Audio news from September 4th to September 10th, 2011


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 4th to September 10th, 2011.

Subsurface radar maps an ancient gladiator school in Germany


Sophisticated radar equipment employed in Austria has zeroed in on a remarkably well preserved, underground Roman fighting school.  The site, located 24 miles east of Vienna, was discovered beneath the former Roman settlement of Carnuntum, already known for being the location of one of the finest amphitheaters ever found and the first gladiator school ever found outside Italy.  Carnuntum was the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia, which covered Austria and much of what is now the Balkans.  

According to Frank Humer, an archaeologist with Vienna's Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute, the wooden post, which the gladiators traditionally used as a mock opponent during training, is still visible in the middle of the school's arena.  Humer notes that the find was possible only because of significant advances in ground-penetrating radar equipment that allowed archaeologists to clearly identify the structures underground.  The team has been able to make detailed images of the gladiator school, which show that its center was dominated by a circular arena outfitted with wooden benches.  The school also housed a heated training hall that fighters would have used during the cold, central European winters.  There are also a bathhouse, administrative offices and small cell-like rooms for the gladiators themselves.  Roman gladiators, who took their name from the Latin word gladius, or sword, were pitted against each other or wild animals for the entertainment of both emperors and the public.  Many were admired for their bravery, celebrated in artworks and even buried in ornate graves as a mark of respect, but very few were volunteers.  Most gladiators were slaves, doomed to die a violent death.  

Researchers say the school was founded in the middle of the First Century AD, when the settlement became the headquarters of Rome's Fifteenth Legion, the Apollinaris (ah-POL-in-AHR-iss) and had a relatively large civilian and military population.  Gory gladiator games reached their peak between the first century BC and the second century AD, and continued until the fourth century AD, by which time Christianity had become the official religion.  The last known gladiator games took place in the late 5th Century AD.  To cope with the high demand for gladiatorial entertainment, the Carnuntum settlement boasted two amphitheaters, one staging shows only for Roman legionnaires, and one serving the general public, which was located close to the gladiator school.  According to Humer, radar images show that the site also contains what was probably a gladiators' graveyard.


East St. Louis dig may be big enough to answer big questions about the Mississippians


In the United States, the largest excavation of a prehistoric site in the country may solve a riddle of Illinois prehistory: the disappearance of the Mississippians.  Excavation of a village site of over 78 acres, first inhabited about AD 1050, has been providing abundant data and artifacts, making archaeologists hopeful that some of the basic questions about the Mississippians may finally be answered.  The Mississippians, a Native American cultural group distinctive for their pottery and building styles, lived in or near the Mississippi Valley more than 1,000 years ago.  They erected complex cities, built enormous mounds for religious purposes, and seem to have disappeared from the record in only about 200-300 years.  However, the area where the dig is located was abandoned after only 150 years.  The East St. Louis Mound Group, where the new dig is located, lies 5 miles west of the region's main group of mounds, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which was occupied for about another 150 years.  However, less than 1 percent of the Cahokia Mounds site has been excavated due to a policy that states that reserves the area for future study.  Nevertheless, the village site will be fully excavated.  

According to archaeologist Patrick Durst of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois at Champaign, by 1200 the Mississippians were gone from this site, with no evidence of any subsequent occupation.  What happened to them is one of the research questions diggers are hoping to answer.  When they are finished with this project, more of the East St. Louis mound group and the complex associated with it will have been excavated than all of Cahokia.  One of the research questions for the project is whether the people who lived in the village site were the same people who lived at the much larger Cahokia Mounds site.  However, the even larger unknown is where they came from, and what happened to them.  The team has been working since 2008 to finish this excavation by the end of the year.  

This area, once home to 3,000 people who lived 500 years before Columbus, lies in the path of a new bridge project and must be either excavated or lost to bulldozers.  For archaeologists, this location is significant because it would have been the first habitation seen by prehistoric visitors to this region as they traveled down the Mississippi.  The village would have been on the route of anyone headed for the Cahokia Mounds ritual center, 5 miles farther inland.


