Audio news from August 28th to September 3rd, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 28th to September 3rd, 2011.

Mayan palace uncovered in Chiapas


In Mexico, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 2,000-year-old Mayan palace at a site in the southeastern state of Chiapas.  According to a statement by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the discovery constitutes the first architectural evidence of such an early occupation of the ancient Mayan cities of the Upper Usumacinta basin in the Lacandona Jungle.  

The project’s director, Luis Alberto Martos, explained that researchers found the palace in a sunken courtyard located in the northern part of the Plan de Ayutla archaeological site.  The site represents the first evidence of occupation of that area between 50 BC and AD 50, more than 200 years earlier than previous evidence of Mayan occupation in the region.

The palace consists of rooms with walls almost one meter wide. The corners of the walls are rounded, an early characteristic of Mayan architecture.  Mayans of a later era dismantled the palace and filled in the courtyard to raise the level of the other buildings, leaving the remains of the early palace preserved.  The later constructions, built between AD 250-800, correspond to the Classic period, when this site played an important political role.  

This research will provide a deeper look at political interaction and integration in this region, an area where several kingdoms were in conflict, battles waged and alliances formed.

Ancient shipwreck in Istanbul contains well-preserved cargo


In our second story, the world’s best-preserved ancient shipwreck revealed itself during the excavations at the Yenikapi Marmaray construction site in Istanbul, Turkey.  The ship sank in a storm in the fourth or fifth century AD, and astonishingly most of the amphorae on the ship are still in perfect condition.  

The 52-foot-long, 20-foot-wide shipwreck is better preserved than any other shipwreck of its kind.  Archaeologists assume the ship was completely buried in mud.  This oxygen-free atmosphere protected it and its contents from further damage.  The ship was loaded with pickled fry, a type of small fish, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, muskmelon seeds, olives, peaches, and pinecones found in incredible condition.  

Excavators found the ship about 16 feet below sea level.  When first discovered, they cleaned the mud above it away and removed the damaged upper layer of amphorae piece by piece, before removing the undamaged amphorae.  

The bronze nails found on the ship give clues about the age of the vessel and make it an outstanding archaeological find.  Ship builders used bronze nails starting in the fourth or fifth century, prior to which they only used wooden pegs.  

Since the start of the archaeological excavations of the fourth century port of Theodosius at Yenikapi Marmaray, archaeologists have registered 40,000 artifacts and studied over 150,000 pieces.  To date, they have uncovered 35 wrecked ships that sank between the fifth and 11th centuries AD.  Thirty are merchant vessels equipped with sails, while the rest are oared galleys.  The dig at Yenikapi features the largest number of shipwrecks discovered in any one location anywhere in the world.  

A team of 45 archaeologists and 265 staff members, consisting of architects and art historians are still working the excavation site.  To date, archaeologists have uncovered skeletons, the remains of an early chapel and even footprints, in addition to 35 shipwrecks.  The excavations started in 2004 at the construction site and reach back 8,500 years into the history of Istanbul.  


1.75 million year old axes found in Kenya


In our next story from Africa, the discovery of stone hand axes in the same sediment layer as cruder tools suggests that hominids with differing tool-making technologies may have coexisted.  Christopher Lepre, a paleontologist at Columbia University in New York, found the axes in Kenya and estimates that they are around 1.76 million years old.  That is 350,000 years older than any other complex tools yet discovered.  

But the early date is not the only important discovery.  Researchers found the hand axes, usually associated with the emergence of Homo erectus around 1.5 million years ago, alongside primitive chopping tools that had already been in use for at least a million years.  This supports the idea that the two earliest stone-tool manufacturing techniques and traditions existed, at least sometimes, at the same time.  

The hand axes, which have a distinctive, carefully made oval shape, are part of the Acheulian technology.  Researchers believe early humans developed such tools around 1.6 million years ago.  The more primitive tools, typically chunks of stone with coarsely chipped edges, belong to the earlier Oldowan toolkit.  Because Homo erectus is often associated with Acheulian tools, Lepre and his colleagues suggest in their study that Homo erectus made the hand axes, and the less cognitively skilled Homo habilis made the Oldowan tools.  The proposal could help clarify paleontological observations of the first hominid departures from Africa.  

Homo erectus is often thought to have been mentally and behaviorally most capable of migrating, but early fossil sites in Eurasia almost always reveal hominids with Oldowan toolkits, or no tools at all.  Lepre's findings indicate that multiple hominid groups with differing tool-making abilities could have dispersed to Eurasia, and that Homo erectus either did not go first, or did not take Acheulian tools with them.  

Paleoanthropologist James Adovasio at the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Pennsylvania notes this nicely explains the fossil sites that we have been finding in Georgia and the Far East that don't have Acheulian tools.  From a stone-tool perspective, all the evidence points to the idea that Oldowan hominids were the first to leave Africa, concludes Lepre.  Which species is responsible for the spread of Oldowan tools is still open for speculation, however.  This does not necessarily point to Homo habilis, nor does it rule out the possibility that an Oldowan-using Homo erectus group might have been involved.  It might have been that a single species made both kinds of tools, but raw materials availability and the intended tasks for tools governed which types of tools they made.


3000 year old horses and chariots found in China


Our final story is from China, where archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered the almost 3,000-year-old remains of 12 horses and five wooden chariots in a Zhou Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan province.  The completed excavation unearthed four horse-and-chariot pits dating back to 770BC.  The pits contain well-preserved evidence of bronze ware and ceramics from the Early Western Zhou dynasty.  

Though a far smaller tomb than the well-known “terracotta army” found in 1974 in the Lintong district, this grave has never ben damaged by looters and thus is incredibly valuable to researchers .  Archaeologists found pottery, metal weaponry, and inscriptions characteristic of a man of mid-level, indicating that the tomb belonged to an official of some status during the dynasty.

Apart from the artifacts themselves, the tomb is an exciting discovery for historians, as it provides conclusive insights into funeral customs in the early Western Zhou dynasty.  The unearthed tomb is a vertical earthen pit tomb, very common in that era.  Because of the age of the site, the traditionally wooden coffin and body within have long-since disintegrated.  

However, the most valuable discovery by far is the complete set of chariots and horses.  Researchers say the position of the horses, which were lying on their sides, show that the animals were killed before burial.  At the time of this official's death, the Chinese were instituting large-scale irrigation projects across China, and developing the nation's writing system.  It was also the time of the great Chinese philosophers of antiquity, including Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi.

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