Audio News for March 27th to April 2nd, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 27th to April 2nd, 2011.


Clay tablet from Greece is oldest writing in Europe


We begin in Greece, where marks on a fragmentary clay tablet may be the oldest known comprehensible text ever found in Europe. The writing survives only because a trash pile was burned some 3,500 years ago. Found in what is now an olive grove near the village of Iklaina (EE-kla-EE-na), the bit of clay tablet documents the record-keeping of a Greek-speaking Mycenaean scribe sometime between 1450 and 1350 BC.

The Mycenaeans dominated much of Greece from about 1600 BC to 1100 BC. According to project director Michael Cosmopoulos, excavations at Iklaina have yielded evidence of an early Mycenaean palace complex with painted murals, huge terraced walls, and an advanced drainage system. The tablet, however, which was found last summer, is the biggest surprise the multiyear project has unearthed.

According to Cosmopoulos, the tablet should not have been there at all. No one had thought Mycenaean tablets were created so early. Also, until now tablets had been found only in a handful of major palaces. Although the Iklaina site boasted a palace during the early Mycenaean period, by the tablet’s time, the settlement was no more than an outpost of Pylos (PEA-loss), the seat of King Nestor.

The markings on the fragment, which is about 2.5 by 4 centimeters, or 1 by 2 inches, are an early example of the writing system known as Linear B. Used for a very ancient form of Greek, Linear B had about 87 signs, each representing a syllable. The Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B only for recording financial or economic matters of interest to the rulers. Fittingly, the markings on the front of the Iklaina tablet appear to form a verb that relates to manufacturing, the researchers say. The back has a list of names alongside numbers, which is probably a list of properties.

Because these records were intended to be saved for only a single fiscal year, the clay wasn't made to last. The tablets were not baked, only dried in the sun, which leaves them very brittle. However, this tablet was thrown into a pit where garbage was later burned, and the fire hardened and preserved the tablet.

While the Iklaina tablet is an example of the earliest writing system in Europe, other writing is much older. For example, forms of writing found in China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt are thought to date as far back as 3,000 BC. Linear B itself is thought to have developed out of an older, still undeciphered writing system known as Linear A. Archeologists think Linear A is related to the older hieroglyph system used by the ancient Egyptians.

The tablet’s location in the ruins of a second-tier town could indicate that literacy and bureaucracy during the late Mycenaean period were more widespread than previously thought. Very few people could read and write during the Mycenaean period and the skill is thought to have been regarded by most people as somewhat magical or mysterious. It would be some 400 to 600 years before the written word was demystified in Greece, as the ancient Greek alphabet overtook Linear B and eventually evolved into the 26 letters used today. The report on the Iklaina tablet will appear in the April issue of the Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society.

Interdisciplinary research learns why Mayan city was swampside


Next we travel to Ohio, where University of Cincinnati researchers are combining insights from multiple disciplines to learn why a highly sophisticated civilization like the Maya decided to build large, bustling cities next to what is essentially swampland. Results of a three-year project led by UC Geography professor Nicholas Dunning were presented April 1 at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Sacramento, Calif.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation, the UC research team, which includes specialists from biology and anthropology, have been learning why Tikal, in northern Guatemala, thrived along the southwestern margin of the Bajo de Sante Fe (BAH-hoe day sahn-ta FAY), an extensive tropical swamp. Not only is the swamp a difficult place it live, it’s also a challenging place to carry out research, says project leader Dunning. Even a little bit of rain makes it impossible to get in and out of the deep mud of the bajos (BAH-hoes).

What the researchers learned is that when the Maya started building their cities adjacent to the bajos, they were different environments than now. Portions of the area where UC researchers are working once may have been a shallow lake and perennial wetlands from which early populations extracted organic soil, much like peat moss, to sustain the nearby fields that grew mainly maize.

