Audio News for February 13th to February 19th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 30th to February 5th, 2011.

Ice Age cups crafted from carefully hollowed-out skulls 

Original headline: Ice Age cups crafted from crania


In our first story, English archaeologists have discovered the oldest known examples of drinking cups or containers made out of human skulls, according to paleontologist Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London. Measurements of a naturally occurring form of carbon in the skulls places them at about 14,700 years old.

Bello and her colleagues reported their findings in a paper published online February 16 in PLoS ONE. The prehistoric Ice Age residents of the cave in southwestern England cleaned the skulls before using stone tools to shape the upper parts of the brain cases into containers, the researchers say. According to Bello, the probable reason is that these Ice Age Britons hoisted the hollowed-out crania in rituals of some kind.

Other human bones found near the skull cups show signs of flesh and marrow removal, a result of either cannibalism or rites carried out to memorialize the dead. The cave finds are very similar to historical examples of drinking cups made out of skulls and further support a ritual role for the Ice Age containers, Bello says. Two French sites previously yielded skull containers presumed to date to between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, but those finds have not been directly dated.

Colonial greenhouse shows role of U.S. slaves in early plant science

Original headline: Archaeologists find hidden African side to noted 1780s Md. building


In our next story, one of the most famous Revolutionary-era buildings in the United States has revealed a previously unseen West African side. Excavations by a University of Maryland team at the 1785 Wye “Orangery” on Maryland's Eastern Shore – the only early greenhouse left in North America – have showed that African American slaves played a sophisticated, technical role in its construction and operation. In addition, they left behind tangible cultural evidence of their involvement and spiritual traditions. Frederick Douglass, who lived there as a young man, made the Wye greenhouse famous through his autobiography. But the archaeological team realized that Douglass failed to recognize the full contribution made by the slaves who worked there. According to University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who led the excavation, the building has been famous for embodying the qualities of the Enlightenment and its European heritage, but it has a hidden African face that has now been unearthed. For instance, concealed among the bricks of the furnace that controlled the greenhouse temperature was a symbol that comes from West African spirit practice, left by the African American slave who built the furnace. African charms were also found in the rooms in the greenhouse where the slaves who maintained the building’s complicated furnace and ventilation system lived. A metal coin and several sharp arrowheads had been buried by the doorway, following a West African custom that controls against malevolent spirits. Leone’s excavations, coupled with the documentary research, shows that the slaves were far more than workers who simply built and maintained the greenhouse. They were pioneers in early U.S. agricultural experimentation, carrying out work that today might be conducted by skilled lab technicians to determine the best temperatures, humidity, and other details to help introduce new plants to the region and expand the growth of valuable ones. The horticultural experiments required consistent and skillful record-keeping and building controls, which the slaves provided. Thus, while the overall architecture and goals of the greenhouse reflect the Enlightenment ideals of beauty, natural order and scientific understanding that made greenhouses important to colonial-era estates in America and across Europe, it was the slaves who carried out the detailed work required. Based on analysis of pollen recovered from the site plus written historical records, Leone shows that the greenhouse started out with a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. By the 1820s, more exotic plants were cultivated, including lemon and orange trees, and possibly tubs of pond lilies. Pollen also shows experiments with growing wild broccoli and other greens, Seneca snakeroot as a highly regarded cure-all of the time, ginger root for tea, buckbean as an analgesic and anti-nausea drug, and hardy bananas. The Wye Orangery stood on the Lloyd Plantation, a large operation with several hundred slaves. The property, first settled by Edward Lloyd in the 1650s, is still owned by his descendents, who encouraged the excavation for the historical and scientific knowledge it could provide. Frederick Douglass’s 1845 account of his life described how Colonel Lloyd kept a large and finely cultivated garden that employed four men besides the chief gardener. During the summer months, people came from far and near to see it. In an 1855 book Douglass said the the greenhouse chief was a Scotsman brought over for his scientific knowledge, but the total archaeological record suggests Douglass did not recognize the skilled work the greenhouse slaves performed. Leone’s research team not only found far more detail on the botanical research through their pollen analysis, excavations, and search of historical documents, they showed how over time the greenhouse evolved from a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs to add lemon, orange, and other citrus, as well as more exotic species. The Orangery remains active today, maintained by Lloyd family descendants. Leone’s team included several of his advanced graduate students, learning the goals and methods of Leone’s long-term work in the area, which shows how Maryland's history was shaped by a blending of European and African culture that has long gone unrecognized for its contributions to our modern experience.

