Audio News for September 11th to September 17th, 2011. 

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for September 11th to September 17th, 2011.

Western Colorado site may hold clues to early Fremont culture


In Western Colorado, archaeologists with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have finished their fifth season of excavation at a rock shelter that has revealed surprisingly early dates.  The Gunnison River rock art site, tucked into the rocky ledges overlooking the Gunnison River in the canyon country of west-central Colorado, has been known for some time for its sweeping petroglyph panels, but its content of early occupational remains and early dates have been something of a surprise.  

The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area has long been a popular destination for hikers, hunters and fishermen, and now, according to Glade Hadden, a BLM archaeologist and co-director of the project, it appears that this includes prehistoric peoples as well.  The site lies at the only place herds of deer can cross the Gunnison River for miles in either direction.  Hadden says that the petroglyphs of deer and elk scratched into the sandstone of the canyon overhang were like a sign, telling ancient hunters to stop and eat there.

Beneath the overhang, Hadden and fellow BLM archaeologist Carol Patterson have been benefiting from the work of students in the archaeology field school of Western Wyoming College.  The site had suffered looting, as well as disturbance from pack rats, and the team had no idea what might be found in the jumbled mess remaining.  But below the damage, they discovered layers of stratified evidence from 4,000 to 8,000 years ago, including several hearths spanning this long stretch of the Archaic period, and other occupational remains, such as Fremont-style basketry, projectile points, beads, and bones used as tools.  

The Fremont were an agricultural people who lived in western Colorado and eastern Utah area from 300 to 1300 A.D.  Hadden says they've uncovered what appear to be two distinctive Fremont age levels and he is hopeful that evidence of even older occupations may be contained deeper within the stratified layers, but that exploration will have to wait.  The archaeologists are closing up the site for the summer and, because of budget concerns, aren't sure when they'll be able to resume digging. For now, the site’s location has not been placed on maps or been revealed to the public in hopes of preventing further looting and damage.

Middle Eastern geoglyphs pose mystery bigger than the Nazca lines


In our next story, a new mystery reaches across the Middle East from Syria to Saudi Arabia.  Visible from the air but not the ground, and virtually unknown to the public, are thousands of ancient "geoglyphs," or wide, artificially made drawings on the ground.  Now, thanks to new satellite-mapping technologies and an aerial photography program in Jordan, researchers are discovering more of them than ever before.  

Referred to by archaeologists as "wheels," these stone structures have a wide variety of designs, most common being a circle with spokes radiating inside.  Researchers believe that they date back to at least 2,000 years ago.  They are often found on lava fields and range from 82 feet to 230 feet (25 meters to 70 meters) across.  

According to David Kennedy, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Western Australia whose new research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, these stone landscapes create a variety of structures such as kites, pendants and walls.  Kites are drive structures, used to funnel animals into position for better hunting.  Pendants are lines of stone cairns that run from burials.  The walls among the stone geoglypyhs meander across the landscape for up to several hundred feet and have no apparent practical use.

Kennedy’s team has been studying the structures as part of a long-term aerial reconnaissance project looking at archaeological sites across Jordan.   Kennedy's main area of expertise is Roman archaeology, but he became fascinated by these structures when, as a student, he read accounts of Royal Air Force pilots flying over them in the 1920s on airmail routes across Jordan.  Kennedy’s team has been studying the structures using aerial photography and Google Earth, as the wheels are much harder to recognize on the ground.  So far, none of the wheels have been excavated, so exact dates have not been determined, but since they are often found on top of kites, which date as far back as 9,000 years, but never below them, archaeologists believe the wheels are more recent.

Kennedy's team has also found wheel styles in Saudi Arabia that are different, including some that are rectangular, and others that are circular but only contain two spokes that form a bar aligned to the rising and setting of the sun.  The wheels in Jordan and Syria, on the other hand, have numerous spokes and do not seem to be aligned with any astronomical phenomena.  Cairns are often found associated with the wheels, sometimes around the perimeter, other times among the spokes.  

When the lines were studied by earlier archaeologists it was believed that they were they remains of houses or cemeteries, however Kennedy is skeptical of these explanations. Recent scholars suggest that the wheels may have functioned similarly to the Nazca lines, as worship places of ancestors, or places for rituals connected with astronomical events or with seasons.  According to Kennedy, for now, the meaning of the wheels remains a mystery.  

