Audio news from August 14th to August 20th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 14th to August 20th, 2011.


Construction in Iowa reveals 7000-year-old village site


Our first story took place in United States, where a very well-preserved 7,000-year-old archaeological site has been found in Des Moines, Iowa. University of Iowa archaeologists have nicknamed the site the “Palace” because of its spectacular preservation and it’s abundance of archaeological finds, including the remains of two humans, a woman and an infant, that are the oldest human bones to be found in the state.

According to State Archaeologist, John Doershuk, the site is important not only due to its record of intensive occupation, but because river floods sealed the deposits quickly, preserving items that otherwise could have been lost. With more than 6,000 artifacts found, researchers are busy examining the context to learn how the villagers lived, what they ate and how their society and culture were developing.

The site was discovered last winter when construction workers for a new wastewater treatment facility noted charcoal and burned earth stains. The office of the State Archaeologist, based at the University of Iowa, was called in to monitor the construction and investigate any finds. Since the project is permitted and funded federally, requirements for archaeological study were triggered by the finds, and the university’s archaeologists worked through May to collect as much information and as many artifacts as possible before construction moved forward in the project area where the site was found.

Remnants of the village layout include four oval-shaped deposits, possibly houses, that are up to 800 square feet, or about 75 square meters, and contain hearths. According to Bill Whittaker, the project archaeologist who co-directed the dig, well-preserved house deposits of this age are extremely rare west of the Mississippi River valley. The burial pit is about six or seven feet below the ground surface and contained several artifacts along with the remains, including a spear point.

The site’s age was determined using radiocarbon dating based on wood charcoal from the burial feature, and corroborated by the design of the spear point. The archaeologists also used laser technology to map more than 12,000 data points that will be developed into 3-dimensional computer models of the site. Analysis and comparative work will continue for the next year. Meanwhile, although construction on the wastewater treatment plant continues, evidence suggests there may be more archaeological material buried under adjacent, unexcavated land, and the archaeologists are working on a plan to preserve it.

Roman jar has little holes and big mysteries


Moving on to Canada, our second story finds archaeologists perplexed by an ancient clay vessel reconstructed from pieces discovered in a storage room at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology. The jar, which is likely Roman in origin, is 40 centimeters tall, over a foot in height, and is covered with dozens of small holes. Even after the 180 pieces of the jar were put back together, no one has been able to identify another artifact like it from the Roman world. According to Katie Urban, one of the researchers at the London, Ontario, museum, they have been sending the vessel around to numerous Roman pottery professionals and other pottery authorities, and no one seems to be able to come up with an example.

Archived research indicates the jar comes from a group of artifacts from Roman Britain given to the museum in the 1950s by William Francis Grimes, an archaeologist who died in 1988. Grimes' team had dug them out of a World War II bomb crater in London, England, near an ancient temple dedicated to Mithras, a middle eastern god who became popular throughout the Roman Empire. Urban warned, however, that it is not certain the jar is from that dig. The vessel does not appear to be on the list of artifacts received from Grimes, although she noted that the list was not very detailed.

One mystery is thus how the jar came to be in the collection. There is a chance the jar came from Iraq, because another collection of artifacts found in storage at the museum came from the ancient city of Ur, dating as far back as 5,000 years ago. Leonard Woolley, an archaeologist best known for discovering a rich series of royal burials at Ur, had excavated them in 1931 and sent them to the British Museum, which had in turn given them to the University of Western Ontario in 1933. 

Whether the jar came from Roman Britain or Iraq, the bigger question, of course, is why anyone would need a jar full of holes. According to Urban, the possibility that the jar served as a lamp is supported by the many tiny holes that would have allowed light to pass through, but a hole in the bottom of the jar makes that hypothesis unlikely. A second possibility is that the jar held dormice, tiny rodents found throughout Europe, which ancient texts suggest were a popular snack for Romans. The problem with this theory is that dormice jars are known from elsewhere in the Roman world, and they look different from this vessel. Known dormice jars were equipped with a ramp that mice could run along and use to help store food within the holes. The third idea is that the jar held snakes, a popular religious symbol throughout the ancient world. However, at present no one knows for sure. The artifact is currently on display at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology as part of an exhibit on Ur and Roman Britain.