Over the years, carrying out these farming and removal practices on sloping land led to soil erosion. This created aprons of deep, rich soil along the interface between the uplands and the swamps, which drew the research team’s attention. According to Dunning, the evidence from Tikal and other sites in this region shows that these areas became the focal point of agriculture in the Classic Period. These anthropogenic soils, created in part by people, formed the richest cropland. Analysis of the soil showed significant amounts of pollen, which indicate extensive maize production. The soil composition was also enriched by organic matter produced from the corn. The UC research was a joint project with Instituto de Antropología e Historía (in-stee-TWO-toe day AHN-tro-po-lo-HEE-ah aye ee-STOH-ree-ah) de Guatemala. Additional aspects of the research, including the prehistoric Mayan skills in forestry and water management, were also presented at the archaeology conference.

New evidence for origins of agriculture sought in former marshlands of Iraq


In Iraq, researchers are embarking on a mission to understand how early field systems and settlements provided a foundation for the blooming Mesopotamian cities that followed. According to an American-led team, below the war torn surface of Iraq lies what could be new evidence of key remains that could redefine the beginnings of urbanization and the foundations of the great Mesopotamian civilizations.

Preliminary investigations began last year when a team led by anthropologist Carrie Hritz of Penn State University, along with Jennifer Pournelle from the School of the Environment at the University of South Carolina, and Jennifer Smith, a geologist at Washington University in St. Louis, launched surveys in the Tigris-Euphrates delta region to find traces of the connection between wetland resources and the materialization of some of the first cities.

The team is looking at archaeological sites from the fourth millennium BC up to the Islamic period. They are looking for evidence of past marshland and shoreline environments, according to Hritz, and have identified possible features such as ancient beach ridges using satellite imagery. Now they must verify these features on the ground. They also found some evidence for preserved ancient field systems in the former marshes but were unable to provide a relative date.

Few can imagine wetlands in some of the areas they were surveying. Before 1950, however, this part of the delta region was rich with marshland. Between 1950 and the 1990s, Iraq expanded its agricultural development by systematically draining the region. Politics played a role as well, since draining the area also kept in check the power of Shia dissidents who lived there. Most of the Marsh Arabs who had traditionally inhabited the area were relocated, leaving it largely depopulated. Now, returning the region back to marshland is a national priority.

Working against the clock, the archaeology team is piecing together the resources to explore the region while it is dry so that evidence can be more easily identified, recovered and recorded. Getting started was not easy.  The team found that the only way to get into the country was to go on a tour with a British tour company.  During the tour, they spent time with a private guide conducting a geoarchaeological survey, then gave lectures at the University of Basra and met with key individuals to establish collaborative relationships and discuss the role that the University could play in the research. One of the first things on the agenda would be to determine what has already been done.

Ultimately, the results of their work in the region may have an important impact on our understanding of the origins of urbanization and the emergence of the first cities. Hritz and her colleagues hypothesize that the marshes held all the resources necessary to sustain long-term early human settlement. Southern Mesopotamia is one of the earliest locations to provide evidence for the importance of irrigation agriculture in the rise of social complexity.

Millions of puppy mummies were ancient Egypt’s emissaries to the gods


Our final story is from Egypt, where the excavation of a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the desert has revealed the remains of millions of animals, mostly dogs and jackals. Many appear to have been only hours or days old when they were killed and mummified.  The Dog Catacombs, as they are known, date to a period from 747-730 BC, and are dedicated to Anubis, the Egyptians' jackal-headed god of the dead.

The unique burial complex was recorded in the 19th century, but never fully excavated. Now a team led by Paul Nicholson, an archaeologist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, is examining the tunnels and their contents. Researchers estimate the catacombs contain the remains of 8 million animals. Given the sheer numbers, it is likely they were bred by the thousands in puppy farms around the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, according to the scientists.

The Dog Catacombs are located at Saqqara, the burial ground for the ancient capital Memphis. Nicholson notes their findings indicate a rather different view of the relationship between people and the animals they worshipped than what is normally associated with the ancient Egyptians, since many of the animals were killed and mummified when only a matter of hours or days old.

The animals were not just sacrifices, however. Rather, the dedication of an animal mummy was regarded as a pious act, because the animal would act as intermediary between the donor and the gods. In 1897, the French Egyptologist Jacques De Morgan published a map of the necropolis of Saqqara, which included the Dog Catacombs, but gave no information about the date or circumstances of their discovery. Nichols described the research in the September/October 2010 issue of Archaeology Magazine.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!