Audio news from October 3rd to October 9th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 3rd to October 9th, 2010

Alaskan dig reveals thousands of Inuit artifacts


Our first story comes from southwest Alaska, where researchers are racing the sea to rescue thousands of ancient Inuit artifacts exposed by global climate change.  This, the first large-scale excavation in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has yielded a treasure trove of objects long locked in ice.

At the 700-year-old site called Nunalleq or Yup'ik for "old village site,” located 450 miles west of Anchorage near the village of Quinhagak, workers have discovered dozens of sod homes just under the tundra as well as bentwood bowls, knives with handles, whole clay pots, and carved figures, some with expressive faces caught in a smile or frown.  Sometimes archaeologists pulled items from puddles of permafrost that was melting as fast as they dug.  They then placed the rescued items in a waxy chemical to prevent them from drying out.  They had to work quickly, however, as the sea was sweeping artifacts away almost as fast as excavators could uncover them.

The find includes what may have been a men's house, or qasgiq, a school where boys learned survival skills from men.  Wood shavings lined the floor, perhaps dropped from carving lessons, a common male activity.  Model kayaks of wood, slate arrow blades still attached to shafts, and harpoon points littered the floor.  Excavators found women's tools elsewhere, such as moon-shaped ulu knives for cutting through fish and bone-needles for sewing.

With the sea melting the coast and protective ice from artifacts, Quinhagak's village corporation called on Rick Knecht, a longtime Alaska archaeologist now employed by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, for help.  Knecht, known for helping build Native museums in Kodiak and Unalaska, said he and others found the buried village by beachcombing for prehistoric artifacts in 2009 and following the trail of objects.

Teams of diggers also found many big animal shoulder bones that the ancient people may have used as snow shovels.  They also found woven reed mats in house walls, which helped cover the sod walls, as well as "wooden tally sticks" which probably kept scores in games.  One find included a small ivory carving of a head with a series of holes in the back. Researchers speculate it could have been lashed to a kayak or some other object.  The face contains a smaller face below it, the inua or yua, the Inuit motif representing the spirit of all things.

The residents apparently had contact with other cultures, as indicated by polished coal beads that may have followed trade routes from the Gulf of Alaska, and calcite lip plugs, or labrets, found in the Aleutian Chain.  An analysis of hair strands -- apparently the remains of haircuts in the possible men's house -- showed that people ate caribou and salmon year-round.  The leadership in the village of Quinhagak agreed to let Knecht do DNA analyses of the hair, which might tell if the piles of locks came only from males.  If so, it could be a good sampling of the ancient village's male population.

Labs in Scotland are analyzing the artifacts, but researchers will eventually return them to Alaska.  

Neolithic mini-Pompeii found near Norwegian airport


Now we go to Norway, where Norwegian archaeologists have unearthed a Neolithic “mini Pompeii” at a campsite near the North Sea.  Discovered at Hamresanden, not far from Kristiansand’s airport at Kjevik in southern Norway, the settlement has remained undisturbed for 5,500 years, buried under three feet of sand.

Although they expected to find a small and typical Stone Age site, archaeologists instead uncovered the unique and well preserved remains of a walled structure made of large stones carried to the area from some distance and buried under a sandy deposit laid down in a sudden and catastrophic flood.  Shards of beaker-shaped vessels, many of which archaeologists could restore to their original state, fill the site.

The pottery, which is highly decorated with the use of stamps, mostly cords which form patterns, belongs to the earliest phase of the Funnel-Beaker Culture.  This is a late Neolithic farming culture, which spread into north-central Europe between 4000 and 2700 B.C. and replaced the hunter-gatherer cultures that had been there for thousands of years.

According to the archaeologists, the seasonal Stone Age settlers left their pots with the intent of reusing them upon their return, but a sudden, catastrophic event, apparently a flood, buried everything.  While a disaster for the residents, it is a boon for researchers because the sand layer and an underlying layer of silt and clay encapsulated the virtually untouched remains for millennia.  The archaeologist have opened up about 500 square meters so far and expect to uncover much more in the months to come.  The research team has hopes of finding some buried wood in the underlying layer of silt and clay.


Second century map finally decoded


Moving a bit south now, a team of researchers has learned that half of Germany’s cities are 1000 years older than previous thought.

We know when many European cities were founded.  Rome in 763 BC, for instance.  We even know the exact day the first foundation stone was laid in St. Petersburg—May 27, 1703.  But we don’t know when many German cities were established.

You’d think we would, since we have a Second Century map of Germania by the scholar Ptolemy, but the map has always stumped scholars, who were unable to relate the places depicted to known settlements.  Now a team of researchers has cracked the code.  A group of classical philologists, mathematical historians and surveying experts at Berlin Technical University's Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation Science has produced an astonishing map of central Europe as it was 2,000 years ago.  The map draws on information from the mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, who in AD 150 embarked on a project to depict the entire known world.  Living in Alexandria, in the shadow of its monumental lighthouse, the ancient scholar drew 26 maps in colored ink on dried animal skins -- a Google Earth of the ancient world, if you will.

