Audio News for October 31st to November 6th, 2010.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 1st to November 6th, 2010.

Australia lays claim to first ground stone tool with 35,000-year-old axe fragment


Come with us to Australia, where the oldest ground-edge tool in the world has been discovered in the deep stratigraphy of a rock shelter used over 35,000 years ago. A basalt axe fragment is prompting scientists to reconsider just when the technique of sharpening a tool by grinding was added to Stone Age technology.  The fragment of axe edge, unearthed in excavations at a sandstone cave, measures about one inch in length.  

Based on associated radiocarbon dates, it is 35,000 years old.  This is at least 5000 years earlier than the previously oldest known examples of other ground-edge implements from Japan and Australia, which are dated at 22,000 to 30,000 years old.  Early ground-edge axes from Europe, West Asia and Africa are even later – about 8,500 years old.  According to archaeologist Bruno David from Monash University's school of geography and environmental science, two dates have been calculated from charcoal taken from above where the axe was found and two from below, and they dovetail perfectly to establish a solid dating for the axe itself.  The discovery shows that Australia was at the forefront of technical innovation 35,000 years ago.

The international team behind the discovery, led by Dr. David, believes it will further our understanding of the evolution of human behavior.  While evidence suggests that the technique of grinding already existed between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago, it was not yet used to make the edges of stone tools sharp, but instead was used to crush ochre and to shape beads.  According to Dr. David, parallel scratch marks are visible on the surface of the axe, the trace evidence of manufacture through grinding.  The axe has been sent to France for analysis by renowned archaeologist Hugues Plisson from the University of Bordeaux.  It would probably have been worked against a sandstone-based grinding stone.  The hard grains of sand left grooves large enough to see with the naked eye.  

The volcanic rock of the axe itself is significant, as the area where it was found is all sandstone, while the nearest source of basalt is 40 kilometers away.  This suggests that the axe was a trade item, and would have been highly valued.  The axe was found at the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter, about 25 miles from the Nauwalabila site, one of the oldest known Aboriginal sites in Australia.  The journal Australian Archaeology will publish the findings next month.

Two decades of research reveals Mayan skills at wetland farming


Our next story takes us to Belize, where new research reveals that the Maya, long recognized for their grand pyramids, sophisticated mathematics and an intricate written language, had agricultural systems that were equally complex.  Using new techniques and extensive excavations, researchers have found that the Maya handled tough environmental conditions by developing inventive methods to grow crops in wetland areas.  According to Timothy Beach, a physical geographer at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the recent work shows that this intensive agriculture is more complicated and on a par with other areas of intellectual expansion.  

The Maya civilization lived in densely populated areas of the Yucatán Peninsula, and their complex culture reached its height from about 400 BC to AD 900.  Their region was a tough environment, with recurring droughts and rising sea levels, and the land that they farmed was rough, rocky terrain interspersed with enormous wetlands.  One of history's biggest questions is how the Maya managed to feed their relatively large population.  It's long been known that the Maya relied heavily on agriculture.  In the 1970s, researchers began characterizing the remains of elaborate irrigation canals found in wetland areas.  However, they have not been sure how widespread these canals were or whether the use of wetlands for farming was an important part of the Maya agricultural system.  

Speaking at the recent Geological Society of America meetings, Dr. Beach presented the results of two decades' work aimed at answering these questions.  His team performed more than 60 excavations to study and map the different earth layers, or strata, in field sites in northern Belize.  Working in low-lying wetlands, the team dug trenches 10 feet deep and 30 to 60 feet long to study soil and water chemistry.  They performed carbon-isotope analyses on soil layers and studied fossilized plant materials to work out how the land was used.  The soil layers revealed signs of rising water tables and the remnants of flood deposits.  Fossilized plant remains at these sites show that the Maya were growing crops such as avocados, maize, an other grass species.  Research suggests the Maya built canals between wetlands to redirect water and create new farmland.  As the Maya dug out ditches, they placed the excavated soil onto the adjacent land, creating elevated fields that kept the root systems of their crops above the waterlogged soil, but close by the irrigation water.  

