Audio news from February 20th to February 26th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 20th to February 26th, 2011.


Oldest human remains ever found in Arctic or Subarctic North America discovered in Alaska


First we go to Alaska, where an archaeological dig has uncovered the oldest human remains ever found in Arctic or Subarctic North America. Excavators found the cremated remains of a 3-year-old child in a fire pit in the remains of an ancient house near the Tanana River. They date the cremation to 11,500 years ago, the very end of the last Ice Age. At the time of the child’s death, the Bering Land Bridge, once connecting eastern Siberia and Alaska, may still have been open, or only recently flooded by rising sea levels.

According to Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the fact that mourners cremated the child within the center of the house shows he or she was an important member of society.

The child's remains aren't the only thing about the find that excites the research team. The Paleoindian populace of Alaska left few structures behind. Usually, archaeologists discover outdoor hearths and specialized tools that suggest temporary work sites or hunting camps. The house that became a child's grave is the first habitation found from this era in northern North America. It sits in an area called the Upward Sun River site, an area that would have had rich vegetation. The most similar site to this one is on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia.

The inhabitants of the house stoked their cooking fires with poplar wood. Within the fire pit, the researchers discovered the cooked bones of small animals, including salmon, rabbits, ground squirrels and birds. They say the presence of salmon and young ground squirrels is evidence that the site was a summer settlement.

The researchers also found four used stone tools at the site, along with stone flakes left over from tool sharpening. By going through the layers in the fire pit, scientists were able to reconstruct the house inhabitants' summer lives. The residents fished and hunted small game, either cooking it in the hearth or disposing of bones and other leftovers there.

When the child died, mourners placed him or her back in the hearth and burned the body for one to three hours. The child's cremation site may have been a former cooking pit, but researchers do not infer cannibalism. The child's cause of death cannot be determined but the child's body was not disturbed during the burn. Inhabitants filled in the house's foundation after the cremation, suggesting a respectful burial.

The teeth provide some clues as to the child's ancestry. He or she had shovel-shaped front teeth, a genetic trait common in northeast Asian and Native American populations. As such, the researchers worked with native groups in every step of the scientific process. When Potter found the first molar, he immediately halted the dig to consult with local native communities and the owner of the land. The researchers plan to try to extract DNA from the bones, both to see if they can tell the child's gender and to see if they can genetically link him or her to living or ancient native populations.

First century Roman fort found on schoolyard in Wales


In South West Wales, excavation on the site of a Roman fort near a school has revealed what archaeologists believe are unique features for the United Kingdom.

The dig in the playing fields of a school in Neath has uncovered parts of a 1st Century building, including a defense tower partially set outside its ramparts allowing soldiers to shoot at gate attackers. Troops occupied the fort until the 3rd Century.

According to Richard Lewis, head of projects at the Glamorgan/Gwent Archaeological Trust, it is of high importance in Wales and the UK because nobody has been able to expose as large an area as they have. The town council asked the trust to carry out the work before construction began on a new teaching block on the playing field.

A unit of auxiliaries, who were regarded as high quality troops but less prestigious than the legions, would have occupied the fort of Nidum, initially discovered in the 1950s. They protected the fort against the fierce local tribe, known as the Silures, who were native to much of south, mid and west Wales.

Lewis noted that these types of defenses did exist 200 or 300 years later, but they were very, very unusual for the 1st Century. The Romans had an extremely efficient field army and their best form of defense was attack. Timber comprised the initial structure with a later stone version dating to the early part of the 2nd Century.

The trust's excavations have given a completely new understanding of the early fort and the area outside its north-west gate. The work shows that four parallel ditches and a rampart, with a tower, protected the timber fort. Their combined width was more than 12 meters, making a very formidable defense. Lewis summarizes that as there is no road leading out and it appears that this is as far as they have got in a highly hostile area. This fact indicates the Silures were rampant and the Romans needed good defense. The tower had two of its four posts set on the outside of the rampart, which the trust believes would have allowed soldiers to shoot at anyone attacking the gate. Workers have also identified other unique features in the face of the rampart: a trench for a palisade, a defensive fence of stakes, to prevent the collapse of the rampart, and possibly to support a lifting mechanism.

WWII bombing causalities restored in Germany


Our third story finds us traveling to Germany, where researcher have meticulously restored a collection of ancient statues destroyed during the British bombing of Berlin in 1943. For nine years, researchers have pieced together the 27,000 fragments of the 3,000-year-old Tell Halaf treasures taken from modern day Syria by the German archaeologist and collector Max von Oppenheim early in the 20th century.

