Audio news from October 10th to October 16th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 10th to October 16th, 2010.


Ancient Assyrian loyalty oath had religious force over the empire


Our first story takes us to Turkey, where archaeologists excavating a temple at the ancient city of Tayinat have discovered a 2,700-year-old tablet bearing a loyalty oath pledging obedience to the heir of an Assyrian king.  The city of Tayinat was built on the Amuq plain along the Orontes River, near the modern day border with Syria.  The temple with the oath is about 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, and is being excavated by a team led by Professor Tim Harrison of the University of Toronto.  

In 738 BC, the Assyrian Empire conquered Tayinat and appointed a governor to oversee it.  Finding the loyalty oath tablet in the temple adds insight on how the Assyrians maintained control.  The team used careful field recording and textual analysis to verify that the tablet had stood on a raised platform in the temple’s cella (SELL-ah), the building’s central room or “holy of holies.”  The oath declares that the city’s governor, and possibly other citizens, would recognize Ashurbanipal as the heir to the throne of the Assyrian Empire, after the death of his father, King Esarhaddon.  

The language of the oath is strong and detailed: “You shall protect him in country and in town, fall and die for him. You shall speak with him in the truth of your heart, give him sound advice loyally, and smooth his way in every respect.”  Following the declaration of loyalty is a long list of curses to fall upon anyone who breaks the oath.  One invokes disease:  “May Sin, the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with leprosy and forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king.”  Another threatens with exile: “Roam the desert like the wild-ass and the gazelle.” Yet another curse calls down the discomfort of angry gods: “May Mullissu, who dwells in Nineveh, tie a flaming sword at your side.”  

According to team epigrapher Professor Jacob Lauinger of John Hopkins University, the presence of the oath tablet at Tayinat affirms Ashurbanipal’s claim that his father made all the people of Assyria, great and small, take the oath.  Professor Lauinger also determined that the tablet was probably created on the 18th day of the 2nd month of the year 672 BC, which is the same day as tablets from Nimrud, in modern day Iraq, where virtually identical oaths have been found.  The next puzzle for the team to crack is why such a loyalty oath graced such a prominent position in the temple.  Was it a sort of formal offering?  Alternatively, was it an object of religious adoration?  According to Lauinger, each prospect is tantalizing, but it will take considerably more research to provide an answer.

Defensive works mark early English settlement in Canada


Across the Atlantic, researchers in Newfoundland have located the battery built to defend the first English settlement in Canada.  The 400-year-old stone foundation of a gun battery was built to defend Cupids, a 17th-century colonial settlement and discovered as part of a continuing excavation in the historic Conception Bay village.  The defense works are a vivid reminder of the importance of the gun in helping England secure its first toehold in the future Canada four centuries ago.  

Many threats existed to England's New World outposts from both pirates and French rivals.  According to Bill Gilbert, the lead archaeologist at Cupids, historians have long known that the piracy threat persuaded Cupid’s leaders to bolster the settlement's modest defenses in 1612, two years after its establishment.  France had already planted its flag at Quebec City four years earlier, in 1608.  Even though fishing fleets from several European nations had been sailing seasonally to Newfoundland for decades to catch cod or whales, the East Coast remained a dangerous frontier for settlement, given not just foreign opponents and pirates, but also suspicion from the indigenous peoples, now known in Canada as the First Nations.  

Last fall, the discovery of the remains of a protective stone wall north of the original settlement site at Cupids raised hopes that other defensive installations might be found overlooking the bay.  On Sept. 27, the rocky remains of the gun base came to light at the site, offering a commanding view of the river valley and harbor.  Remarkably, the stone structure appears to match references in historical records describing fortification improvements to protect Cupids, known then as Cuper's Cove, from hostile forces.  A letter written on Sept. 3, 1612, by John Slany, the treasurer of the colony, explained how the upgrade of defense works would make Cupids impenetrable against an attack if the pirates returned to threaten settlers.  Another letter from colonist Henry Crout also highlighted the danger from pirates and warned John Guy, the leader of the colony, that Cupids should be made strong to fend off lawless sailors.  

Gilbert noted that while no great riches in Newfoundland would attract pirates, lots of skilled seamen, ships and supplies came over each year as part of the fishing season.  In addition, plenty of good harbors existed well away from the reach of English or other European authorities, where the pirates could rest and repair their vessels.  The most notorious of the pirates was Peter Easton, who lurked along Newfoundland's coast in 1612 but left in the late summer of 1612 to attack the Spanish silver fleet off the Azores.  Easton retired to the south of France as a wealthy man.  

Cupids joins the small number of earliest European settlements in the northern New World.  French occupation is attested at Saint Croix Island off New Brunswick's southern coast, dating to 1604, and at Quebec City.  One of the very few older English sites than Cupids is an island near Iqaluit (ih-KHA-loo-it) far to the north on Baffin Island with remains from an Arctic mining expedition headed by English explorer Martin Frobisher in the 1570s.


