Audio news from July 31st to August 6th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 31st to August 6th, 2011.


Earliest capital of ancient Nubia reveals new palace ruin


In central Sudan, archaeologists have discovered the oldest building in the city of Meroë (MAIR-oh-aye), the legendary royal city on the upper Nile. The capital of a vast empire that flourished around 2,000 years ago, Meroë was located south of ancient Egypt on the upper reaches of the Nile River. At its height, the city was ruled by a dynasty of kings whose empire stretched for a thousand miles, from Egypt’s borders southward into Africa beyond modern-day Khartoum (car-toom).

The people of Meroë built palaces and small pyramids, and developed a writing system that scholars still cannot completely understand today. Although Meroë has been excavated off and on for more than 150 years, archaeologists are not yet clear on how it came to be. The city seems to have emerged out of nowhere. According to team leader Krzysztof (kree-zish-tof) Grzymski (?), a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, the region of central Sudan presents an interesting research problem. The prehistoric cultural sequence is clear from the Stone Age all the way through the Neolithic, until about 3000 or 2500 B.C. However, after that, there is a gap until 800 BC when Meroë rises as abruptly as if from the sand itself.

Grzymski is hoping to fill this gap by looking for the origins of the Kushite and Nubian civilizations that flourished here. The newly discovered building may help with this. To date, the team has excavated a small section of the building which radiocarbon dating indicates that it is from about 900 BC. The finds so far include a substantially proportioned mud brick wall, pottery, and most particularly, a collection of animal bones, mostly belonging to cattle. They suggest this ancient people were, to at least some extent, pastoralists. In other words, they relied heavily on beef and cattle products in addition to agriculture. It's difficult to say for certain what the building was used for, but Grzymski’s working hypothesis is that it was an early palace or administrative center.

Meroë’s ruins were first discovered in the years leading up to World War I by John Garstang, a British archaeologist. Garstang uncovered an area filled with palaces and temples that he called the royal city, but many of his finds were never published, and over the past two decades, archaeologists have been going over Garstang's notes, publishing them and looking for clues about Meroë’s origins. David Edwards, of the University of Leicester, summarizes much of this mystery in his book "The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of Sudan," and notes that Garstang found the architectural elements from what may have been an early temple of Amun, dating back to at least the seventh century.

The Amun temple is said to be in an area later occupied by the Meroitic Royal City. If the temple exists, Grzymski says it would be the oldest temple in the city, a find that would offer clues to the religion of the civilization's first people. His team tried to find the structure using magnetometry, a technique that can detect archaeological remains by searching for anomalies in the magnetic field. The magnetometry was unsuccessful, however, so in January 2012, the team will launch a major dig to search for the lost temple of Amun, and its clues to the origins of Meroë.

Search for Captain Morgan’s pirate ship aided by namesake rum company


Moving to Panama, the lost wreckage of a ship belonging to 17th century pirate Captain Henry Morgan has been discovered near the Lajas (LA-has) Reef, where Morgan lost five ships in 1671. A team from River Systems Institute and the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University has uncovered a portion of the starboard side of a wooden ship's hull and a series of unopened cargo boxes and chests encrusted in coral. The cargo has yet to be opened, but the liquor company Captain Morgan USA, who sells the spiced rum named for the pirate, is clearly hoping that there is liquor inside.

The Captain Morgan rum group stepped up to fund the quest for Captain Morgan’s ship after the team ran out of funds before being able to narrow down the site. The new funding allowed the team to do a magnetometer survey, looking for metal by finding anomalies in the earth's magnetic field. In a statement from Tom Herbst, brand director of Captain Morgan USA, when the opportunity arose for the company to help make the discovery mission possible, it seemed like a natural fit.

The artifacts uncovered during this mission so far include a collection of six iron cannons, brought up in 2010. Further details of the ship and its cargo will help bring Henry Morgan and his adventures to life in a way that goes beyond the history books and legends. Captain Henry Morgan sailed as a privateer on behalf of England in the 1600s, mixing defense of England’s interests with explorations of the uncharted waters of the New World and more than occasional attacks on Spain’s settlements and ships.

In 1671 Morgan set out to capture Panama City and undo the stronghold of Spain in the Caribbean, beginning with the capture of the Castillo (cas-TEE-yo) de San Lorenzo, a fort at the entrance to the Chagres River, the only water passageway between the Caribbean and Panama City, an early Spanish capital. Morgan eventually triumphed, but the fierce attack was challenged by Spanish soldiers and rough storms. The pirate captain lost five ships to the seas and a shallow reef. Now, the research team, which includes archaeologists and divers from Texas State University, volunteers from the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center and NOAA/UNC-Wilmington's Aquarius Reef Base, seeks its own treasure, Captain Morgan’s ship.

Bronze Age graves show elderly had more power


New research on people living in the Bronze Age suggests that over a 600-year period in Austria, older people started to gain power in this early society. According to research reported in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, skeletal age studies and a comparison of objects placed in graves of individuals of different ages show that as time went by in the small farming hamlets of ancient lower Austria, older men began to be buried with copper axes, a privilege not granted to younger men.