Computer study shows tower of Jericho had powerful symbolic purpose

Original headline: World’s first skyscraper sought to intimidate masses'


In Israel, a new theory about the legendary tower of Jericho singles it out as the world’s first skyscraper, and claims it was built by the early farmers as a marker of the solstice, and the power of the new agricultural lifeway. Long before its Biblical-era walls came tumbling down, Jericho’s residents had given up hunting and gathering and started farming for a living in this oasis next to the Jordan River. Around 11,000 years ago, they built a mysterious 8.5-meter, or 28 foot high, stone tower on the edge of town. When discovered by archaeologists in 1952, it was the first and oldest public building ever found. But its purpose and the motivation for erecting it has been debated ever since. Now computer technology has convinced a team of Israeli archaeologists that it was built to mark the summer solstice. Moreover, according to team member Ran Barkai of the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, it was a symbol that would entice people to abandon their nomadic ways and settle down. The stone tower is about nine meters in diameter at its base and conical in shape. Built out of concentric rows of stones, it also contains an enclosed stairway. Archeologists say it wasn’t used as a tomb. Barkai and fellow archaeologist Roy Liran used computers to reconstruct sunsets and found that when the tower was built the nearby mountains cast a shadow on it as the sun set on the longest day of the year. The shadow fell exactly on the structure and then spread out to cover the entire village. The enormous coordination of work involved indicates someone had the power to persuade the townspeople to build it, Barkai noted. As with many modern examples, architecture often serves to awe and inspire, without any great functional role. The period when the tower was built was a time when people started to put down literal roots by abandoning hunting and gathering and taking up farming. According to Barkai, people didn’t make the transition easily because farming was actually a harder way of life. The tower’s construction would have consolidated the hierarchy of early leadership that could take charge of the surplus that was produced and then store and divide it.  Barkai’s team believes that since it was easier to live by hunting and gathering, the tower was one of the mechanisms that motivated people to join the community and its lifestyle. Evidence that the tower served more than a defensive purpose is supported by the indication that no invaders were present in the area at the time it was built, about 8300 BC.  According to archaeological estimates, it took about 11,000 working days to build it. Like the pyramids built 5,000 years later, this was a monumental effort that literally advertised an entire new concept of social organization and power.

Egypt’s revolution includes protests against antiquities chief

Original headline: Protesters target Egypt's antiquities chief

Our last story takes us to the land of the Pyramids, where the man in charge of Egypt’s antiquities has gone from declaring that the nation's heritage was largely unscathed during the revolt that toppled the president, to becoming the target of angry protesters himself. A crowd of some 150 archaeology graduates demonstrated outside the office of Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass last week, opposing his siding with the old order when he accepted a Cabinet post promotion as Hosni Mubarak clung to power. Whether Hawass, entrusted with preserving Egypt's museums and monuments, will go the way of Mubarak and resign is uncertain. But the scorn directed him at personifies the messy business of transition in a nation, now ruled by the military, where much of the old governing style remains intact. The demonstration in a leafy enclave of Cairo was both part of the general protest over Mubarak's thirty year reign, and also deeply personal, with protesters calling Hawass a "showman" and publicity hound who shows little regard for thousands of archaeology graduates who have been unable to find work. Hawass has maintained that his first love is Egypt's heritage, not himself, and that courting publicity raises the national profile. The rally was raucous but peaceful. The graduates said the antiquities ministry typically offers them only three-month contracts at 450 Egyptian pounds, or $75, a month, which is hardly enough to survive, and even those jobs are very few relative to the many students who are graduated in archaeology fields. Egypt's tourism industry is a major foreign currency earner, but the protestors say there is little information on how the government uses the tourism revenue. Egypt has few private employment options for archaeologists, and most must rely on the government for jobs. Protesters also complained that less-qualified people obtain positions through using connections or influence. Hawass remained unseen during the protests, in contrast to his frequent appearances in the past two weeks, inviting international media to the Egyptian Museum where he displayed artifacts damaged by looters and showed that they had mostly bypassed the padlocked cases of treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamun. On Sunday, he said a full inventory found that thieves did make off with 18 items, including two gilded wooden statues of the boy pharaoh. Hawass is passionate about his calling, and has long campaigned for repatriation of ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times. His flamboyant style is viewed by some as the preening of a self-promoter. He sells signed copies of his Indiana Jones style explorer's hat, and featured in a reality-based show on the U.S.-based History Channel called "Chasing Mummies," which includes scenes more typical of melodrama than professional archaeology, such as when an intern gets locked in a pyramid. According to a new press release from the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, at meetings between Dr. Hawass, members of his Ministry, and the Antiquities and Tourism Police, he announced that all of the Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic, and modern sites would reopen to the public on Sunday, February 20th. Vandalism or theft during the week of massive public protests includes several attempted or actual break-ins into tomb or temple buildings and storage facilities at Saqqara, Abusir, and Cairo University. The military stopped several attempts, and Minister Hawass has established a committee to tally the damage and secure reports on each site in Egypt from the responsible heads. In the meantime, Dr. Hawass expects that tourists from around the world will soon return to Egypt.

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