Well preserved timbers mark route of Iron Age road


Traveling to England for our third story, we touch down on a suspected Iron Age road, made of timber and preserved in peat for 2,000 years. Uncovered by archaeologists in East Anglia this summer, the site may have been part of a route across the River Waveney and the surrounding wetland at Geldeston in Norfolk. Other causeways were first discovered in the area during flood prevention work at the nearby Suffolk town of Beccles.

It's believed the road is pre-Roman and built by the local Iceni tribe. Tree-ring evidence suggests a date of 75 BC, placing the timber road more than 100 years before the Roman invasion, which began a century of struggle between the Romans and the Iceni that ended with their leader Boudicca’s famous defeat.

The posts of the timber structure have been preserved in a level of detail that is usually lost in archaeological sites. According to University of Birmingham archaeologist and team member Kristina Krawiec, the posts look almost modern, with tool marks in the timbers still clearly visible. Instead of getting post holes, which are typically found at archaeological sites, the team is actually finding the posts that went in them, yielding much greater understanding about the technology and skills involved in this type of roadwork.

Discovered in summer of 2010, the recently excavated timbers form a 4-meter wide route running 500 meters across wetland right up to the river. There have been two previous linked finds nearby, including one on the other side of the river and another running alongside it. As well as providing practical ways of getting across the wet flood plain, researchers believe the roads may have been a way of marking territory to traders and foreign travelers. They also probably marked spiritual gathering places where the tribe that built them could go to the river to make offerings. Items such as swords, shields and spearheads are being found in rivers, likely as gifts to the gods or to long-dead ancestors. In a world without roads, rivers were the motorways of the time and it is thought the Waveney formed part of a major metal trading route from Europe. The timber structures would have been a very impressive sight to any passing travelers.

Flask from ancient Egypt may have held deadly medication


Our final story is from Germany, where chemistry is shedding light on a dark secret contained in a perfume flask belonging to the Egyptian Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut. The ordinary looking flask from around 1450 BC has been on exhibit in the permanent collection of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn. For three and a half millennia, the vessel may have held a deadly secret, according to the head of the collection, Michael Höveler-Müller, and Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld from the university's Pharmacology Institute. After two years of research, they have established that the flask did not hold a perfume, but rather a kind of skin care lotion or medication for skin diseases that may have actually been the Queen’s killer.

When Michael Höveler-Müller became the curator of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn in 2009, it occurred to him to examine the interior of the vessel. Its neck was blocked with what was considered dirt, but Höveler-Müller suspected it could be the original clay stopper. If so, some of the original contents might still be inside. Teaming up with Dr. Wiedenfeld, they examined the small bottle, beginning with a CAT scan at the Radiology Clinic of the Bonn University hospital. This confirmed not only that the stopper was intact, but that the vessel held residue of a dried-up liquid.

In the summer of 2009, Professor Dr. Friedrich Bootz from the Klinik und Poliklinik für Hals-, Nasen- und Ohrenheilkunde of the University of Bonn took samples using an endoscope. This allowed Dr. Wiedenfeld and his team to analyze the ingredients. It became obvious very quickly that what they had found was not dried-up perfume. The mix contained large amounts of palm oil and nutmeg apple oil, not something one would use on one's face. The mixture contained a lot of unsaturated fatty acids that provide relief for people with skin diseases. It has been known that Hatshepsut’s family suffered various skin diseases that often have a large genetic component as their cause.

The pharmacologists also found hydrocarbons derived from creosote and asphalt. To this day, creams containing creosote are used to treat chronic skin diseases. However, due to the potentially carcinogenic effects of some of its ingredients, creosote is banned from cosmetics completely, and medications containing creosote are now prescription-only. But even more dangerous than creosote is benzoapyrene, another chemical found in the bottle. Dr. Wiedenfeld explained that benzoapyrene is one of the most dangerous known carcinogenic substances. It is the substance that creates the risk of cancer from cigarette smoke, and the Pharaoh was likely using it daily to treat her skin.

If the Queen had a chronic skin disease and found short-term improvement from the salve, she may have exposed herself to a great risk over the years. According to Höveler-Müller, this is very likely, as we have known for some time that Hatshepsut had cancer and may even have died from it. The tiny flask and the new teams’ research may have revealed the actual cause.

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