Audio News for April 17th to April 23rd, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 17th to April 23rd, 2011.


Ancient hunters annihilated herds of gazelles


Our first story is from Syria, where evidence of a mass gazelle slaughter may give clues to the disappearance of many game animals in the northern Levant region. According to a joint Israeli and U.S. team report, in a single massacre 5,500 years ago, hunters appear to have herded at least 93 gazelles into a “desert kite” and then killed them.

Desert kites are horseshoe-shaped rock corrals, with arms sometimes a kilometer long. Historical accounts and rock art suggest that the corrals were not used for flock safety but for slaughter, according to Melinda Zeder, archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Zeder believes ancient hunters and their dogs may have frightened entire herds of gazelle, wild asses, and even ostriches into these enclosures for a quick kill. However, bones or artifacts are generally scarce in these kites. An excavated town called Tell Kuran, located within 10 kilometers of several kites, may provide the first clue of where all that meat wound up. In one grisly layer dated to the fourth millennium BC, archaeologists uncovered about 2,600 Persian gazelle bones, mostly feet. Forensic analyses show that the feet came from gazelle of all ages and sexes, suggesting that they represent a single herd taken out in one fell swoop. Researchers would expect exactly that sort of mass kill from the nearby kites, which date to around the same time.

Since domestic animals abounded at the time, kite hunting may have been less about food and more of a social pursuit among the region’s upper class. Sport or not, these hunts could have helped to kick off the Persian gazelle’s long, slow death march to real elimination since kites sat across proposed game migration routes from Saudi Arabia north to Syria. Though climate change may also be to blame, a drain on herds may have been too much for the Persian gazelle and wild asses that have now nearly vanished from northeastern Syria.

  Graffiti on ancient Egyptian temple may have been written by Coptic nuns


Our next story comes from Egypt, where new research shows that about 1,500 years ago a community of Coptic nuns scribbled graffiti onto the temple of Seti I at Abydos.
Seti I, a powerful pharaoh who pushed the borders of the Egyptian empire as far as modern day Syria, built the temple at Abydos bout 3,200 years ago. It contains two courtyards, two hypostyle halls, chapels and an enigmatic structure known as the “Osireion,” commemorating the Egyptian story of creation.

A large amount of graffiti dating from ancient times up until the medieval period covers the complex. Professor Jennifer Westerfeld, of the University of Louisville believes that a significant amount of late antique graffiti from the temple appears to have been produced by a community of Coptic nuns who periodically visited the site. Coptic is the Egyptian branch of Christianity. Adherents widely practiced it after the religious reforms of the Roman emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD.

Westerfeld notes that a find like this, if validated, is unprecedented. Such a collection of epigraphic evidence for female monastic activity is virtually unparalleled in Egypt. She cautions that this research is at a very preliminary stage and more work needs to be done. However, if she is right, we’re about to learn about a community that, until now, has not had a voice in Egyptian history.

Researchers announce discovery of a “death trap” of early human ancestors


Our next story comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota where researchers at the 2011 Paleoanthropolgy Society annual meeting announced the discovery of not one, but at least four individuals of a possible new species of early hominid: Australopithecus sediba. The find comes from a “death trap,” or cave, in Malapa, Africa that dates back about 2 million years ago.

Discovery team leader Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa announced the discovery of at least four individuals, including the bones of an 18 month-old infant and an adult, which will now give important insight into the range of Au. Sediba’s lifespan from infancy to old age.

With an interesting combination of primitive and modern traits, including a very modern looking pelvis, Au. Sediba will add information to a period of evolutionary history that very little is known about. Members of the genus Homo were already living at the time this group of hominins died, but Berger emphasizes their importance for shedding light on the crucial ancestor that did give rise to our Homo lineage.

Wooden debt tally stick dates to Middle Ages


Our final story is from Germany, where archaeologists in the town of Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt, have unearthed a 453-year-old wooden "tally stick" used to keep track of debts.
According to archaeologist Andreas Hille from the State Museum of Prehistory, this is something of a rare find in Europe. The ancient debt counter measures 30 centimeters in length and contains 23 notches, with both a name and the date of 1558 still visible.

Archaeologists made the surprising find during excavations in the small easterly university town of Wittenberg, made famous by the Protestant theologian Martin Luther. The well-preserved tally stick was used to count the debts owed by the holder in a time when most people were unable to read or write. Hille explained that debts would have been carved into the stick in the form of small notches. Then the stick would have been split lengthways, with the creditor and the borrower each keeping a half. The two halves would then be put together again on the day repayment was due in order to compare them, with both sides hoping that they matched.

The split tally was commonly used in medieval Europe to record bilateral exchange and debts. Later this technique was refined in various ways and became virtually tamper proof. One of the refinements was to make the two halves of the stick of different lengths. The longer part, called the stock, was given to the party that had advanced money or other items to the receiver. The shorter portion of the stick, called the foil, was given to the party that had received the funds or goods. With this technique, each of the parties had an identifiable and tamper-proof record of the transaction.

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