Caucasus stone structures are like a Stonehenge of Bronze Age Russia


In Russia, archaeologists have found multiple sites with well-preserved ruins that they call a "Caucasian Stonehenge" after the famous British megalithic site.  The circular structures of stone, found high in the mountains, were built by a previously unknown Bronze Age civilization in the southern region of the country.  The researchers found the unusual circular arrangements, built of stones up to one meter high with an oval courtyard in the center and connected by roads, at some 200 settlements on the highland plateau in the Kislovodsk (KIZ-loh-VAHDSK) Basin, an area of the North Caucasus Mountains.  The settlements dating back to 1600 BC have come to light with the help of air photos over the past five years.  Now Andrey Belinskiy, leader of a Russian-German expedition in the area, has theorized that these unusually shaped constructions may relate to a calendar.  The structures do not resemble the methodically laid-out houses and barns found in other settlements of the time.  Additional support for this conjecture comes from nearby ceramics, which have decoration suggesting that their creators were familiar with astronomy and calendars.  The civilization left no written records and its ethnic origins are unknown.  Valentina Kozenkova, a professor of Caucasus history at the Russian Academy of Sciences, called the finding unique and unparalleled.  

Russian and earlier Soviet historians have found several Bronze Age structures in Russia and Central Asia previously used as calendars and surrounded by ritual landscapes.  The North Caucasus is one of the world's most ethnically diverse regions, located between the Caspian and Black seas.  The region had millenia-long contacts with civilizations of Mesopotamia, Central Asia and Iran.  Belinskiy believes the dwellers of the settlements were cattle-grazers using the Alpine areas, which were ideal for their livestock.  Their settlements had carefully-designed houses and oval courtyards for the cattle.  They were built on the mountain plateau between the Kuban River and today's city of Kislovodsk, where a recent conference took place to discuss the new data.  Belinskiy believes that the highlanders later merged with what is known as the Kuban (COO-BAHN) culture, known for exquisite bronze artifacts and extensive agriculture.

Earthen tiles for cooler box add to clues about San Francisco settlers


Our final story is from San Francisco, where piece by piece, the lives of the earliest settlers in the Spanish fort known as the Presidio are emerging as archaeologists unearth equipment fashioned by civilians living beyond the protection of the walls.  Located at a site where spring water once flowed near two long-ago family dwellings, the careful use of a backhoe has unearthed the remains of an ingenious cooler the settlers built underground to preserve perishable foodstuffs.  Nearby are the remains of an adobe brick kiln that once baked sturdy curved tiles for the settlers' roofs and thicker, more massive ones for the floors of their houses.  

The discoveries this summer came from an area known as Tennessee Hollow, near a group of modern military homes.  Last year, Kari Jones, a Presidio Trust archaeologist, led a team from Sonoma State University in the same area and found a few intriguing objects – a dirt-encrusted button, some bits of amber glass and a mysterious semicircle of stones that might have been part of a corral – but not much more.  However, the crumbled adobe foundation of a large family home dating from 1810 or earlier had already been excavated in the area.  Archaeologists believe it was probably the home of Juana Briones, a pioneer Spanish landowner who employed many of the Ohlone (oh-LOAN-ee) Indian people who had lived in the area for centuries.  A map made from memory toward the end of the 19th century shows the layout of the area in around 1810, with a second house standing close to the Briones home.  However, a team of consulting archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar and electrical current detectors to scan last year, and their results indicated that no other old structures were to be found here.  Nevertheless, this summer Jones determined to make another try, and brought a heavy backhoe into play.  They dug along a track near where the partial circle of stones was found.  On the very last scoop, they turned up what were obviously clay tiles.  Many of the tiles were broken, but some were intact and curved much like the red tiles on the roofs of homes today.  Other tiles were brick-shaped.  Digging carefully around the tiles with shovels, trowels and brushes, Jones and her team uncovered a shallow box-shaped structure, about 6 feet square.  

Such a dairy box or cooler exemplifies a technique known since the time of the ancient Romans to use the insulating properties of running water, earth and clay to refrigerate food without ice.  In its day, a tarp of some fabric was stretched over it to shade it from the sun and keep out pests.  A tile from the box and an earth sample are being analyzed to see if they will reveal what the settlers kept in their cooler.  The analysis may identify molecules from vegetables as well as fats and blood from meats.  The box and the kiln have given us only one quick glimpse of what this area could reveal about the life of the settlement.  The entire area lies below El Polin Spring, a water source used by the Spanish settlers and the Ohlone before them.  

According to Jones, the families on the open meadow below diverted the stream from the spring into two channels running past both sides of the dairy box to keep its contents cool.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!