Audio News for April 10th to April 16th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 10th to April 16th, 2011.


Remarkable age for South American textiles; 12,000 years


Our first story is from Peru, where perishable artifacts found in a cave, specifically textiles and rope fragments, now are dated to around 12,000 years ago. This would make them the oldest textiles found thus far in South America. According to a report in the April 2011 issue of Current Anthropology, the items were found 30 years ago in Guitarrero Cave, in the Andes Mountains. These textile fragments occurred with other artifacts previously dated to 12,000 ago and even older. However, no direct dates had been obtained from the textiles themselves, so controversy surrounded whether they too were that old, according to the senior author of the report and leader of the research, Edward Jolie, an archaeologist at Mercyhurst College, Pennsylvania. Human and geological activity had disturbed the cave deposits, so it was possible that the textiles were much younger than the other artifacts. Beyond that, the site’s earlier radiocarbon dates derived from bone and charcoal, substances which can produce inaccurate radiocarbon ages for the deposits, especially in disturbed sites where older materials can be mixed with younger objects. By dating the textiles directly, researchers could confirm their age and more accurately estimate the chronology of early occupation in the Andes highlands.

The researchers employed the cutting-edge radiocarbon dating method known as accelerator mass spectrometry to fix the age of the textiles between 12,100 and 11,080 years age. These artifacts include fragmentary woven fabrics that may have come from for bags, baskets, wall or floor coverings, or bedding. According to the research team, the people who brought them there probably were settlers from lower altitude areas who made occasional trips into the mountains. The cave's location at a lower elevation in a more moderate environment than the high Andean Plain made it ideal for people preparing to venture into the higher elevations. Such forays prepared the way for the permanent settlements that followed, after 11,000 years ago, when the climate warmed, glaciers receded, and settlers were able to adapt to the conditions at higher altitudes.

Jolie's research indicates also that women were among the groups occupying the cave. Recovered among the artifacts in the cave were bundles of processed plant material, evidence that textile weaving occurred there. Based on ethnographic and cross-cultural data, such work probably was done by women. This result is significant because, according to Jolie, archaeologists previously have assumed that these early treks into the mountains were made exclusively by men. However, apparently this might not have been the case, although more data will be needed to answer that question conclusively.


Minoans apparently mixed with ancient Canaanites


In Israel, new excavation at a large Middle Bronze Age Canaanite palace in the western Galilee is bringing to light new evidence of ancient Minoans there. Among the finds are what may be the earliest known Western art found in the eastern Mediterranean. The site is Tel Kabri, located on the coast of Israel. Here an early Middle Bronze Age palace dates to the 19th Century BC, an age that places it with ancient Aphek and possibly Megiddo as among the earliest Middle Bronze Age palaces found in Israel. These new data come from excavations conducted there as recently January 2011. The evidence for an Aegean presence at the site come from a phase of the palace structure some 150 to 200 years later, in the overlying palace built in the 17th Century.  

According to Dr. Eric Cline of George Washington University r and Co-DirectoAssaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University, excavations in the 80s and 90s at the site, now considered the capital of a Middle Bronze Age Canaanite kingdom, revealed the remains of a palace from the Middle Bronze II period, around 1700 to 1550 BC. Within the palace, those previous excavations uncovered an Aegean-style painted plaster floor and several thousand fragments of a miniature Aegean-style wall fresco. The new excavations under Cline and Yasur-Landau have expanded this discovery. The 2008 and 2009 excavations yielded more than 100 new fragments of wall and floor plaster.  Approximately 60 of these were painted and probably represented a second Aegean-style wall fresco with figural representations and a second Aegean-style painted floor.

Three other archaeological sites in the region are known for Aegean-style frescoes and paintings: Tell el-Dab'a in Egypt, Qatna in Syria and Alalakh in Turkey.  The Tel Kabri fresoes and paintings, however, are the only examples of Minoan or Cycladic-style artwork in present-day Israel or among the ancient Canaanites and they date significantly older than those found in Egypt and Syria. They are roughly the same age as those in Turkey, although, because the work is still incomplete at Kabri and an earlier palace structure is known to be 150 years older, the actual age differences remain to be worked out.

