Audio News for January 9th, 2011, 2010 to January 16th, 2011.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 9th, 2011, 2010 to January 16th, 2011.  


Ancient Greek coin may depict actual astronomical occurrence


Recently, a rare total lunar eclipse caught the imagination of people around the world.  The Greeks, 2100 years ago, found such astronomical events just as fascinating, and a coin from Syria may be evidence for this interest.  

The coin in question was minted around 120 BC and may show the moon blocking the planet Jupiter.  On one side of the coin is the portrait of Antiochos VIII, the king who minted it.  The reverse depicts Zeus, with a scepter in his left hand, and above his head the crescent of the moon.  Jupiter’s right arm is outreached with a star-like figure hovering just above his palm.  

This unusual iconography caught the interest of Professor Robert Weir of the University of Windsor in Canada.  Weir, a classics professor whose research looks at both astronomy and ancient coins, asked why Antiochos VIII would mint a coin with such an unusual motif.  He learned that on January 17, 121 BC, the residents of Antioch, the capital of Antiochos’ empire, would have seen Jupiter blocked out by the moon, an event modern day astronomers call an “occultation.” Also at that time, Jupiter was in the constellation of Cancer, which meant to the ancient world that a great king would be born in Syria.  

But that’s not all Weir learned.  He also found there was a second occultation of Jupiter within the year, and just a week after the first one there was an occultation of Venus, which was a very good omen to the ancient Greeks.  These three significant astronomical events would have caught the interest of Antiochos VIII, a successor to Alexander the Great, whose realm was in southeastern Turkey.  His empire had been in decline for some time, with the Parthians gaining territory in the east, the Romans in the west and the Hasmoneans, a dynasty of Jewish kings, coming to power in the south.  Antiochos’s rise to the throne had been brutal, with several murders in the family bringing him to the throne.  

With the unusual celestial event recorded on the coin occurred, Antiochos VIII may have felt that the heavens were finally with him.  Unfortunately, his rule would be anything but great.  In the years that followed, his empire would endure conflict, with one of his brothers disputing his right to the throne.  Eventually the two had to agree to divide what was left of the Seleucid kingdom.  The king’s run of cosmic good luck had come to an end.

Early societies influenced by climate change


Could climate change be responsible for some of the social upheaval during the Black Death, the Barbarian Migrations or the Thirty Years’ War?  In our second story, researchers have reconstructed European summer climate for the past 2500 years for the first time and discovered possible links between past climate variability and changes in human history.  

An international research team of archaeologists, climatologists, geographers and historians led by Willy Tegel of the University of Freiburg’s Institute for Forest Growth and Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL looked at tree rings and compared variations in European summer climate against conspicuous events and episodes in human history.  Their study provides new evidence that climate change impacted agricultural productivity and overall economic growth.  The reconstruction of central Europe's summer precipitation and temperature went back 2,500 years, more than 1,000 years further than previous studies.  

The climate information stored in tree ring samples allows comparison of natural precipitation and temperature fluctuations with the development of European societies.  European summer climate during the Roman Era, about 2,000 years ago, was relatively warm, wet and characterized by less variability.  Increased climate variations from around 250-600 A.D. coincided with the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the exceptional turmoil of the Migration Period during which the continent's population was substantially reordered.  

The new study also revealed that humid and mild summers paralleled the rapid cultural and political growth of Medieval Europe, whereas unfavorable climate may have played a role in the underlying health conditions that contributed to the devastating economic crisis that arose in connection with the Black Death plague pandemic in the 14th century.  More recently, temperature variations in the early 17th and 19th centuries coincided with large-scale settlement abandonment during the Thirty Years' War and the modern mass migrations from Europe to America.  

The authors’ detailed palaeoclimatic history lends new credence to the idea that climate variability can impact human society.  Sounding a cautionary note, the researchers suggest that projected global climate change may affect human societies more than is currently expected, and that complex causal links between past climate changes and human responses urgently require more investigation.

