Audio News for May 8th to May 14th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 8th to May 14th, 2011.

Odd shell beads from California show how children learned the craft


In our first story, prehistoric beads in California appear to show how ancient students learned their craft. A leading authority on beads manufactured from shells by California's Chumash Indians was stumped by a series of strange artifacts excavated at settlements on the Channel Islands. Pierced with more than one hole, often at odd angles or too close to the edges, the strange multi-hole beads differ considerably from the smooth, round, precisely drilled beauties that served as currency among the Chumash prior to the arrival of Europeans in Southern California. Originally, UCLA archaeologist Jeanne Arnold thought these were new, experimental forms executed by virtuoso bead-makers. Arnold, a researcher at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and a UCLA professor of anthropology, decided to investigate more closely. Following her analysis, she now believes the shell artifacts, nearly 250 years old, provide a rare glimpse of how young apprentices, possibly children, learned their intricate craft skills long before the invention of formal schooling.

Arnold published her theories in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory online. According to Arnold, nothing like these artifacts has been discovered in California, even after decades of research at sites where shell-working took place. But researchers also haven't often thought of children's contribution to the archaeological record. The craggy Channel Islands, located 60 miles off the southern California coast, were home to more than 3,000 Chumash people who operated North America's largest and most impressive shell-working enterprise. Santa Cruz Island, which has a rich outcropping of flint suitable for drilling tools, was the center of these activities for more than 1,000 years. The islanders made shell ornaments, decorative beads and pendants, and most extensively of all, shell beads that served as currency. The group's monopoly on currency-making made the islands the mint for shell-bead transactions, which occurred as far away as northern Nevada and the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

In the past 15 years, teams working under Arnold's supervision have unearthed approximately 320 unconventional shell beads among thousands of standard beads at two former villages on Santa Cruz's coast. Previously dismissed either as mistakes or attempts at innovations by journeyman bead-makers, the tiny beads actually reflect a range of production errors at the hands of novices, Arnold argues. To make beads, the Chumash split spiral-shaped Olivella biplicata shells into three or four pieces. Olivella is a small sea snail found on sandy beaches. Bead-makers then chipped the fragments into round shapes with stone. Using flint tools at first and later metal needles, they drilled the beads and strung them on twigs in batches. Finally, the bead-makers smoothed the perimeters by grinding the strung batches on an abrasive slab of sandstone.

Most of the irregular artifacts have two holes, but several have unprecedented third holes. The multiple holes appear drilled after initial mistakes rendered the bead a failure for display or stringing. In addition to odd piercings, the beads in the study tend to lack the smoothly ground edges of finished shell beads. Arnold believes this adds credence to the idea that the artifacts served as practice slates. A few other cases of craft apprentice work have been recognized in the archaeological record, including tools made by children during the late Stone Age in the general area of Paris, France, and pots and tiny figurines made by novices learning basic ceramic skills about 800 to 1,000 years ago in American Southwest pueblos.

Water-logged boards of Celtic grave yield exact year of cutting


Next we go to Germany where excavations of a Celtic grave uncovered the remains of a young noblewoman buried 2,600 years ago with her gold and amber jewelry. The noblewoman or princess had remained in her final resting place, a burial chamber of wood that has been well preserved ever since by the surrounding water-saturated clay soil. Just months ago German researchers began to dig out the 80 tons of clay covering the grave. The entire burial along with the surrounding clay were transported to the offices of the archaeological service of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, near Stuttgart.

At the site of the find, archaeologists recovered bones and jewels that provided a preliminary understanding of the grave, but now laboratory tools such as x-rays will allow a more detailed and delicate examination. The burial, accompanied by luxurious jewels, appears to be of a young woman of high social status. According to a BBC report, the remains of a child were also in the grave. Those working on the grave believe that the remains belong to a Celtic princess and her child. However, this is a point of disagreement among archaeologists.

According to Dr. Dirk Krausse, the research team leader, it is at the very least the oldest high-status female grave that has been found from the Celtic world, and the only example of an early Celtic princely grave with a wooden chamber. The grave, preserved by the water-logged soil, was so intact that researchers have been able to put an exact date on the woman's death. The oak found in the floor of the chamber was felled 2,620 years ago. Assuming it was cut down specifically to build the chamber, the princess died in 609 BC.

Arctic Russian site may show late survival of Neanderthals


In our next story, a newly found Neanderthal-style toolkit found in the frigid far north of Russia's Ural Mountains may mark the last refuge of Neanderthals before they went extinct. The tools date to 33,000 years ago, and even though it’s possible that anatomically modern humans created the sturdy tools using the same Mousterian technology that was mainly associated with the Neanderthals, anthropologists believe that's unlikely.

