Audio News for February 6th to February 12th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 6th to February 12th, 2011.

Ancient face carvings illuminated in East Timor cave


First we go to East Timor, about 400 miles northwest of Australia, where a team searching for fossils of extinct giant rats discovered ancient stone faces carved into the walls of a well-known limestone cave.  

A team of archaeologists and paleontologists were working in Lene Hara Cave in the northeast tip of the country when Dr. Ken Aplin looked up from the cave floor at a colleague sitting on a ledge, and his head torch lit up what seemed to be a weathered carving.  The carving turned out to be a whole panel of engraved prehistoric human faces on the wall of the cave.  

The Lene Hara petroglyphs are frontal, stylized faces each with eyes, a nose, and a mouth.  One has a circular headdress with rays that frame the face.  Uranium isotope dating by contemporaries at the University of Queensland revealed the “sun ray” face to be around 10,000 to 12,000 years old, placing it in the late Pleistocene.  Scientists were unable to date the other faces but they are likely to be just as ancient.  

Archaeologists and rock art specialists have explored Lene Hara cave since the early 1960s to study its rock paintings, which include hand stencils, boats, animals, human figures, and linear decorative patterns.  The age of the pigment art in Lene Hara is currently unknown; however, Professor Sue O'Connor of The Australian National University dated a fragment of limestone with traces of embedded red ochre to over 30,000 years ago.  Although stylized engravings of faces occur throughout Melanesia, Australia and the Pacific, the Lene Hara petroglyphs are the only examples dated to the Pleistocene era.  Researchers have not found any other petroglyphs of faces on the island of Timor.

Third century Roman statue fragments uncovered outside Rome


In Italy, a team of archaeologists excavating a Roman villa along the Via Anagnina on the outskirts of Rome found six finely sculpted statue fragments buried together in a basin at the center of the villa’s atrium.  The Ministry of Culture said the statues date to the third century AD and consist of a bust, the heads of two males, a woman's head, a girl's head, and a life-size statue possibly representing the god Zeus.  According to the archaeologists, the clothes and the hairstyles of the sculptures indicate that the statuary represents members of the Severan imperial dynasty.  

Libyan-born Lucius Septimius Severus founded the dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire from 193 to 235.  Other members of the dynasty include his son, Caracalla, one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in Roman history.  Julia Domna, his wife, who may have had an incestuous relationship with their son Caracalla.  And Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, who scandalized Rome for his sexual excesses.  The dynasty ended with Alexander Severus whose death at the hands of his own troops started a troubled 50-year period known as the Crisis of the Third Century in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed.  

The archaeologists believe that the last owner of the villa was a high-ranking officer closely related to the Severan imperial family.  Roberto Egidi, the director of the excavation, noted that researchers found a mausoleum probably belonging to the last owner near the villa.  In the Severan times, it was a well-known practice to bury the owner near its house.  The team is now wondering why the Severan statues were buried all together in a basin

Great Mayan ruler Pakal may have had second son


Our next story is from Mexico, where archaeologists say they have identified a possible, previously unknown second son of 7th-century Mayan ruler Pakal from fragments of an interior wall panel located within the Palenque archaeological zone of the southern state of Chiapas.  
The stone fragments correspond to the Northern Tablet of the Temple of the Sun Sanctuary.  

Archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzalez recovered the fragments in 1993 after looters had stolen them at the beginning of the 20th century.  The wall panel measures approximately 1.6 meters long and 80 centimeters tall and contains between 20-27 glyphic scenes.  In 2009, an epigraphist from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, Guillermo Bernal Romero, interpreted the glyphic text found in the recovered panel fragments and found mention of a second son of Pakal.  In addition to his name, the glyph also mentions that he participated in Palenque's military campaign of AD 687 against the ancient Maya city of Tonina and was the son of the ruler Pakal the Great and the lady known as the Red Queen.  

Romero added that there is no other information about the unknown son's life, although, if he was the ruler's son, he was a second-born because we know who inherited the throne from Pakal.  Another possible interpretation of the glyphic text suggests that the supposed second son was a type of deity who accompanied Pakal's first-born son during the war against Tonina.  
Definite identification is not possible because the sanctuaries of the Temple of the Sun are the only areas of Palenque's Temple of the Cross group that contain inscriptions referring to the military campaign against Tonina.

Puzzling manuscript’s pages date to the 15th century


In our final story, researchers have determined that the Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious book that has frustrated code breakers and linguists for a century, consists of 15th-century parchment pages.  The dating makes the book a century older than scholars had previously believed and invalidates some theories regarding its origin.

Named for the rare book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered it in 1912 in the Villa Mondragone near Rome, the manuscript is about 250 pages long.  The book's estimated 250,000 characters are surreal drawings and unintelligible script.  Arranged in groups like words and sentences, some resemble Latin letters and Roman numerals; others are unlike any known language.  

Furthermore, the perplexing handwriting is surrounded b intricately drawn illustrations: unidentified plants, complicated networks of pipe work, and naked women dancing or bathing in a strange green liquid surround the perplexing handwriting.  

Greg Hodgins is an assistant research scientist and assistant professor in the University of Arizona's department of physics with a joint appointment at Arizona's School of Anthropology.  Working at the NSF-Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Hodgins was able to clarify the date for production of the manuscript's pages.  In order to carbon-14 date the book, Hodgins used four one-sixteenth of an inch by one inch samples from four different pages.  The four different pages were necessary to try to determine if the author or authors wrote the book over many decades, Hodgins notes.  

Hodgins' team was able to determine that the samples dated between AD 1404 and 1438, a narrow range for a radiocarbon measurement.  During the early 15th century, radiocarbon levels were changing quite rapidly, so that allowed scientists to narrow the time frame.  Sometimes atmospheric radiocarbon levels remain constant for many decades, even centuries.  In those periods, radiocarbon dating is much less precise.  According to the researchers, the dating is reliable, as they conducted it four times with independent leaves of parchment.  

Ever since Wilfrid Voynich made the manuscript public in the hope of having it translated, theories flourished about the book's author and content.  Voynich claimed the book had belonged to the 16th-century Habsburg emperor Rudolf II, but believed Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English friar and scientist wrote it.  The carbon date debunked that theory.  Other theories about the manuscript ranged from it being the secret work of a religious sect, the only remaining document from a forgotten language, an unbreakable secret code, and more.  

Several researchers also proposed that it was a deliberate hoax, possibly forged by John Dee, an English mathematician and astrologer at Rudolph's court.  In 2003 computer scientist, Gordon Rugg demonstrated Cardan grille, an encryption device invented around 1550, could have generated text resembling that in the book.

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