Drink up!  6000-year-old winery discovered


Next, we go to Armenia, where a team of scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles has confirmed the discovery of the oldest complete wine production facility ever found.  The evidence includes grape seeds, withered grape vines, remains of pressed grapes, a rudimentary wine press, a clay vat apparently used for fermentation, wine-soaked potsherds, and even a cup and drinking bowl.  The site dates back 6000 years, 1,000 years before the earliest comparable find.  

The discovery in 2007 of what appeared to be ancient grape seeds inspired the team to begin excavating Areni-1, a cave complex located in a canyon where the Little Caucasus Mountains approach the northern end of the Zagros mountain range, near Armenia's southern border with Iran.  The cave is outside a tiny Armenian village still known for its wine-making activities.  Radiocarbon analysis by researchers at UC Irvine and Oxford University has dated the installation and associated artifacts to between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C., or the Late Chalcolithic Period, also known as the Copper Age.  

Archaeologists found one shallow basin made of pressed clay measuring about one meter, or 3 feet across.  Surrounded by a thick rim that would have contained juices, and positioned so as to drain into the deep vat, the basin appears to have served as a wine press.  Similarly structured wine-pressing devices were in use as recently as the 19th century throughout the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.

No apparatus to smash the grapes against the wine press was found, and it is likely the grapes were pressed by foot.  All around and on top of the wine press were handfuls of grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes and grape must, and dozens of desiccated vines.  After examining the seeds, paleobotanists from three separate institutions determined the species to be Vitis vinifera vinifera, the domesticated variety of grape still used to make wine.  The clay vat, at just over 2 feet in height, would have held between 14 and 15 gallons of liquid.  

Analysis of the residue located on the potsherds by chemists at UCLA's Pasarow Mass Spectrometry Laboratory confirmed the presence of the plant pigment malvidin.  Malvidin appears in only one other fruit native to the area: pomegranates.  Since the excavators did not find any pomegranates, they are confident the vat held grape juice.  Without modern refrigeration, the ancients would have fermented the juice, leading the researchers to believe they were looking at the remains of wine. The team also unearthed one cylindrical cup made of animal horn and one complete drinking bowl of clay, as well as many bowl fragments.

German archaeologists found the closest comparable collection of remain in the late 1980s in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king Scorpion I, the researchers said.  Dating to around 3150 B.C., that find consisted of grape seeds, grape skins, dried pulp and imported ceramic jars covered inside with a yellow residue chemically consistent with wine.

The precise identity of the wine-making people remains a mystery, although researchers believed they may be the predecessors of the Kura-Araxes people, an early Transcaucasian group.  Because archaeologists discovered the press and jugs among dozens of gravesites, they believe the wine may have played a ceremonial role.

Prehispanic Mexican tomb detailed with 3D technology


In our final story, archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History carried out the first three-dimensional imaging of a shaft tomb, an underground burial type used during Prehispanic time as funerary chambers in the western region of Mexico.  Shaft tombs consist of a main vertical shaft of variable depth and one or more funerary chambers that open to the sides and are the individual tombs themselves.  

Specialists managed to conduct 3 dimensional imaging of one of these complex spaces at the Cerro Del Teul Archaeological Site, in Zacatecas, by using Total Station, an electro-optical device.  Total Station technology allows researchers to describe and outline the features of a terrain with detail.  By using this device, archeologists were able to record the shaft tomb in detail, in order to analyze the funerary space.  

The tomb’s location is in the northernmost area where shaft tombs were traditional, and is the earliest evidence of the sedentary occupation of that region, from the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD.  Using the new technology, archeologists mapped six shaft tombs.  In the course of the investigation, the researchers also recovered beads made out of marine shell and stone; remains of dart-throwers, pigments, broken vessels, two small zoomorphic wind instruments and other objects that were part of necklaces.  

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