Although about 40% of the Yucatán Peninsula is swamp today, the idea that the Maya farmed wetland areas at length has been contentious among archaeologists.  Nevertheless, this new work gives strong support to the idea that the Maya were modifying these swamps intensively to make a living.

Walls of the Great Sphinx rise again


Now we travel to Egypt, where large sections of mudbrick walls have emerged from the sands on the Giza plateau where the Sphinx and the three great pyramids stand.  Discovered by a team of Egyptian archaeologists during routine excavation work near the valley temple of the Fourth Dynasty King Khafre, the segments are part of a wall that once protected the Sphinx from the desert winds.  According to ancient Egyptian texts, the wall was built following a dream King Thuthmose IV had after a long hunting trip in Wadi El-Ghezlan, or Deer Valley, an area next to the Sphinx.  In the dream, the mythical beast with the head of a man and the body of a lion complained of choking in the desert sand.  As a result, the king removed the sand that had partially buried the grand limestone figure and built an enclosure wall to protect it.  

Extending for more than 400 feet, the wall is part of a larger structure previously found to the north of the Sphinx.  It comprises two sections, one of which is less than 3 feet tall and runs for around 300 feet along the eastern side of Khafre’s valley temple and the Sphinx.  The second segment is about 3 feet tall and 150 feet long, running east to west along the perimeter of the valley temple area.  

According to Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, archaeologists previously believed that the enclosure wall only existed on the Sphinx’s northern side, as a section had been found there.  The discovery of the two new wall segments on the eastern and southern sides changes this view.  The archaeologists also uncovered a third, older section of a mudbrick wall on the eastern side of Khafre’s valley temple.  According to Hawass, this could represent a settlement inhabited by priests and officials who oversaw the mortuary cult of the pharaoh Khafre, who died in about 2532 BC.

New find in Peru is tomb of a ‘Warrior of the Clouds’


In Peru, a new tomb has been found in an impressive building located on the highest point of the Chachapoyan citadel of Kuélap (coo-eh-LOP).  In the area known as Pueblo Alto, researchers led by Alfredo Naváez (nah-VYE-es) discovered a tomb dating from the late Fifteenth Century and containing the remains of six people during routine excavations almost three months ago.  

Continuing their work in that location, the team has now found almost 100 offerings nearby, including spondylus (SPON-di-lus) shells, ceramics and many pieces of precious metals and stones.  Beneath these objects, excavators observed four irregular stones placed to mark three large slabs that were clearly used to seal some form of main tomb.  Opening that tomb has revealed the most important Chachapoyas grave yet found.  Inside, the funerary chamber is divided into two parts, with one section holding the remains of a person placed in a fetal position.  In the other were the remains of a llama, more spondylus or spiny oyster shells, and three ceramic objects, including two vases with Inca adornment and colors.  

The tomb is the only one of its kind found for the Chachapoyas culture, and is unusual in having the same shape as a modern coffin.  It was built using 11 large flat stones and a number of smaller ones, all held together with mud mortar.  According to Narváez, the research team has been unable to establish a specific level of rank or function of this person, but he may have been an important governor of Chachapoyan society during the period of Inca control.  According to Narváez, the tomb contains offerings made in Cuzco, the capital, but the buried person is not necessarily from there.  He appears more likely to have been a high-ranking local person, holding a position of importance during the Inca occupation.  The tomb is a new kind of burial type quite unlike the traditional Chachapoyan burials, which generally consist of remains placed in sarcophagi placed up high on cliffs and ridges.  

The Chachapoyas were called the warriors of the clouds, because they lived in the cloud forests along the eastern side of the Andes, now part of the Amazonas region of modern Peru.  The Incas conquered their civilization in the second half of the 15th century shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru.  When the Spanish arrived in Peru in the 16th century, the Chachapoyas were one of the many nations ruled by the Inca Empire

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