Audio news from September 26th to October 2nd, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 26th to October 2nd, 2010.


Shrine of Mithra found in western France


Our first story is from France, where archaeologists working in the city of Angers have discovered a Roman-era temple dedicated to the Middle Eastern god Mithra.  The small, rectangular chapel where worshippers gathered for banquets and sacrifices dates to the Third Century AD.  Within the shrine is a typical bas-relief known as a tauroctony, showing the god Mithra wearing his Phrygian cap and slaughtering a bull.  Whether as a painting or as carved monument, a depiction of the tauroctony scene is a standard feature of a mithraeum.  Damage apparent on the bas-relief may mark early Christian campaigns to stamp out worship of the competing deity.  Among the artifacts found in the excavation are oil lamps, fragments of a chandelier containing Nubian terracotta figures, a bronze Fourth Century crucifix brooch and about 200 coins.  Also found were large quantities of cockerel bones, a favored dish at the banquets held inside and around the ancient Mithraic temple.  A ceramic beaker from the first half of the Third Century bears a nearly whole inscription marking its dedication to the unconquered god Mithra by Genialis, citizen – the name of his city is illegible.  The earliest evidence of occupation unearthed in the 9,000 square meter excavation is about 10 BC.  The dig has also found parts of the two major urban roads, the cardo or north-south oriented street, and the decumanus, which ran east-west.   The cult of the Indo-Iranian god Mithra was brought to Rome by soldiers from the Eastern provinces at the end of the First Century AD.  A men’s religion exclusively, Mithraism quickly spread through all layers of society, but was especially known as a soldier's cult.  Shrines dedicated to Mithra often are found at the borders of the Roman Empire, where large amounts of troops were stationed.  After the rise of Christianity, worship of Mithra was ferociously opposed.  In AD 392, Emperor Theodosius banned the Mithraic mysteries and all other pagan religions.

Highland lifestyle documented for Stone Age settlers of New Guinea


In the western highlands of Papua New Guinea, excavations have turned up what is possibly–and possibly not-- the oldest well-documented evidence of people in Sahul, the continent that included present-day New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania during the last Ice Age.  Stone tools and plant remains show that possibly as early as 49,000 years ago, people lived 2,000 meters, or 1.2 miles, above sea level in Papua New Guinea’s Ivane Valley.  They are thought to have come there around 50,000 years ago from the lowland rainforests and savannas of southeast Asia. From there they crossed the open ocean to Sahul, presumably in seacraft of some kind.  Rising sea levels separated Papua New Guinea from Australia roughly 10,000 years ago.  

According to archaeologist Glenn Summerhayes of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, many researchers assume that modern humans spread from Africa to Sahul along the coast and preferred living at low altitudes.  In his view, the new discoveries contradict that idea.  After reaching Sahul’s shores, settlers headed uphill to the Ivane Valley’s thin air, cold temperatures and harsh habitat, according to Summerhayes and his team’s conclusions, published in the Oct. 1, 2010, issue of Science.  The early occupation of such an adverse environment suggests a model of human expansion that saw small numbers of foraging peoples moving around the landscape, colonizing new areas and then returning to where they had been.  Despite the challenges at high altitudes, prehistoric people had several mental skills that enabled them to survive there, including the ability to remember complex travel routes, and to identify potentially edible as well as possibly lethal plants.  Rapid settlement of southern as well as northern Sahul occurred shortly after 50,000 years ago, according to archaeologist Matthew Spriggs of Australian National University in Canberra.  People in northern Sahul could have walked to and from what we now know as Australia.  Previous reports that people reached northern Australia at least 60,000 years ago, based on measurements of stored radiation showing when an artifact was buried, have drawn scepticism because of the possible shifting of sediment layers and artifacts over time.  

Previous research on Papua New Guinea, conducted by Summerhayes and others, has located human occupations with radiocarbon dates as old as 41,000 years along the coast and at one Ivane Valley site.  In 2007 and 2008, the team located an additional seven ancient camps in the highland valley.  Radiocarbon measures of charcoal from one site put it at between 49,000 and 43,000 years old.  Other sites dated to between 41,400 and 26,000 years ago.  Each camp generated various stone tools, such as stone axes indented in the middle, known as waisted axes, used to clear trees and open patches of the forest to sunlight so that plants could grow faster.  Summerhayes notes that Sahul settlers made stone tools where they camped.  Finds included cores, which are large stones with sharp flakes removed, and shards of rock produced during toolmaking.  Starch grains found on several stone tools came from yams, a food gathered in its natural range at lower altitudes, the researchers say.  Excavations at one site, Vilakuav, also produced burned bone fragments from unidentified hunted animals.  Available game probably included animals still found in the region, such as opossums, tree kangaroos, bats, frogs, anteaters, lizards, snakes and birds.