One of these drawings depicts "Germania Magna," the rainy realm inhabited, according to Roman sources, by rough barbarians whose reproductive drive, they said, was giving rise to an alarming number of tribes.  Ptolemy demonstrated extensive knowledge of this remote area, indicating the locations of mountains, rivers, and islands.  An index lists 94 "poleis," or cities, noting their latitude and longitude accurately to within a few minutes.  The map shows settlements as far afield as the Vistula River in present-day Poland, where Burgundians, Goths and Vandals once lived, and mentions the Saxons for the first time.  It appears Ptolemy was even familiar with the Swina River, which flows from the Szczecin Lagoon into the Baltic Sea, near the present day German-Polish border.

It seems surprising that an academic living along the Nile had such detailed knowledge of northern Europe -- and it's certain that Ptolemy never took his own measurements in the Germanic lands.  Instead, researchers believe he drew on Roman traders' travel itineraries, analyzed seafarers' notes and consulted maps used by Roman legions operating to the north.
However, the information the ancient geographer used is distorted.  Errors of scale crept in as he transcribed the Earth's sphere to the flat plane of a map.  Ptolemy believed the northern lands to be narrower and more elongated than they are and bent Jutland in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany too far to the east.  Ptolemy also failed to accurately connect the different parts of his map.  Mistakes worked their way in despite his attempts to locate calibration points to tie together his patchwork of geographical information.  The inevitable result was confusion.

Linguists and historians repeatedly have tried to decode the yellowed document -- in vain.  Researchers called the document an "enchanted castle," a mystery no one could crack.  Now the ancient map appears to be revealing its secrets at last.  For the first time, a high-caliber team of experts in the field of surveying and mapping worked over the recalcitrant data for six years, to develop a so-called "geodetic deformation analysis" that would help to correct the map's mistakes.

The result is a map that shows that ancient residents called both the North and Baltic Seas the "Germanic Ocean" and named the Franconian Forest in northern Bavaria "Sudeti Montes.”
It also shows a large number of cities.  Ptolemy calls the eastern German city of Jena, "Bicurgium," while Essen was "Navalia.”  He even refers to the town of Fürstenwalde in eastern Germany as "Susudata," a word derived from the Germanic term "susutin," or "sow's wallow" -- suggesting that the city's skyline was perhaps less than imposing.

The essential question is whether the new data are accurate because the original of Ptolemy's "Geography" does not exist.  The copy considered the most authentic is an edition produced around the year 1300 and kept by the Vatican, but the team of German experts had the great fortune to be able to refer to a parchment tracked down at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, the former residence of the Ottoman sultans.  The document, consisting of unbound sheepskin pages with writing in Roman capital letters, is the oldest edition of Ptolemy's work ever discovered.  Using the parchment as a reference and drawing on their own geographical expertise, the academics from Berlin seem to have finally managed to bridge the gap back to the realm of Odin and Valhalla.

The new research is presented in a new book put out by the German publisher WBG and titled “Germania und die Insel Thule,” or “Germania and the Island of Thule.”

Emergence of compassion mapped from early humans through Neanderthals


In our last story, researchers from York University in England has drawn on archaeological evidence to chart the development of compassion in early humans. The team led by Dr. Penny Spikins identified evidence of caring starting as early as six million years ago and developing in more recent humans such as Neanderthals and modern people like ourselves. The York team proposes a four stage model for the development of human compassion. The first stage would have begun up to six million years ago when the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees experienced an empathy for others that led to helping them, perhaps with a gesture of comfort or moving a branch to allow them to pass.  Archaeological remains attest the second stage, by 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus spent time caring for sick individuals, and through special treatment of the dead expressed grief at the loss of a loved one, and a desire to soothe the feelings of others. By 500,000 to 40,000 years ago in Europe, early humans such as Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals display the evidence of deep-seated commitments to the welfare of others, as illustrated by a long adolescence and a dependence on hunting together.

Archaeologically, the routine care of the injured or infirm over extended periods shows that time and effort were set aside for actions expressing empathy. For example, the remains of a child with a congenital brain abnormality show that she was not abandoned but survived until five or six years old, and those of a Neanderthal with a withered arm, deformed feet and blindness in one eye show care given to the infirm and elderly, regardless of whether they could join in the hunt for food. With the final stage in the development of compassion, modern humans extended compassion to strangers, animals, objects and abstract ideals. According to Dr. Spikins, compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion.  It binds us together, but is also an elusive element in the prehistoric record.  New research developments like neuro-imaging have enabled archaeologists to begin scientific explanation of what once were considered the intangible and unknowable feelings of ancient humans.  The York team's research has been published in the journal Time and Mind, and as a book, The Prehistory of Compassion.

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