Audio news from August 20th to August 27th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 20th to August 27th, 2011.

Arabian horses date back nine millennia


Our first story is from Saudi Arabia, where excavations in an area known to antiquity as Arabia Felix show that people were domesticating horses long before we previously believed. The discovery of this civilization, named al-Maqar, will update the previous theory that horses were first domesticated 5,500 years ago in Central Asia.

According to Ali al-Ghabban, Vice-President of Antiquities and Museums at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the al-Maqar Civilization was a very advanced Neolithic civilization. He notes that the evidence they have found clearly supports roots of horse domestication 9,000 years ago.

Among the remains found at the site are statues of animals such as goats, dogs, hawks, and a meter-tall bust of a horse. One official commented that researchers have never before found a statue of an animal of this dimension, dating back to that time, anywhere in the world.

The site also includes remains of mummified skeletons, arrowheads, scrapers, grain grinders, tools for spinning and weaving, and other tools evidencing a civilization skilled in handicrafts. The remains, found in a valley that was once a riverbed, date to a time when the now-arid Arabian Peninsula was more humid and fertile.


A grandfather’s legend reveals a Roman amphitheater


Our next story comes from northern England, where Cambridge archaeologists have found a lost amphitheater, dating to Roman times, on a Yorkshire hilltop. Topping Studforth Hill, the oval arena would have combined events and entertainment with an outstanding 360-degree view, making it equivalent to a national theater of the north. Preliminary work suggests the amphitheater was also flanked by a sports stadium.

Rose Ferraby, a local woman who had heard the legend of the amphitheater from her grandfather, has led a two-year survey of the village with Martin Millett. Since excavations revealed mosaics with inscriptions in Greek, a sure sign of cultured inhabitants, the researchers were certain that there had to be an amphitheater somewhere. Work over the years has pointed more and more towards the conclusion that the village was very important in this part of the Roman Empire. Speculation about the legend ended with a printout from geomagnetic scanners that reveals a great-tiered bank of seats below curving rounded knolls in a pastoral field.

According to Millett, professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge, and co-team leader, the discovery leaves little doubt that Isurium Brigantium, as the Romans called the small village of Aldborough, was the civil capital of the Brigantes.

Historians have thought for years that Aldborough was a Roman fort, due in part to its impressive town walls that include a long remaining stretch with curved lookout towers. Evidence of the ninth Hispana legion that marched to its unknown fate in Scotland in about 120 AD also pointed to a largely military function. However, a series of small 19th- and 20th-century excavations began to build a more complex picture, and the discovery of the town's Roman name, meaning the "main city of the Brigantes,” shifted opinion towards a large civilian, rather than military, settlement. This evidence supported theories that the Romans kept their troops in large military bases while encouraging native Britons to build their own towns on the imperial model, with a forum, stone and brick buildings and temples for the appropriate gods.

The discovery of the amphitheater also adds to mounting evidence that Britannia Inferior, as the Romans called the Northern Province, was more prosperous and sophisticated than previously thought. However, there have been a relative shortage of digs and studies sites in the area, compared with hundreds in Britannia Superior, today's south.

Local residents quarried or hacked out most of the tiered seats centuries ago, but the high bank that forms the top of Studforth Hill preserves the surviving section. The geomagnetic scan detected a large mass of material and the tiering, crudely reflected by ridges in the grassy surface until it disappears under a small grove. The sweeping curve of the amphitheater, which crowns a long series of discoveries at Aldborough, remains hidden due to shortages of money for excavations and pressure for resources to go elsewhere.


Colorado valley inhabited 8000 years ago


Moving on to the United States, archaeologists may have discovered evidence of people living in Colorado's Grand Valley as early as 8,000 years ago. During a recent excavation, researchers with the Dominguez Anthropological Research Group or DARG uncovered a prehistoric stone shelter north of Grand Junction.

After about 2 years of archaeological work, James Miller, research director with DARG, says the team found fire pits and storage features. They also collected lithic artifacts and remnants of posts where a wall would have gone. The oldest post one is about 8,000 years old.

The shelter was most likely built by a culture called the Foothills-Mountain people, who lived in North America 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. From the geology and the artifacts, researchers have been able to get a good idea of the age of the deposits right now. Crews dug about 10 feet into the ground to uncover most of the artifacts they collected. Based on those items, scientists believe the site was a temporary shelter rather than a permanent home. It was a place where smaller task groups would go and stay for a few days or a week. In most cases, they would collect vegetable foods and process them before transporting them back to the base camp.

The team has sent about a dozen samples away for radiocarbon dating, and is doing further analysis to support their findings. Last year, DARG researchers discovered evidence near Battlement Mesa of a culture that is 13,000 years old.

British mummies actually composites of numerous people


In our final story from Scotland, DNA tests on British prehistoric mummies revealed they were made of body parts from several different people, arranged to look like one person. The four mummies, discovered in 2001 in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, were the first evidence in Britain of intentional mummification.

A team from the University of Sheffield first uncovered the remains of a three-month-old-child, a possible young female adult, a female in her 40s and a male under a prehistoric village. However, recent testing on the remains by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial,” previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male. According to Sheffield University's Professor Mike Parker Pearson, burial of the mummies did not occur immediately after preservation and the composite body may have come from people in the same families.

Archaeologists found the mummies in the foundations of a row of unusual Bronze Age terraced roundhouses. After radiocarbon dating the remains, researchers found all had died between 300 and 500 years before the housing construction, meaning their descendants had kept them above ground for some time. In order for archaeologist to have found the bodies as the articulated skeletons they were, rather than piles of bones, some soft tissue preservation had to have taken place. Additional tests showed that the bones had become demineralized, a process caused by placing a body in an acidic environment like a peat bog. The degree of demineralization found showed that after death the bodies had rested in bogs for about a year to mummify them.

Professor Parker Pearson, an authority in the Bronze Age and burial rituals, has a theory of why people might have assembled the mummies in this way. He notes that these could be putting lineages together since the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act. Also, mourners did not bury these “mummies” immediately, but may have used them in an active part in society, as some tribal societies do in other parts of the world. As part of ancestral worship, descendants possibly queried the mummies for spiritual advice, to aid the community in making decisions.

These mummies were in the crouch burial position, a style of burial commonly found in the Bronze Age. In this style of burial, mourners draw up the body into the fetal position. Parker Pearson's team are examining other crouch burial examples to see if these were in fact the mummified remains of much older bodies as well. Early results are proving to be promising, as a sample from remains in Cambridge shows that bacterial decay stopped at some point after death.

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