Audio News for April 24th to April 30th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 24th to April 30th, 2011.


Cemetery produces skeleton of famed Caspian horse


Our first story takes us to Iran, where the eighth season of archaeological research in Gohar Tappeh has revealed ancient examples of one of the world’s famous early horse breeds. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a horse identified as the Caspian, also known as the Mazandaran Horse, in cemetery deposits dating to the late Bronze age, around 3400 B.C. The Caspian Horse is arguably the oldest breed of horse in the world that is still in existence in the same form today.

According to Ali Mahforuzi, the director of the Gohar Tappeh archaeological team, the form, figure and size of the remains suggested that this is indeed the Caspian horse, and thus the oldest evidence for its ancestry. The project team will continue their work to reach the oldest levels of human occupation at the site. The Gohar Tappeh site, with an area of about 50 hectares or 120 acres, lies between the cities of Neka and Behshahr, in the north of Iran near the Caspian Sea. According to Mahforuzi, Gohar Tappeh had a complicated urbanization process beginning as early as some 6,500 to 7,000 years ago.

Discovery of architectural structures, as well as a large number of graves with dissimilar burial methods, all point to the existence of continuous urban occupation in this region as early as the beginning of the first millennium BC. The oldest stratum identified in this season is from the chalcolithic period, or Copper Age, around 3500 to 3400 BC. The oldest stratum found in the site so far is much earlier, dating to the Neolithic, around 14,000 years ago.

The Caspian horse was famously known throughout much of the early middle eastern world as the King’s Horse because of its prized looks and speed. It was celebrated in ancient Iran as a chariot horse used in racing as well as in battle, and was presented to kings and queens as a valuable gift. A favorite breed of Darius the Great, it was thought to have disappeared later in antiquity, until 1965 when rediscovered by an American woman, Louise Firouz, who was married to an Iranian aristocrat. The descendants of the Kings Horse were found in the Iranian mountains along southern edge of the Caspian Sea. The number of Caspian horses in Iran is still quite small.

Ship found in Ostia dates to Roman empire


Just outside of Rome, archaeologists say they have found part of an ancient ship during road repair work on a bridge. Measuring 11 meters (about 30 feet) long, the vessel is one of the largest excavated near Ostia Antica (AH-stee-a an-TEE-ca), the famous port of Rome founded 2,500 years ago.

The original river port of Ostia was limited in its accessibility by larger ships, because sand bars impeded the mouth of the river Tiber. Goods that arrived in large ships had to be transferred to smaller vessels at sea, then these shallow-hulled vessels could enter the river and anchor at the Tiber harbor. As time passed, however, there was not enough capacity to serve for Rome’s growing needs.

The Emperor Claudius began the seaport’s expansion by construction of an artificial harbor in AD 42, a few kilometers to the north of Ostia.  A huge basin was created by enhancing a natural bay, protected by two curved breakwaters of stone walls, and aided by a lighthouse. As foundations for these walls, a number of old vessels were filled with Roman concrete and sunk into the new harbor. The new find is one of those recycled ships, and was found at what would have been a depth of 4 meters, or about 12 feet, below the level of the ancient water surface.

The remains of the ship are incomplete, with both bow and stern missing. A provisional date for the vessel is the early imperial period, from 25 BC to as late as AD 197. The excavation shows that the coastline at the time was 4 kilometers, more than 2 miles, inland from its current location.

According to Anna Maria Moretti, superintendent of archaeology in Rome and Ostia Antica, this boat was an unexpected find, but the remarkably preserved vessel even shows the remains of rope. Restoration of the boat will involve a constant spray of water to ensure the timbers do not dry out. Archaeology has been ongoing in Ostia for decades, with the history and layout of the town being slowly uncovered to provide a unique view of Rome’s seaport to the world. Over the years, archaeologists have discovered public latrinas, or toilets, laid out as a series of conjoined seats, several public baths, numerous taverns and inns, a large theatre, and the evidence of a fire-fighting service. Ostia also contained the earliest synagogue yet identified in Europe, which was first unearthed in 1960-61.