New obsidian research technique shows Aegean trade began in late ice ages


A new study shows that mariners may have been traveling the Aegean Sea even before the end of the last ice age, quarrying desirable volcanic rocks for pre-Bronze Age tools and weapons.  A new obsidian dating technique shows that this volcanic glass, invaluable for making tools, was being mined and shipped from the island of Melos (MELL-ohs) in modern day Greece as far back as 13,000 years ago.  According to Nicolaos Laskaris, of the University of the Aegean in Greece, the prized obsidian, a natural mineral glass locally available only in Melos, was carried all over the Aegean and the continent through prehistoric trade.  If people wanted to have sharp tools and weapons in the days before bronze, they needed places like Melos and the obsidian it holds.  They also needed a boat to get there as it is about 75 miles east of the Greek mainland and surrounded by water.  However, 13,000 years ago, the sea level was much lower and the distance to the mainland across the water might have been just 10 miles or less.

The evidence that people were crossing over to Melos even before the end of the last ice age comes from obsidian artifacts found in the Franchthi (FRAHNK-thee) cave on the Peloponnese (PELL-oh-po-knees) Peninsula in southern mainland Greece, far from the island of Melos.  Previous geochemical work had already established that the artifacts were from Melos, but figuring out when they were brought from the island was a tougher problem.  According to Laskaris, it was sailors, especially in the Aegean region, who jumped from one island to another to reach Melos, as well as Asia Minor and the Greek mainland.  Laskaris and his colleagues have published a paper about the discovery in the Sept. 2011 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.  

Previously, obsidian appeared only in levels from about 8500 BC.  Now researchers feel they have proven that contact with coastal sites occurred much earlier, using obsidian hydration dating combined with a newer technique known as secondary ion mass spectrometry of surface saturation.  This technique determines how much water had penetrated the obsidian surfaces that were exposed to the air by prehistoric humans who were chipping the rocks to make tools and weapons.  A freshly exposed obsidian surface contains microscopic cracks, which absorb water over time.  Obsidian hydration dating alone is not very reliable at dating the fractures on the rocks, because it is difficult to measure how deep the fuzzy water diffusion zone penetrates into a rock.  However, when the new mass spectrometry technique is added to the picture, scientists can actually quantify the water that penetrates a rock.  Using the new method, Laskaris and his colleagues were able to determine that Melos obsidian was making it to the mainland earlier than previously believed, beginning about 13,000 years ago, implying that humans were crossing between the islands very early in some yet-unknown types of boats.

Rare Alaskan rock art site produces unique carved clay disks


Our final story is from Alaska, where a team from the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North found more than they expected during an expedition to explore three prehistoric lake-front dwellings in the Noatak National Preserve, located in the Arctic region of northwestern Alaska.  When archaeologist Scott Shirar and his team began small-scale excavations at two of the sites, long considered unusual because of the rare incised boulders located at them, they discovered a new type of incised artifact: four small decorated clay disks.  The disks appear to be the first of their kind found in Alaska.  

According to Shirar, a research archaeologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the first one looked like a little stone that had some scratch marks on it.  The team got excited when the second one had a drilled hole and more complicated markings.  After discussion with colleagues and searching for references in the archaeological record, Shirar concluded that the disks appear to be a new artifact type for Alaska.  

Archaeologists working in the 1960s and 70s found incised boulders at three different lakefront sites in what is now the Noatak National Preserve.  The rock art remained on location, undocumented for almost 40 years until this summer, when a team from the University's Museum of the North and the National Park Service assembled to create a permanent record at two of the sites.  Mareca Guthrie, fine arts collection manager at the Museum of the North, joined the expedition to make sketches and take tracings of the boulders.  The team visited the site both to document the rock art and to excavate subterranean house pits for radiocarbon dating samples, such as animal bones, charcoal or other organic matter, in order to get a better idea of when people lived there.  Archaeologists use the term rock art to describe any human-made marks on natural stone.  Petroglyphs are pictures created by picking, carving or abrading the surface of a rock.  According to Shirar, while the precise meaning of these petroglyphs, as well as the designs on the clay disks, is still unknown, their potential for new understanding of the prehistoric people of the region is huge.  The fact that archaeologists have found four of these artifacts in only a small part of the site suggests that there are likely more to be found.  While prehistoric rock art is common in some regions, such as the American Southwest, it is remarkably rare in interior and northern Alaska.  

That wraps up the news for this week!  For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!