Audio News for June 5th to June 11th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 5th to June 11th, 2011.

Drill coring reveals early sites below Lake Ontario


In our first story, techniques developed for geological survey may become a key means of finding evidence of early travelers along ancient shores now submerged. A team of Canadian scientists has used geological drill coring below an Ontario lake bottom to gather evidence of the presence of ancient indigenous people there about 10,000 years ago. The innovative use of the tool is the first of its kind in North America, and one that could point the way to further breakthroughs in underwater archeology around the world.

Led by researcher Lisa Sonnenburg of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, the team took sediment samples from a shallow section of Rice Lake, a popular summer vacation spot northeast of Toronto, where prehistoric First Nations were known to have camped soon after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. The scientists found more than 150 tiny flakes of quartz in the lake's murky depths, strong evidence that an ancient shoreline, submerged long ago, was used by some of Canada's earliest inhabitants as a site for manufacturing spear points, scrapers and other tools for fishing and hunting. The discovery not only sheds new light on the activities of those prehistoric people, but also demonstrates the use of a novel method of detecting the presence of ancient peoples in what are now drowned landscapes.

This technique may have huge research potential in Canada's Great Lakes region as well as many other places around the world where suspected settlement sites have became inundated over time. The team found telltale markings of human activity on the quartz fragments, known as microdebitage, proving that the coring offers a reliable quantitative method for narrowing search areas and for identifying new areas of underwater archeological potential.

The research appears in the July issue of the journal Geology. According to Sonnenburg, the team targeted what they thought was an old shoreline to take their samples. Microscopic examination revealed quartz chips at a consistent layer of sediment, about two meters deep, suggesting the ancient occupation of the site. While looking for larger artifacts in a submerged landscape would be like searching for a needle in a haystack, using the coring technique to find microdebitage from toolmaking could be useful at many potential archeological sites, especially in the Great Lakes area, where shifting shorelines have flooded many potential archeological sites since humans first began occupying the continent more than 10,000 years ago. The discovery of submerged archeological sites is expected to provide breakthroughs in the coming years for researchers trying to trace the initial peopling of the Americas via Pacific coastal routes in present-day Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.

Magnetometer tests find early site from ancient Ethiopian kingdom


Halfway around the world, another geophysical survey tool has found an ancient settlement in the Ethiopian highlands that will help tell the story of the rise of indigenous cultures in the Horn of Africa. In early May, Jorg Fassbinder, from the Geophysics Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, and his colleague Margaret Schlosser, of the German Archaeological Institute, began a joint survey in search of settlements from the ancient Diamat Kingdom. Their survey focused on an area in the northwestern Ethiopian highland region of Tigray, home to the early town of Yeha. According to ancient texts, Yeha was a major center of the Diamat Kingdom, established around 700 BC.

Using a magnetometer, the team searched for local anomalies in the geomagnetic field that can indicate hidden objects beneath the surface, including building walls, graves, hearths and refuse pits. Magnetometer survey has been used only rarely in countries near the equator, as the magnetic field lines here run parallel to the earth’s surface, making it difficult to identify buried archaeological structures. Magnetometers are particularly useful, however, as non-evasive, non-destructive tools, and the team used a modified procedure which led to success.

The first test excavations produced stone wall remnants, burials, and artifacts including potsherd and animal bones, dating across several different eras as far back as the first millennium BC. The work follows up on a significant discovery nearby from 2008, when Ethiopian archaeologists uncovered a very well preserved sacrificial altar bearing a royal inscription in Old South Arabian, which contained the name of the ancient town, Yeha. This was the southernmost find believed to belong to the Diamat Kingdom, which lay in what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. The Diamat culture had a sophisticated irrigation system, used ploughs to grow their crops, including millet, and made iron tools and weapons.

Since very little archaeological research has been done on the Diamat Kingdom, the discovery of the royal inscription had special importance, especially as it contained the first ancient evidence confirming Yeha’s existence and location. One of the key questions for the region is whether the peoples of the kingdom were entirely isolated, or if Diamat already shows the cultural influence of the South Arabian Kingdom of Saba, which was centered on the Horn of Africa, and eventually came to dominate the ancient Red Sea region.

Since 2008, the joint Ethiopian and German team has been excavating a temple dedicated to the Sabaean moon god Almaqah at one site in the region, which suggests early influence from Saba. The foundation walls of another sanctuary, on top of a 3-meter high hill of ruins, was found in 2010. Now that a settlement has been found, the archaeologists hope it will contain the kinds of evidence from everyday lives that will piece together a better understanding of how influence from Saba interacted with the indigenous African cultures to give rise to the Diamat Kingdom.

Microbiologist helps solve a mystery in King Tut’s tomb


Our third story takes us to Egypt, where King Tutankhamen’s beautifully painted tomb’s walls are marred with dark brown spots that disfigure the face of the goddess Hathor, the silvery-coated baboons, and nearly every other surface. Despite almost a century of scientific investigation, the precise identity of these spots remains a mystery, but Harvard microbiologist Ralph Mitchell thinks they have a tale to tell. Just as the cause of death of Tutankhamen, the famed "boy king" of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, is still a mystery, Mitchell thinks the brown spots may be a clue that the young pharaoh was buried in an unusual hurry, before the walls of the tomb were even dry.