Near birthplace of Zeus, a Bronze Age grave glitters with bits of gold


Now we go to the Mediterranean island of Crete, where Greek archaeologists have found an ancient skeleton covered with gold foil in a grave near the ancient town of Eleutherna.  According to archaeologist Nicholas Stampolidis, his team discovered more than 3,000 pieces of gold foil in the Seventh Century BC twin grave.   Stampolidis is a professor of archaeology at the University of Crete who has worked at Eleutherna for 25 years.  The region’s cemeteries have produced a wealth of data and outstanding artifacts.  In the newly found double grave, the tiny gold ornaments, measuring from 1 to 4 centimeters long, would have been sewn onto a lavish robe or shroud that initially wrapped the body of a woman.  Most of the off-white threads from the garment have completely rotted away.  According to Stampolidis, the whole length of the grave was covered with small pieces of gold foil, variously square, circular or lozenge-shaped.  So many flecks were present there that in places the team was digging up gold mixed with earth, more than earth with some gold in it.  

The woman, who presumably had a high social or religious status, was buried with a second skeleton in a large jar sealed with a stone slab weighing more than half a ton and hidden behind a false wall, to confuse grave robbers.  Researchers are still determining the other skeleton's sex.  Also contained in the grave were a copper bowl, pottery, perfume bottles imported from Egypt or Syria and Palestine, hundreds of amber, rock crystal and faience beads, and a gold pendant in the form of a bee goddess, which appears to be part of a rock-crystal-and-gold necklace.  The ruins of Eleutherna stand in the northern foothills of Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus, ruler of the ancient Greek gods.  Past excavations have revealed a citadel, homes and an important cemetery with lavish female burials.  The town flourished beginning the Ninth Century BC, the dark ages of Greek archaeology that followed the fall of Crete's great Minoan palatial culture, and endured until the Middle Ages.

The boy with the amber necklace: a Stonehenge mystery, solved


In our final story is from England, where chemical tests on teeth from an ancient burial near Stonehenge indicate the person in the grave grew up around the Mediterranean Sea.  The bones belong to a teenager who died 3,550 years ago, buried with a distinctive amber necklace.  The conclusions come from comparing different forms of the elements oxygen and strontium in his tooth enamel.  Analysis on a previous skeleton found near Stonehenge showed that that person was also a traveler to the area.  Researchers will detail the findings at a science symposium in London marking the 175th anniversary of the British Geological Survey, or BGS.  The "Boy with the Amber Necklace," as archaeologists know him, was found in 2005, about 2 miles southeast of Stonehenge on Boscombe Down.  The remains of the teenager, discovered next to a Bronze Age burial mound, show him to be around 14 or 15 years old.  According to Professor Jane Evans, head of archaeological science for the BGS, the position of his burial, his interment near Stonehenge, and the necklace all suggest he was of significant status.  Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, backed this interpretation, as amber necklaces are not common finds.  According to Professor Evans, Stonehenge in the Bronze Age was like Westminster Abbey today, a place where the great and the good were buried.  

Because tooth enamel forms in a child's first few years, it stores a chemical record of the environment in which the individual grew up.  Two of the chemical elements found in enamel, oxygen and strontium, exist in different forms, or isotopes.  The ratios of these isotopes found in enamel are particularly revealing to archaeologists.  Much of the oxygen in teeth and bone comes from drinking water, derived from rain or snow.  In warm climates, drinking water contains a higher ratio of heavy oxygen to the light oxygen of cold climates.  Comparing the oxygen isotope ratio in teeth with that of drinking water from different regions thus provides information about the climate where a person was raised.  Most rocks carry a small amount of the element strontium, and the ratio of strontium isotopes varies according to local geology.  The isotope ratio of strontium in a person's teeth can provide information on the geological setting where that individual lived in childhood.  By combining the techniques, archaeologists can gather data pointing to regions where a person might come from.  

Tests carried out several years ago on another burial known as the Amesbury Archer show that he was from a colder climate than that found in Britain.  Analysis of the strontium and oxygen isotopes in his teeth showed that his most likely childhood origin was in the Alpine foothills of Germany.  Isotope analysis of tooth enamel from both these people shows a contrast in origin, which highlights the diversity of people who came to Stonehenge from across Europe.  The Amesbury Archer, also some 2 miles from Stonehenge, is a rich Copper Age or early Bronze Age burial, containing some of the earliest gold and copper objects found in Britain.  He lived about 4,300 years ago, some 800 years earlier than Boy with the Amber Necklace.  The archer was a metal worker, meaning he possessed rare skills at a time when metallurgy was becoming established in Britain.  

The research on burials near Stonehenge will appear in a collection of research papers on Stonehenge now being assembled.

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