Iranian artifacts include early clarinet, and 300 pairs of dice


In our third story, we move to northern Iran, where researchers have concluded that an ancient musical instrument unearthed in 2005 at the Gohar-Tappeh prehistoric mound is a clarinet.  According to team director Ali Mahforuzi, the instrument, which was once very common in the Mazandaran region around the site, had been discovered in a grave alongside the skeleton of a woman.  Carbon-14 dating carried out on the oldest archaeological stratum of the mound goes back to about 3500 BC, making the musical instrument the oldest one ever discovered in the Mazandaran region, which lies along the south shores of the Caspian Sea, in the northern part of Iran.  

In addition, archaeologists continuing the excavations at the site have discovered hundreds of pairs of dice.  The dice were also from a woman’s grave, which contained about 300 pairs of dice of a kind used for playing craps, still a popular pastime among the Iranian Turkmens.  

According to Mahforuzi, the Gohar-Tappeh burials of adults were carried out in fetal or face-up positions.  The team has also found some jar burials, which mostly pertain to children, and some skeletons buried with jars containing animal bones, suggesting food placed to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.  The archaeologists have recently found the skeletons of a couple buried in a single grave and are currently studying this case to unravel the mysteries surrounding this type of burial.  Previous excavations at the Gohar-Tappeh mound produced a skeleton of a warrior buried in an attacking pose with a dagger in his hands in one grave, a skeleton of a child and a bronze pendant with a bullhorn motif in another grave, and a number of bull statuettes.  The site of Gohar-Tappeh dates back from third millennium BC all the way into the Iron Age.  

Roman mosaics help track impact of over-fishing


Our last story takes us to the Roman world, where a study of mosaics reveals that fish have gotten dramatically smaller due historical over-fishing.  The dusky grouper, one of the major predators in the Mediterranean Sea, used to be so large that it was portrayed as a sea monster, capable of eating a fisherman whole, in many ancient mosaics.  

Considered one of the most flavorful species among the Mediterranean fish, the dusky grouper is a large, long-lived, slow-growing, species found mainly in the Mediterranean, as well as the African west coast and the coast of Brazil.  Grouper bones in archaeological sites dating back more than 100,000 years show its importance as a food species over the millennia, but heavy commercial fishing in modern times has put the grouper on the endangered species list.  Now marine ecologists trying to help the fish recover have turned to archaeological evidence to understand this history.  

According to Paolo Guidetti (POW-loh ju-DET-tee) of the University of Salento, in Italy, the recovery of endangered fish species requires a careful evaluation of several key elements such as abundance, size structure, and spatial distribution.  This is usually done by comparing fish in over-harvested areas with those in protected sites.  However,  most such marine protected areas are too small and too new to provide information on pristine conditions, as Guidetti and co-author Fiorenza Micheli (fyor-EN-za mih-KAY-lee), a marine ecologist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, explain in the current issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.  

In order to get a better look at the grouper's history, the researchers examined hundreds of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman paintings and mosaics depicting fishing scenes and fish.  At the end, they focused on 23 mosaics that clearly portraying groupers.  In 10 of the 23 mosaics, dating from the 1st to 5th centuries AD, groupers were portrayed as being very large.  Indeed, a 2nd century mosaic from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis shows a grouper eating a fisherman whole.  The mosaics also indicated that groupers lived in shallow waters much closer to shore, and were caught by fishermen using poles or harpoons from boats at the water's surface.  According to Guidetti, this would yield no grouper catch today.  

Ancient Roman authors such Ovid (AHH-vid) and Pliny (PLIH-nee) the Elder, who lived in the era of Caesar and the first emperors, have also been referenced to learn more about the grouper’s history. They confirm that groupers were generally fished by anglers in shallow waters, where they are now rare if not completely absent.  According to the ancient authors, the fish were also so strong they could break fishing lines.  

Comparing this ancient data to modern studies of groupers in both protected reserves and over-fished waters, researchers noted that grouper populations in marine reserves now show signs of changing back toward their historical size, and have also began moving back into shallower waters.  Groupers in reserves are up to five to 10 times more abundant than those in unprotected areas, and can reach sizes of 35-40 inches, versus 20-24 inches for groupers at fished sites.  The study shows that ancient art provides useful links between prehistoric and modern evidence.  Beyond that, it documents how the shallow, shoreline Mediterranean ecosystems have lost their large, top predators and with them, their important role in both marine ecology and human life.  

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