Like many ancient sites, Tutankhamen's tomb suffers from peeling paint and cracking walls. In the oppressive heat and humidity, throngs of tourists stream in and out of the cave, admiring it but also potentially threatening it. Concerned about the tomb's preservation, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities approached the Getty Conservation Institute for help. The Getty, in turn, had questions for Mitchell. What are the brown spots? Are visiting tourists making them worse? Most importantly, do they present a health hazard?

In his investigation, Mitchell, the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Applied Biology at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), combines conventional microbiology with cutting-edge genomic techniques. His research team has been culturing living specimens swabbed from the walls of the tomb as well as conducting DNA sequence analyses. Meanwhile, chemists at the Getty have been analyzing the brown marks, which have seeped into the paint and the plaster, at the molecular level. So far, the chemists have identified melanins, which are characteristic byproducts of fungal, and sometimes bacterial, metabolism, but no living organisms have yet been matched to the spots. According to Mitchell’s lab, results so far indicate that the microbes that caused the spots are dead, or not an active threat.

Further, analysis of photographs taken when the tomb was first opened in 1922 shows that the brown spots have not changed in the past 89 years. Mitchell’s team suspects that the tomb was prepared in a hurry, with the painted wall not dry when the tomb was sealed. That moisture, along with the food, the mummy, and the incense in the tomb, would have provided a bountiful environment for microbial growth, Mitchell says, until the tomb eventually dried out.

Investigations like this are typical of Mitchell's research in applied microbiology. In past years, his lab has studied the role of bacteria in the deterioration of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the microorganisms living within limestone at Mayan archaeological sites in southern Mexico. Team members have developed new ways to detect mold growing within the paper of historical manuscripts, paintings, and museum artifacts. The field is referred to as cultural heritage microbiology, and Mitchell literally wrote the textbook on it.

Just a few years ago, he was called down to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to investigate the collection of Apollo space suits. In the heat and humidity of the museum's Maryland storage facility, black mold was chewing through the many-layered polymers, damaging the priceless suits. The relatively simple solution in that case was the installation of a climate control system. Unfortunately, however, there is a difference between prevention and treatment. Once a historical artifact has begun to deteriorate, the damage is usually irreversible.

Mitchell points to the example of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Built over the course of 632 years and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the walls of the magnificent cathedral feature angels and historical figures carved out of stone. In just the past 100 years, the angels' faces have been eaten away by air pollution. Like cancer, Mitchell says, it’s important to address such dangers early enough that it doesn’t cause major destruction. In the case of King Tut's tomb, with its 3000-year-old microbial vandalism, the damage is already done, so Mitchell predicts that the conservators will want to leave the spots alone, particularly as they are unique to that site. As Mitchell puts it, they are now part of the whole mystique of the tomb.

Colin Renfrew solves the mystery of the smashed statuettes


Our final story takes up another archaeological mystery, this time in the Aegean, where fragments of beautiful but deliberately smashed Bronze Age figurines were buried in shallow pits on a small, rocky Greek island that never saw any major settlement. Cambridge University has now released the findings of Professor Colin Renfrew’s work to shed light on the 4,500-year-old puzzle of Keros, a tiny Cycladic island in the Aegean. His conclusion is that Keros was the ceremonial destination for a ritual that involved islanders breaking prized possessions and making a pilgrimage with fragments for burial.

The Keros story began in 1963 with Renfrew himself. Then a long-haired research student, he stepped off a boat onto the nearly uninhabited island after being tipped off about a site of archaeological interest. He was amazed to find fragments of finely made marble bowls and marble figurines, a type of sculpture found across the Cyclades. Examples of the highly developed art style can be seen in the British Museum and have inspired artists including Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. The Keros sculptures were almost all broken, however. Archaeologists found thousands of marble vessel fragments and hundreds of figurine body parts, such as a pair of legs, a folded arm or an elongated foot.

The mystery lay dormant until 1987 when Renfrew, by then the Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge, returned to Keros to begin more serious excavation. That led him to the discovery that the breakages were not the result of careless looting. As Renfrew noted, it became clear that this was a very strange site. In 2006, the breakthrough came with the find of an unlooted cache of buried broken figurines, and the remains of a settlement on a nearby islet called Dhaskalio.

The settlement was a kind of Bronze Age guesthouse, where visiting villagers would have congregated on their pilgrimage. Geological examinations showed it was built from imported marble rather than the crumbly local limestone. The team found evidence of huge amounts of marble being transported across the sea to build Dhaskalio, around the same time that the Pyramids were being built in Egypt. Renfrew's interpretation of the evidence is that Cycladic villagers would have used the figurines and bowls in a ritualistic way, perhaps carrying them in processions as icons are carried in Greek villages today, and then, after they had been used for some years, perhaps decades, the time would come that they would go out of use. So they were broken, and the fragments taken to a single remarkable ritual center for burial.

Renfrew said it was likely that the islanders would go to Keros at regular intervals, in much the same way that the ancient Greeks held the Olympics every four years. No doubt it was a ceremony of renewal, he noted, with a new generation of icons being used and a new generation of people growing up. The evidence suggests fragments were ritualistically deposited on Keros for about 400-500 years, until around 2000 BC. According to Renfrew, there are still many more puzzles at Keros and Dhaskalio to be answered. The latest research will be published as a basis for further investigations.

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