Audio News for March 20th to March 26th, 2011.

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


Oldest human occupation in the Americas found in Texas


Our first story is from Buttermilk Creek, north of Austin, Texas, where archaeologists have found flint knife blades, chisels and other human artifacts lying in a 16,000 year old soil layer. The site it is now one of the oldest and most credible sites of pre-Clovis human occupation in North or South America.

The discovery, by Texas A&M archaeologist Michael Waters and his team, confirms earlier studies suggesting that humans entered the New World from Siberia and settled in North and South America.

Other ancient sites in the Americas usually produce only handfuls of artifacts, in soils with ages that scientists continually debate. This site contained tools in layer after layer of soils, the youngest from modern times, the oldest layer containing 15,000 artifacts dating to 15,500 years ago.

The discovery strengthens the case for a new theory about American occupation. This hypothesis proposes that the first Americans came by skin boats at least 16,000 years ago or before, skirting along coastlines of the Aleutian Islands and then Alaska, Canada and America. Waters believes they came by boat a few miles at a time, following the seals they hunted and bringing families and pet dogs. He believes the first colonies in America arose tens of thousands of years ago along the Columbia River basin between Washington and Oregon, a region he said archaeologists should re-explore with renewed energy.

According to Waters, everywhere the first migrants would wander, they'd find a land empty of people, with huge amounts of resources. Yet they traveled all the way to the tip of South America.

The tools found in Texas are small, thin flint blades, designed by people who carried everything they owned. It is likely that flint tools made up only 5 percent or so of the belongings of these people. Many of the tools are cutting blades used to whittle and shape bone and wood. There were no distinct spear points. Waters thinks the Buttermilk people used the stone tools to make spear points from bone. Some tools had notches with curved edges, which were probably carving tools. Some chisels had edges dulled from scraping hard surfaces. One artifact gave Waters a thrill: a golf-ball-size nodule of hematite, worn flat on several sides. When mixed with animal and plant oils, hematite produces red ochre for adorning spear shafts, clothing or even skin.

Rolfe Mandel, a geoarchaeologist with the Kansas Geological Survey, said the Texas discovery is it strengthens the possibility that humans entered the New World as early as 24,000 years ago, near the peak rather than at the end of the last Ice Age. Waters said he would not go that far saying that the site confirms only that they were here at least by 15,500 years ago.

What is so important about this site is the amount of overwhelming evidence. Ancient Americans were so few, and created so few belongings that survived decay that most camp or hunting sites contain only a few flint flakes. Nevertheless, Waters found thousands of artifacts in excavation blocks of only about 50 square meters.

Romano-Gaulish workshop excavated in French suburb


Next we go to Autun, France, where excavators have discovered the 2000-year-old workshop of a famous Romano-Gaulish potter. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, Roman Gaul was home to several workshops that mass-produced popular images made of fine clay which were aimed at a clientele too poor to purchase bronze figurines. One of the most famous of the potters was Pistillus, the Aedui.

In 1920, Camille Jullian, a noted French historian, described the various figurine makers and their styles in his History of Gaul, mentioning Pistillus the Aedui, who was said to be a master of the family genre, creating images of nursing mothers, children in cots, domestic beds, and guard dogs.
Pistillus was active towards the end of the 2nd century and beginning of the 3rd century AD. His production was widely distributed across the whole of Gaul, towards the Atlantic and towards the east and the north-west along the Via Agrippa. His wares also reached upper Germany, Bavaria, Lake Constance, and the Austrian Tyrol.

The discovery of a potter’s kiln, moulds, figurines, and failed pieces signed “Pistillus” confirm the presence of his Autun workshop. His work stands out from that of the other figurine makers because of his painstaking attention to detail and different themes. At present, the excavation has produced figurines of Venus, of nursing goddesses, and other works.

Various metal working activities are also evident at this site. Bronze and Iron working are apparent, with some pits yielding crucibles, mould fragments, anvils, fragments of bellows and slag. Excavators found pouring waste, which is characteristic of iron ore reduction. According to the archaeologists, this initial stage in iron metallurgy is extremely rare to find in an urban context.

The excavation has also produced some marble statues, such as a Janus head representing Hermes and Pan (or Dionysus), a plaque with a dedication to a previously unknown member of the Roman equestrian order and military tribune of the XXIIth legion – Tiberius Claudius Potitus Sabinianus.

Artifacts surrender their mysteries to new X-ray technique


We return to Texas in our next story, where a report at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas showed how X-ray sources known as synchrotrons can unravel an artifact's mysteries. Light given off after an X-ray blast yields a tidy list of the atoms within. The technique can bring to light layers of pigment beneath the surfaces of artifacts, or show the traces of tools used thousands of years ago.

This X-ray fluorescence or XRF works by measuring the after-effects of X-ray illumination. As atoms absorb the X-rays, the rays' energy is redistributed, and very rarely some is re-emitted as light. Each atom releases a characteristic color of light, yielding a full chemical analysis. The XRF technique is gaining ground as a means to scrupulously analyze artifacts from the past.

Small X-ray sources have been used in the past to get a laundry list of atoms generally present in art, however according to Robert Thorne of Cornell University, the intense, focused X-rays from enormous sources known as synchrotrons have more recently shown their potential. Thorne notes that these give extremely intense X-ray beams, which allows researchers to collect the full chemical analysis at each point. Compared to handheld sources the technique delivers months’ worth of photons in a second.

In 2005, Professor Thorne and his colleagues were the first to use the technique to analyze inscriptions from Greek and Roman pottery. The technique sheds light on layers of glaze beneath the surface of finished pottery. It has even shown, in the case of an inscription that had worn entirely away, the minuscule amount of iron left by the chisel revealing a pristine version of the inscription on what appeared to be smooth stone.

The technique is best used on artifacts whose inscriptions or decorations have worn away completely. However these artifacts are much harder to find because collectors and museums have until now viewed them as less valuable.

More recently, the team has turned its attention toward the Americas. The group is looking at Mayan artifacts and they're interested in the iconography of a particular subgroup within the Mayans. On the pottery a lot of the glaze has flaked off, so what is left is little black dots on the surface. It's been difficult to determine if the black dots are glaze or dirt, but this new technology will reveal the hidden secret.


Scottish pottery may have been used by Robert the Bruce


Our final story is from Scotland, where archaeologists have discovered ancient pottery that may have been used by Robert the Bruce and his Scottish army before their victory in Bannockburn in 1314. The National Trust for Scotland commissioned a dig to investigate part of its site at Bannockburn in preparation for a revamp of the Heritage Centre to open in 2014, the 700th anniversary of the famous battle. They discovered a small number of green-glazed pottery pieces in an area near the Borestone, the site where the Scottish king Bruce set up his camp.
Borestone could have been the site for the Scots camp prior to the famous Battle of Bannockburn.

Dr. Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, notes that if a large number of Scottish spearmen and camp followers stayed on this spot in the first half of June 1314, it is possible that artifacts and rubbish pits may have been left behind. Dr. Pollard added the site was not thought to have seen actual fighting in 1314. However, he believes there may still be important artifacts linked to the camp and later activity.

The excavations located mainly 19th century field drains with clay drainage pipes and the bases of furrows perhaps belonging to the 16th to 18th centuries. Metal detectors were also used to help recover both copper alloy and iron artifacts. The Battle of Bannockburn, June 24, 1314, was a decisive victory for the Scots in the Wars of Scottish Independence. The pieces of pottery will be sent to experts to determine whether they date from the time of the battle

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