Audio News for January 2nd to January 8th, 2011.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 2nd to January 8th, 2011.

New radiocarbon dating research sets Polynesian dates much earlier


In our first story, an international team of scholars has completed research on early human colonization of Eastern Polynesia, showing that the peopling of these islands took place much faster and more recently than previously known.  The research team described their discoveries in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article.  

The study took advantage of more than 1,400 radiocarbon dates from 47 islands in the region, some from previous studies, and others collected for this research.  This large number of sound and valid dates suggest that Polynesian ancestors first settled in Samoa around 800 BC.  It was several centuries later that they settled in and moved on to colonize the region beyond that.  

Colonization took place in two distinct phases, starting between AD 1025 and 1120.  This is four centuries later than previously believed, as seen from the new data.  Between 70 and 265 years later, expansion continued in one major ‘pulse’ to all remaining islands including New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island between AD 1190 and 1290.  The timing and sequence of colonization has been highly debated and poorly resolved, preventing the understanding of cultural and ecological change that followed.  Over the last decade, part of the team has done extensive field research on Easter Island, finding that the timeframe of its earliest colonization was similar to that of New Zealand.  

Newer radiocarbon dating equipment and techniques added to the new project’s accuracy.  One important improvement was calibration based on the source of the radiocarbon material, including short-lived plant remains such as seeds or small twigs, unidentified wood charcoal, bone, and marine shells.  

Co-author Terry Hunt, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, explained the importance of linking dates to what's being dated and what human event produced them.  For example, if ancient Polynesians crafted something out of the wood from a very old tree, or worse, from driftwood, the age would be centuries too old to pinpoint the time of human use.  To account for these variations, the team developed a model that fine-tunes the time span.  This new model can be applied to radiocarbon dating elsewhere in the world, and provides an updated timeline and sequence for Eastern Polynesia’s colonization, which will lead to revision in existing models of human colonization, ecological change and historical linguistics for the region. 

Chinese dig finds Neolithic stone tools and pottery


In China, archaeologists working at the Laohudun Site in Gaohu County, Jiangxi Province, have discovered terracotta and painted pottery from a culture that flourished here around 4000 BC.  The project recovered an important range of late Neolithic remains and artifacts.  According to Xu Changqing, excavation team leader,  stone tools and pottery were among the artifacts at the lowest level of the site.  

Outstanding items found included stone axes, a stone adze, stone needles, a stone plow and stone sickles of a red stone, all estimated to be 6,000 years old.  In addition, archaeologists unearthed a giant sacrificial altar or table, made of fine yellow clay and dating to between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.  The project recorded 114 small sacrificial tombs and an architectural ruin made from red baked earth. These landmarks are visible as mounds in rice paddy fields.

Early American shipwreck may link marine hero to 1812 victories


Now we go to the United States, where a team of scuba divers believe they’ve discovered the wreck of a ship once commanded by naval war hero Oliver Hazard Perry, whose actions helped the United States defeat the British during the War of 1812.  It was after the Naval victory at Lake Erie in September 1813 that Perry’s words to his commanders became immortalized: “We have met the enemy and they are ours”.

A pair of divers, Charles Buffum and Craig Harger, say Perry would have never been at the Battle of Lake Erie had his schooner, the Revenge, not sunk off the reefs of Watch Hill in Rhode Island on Jan. 8, 1811.  Marine archaeologist Kathy Abbass wrote a history of Rhode Island’s early navy for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and is leading much of the underwater mapping of sunken ships off Rhode Island.  She is familiar with the Revenge, but thinks it’s a long stretch to say that the vessel’s sinking changed the course of U.S. history merely because Perry ended up on Lake Erie two years later.  Additionally, because of how the Revenge sank, and the likelihood that hundreds of other wooden vessels have fallen victim to the rocks and rip currents in the area, she is awaiting definitive proof that the find is the Revenge.  

According to Abbass, the Revenge, which was charting coastal waters, went aground in fog.  Sailors transferred her cargo to other vessels before starting to tow her off the rocks.  During the towing, the cable parted and the Revenge began drifting, eventually going down.  Abbass notes that if you knew the direction of the wind that day and the tide, you might get a trajectory of where she lies, but the currents can complicate the results.  The divers did not find anything at the wreck that positively identified the ship as the Revenge, but are still confident of their findings.  If the ship is the Revenge, it remains the property of the Navy and cannot be salvaged by treasure hunters.  According to Buffum, there was little of the ship left.  However, they hope a government-funded archeological excavation might mine some historic value.  

After Perry’s schooner sank, a court-martial proceeding exonerated him, blaming the loss of the Revenge on an error of the ship’s pilot.  Still, the sinking blemished Perry’s career, and he had no new ship until the threat of war in 1812 earned him an assignment leading a squadron of small gunboats in Newport Harbor.  Dissatisfied that he did not have a high-seas sloop-of-war at his command, he petitioned the Navy Department several times for postings at sea.  Finally, as a last resort, he called upon a friend who commanded warships on Lake Erie for a command.  On Sept. 10, 1813, the American and British fleets prepared to do battle.  Perry began the fight aboard his flagship, the Lawrence.  As it became incapacitated, he boarded a lifeboat and with a few remaining sailors, rowed to the Niagara.  The action was considered extremely brave, and without stopping, Perry carried on the fight to victory.

Thames river shore survey finds timber structure from Mesolithic times


Our final story comes to us from Britain. When the British Secret Service known as MI-6 set up home on the banks of the Thames one secret escaped its watchful eyes.  The oldest wooden structure ever found on the river, made of timbers dated to almost 7,000 years ago, has been discovered in the silt below the windows of the security services' headquarters at Vauxhall, south London.  The archaeologists who uncovered the six robust timber piles had to explain their presence to the security services when armed police turned up after they were spotted on a foggy day in the mud.  

The diggers were armed only with tripods, cameras and measuring equipment and not, as one watcher had apparently reported, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.  Gustave Milne, the archaeologist leading the Thames Discovery program, has been surveying the entire prehistoric foreshore, uncovering centuries of ancient wharves, fish traps, jetties and ship timbers.  The MI-6 timbers, measuring up to a third of a meter in diameter, were partly uncovered by river bed erosion so that they were spotted during work in an exceptionally low tides last February.  Carbon dating has now been completed, proving the trees to date between 4790 and 4490 BC.  

Although the site is exposed now only at the lowest tides, Milne believes that 7,000 years ago the timbers may have been built on dry land, possibly at the highest point of a small island.  According to Milne, the find is very interesting, because in the Mesolithic period the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in temporary camps, not at all prone to building substantial structures like this.  Milne noted that at the moment there are not enough timbers to suggest what kind of alignment they may have had, but they could have supported a substantial platform with some form of domestic structure or dwelling.  

The site is located along where a smaller river, the Effra, enters the Thames, in a river junction that was likely important to the prehistoric Londoners.  The river survey archaeologists, who are working with researchers from the Museum of London and English Heritage, also found tooled flint from the same date as the timbers, some pottery that is older yet, and just upstream, a more recent Bronze Age structure.

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