Audio news from July 3rd to July 9th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 3rd to July 9th, 2011.


English grave holds massacred Viking warriors


Our first story is from England, where the remains of Vikings in a mass grave show that many of the people had their teeth filed. The fashion for dental bling goes back 1,000 years, according to the new discovery. Long before contemporary trends for gold dental caps or teeth inlaid with diamonds became popular, young Viking warriors were having patterns filed into their teeth.

The evidence comes from front teeth found in a pit full of decapitated skeletons in Dorset. These skulls are now believed to be victims of a massacre of Viking invaders by local Britons. The front teeth have horizontal lines that were neatly filed, leading archaeologists to believe that they must have been done by a skilled craftsman. The process would have been excruciating.

According to David Score, of Oxford Archaeology, who has been studying the bones since they were discovered near Weymouth in 2009, the purpose behind filed teeth remains unclear but the goal may have been either to frighten opponents in battle or to show their status as fighters. If their intention was to intimidate the enemy, it didn’t work in this battle.

The mass of bones, comprising 54 bodies and 51 skulls all of young fit men, was a wholly unexpected find during excavations made in advance of road construction. The warriors’ execution was first blamed on early Romans, but radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis of the bones revealed a much later date of the 10th or early 11th century, as well as a Scandinavian origin of the remains. One man even came from north of the Arctic circle, suggesting that this battle may have been a rare defeat for a Viking marauding party. Many of the skeletons showed brutal slash marks, with one bearing six cut marks on the back of the neck, and other bones of hands and arms sliced through. Skulls, leg bones and rib cages had been piled up separately in the burial pit. There was no trace of clothing or possessions, suggesting the men were naked when they died, and some missing heads are interpreted as evidence of gruesome souvenirs kept by their killers.

Clay head from U.S. site may be from shaman’s kit


In the United States, a recently discovered miniature clay head may have been an effigy used by a shaman more than 1,000 years ago. The head, which was discovered near Ebbert Spring in Franklin Country, Pennsylvania., has shells for eyes and tiny holes across its top and sides that may have been used for feathers or hair. A cavity at the base of the neck indicates that it was likely mounted on a stick or wand.

According to lead archaeologist Ronald Powell, of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, a shaman of some sort might have used it in a ceremony. Powell believes that the use of shell, a symbolically important object among Native American cultures, combined with feathers adds weight to the idea that the artifact had a shamanistic use. He pointed out that viewing the eyes in the outdoor light is even more impressive, as they give off an eerie glow.

Determining a precise date for the head is difficult but, based on pottery found nearby, Powell estimates it was created around AD 900. Ebbert Spring has attracted deer, and therefore hunters, for about 11,000 years. According to Powell, the site appears to have been used as a winter campsite. The finds are detailed in the latest issue of the journal Pennsylvanian Archaeologist.

Two researchers not affiliated with the dig noted that the significant, but rare, artifact is difficult to interpret. According to Kurt Carr, senior curator of archaeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the iconography is similar to that used by Iroquois people who settled in northeast North America. Michael Stewart, an anthropology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, said that the head might date to more recent times. Across the Northeast, there is a tendency to see effigy heads most frequently after AD 1300, especially during late prehistoric times when European colonists were encountering Native peoples. Stewart cautioned that more peer-reviewed information about the soil and artifacts at Ebbert Spring are needed before any firm conclusions can be made about the date and purpose of the head.

Israeli excavations confirm details of ancient Philistines


In Israel, archaeologists led by Arin Maeir of Bar-Ilan University are piecing together the history of a people remembered as the “bad guys” of the Hebrew Bible. At the site of the ancient metropolis of Gath, where the annual digging season began this week, evidence is painting a more nuanced portrait of the Philistines, who appear in the biblical story as the perennial enemies of the Israelites.