In an analysis of the toolkit, published in the current issue of Science, co-author Jan Mangerud describes the team’s reasons for finding it probable that Neanderthals crafted the Mousterian tools described in the study. The implication of this, however, is that Neanderthals survived longer than many believe, that is, until 33,000 years ago. According to Mangerud, a professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bergen and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, most anthropologists believe modern humans began to replace Neanderthals starting around 75,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Project leader Ludovic Slimak said the study suggests that Neanderthals did not disappear due to climate shifts or cultural inferiority. Slimak, a University of Toulouse le Mirail anthropologist, Mangerud, and colleagues made the determinations after analyzing hundreds of stone artifacts and remains of numerous animals unearthed at a site called Byzovaya in the Polar Urals, which are the far northern part of the mountain chain. Dates were obtained for sand at the site as well as for some of the bones, many of which have cut marks that indicate processing by humans.

The tools accredited to the Neanderthal's Mousterian style were mostly flakes, possibly used to make two-sided scrapers, for taking meat off of bones, or working with animal hides. Modern human tool-crafting methods associated with the Upper Paleolithic, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, on the other hand, generally focused on the production of what we call blade or bladelet technologies, Slimak notes. The Byzovaya hominins did not make such blades, often crafted from organic materials like bone and ivory. Slimak’s team concludes that Neanderthals likely made the Byzovaya tools.

Even though Neanderthals may have disappeared from other locations throughout Europe and Asia, Slimak argues they likely endured in this remote area near the Arctic Circle. The Neanderthals may have been gradually absorbed into the population of anatomically modern humans via interbreeding and replacement. Slimak equates this to what happened to earlier populations from the Americas. Recently another study concluded that Neanderthals might have died out earlier than thought and not interacted much with our species. According to Neanderthal authority Erik Trinkaus, however, that study says nothing about possible late Neanderthals in the cul-de-sacs along the periphery of western and northern Europe, and therefore does not discount this latest finding.

Upper Nile region rock carvings suggest details of lifeway 5000 years ago


Our final story is from northern Sudan, where a team in the Bayuda Desert has discovered dozens of new rock art drawings, some etched more than 5,000 years ago that show scenes that scientists cannot explain. Researchers discovered 15 new rock art sites in a valley known as Wadi Abu Dom, 29 kilometers from the Nile River. The parched valley carries water only during rainy periods, and many of the drawings are carved into the rock faces of small streambeds that flow into the valley.

According to lead researcher Tim Karberg, of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany, some of the sites revealed just a single drawing while others have up to 30. A number of the images appear to date back around 1,500 years ago, to a period when Christianity was spreading in Sudan. They include depictions of crosses, a church, and one remarkable picture of a knight riding an animal with horns. This depiction of an armed rider, with a lance and a shield, a kind of knight depiction, Karberg notes, suggesting this may be an image of St. George, the legendary soldier said to have slain a dragon. Drawings of St. George are known in Sudan and texts discussing him have been found within the country.

The team also found detailed representations of cattle at Wadi Abu Dom that, based on rock drawings found at other sites, are probably from the late Bronze Age.  During this time, more than 3,000 years ago, the Egyptian empire occupied the northern parts of the country. Another set of rock art, even more mystifying, appears to be at least 5,000 years old and is a mix of geometric designs. The oldest of them are spiral motifs, which, as the name suggests, twist up in a way that is difficult to interpret. These were created at a time when Africa was a wetter place, when grasslands and savannah dominated Sudan, and people were moving to a lifestyle based on animal husbandry and, in some instances, farming.

Understanding what these drawings represent is difficult. Some researchers see the spirals as astronomical or astrological forms. Karberg believes it might have more to do with math, and the regularity of the spiral might be one of the earliest mathematical ideas the people developed. A second set of geometric drawings, a bit younger than the spirals, consists of less regular patterns shaped something like an irregular-shaped net. As there is no evidence that people were fishing in this area 5,000 years ago, one possibility is that these may represent animal hides. Similar drawings found in Uganda were identified as showing the hide of an animal. The team also uncovered several rock gongs, large rocks that a small rock was banged against to make a sound. When the archaeologists experimented, they found that some of the gongs could produce multiple tones. The research at Wadi Abu Dom is ongoing, and information on the rock art was first presented at the 12th International Nubian Studies Conference last year.

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