At the same time, identification of the painted plaster and fresco fragments as distinctly Aegean in style depends on the diagnostic and somewhat subject analysis. Clear examination is hindered by thousands of years of time and the effects of their environment, such as the effects of their reuse during later construction episodes for fill and floor patching, or renovations by a later remodeling of the palace. However, the production process and stylistic features seen on the objects appears to remove doubt that the artwork is Aegean. According to Cline, beyond their style and colors, the fragments closely resemble others found at the site of Knossos in Minoan Crete. He also points to trademark Aegean or Minoan production processes not normally found at ancient Canaanite sites. The technique of painting on a still-wet plaster wall is an Aegean technique as is the use of strings to assist the painting process. Visible evidence shows that the technicians used tightened strings that created perfectly straight lines when contacting the wet plaster. Another Aegean technique was to dip the string in colored red paint and then snap it quickly against a surface to make a perfectly straight line. Yet another Aegean technique seen in Kabri was the use of knife marks to mark painted borders.  Beyond that, excavations during the most recent field seasons have uncovered clues of a possible Minoan influence on the site’s architecture. A stone structural feature revealed outside the palace’s northern wall of the shows a configuration typical of Minoan construction.


Ancient New Zealand adze points to early Maori culture


In New Zealand, an ancient Maori adze has emerged from a 15th Century settlement in Porirua, just north of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. The find took place near the spot believed to be where the Polynesian explorer Kupe landed. It is widely believed that Kupe sailed into the calm waters of Porirua Harbor in the 10th Century and landed just to the north on the shores of Paremata. The 40-centimeter stone adze, probably used in wood carving, is fashioned from argillite, a hard rock often used for this purpose, according to senior archaeologist Rick McGovern-Wilson. Wilson noted that archaeologists cannot date the adze itself, but instead the deposits where it came from. He estimated the period of the site as probably the 15th Century.

Archaeologist Pam Chester discovered the adze and other finds while she was monitoring ground-disturbing construction near a Rugby Club. Evidence of a pre-1500 moa-hunter settlement came to light in the 1960s fairly close by this site. During the digging for future drains, Chester has found several earth ovens with fire-cracked cooking stones, possibly dating before European contact, about 50 cm below the rugby field.

According to Victoria University Maori historian Peter Adds, Porirua was prime real estate for early Maori, because of its sheltered harbor and its proximity to South Island. This particular site is considered especially valuable because few others like it have turned up. Adds points out that the site represents a period of time when people had only just become Maori, an early phase in the development of Maori culture.

Chester has also found evidence of people illegally prospecting for artifacts, which is illegal in New Zealand. Maori Ngati Toa representative Jennie Smeaton said the local Maori tribe was waiting for a preliminary report on the findings, expected to be ready next month, before reaching any conclusions about the site.

Dragon constellation may have marked Athenian festival


And lastly we go to Greece, where when the dragon rose the games began.

About 2,500 years ago, the people of the city of Athens celebrated the birth of Athena, their patron goddess, with an athletic festival, known as the Panathenaic Festival. A collection of competitive games, the festival included chariot races, javelin throwing and boating. A particularly physical event known as the pankration also was featured at the festival. A blend of boxing and wrestling, the pankration had limited rules and was known as an especially grueling contest.

Held every year around late July to mid August, the festival was a highlighted event in Athenian life. Though physical strength dominated the human part of the games, evidence now strongly suggests that astronomy also played a role in the staging of the festival. In the latest issue of the Americal Journal of Archaeology, Professor Efrosyni Boutsikas of the University of Kent modeled how the night sky would have looked over the Athenian acropolis 2,500 years ago.  In her results, Professor Boutsikas discovered that, at the time of the festival, the constellation Draco, a group of stars that resembles a dragon, appeared especially brilliant in the dark sky above Athens and its festival-goers. The games took place at the one time in the year when Draco at its apex appeared within one to two hours after sunset, she writes in the paper. If observed from the north porch of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis, these movements of Draco would have been visually quite impressive, as this is one of the largest constellations in the sky.

In her paper, Boutsikas makes the argument that the ascendance of Draco would have been used as a visible sign for the start of the games. She notes that Greek timekeepers widely used stellar observations as well as the lunisolar calendar. A lunisolar calendar is a calendar in many cultures which records both the moon phase and the time of the solar year. In her paper, Boutsikas also points out that stellar observations tend to be more accurate than lunisolar ones. In Greece, each city state had its own calendar with different month names and insertions of extra days to synchronize it with astronomical data. Stellar observations would have ensured that sacrifices to the gods took place at the correct time of year and that pilgrims would attend cult rites at the proper times.

As history would have it, Draco is associated with Athena in ancient mythology. The Roman astronomer Hyginus 2,000 years ago wrote that the Titans threw the dragon, Draco, at Minerva, the Roman name for Athena, when she fought them. Minerva, however, caught its twisted form and threw it to the stars, thus fixing it to the very pole of heaven, which is marked by the star Polaris. And therefore, according to this story, still today the dragon appears in the sky with its twisted body, as if recently transported to the heavens.

Every summer, this dragon would rise brightly above Athens and signal to its people the birthday of their city’s goddess, Athena, and the start of the Panathenaic Festival in her honor.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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