According Lutz Martin, coordinator of the restoration project, the first step consisted of laying out all 27,000 fragments on an area of 600 square meters and then sorting the material. The only tools used by the restorers were eyes, brains, endurance and patience. The results are now the focus of an exhibition in Berlin's Pergamon.

Statues of gods, sacred animals and mythical creatures carved by Aramaic tribesmen in the first century BC adorned the royal palace of Tell Halaf, in what is now Syria. Oppenheim, a diplomat and enthusiast of the Arab world, discovered the remains of Tell Halaf in 1899. He obtained permission to excavate the site and gave up his diplomatic career to concentrate on the project that started 12 years later.

World War I interrupted the excavation. Oppenheim was unable to complete his work until nearly 30 years after the first discovery. A museum in Aleppo, Syria, and Oppenheim split the discoveries and Oppenheim returned with his share to Germany. Oppenheim opened his own museum in 1930 in a former iron foundry. The museum, destroyed in an air raid in 1943, left everyone believing his collection was lost forever. The blaze from the bombing destroyed all the limestone objects. Those made from basalt withstood the heat, but not the cold water used to extinguish the fire, causing them to fracture.

Oppenheim persuaded Walter Andrae, director of the department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Pergamon Museum, to salvage nine truckloads of basalt fragments. They remained in the basement of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin's famous archaeological museum and part of the National Museums complex, for 50 years. In the 1990s, after the reunification of Berlin, a survey of the fragments raised hopes that restorers could save at least some of the sculptures. In addition to the re-assembled archaeological treasures, the exhibition includes historical footage, photographs and sound recordings telling the story of the Oppenheim's expedition, the bombing and the subsequent restoration.

Origin of Stonehenge stones revealed through chemical analysis


Our final story is also from the British Isles, where researchers from Leicester and Wales have shed new light on the origins of bluestones at Stonehenge, long believed to have come from “sacred hills” in Wales. Geologists from the National Museum Wales, University of Leicester and Aberystwyth University have uncovered new evidence of their origins, bringing into question how the rocks made it to the Salisbury Plain. The Bluestones are a distinctive set of stones that form the inner circle and inner horseshoe of Stonehenge.

The Preseli mountains in north Pembrokeshire are the source of one type of bluestone at Stonehenge, known as “spotted dolerite.” However, the sources of the other bluestones, mainly rhyolite, a type of volcanic rock and the rare sandstones remained unknown. Now the team of geologists has identified the sources of one of the rhyolite types.

Dr. Richard Bevins, Keeper of Geology at Amgueddfa Cymru, in partnership with Dr. Rob Ixer, University of Leicester and Dr. Nick Pearce of Aberystwyth University, have been working on the rhyolite component of the bluestones, believing them to be of Welsh origin. Through standard techniques combined with chemical analysis of samples from Stonehenge and north Pembrokeshire using laser ablation induction and mass spectrometry, they have matched one particular rhyolite to an area north of the Preseli range, near Pont Saeson.

Most archaeologists in recent years have assumed that Neolithic Age man had a reason for transporting bluestones all the way from west Wales to Stonehenge and the technical capacity to do it. Dr. Ixer notes that, for almost 100 years the origins of the bluestones and how their move to the Salisbury Plain from Southwest Wales has been matter of great debate but now due to an amalgamation of expertise, abundant material and new techniques, it is becoming possible to finally answer those questions. The important and quite unexpected results based on microscopic work needed confirmation, which Dr. Nick Pearce from the University of Aberystwyth provided through detailed mineralogical analysis.

The first result was the recognition that the huge sandstone Altar stone does not come from Milford Haven, but from somewhere between West Wales and Herefordshire. This calls into question the proposed transport route for the Stonehenge bluestones. The second unexpected result was that much of the volcanic and sandstone Stonehenge debris do not match any standing stones. So far, only two stones out of thousands match. The third is that the geographical origins for many of the Stonehenge rocks are not from impressive outcrops high on the hilltops, but from less obvious places, some deep in valleys.

Dr. Ixer concludes that the builders of Stonehenge took all of the bluestones from the top Preseli hills, moved them southwards to the Bristol Channel, then on to Stonehenge. Most or all of the volcanic and sandstone standing stones and much of the debris at Stonehenge come from rocks in the low-lying ground to the north and northwest of the Preseli Hills.

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