Audio news from March 13th to March 19th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 13th to March 19th, 2011.

International conference on Maya hears multiple views on environmental role in collapse


Our first story takes us to Mexico, where a new research study suggests that the Mayan civilization’s collapse was due to environmental damage resulting from deforestation and a failing agricultural system. According to Dr. Richard D. Hansen, a U.S. archaeologist speaking at the 3rd International Congress on Mayan Culture, the fall of the Mayan civilization was due to collapse rather than abandonment. While an abandonment is only temporary, a collapse is a long-term change that often includes the end of the social and economic system that maintains a state.

Hansen, who leads the Institute for Mesoamerican Research in the Department of Anthropology at Idaho State University, said that the Mayan cities of the Pre-classic period, between 1000 BC and AD 150, were the world’s largest at that time. He believes that the fall of cities such as Nakbe, Wakna and Tintal in the Mirador-Calakmul Basin, straddling the modern border between Mexico and Guatemala, was triggered by the extreme misuse of natural resources. This was similar to what occurred later, near the end of the Classic period around AD 900, in the famous cities of Palenque, Copan and Tikal.

According to Hansen, this collapse was due to environmental damage, especially the excessive cutting of trees for fuel and for production of stucco, which was used to cover buildings. Worse yet, the over-use of natural resources damaged the agricultural system, which prevented the cultivation of enough food to maintain the population, which at that time reached around 1 million residents throughout the area. Hansen's findings are based on 30 years of study during which he collected and compared evidence ranging from ceramics to pollen and isotopes, in order to verify the environmental depredation.

Other archaeologists, however, believe the story is more complex. According to Alfredo Barrera, of the Yucatan regional division of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the Mayan civilization saw multiple different processes at work within it, which is why there were several collapses as well as several periods of development that occurred in the area. The 3rd International Congress on Mayan Culture, with more than 200 researchers in attendance, continues through March 28 in Merida, the capital of Yucatan.

Two altars to Mithras in Scotland are first ever found this far north


In Scotland, two rare carved altar stones found in East Lothian could shed new light on the region’s Roman period. The Roman stones, found during a construction project in Musselburgh, may help re-write the history on the Roman occupation of Scotland. Although found in March 2010, it has only now become safe to fully inspect the stones.

Researchers from East Lothian Council, Historic Scotland and AOC Archaeology Group have been cautiously removing the stones for the past year. Only the backs and sides were visible until this month, when it was finally possible to observe them in full. The first stone has side panels showing a lyre and griffin as well as a jug and bowl, objects which would have been used for pouring offerings on the altar. The front shows a carved inscription dedicating the altar to the god Mithras, making this the northernmost location that such a dedication has ever been found.

Mithraism flourished across the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th centuries A.D. The worshippers had a complex system of initiation processes and grades through which the initiates progressed, usually during secretive rituals that have never been well known. Mithras is usually shown slaying a bull with the sun god, Sol, looking on, and the religion often associates the two deities. Many Roman soldiers chose to worship Mithras the courageous bull-slayer, or the associated invincible sun, called Sol Invictus.

The second carved stone altar shows female heads representing the four seasons on the front. All four wear headdresses showing their identity through different symbolism. One has spring flowers, the second summer foliage, the third autumn grapes and the fourth bears a shawl for winter. In the center of the stone is a carving of the face of a god, in all probability Sol, wearing his solar crown.

This is the first evidence for the god Mithras in Scotland, and thus considerably enhances the understanding of Roman religion in the region. An inscription on a panel beneath the four seasons is partially obscured, but investigators said it appears likely to include the name of the dedicator, believed to be a Roman centurion, as well as the god to whom the altar is dedicated. Traces of red and white paint are still visible beneath the inscription panel, suggesting it was originally brightly painted.


New studies suggest Mesoamerican chocolate was traded into the Pueblo Southwest


For all you chocolate lovers out there, new evidence just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science shows that chocolate may have been the central reason for extensive trade between ancient northern and southern societies in the Americas. Pueblo people living in what is now the southwestern United States drank a beverage based on cacao (cah-CAH-oh) that was imported from Mesoamerican cultures in southern Mexico or Central America, according to a new chemical analysis of Puebloan pottery vessels.