This might be an indication that the elders were in charge of some ancient societies, according to study researcher Jo Appleby, a research fellow in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge. But Appleby also cautioned that it shows only a change in one small area in quite a limited time period in the past, which we can't assume speaks to the elderly having good status or bad status in other contexts. Studying the social status of the elderly is challenging, because scientists have a hard time pinning down the age of older adult bones. You can determine that a person was elderly, but it is difficult to tell whether "elderly" meant 65 or 85.

Researchers often assume that in ancient societies, the elderly had power. However, Appleby noted that in modern life, older people are often pushed aside under the assumption they are forgetful or degenerating. The question was whether our ancestors would have thought the same, or whether they really did respect their elders. To answer this question, Appleby used data from two cemeteries in the Traisen valley of Austria, the final resting places for Bronze Age farmers of the region about 4,000 years ago. The older cemetery dated between 2200 and 1800 BC, while the more recent cemetery was used between 1900 and 1600 BC. The life expectancy of the people buried in the Traisen valley cemeteries averages about 26 to 29 years. However, if you made it to adulthood, you had a good chance of living to your 50th birthday, as long as childbirth, violence or a farming accident didn't kill you before then.

Still, "old" is a relative term. Only 3.5 percent of the 714 individuals buried in the older cemetery were over 60, and only 8.8 percent of the 258 buried in the younger cemetery. There were likely very few people in the Bronze Age settlements that would have been old by today's standards; many would have had degenerative conditions such as arthritis that marked them as elderly for their time. When Appleby compared the items in the graves of older people with the items in the graves of younger people, some intriguing patterns turned up. In the earlier period, older women tended not to be buried with certain objects that appeared more frequently in younger people's graves. For example, unlike their younger counterparts, older women did not get buried wearing necklaces made of dogteeth. Nevertheless, the elderly weren't left with nothing, Appleby notes. They had a good numbers of objects, and they had some of the richer objects.

But later, in the newer cemetery, this age delineation had vanished. Women wore different items than female children, but the age at which a woman died made no distinction in her grave goods. For men, the picture was different. At first, age was unrelated to jewelry or burial objects at both cemeteries. Over time, however, men who outlived their contemporaries seemed to gain a certain status. The burials of older men contained bronze axes, unlike younger men buried with stone ones. Metals would have still been rare and valuable at the time. The association seems to have been physical, even, such that men who looked old and had certain types of injuries had greater access to these axes. According to Appleby, we might see that as indicating that these people actually were the leaders. In contrast, the skeleton of a man born with a hip defect, was buried without any objects, in a small grave, facing the direction usually reserved for the burial of women. This lack of effort might suggest that the disabled had lower social status than the elderly.

Buried New York City ship yields its last piece of evidence


Our final story, from the United States, is an update on the more than 200-year-old ship discovered at the World Trade Center site last summer. Archaeologists helping at the site have discovered a second piece of the 18th Century ship. The find came as workers began digging up the east side of the construction area, which once housed the World Trade Center complex. According to Michael Pappalardo, an archaeologist with the engineering consultancy firm AKRF, the site is thoroughly excavated and there are no more ship remains to be found.

Archaeologists first noticed remnants of the ship last July, when they found curved pieces of wood buried 25 feet below street level, and spent two weeks excavating the artifact. It turned out to be a 32-foot-long section of the boat's hull. The more recent find is of the very front of the ship, providing crucial clues as to its size, shape and, use, noted Pappalardo. Based on the measurements of all pieces, including the new prow section, researchers estimate the ship was 50 feet long at its base and 60 feet long on the deck. Scientists from AKRF spent two days removing the piece of prow, which measures roughly 1 foot high, 6 feet long, and 3 to 5 feet wide.

At a panel of experts convened last fall to discuss the ship's probable history, one likely scenario that surfaced is that it was a merchant ship used to transport commodities like sugar, salt, molasses and rum up and down the Atlantic coast. The ship’s timbers were infested with Teredo worms, indicating that at some point, it likely traveled to the Caribbean, as maritime historian Norman Brouwer noted. By 1797, weakened by the worm damage, the ship ended its life in a landfill that was created to extend lower Manhattan.

Since the panel, researchers have continued to piece together the ship's history, using dendrochronology to date the ship's construction to the 1770's. Additionally, they have linked the wood used to construct the ship to Pennsylvania, suggesting that the boat, likely created around the time of the Declaration of Independence, might also have been born in the Philadelphia area.

Currently being stored at a facility in New York, the new piece will soon be reunited with the rest of the ship's remains at Texas A&M's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation. The artifacts will be housed there under stable conditions until New York City’s Port Authority decides what to do with them. One option is to undergo the lengthy process of preserving all of the remains, perhaps for future reconstruction, but alternatively, just some of the artifacts may be selected for the time-consuming and expensive treatment

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