Close to three millennia ago Gath was located on the frontier between the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coastal plain, and the Israelites, who controlled the inland hills. The city's most famous resident, according to the Book of Samuel, was Goliath, the giant warrior improbably felled by the young shepherd David and his sling. Diggers at Gath have found shards preserving names similar to Goliath, which is an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one such as would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites. Such finds support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, an often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

In one excavation unit, a group of Philistine jugs nearly 3,000 years old was emerging from the soil. One painted shard recently unearthed has a rust-red frame and a black spiral, a decoration common in ancient Greek art and a hint to the Philistines' origins in the Aegean. The Philistines arrived by sea from the area of modern-day Greece around 1200 BC. They went on to rule major ports at Ashkelon and Ashdod, now cities in Israel, and at Gaza, now part of the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip. At Gath, they settled on a site that had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Excavation shows that even though they adopted aspects of local culture, they did not forget their roots. Five centuries after their arrival, for example, they were still worshiping gods with Greek names.

Archaeologists have found that the Philistine diet relied heavily on grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple. Ancient bones discarded at the site show that they also ate pigs and dogs, unlike the neighboring Israelites, who deemed those animals unclean. These restrictions still exist in Jewish dietary law.
Diggers at Gath have also uncovered traces of a destruction of the city in the 9th century BC, including a ditch and embankment built around the city by a besieging army. The earthwork is still visible as a dark line running across the surrounding hills. The razing of Gath at that time appears to have been the work of the Aramean king Hazael in 830 BC, an incident mentioned in the Book of Kings.

Another intriguing find at Gath is the remnant of a large structure, possibly a temple, with a distinctive pair of pillars marking its central facade. Maeir has suggested that this design element in Philistine temple architecture was known by the author of the Biblical story of Samson, who, as a prisoner of the Philistines, destroyed such a temple.

Gath's rich material remains shed light on how the Philistines lived in the 10th and 9th centuries BC, according to Seymour Gitin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and an expert on the Philistines. That includes the era of the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by David and Solomon, if such a kingdom existed as described in the Bible. Other Philistine sites have provided archaeologists with information about earlier and later times, but not much from that key period.

In 604 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and put the Philistines' cities to the sword. There is no remnant of them after that. Crusaders arriving from Europe in 1099 built a fortress on the remains of Gath, and later the site became home to an Arab village, Tel el-Safi, which emptied during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948. Today Gath is in a national park.

Mayan sculptures tell story of capture and sacrifice


Our final story is from Mexico, where the archaeological zone of Toniná (to-nee-NAH), in the State of Chiapas (chee-AH-pas), has revealed two stone sculptures representing captive warriors belonging to the allied Maya states of Palenque (pah-LAIN-kay), now in Mexico, and Copán (coh-PAHN), in the modern country of Honduras. Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of Mexico have dated the two stone sculptures to approximately 1300 years ago. Inscriptions on the sculptures confirm previous knowledge of a war alliance that existed between the rulers of Copán and Palenque. In addition to the human figures, each of which is about 5 feet, or 1.5 meters high, the archaeologists have found two stone platforms which probably marked a ball court, site of the ball game traditionally played by Maya warriors.

According to Juan Yadeun, head of the INAH Toniná archaeology research team, nearly all the finds were broken, with the two platforms found in 30 fragments, and the sculptures in more than 20 pieces. All of the parts of one statue are present, but the second statue is headless. The two figures appear to be captured warriors, possibly representing the victory of Toniná against the allied forces of Palenque and Copán during 26 years of battles, from 688 -714 AD, for control of the waters of the Usumacinta (OOH-sooh-ma-SIN-tah) River. Both prisoners are seated with their legs crossed and their hands tied behind the back. The hair of the captive with head is shown gathered behind his head, a custom among the Maya before a prisoner was beheaded.

The sculptures show hieroglyphic inscriptions on the chest and the loin-cloth explaining that the captive warriors belonged to the army of K’uy Nic Ajaw (KOO-ey nick AH-jah), the warlord of Copán who ruled the region between 680 and 800 AD. Based on the appearance of the statues and the text shown in the inscriptions on the figures and on the platforms, excavators believe that the captives were sacrificed with fire and smoke during a celebration at a ball game about the year AD 695.

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