinese typically associate with Europeans.  This coffin originally rested in the Tang Dynasty capitol city of Chang’an, at that time the largest city in the world with over one million inhabitants, but now known a Xi’an.  According to Ge Chengyong, a noted researcher on Silk Road studies, one of the warriors looks very much like Zeus, the "father of gods and men" in Greek mythology.  The coffin also held engravings of deer, tigers, and goats.  

According to Ge, it is noteworthy that goats signify tragedy in Greek mythology.  He said that the empress led a tragic and unhappy life: several of her children died young and she herself lived constantly in fear.  

The exotic sarcophagus is rare in China, where ancient coffins usually have Buddhist-themed reliefs and murals depicting harmony, happiness, and peace.  The elements of Greek mythology suggest cross-cultural exchange occurred in the capital of the Tang Dynasty.  Some suggest that clergymen from Western countries may have served in the Tang imperial court.  

Wu Huifei was Emperor Xuanzong's favorite concubine and posthumously known as Empress Zhenshun, meaning "the virtuous and serene empress."  Her sarcophagus measures 4 meters long, 2 meters wide, 2 meters high, and weighs 27 tonnes.  Thieves stole it from her tomb in 2006 and according to the police an American businessman bought it for $1 million, but it made its way back to China last April.

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