New Mayan city revealed beneath centuries of jungle growth


Hidden for centuries, the ancient Maya city of Holtun, or Head of Stone, in Guatemala is finally coming into focus. In results presented just this month, archaeologists from Southern Methodist University described how three-dimensional mapping has been able to peer through centuries of jungle growth to reveal the rough contours of nearly one hundred buildings. Locals had long known that something large was buried in this area of rain forest, but it was only now that archaeologists were able to bring the tools on site to begin coaxing out the nature of the Head of Stone.

Using GPS and electronic distance-measurement technology last year, researchers plotted the locations and elevations of a seven-story-tall pyramid, an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, several stone residences, and other structures. Some of the stone houses may have doubled as burial chambers for the city's early kings. According to study leader Brigitte Kovacevich, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University, archaeologists often find that the biggest pyramids or temples were the tombs of early kings, but during this Late to Middle Preclassic period, roughly 600 BC to 300 BC, the king is not yet the center of the city’s universe, so he is possibly still being buried in the household.

Head of Stone, it turns out, was named for giant masks found at the site. The new findings could provide insight on what daily life was like living outside of the larger metropolitan areas such as Tikal, and how such secondary Maya centers were organized. From about 600 BC to AD 900, Head of Stone, measuring about a kilometer long by half a kilometer wide, or about one-third by one-half mile in size, was a busy midsize Maya center with about 2,000 permanent residents. Today, however, its structures are buried under several feet of earth and plant material and nearly invisible to the untrained eye.

Archaeologists did not learn of the site until the early 1990s, and then only because they were following the trails of looters who had discovered it first. For thieves, the main attractions were immense stucco masks measuring up to three meters tall, which they uncovered as they tunneled into the buried city. The heads once adorned some of the site’s most important buildings. The seven-story temple would have had these elaborately painted stucco masks flanking the two sides of the stairway to represent human figures, snarling jaguars and other forms.

During the Preclassic period, Head of Stone's important public buildings would have been painted primarily in blood reds, bright whites, and mustard yellows, according to Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a Preclassic Maya specialist at the University of Calgary in Canada. Geometric patterns or murals of scenes from myth or daily life would have covered some of the buildings as well. The researchers hope to begin excavating residential structures this summer along with the observatory, as well as to try removing the undergrowth from the main temple. Additional work with the ground-penetrating radar will bring Head of Stone into even sharper relief.

New monumental statue of great pharaoh found


Our final story is from Egypt, where archaeologists have unearthed one of the largest statues found to date at the mortuary temple of a powerful ancient Egyptian pharaoh in the southern city of Luxor. The statue of Amenhotep III, which measures 13 meters tall, or 42 feet, was one of a pair that flanked the northern entrance to the grand funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile, which is currently the focus of a major excavation. The statue consists of seven large quartzite blocks and still lacks a head. It was actually first discovered in 1928 and then reburied, according to the press release from the country's antiquities authority.

Archaeologists expect to find its twin in the next digging season. According to excavation supervisor Abdel-Ghaffar Wagdi, two other statues were also unearthed, one of the god Thoth with a baboon's head and the other showing the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. Archaeologists working on the temple over the past few years have issued a flood of announcements about new discoveries of statues. The 3,400-year-old temple is one of the largest on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, where the most powerful pharaohs of Egypt's New Kingdom built their tombs.

Amenhotep III, who was the grandfather of the famed boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun, ruled in the 14th century BC at the height of Egypt's New Kingdom. He reigned over an enormous empire, stretching from Nubia in the south to Syria in the north. The pharaoh's temple was largely destroyed in later centuries, possibly by floods, so that little remains of its walls. An earthquake also devastated it in 27 BC. However, archaeologists have been able to unearth a wealth of artifacts and statuary in the buried ruins, including two statues of Amenhotep made of black granite that were found at the site in March 2009.

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