Pueblo groups traded turquoise for Mesoamerican cacao for about five centuries, from around AD 900 to 1400, according to a team led by archaeologist Dorothy Washburn of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Surprisingly, large numbers of people throughout Pueblo society apparently consumed the cacao, from low-ranking farmers to elite residents of a multi-story pueblo. According to Washburn, since cacao was consumed by both Pueblo elites and non-elites, there must have been a broad and active trade in cacao with Mesoamerican states.

Washburn’s study was inspired by a 2009 report of cacao residue in three jars from an 800-room pueblo, known as Pueblo Bonito, in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Pueblo Bonito dates to the 11th century AD, and Chaco Canyon was a regional center of Pueblo life from about AD 900 to 1130. That initial evidence of cacao drinking in Chaco Canyon surprised many archaeologists, who had believed that cultures of the Southwest and Mesoamerica had minimal contact. Yet previous Pueblo finds in Chaco Canyon include macaw remains, copper bells and other decorative items that must have come from Mesoamerica.

Archaeologist Ben Nelson of Arizona State University previously suggested that the ancient Southwestern societies appropriated a few selected items of Mesoamerican cultures for their own purposes, perhaps to justify their power and prestige. However, Washburn’s team identified traces of theobromine (theo-BRO-meen), cacao’s distinctive chemical, in 50 of the 75 pitchers and bowls they examined. Furthermore, these vessels came from not only Pueblo Bonito, but also from farming villages in the surrounding countryside, as well as from the 14th-century graves of high-ranking members of the Hohokam society in Arizona.

Hohokam sites contain ball courts and massive platforms that have long been known as a borrowing from Mayan and other Mesoamerican cultures. Washburn put her group’s research together with that carried out by others, who matched the chemical signature of turquoise from mines in New Mexico to turquoise in several Mesoamerican sites, including the Mayan site of Chichèn Itzà (chee-CHEN eet-ZAH). Washburn’s conclusion is that mines in the U.S. Southwest, which produced higher quality turquoise than those in Mexico or Central America, were the source of the bright stone used in Mesoamerican mosaic tile designs.

In a break with traditional views, Washburn hypothesizes that it was Mesoamericans who built the 500- to 800-room pueblos in Chaco Canyon, as administrative centers for this trade. Newcomers from the south brought the cacao-drinking habit with them and introduced the beverage to locals. Excavations at several small Pueblo sites in Chaco Canyon suggest that turquoise was fashioned into jewelry and other luxury items there. Washburn plans to examine whether Pueblo groups in other parts of the Southwest used cacao. In particular, she wants to look for theobromine in vessels that display stylistic links to Mesoamerica, such as jars with indented bases.

Byzantine church near Jerusalem will be re-buried for protection


In our final story, Israeli archaeologists displayed a newly uncovered 1,500-year-old church in the Judean hills that has an unusually well-preserved mosaic floor adorned with images of lions, foxes, fish and peacocks. The Byzantine church, located to the southwest of Jerusalem, was excavated over the last two months, and will be visible only for another week before archaeologists cover it again with soil to protect it.

According to the project leader, Amir Ganor (a-MEER gah-NOR) of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the small basilica with its exquisitely decorated floor was active between the fifth and seventh centuries AD, and the floor is one of the most beautiful mosaics found in Israel in recent years. Archaeologists began digging at the site, known as Hirbet Madras (kheer-bet mah-DROSS), in December. The Antiquities Authority discovered several months earlier that thieves had begun plundering the ruins, which sit on an uninhabited hill not far from an Israeli farming community.

Though an initial survey suggested the building was a synagogue, the excavation revealed stones carved with crosses, identifying it as a church. The building had been built atop another structure around 500 years older, dating to Roman times, when scholars believe the settlement was inhabited by Jews. Hewn into the rock underneath the earlier structure is a network of tunnels that archaeologists believe were used by Jewish rebels fighting Roman armies in the second century AD.

Stone steps lead down from the floor of the church to a small burial cave, which research suggests might have been venerated as the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Zecharia. According to Ganor, the church will remain beneath its protective soil covering until funds are obtained to open it as a tourist site. Israel attracts large numbers of visitors to its exceptionally high concentration of archaeological sites.

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