Audio news from September 18th  to 24th , 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 18th  to 24th , 2011.

Maya queen's skeleton found with mysterious bowls


Our first story is from Guatemala, where a woman ruler's skeleton is one of two royal burials recently found at the Maya ruins of Nakum. The skeleton’s head was mysteriously placed between two bowls.  Excavators found the roughly 2,000-year-old tomb beneath another 1,300-year-old tomb filled with artifacts including jade gorgets, which are scarf-like collars normally used to protect the throat, along with beads and ceremonial knives.

Rodents had badly damaged the upper tomb's corpse, probably within the last few centuries, but the body clearly was that of another Maya ruler, perhaps another female, an interpretation based on the small size of a ring found in that tomb.

The royal burials are the first discovered in Nakum, which was once a densely packed Maya
center.  One of the researchers, Wieslaw Koszkul, thinks the newly found structure was
something like a mausoleum for the royal lineage for at least 400 years, although no one is sure
why someone buried bowls with the body.

The Maya created a remarkable Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.  Initially established during the Pre-Classic period of 2000 BC to AD 250, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period between AD 250 and 900, and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish.

Ancient Roman shipyard excavated outside Rome


British archaeologists in Italy have found an ancient shipyard that built or maintained ships for the Roman Empire.  The team, led by the University of Southampton, excavated the remains of a building five stories high at Portus, about 32 km outside Rome.  Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period.

The structure, dating to about AD 117, served to build or service ships that traveled across the empire.  The team believes it is the largest Roman imperial shipyard found in Italy.  Researchers found the 150- by 60-meter site close to an existing hexagonal basin or harbor at the center of the huge ancient port complex that covers more than five square kilometers.  Professor Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, and the Portus Project Director, first thought that the Romans used the building as a warehouse.  However, the excavation revealed evidence of earlier use.
Researchers have discovered few Roman imperial shipyards.  According to Keay, if the identification of this site is correct, it would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean.  To date, historians have not identified any major shipyard building for Rome, apart from the possibility of one on the Tiber near Monte Testaccio.  Keay explained that the new find was a vast structure that could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and was certainly large enough to build or shelter ships.  The scale, position, and unique nature of the building lead the team to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities.  Archaeologists have found tacks used to nail lead onto the hulls of ships inside one of the bays.  They hope to dig down and find more evidence of the shipbuilding use of the site.  Keay cautioned that there is no evidence yet of ramps needed to launch newly constructed ships into the waters of the hexagonal basin.  The Anglo-Italian dig is a joint project involving the University of Southampton, the British School at Rome, Cambridge University, and the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome.

Excavators plumb depths of Idaho treasure trove


Traveling to the United States, we land in Idaho where, before the Idaho National Laboratory
existed, and before the vast fields of potatoes grew, the key feature of the economy was the Big
Southern Butte.

For thousands of years, nomadic tribes made regular trips to the butte to mine its deep deposits of
obsidian, a black volcanic glass that forms sharp edges when broken.  The tribesmen took full
advantage of this phenomenon and shaped obsidian into all manner of tools and weapons.  Through time, the tribes began to trade tools and weapons formed from it like currency.  However, after thousands of years of human activity, for the past 60 years most of the site has
remained virtually untouched by human hands.  The site is like a research treasure trove because
the government has protected it since the 1940s.  For the past two summers, a laboratory
archaeologist and a graduate student have been digging to find out just how long ago people
started coming to the area.
As archaeologist Clayton Marler and Texas A&M student, Josh Keene, wrap up this year's work
at the dig, they suspect some of the artifacts unearthed are as old as 10,000 years.  At their dig on
the banks of the dried-up Lost River, Keene and Marler found thousands of arrow points, animal
bones, and fire-cracked rocks in the first 3 to 6 feet of excavation.  Then they hit a layer of stones
called a "cobble layer" that contains artifacts perhaps as old as 10,000 years.  They went deeper
into older layers, curious of whether they would find any evidence of pre-Clovis human life at the
site, which would be older than about 13,000 years, but so far they haven't uncovered any evidence that appears to be of that antiquity.

Stone Age community discovered in Jordan


Our final story is from Jordan, where the remnants of one of the earliest communities of modern Homo sapiens to inhabit the Levant lie in the drying marshlands of the Azraq oasis.  The Stone Age site, which dates back 20,000 years, is yielding dozens of secrets from the prehistoric past, including the oldest human remains ever uncovered in Jordan.

Climactic records show that eastern Jordan and Syria were arid and dry with little rainfall, leading many researchers to believe that the area was incapable of supporting early human settlements.  Despite the harsh conditions, recent excavations have proven otherwise, revealing that the basin supported some of the largest communities at the time and that one of the most remote desert oases was once at the center of a prosperous, densely populated region.  

Between 2005 and 2007, excavation teams from the University College London, University of Cambridge and Jordan Department of Antiquities unearthed a trove of data shedding light on one of the earliest communities, according to Tobias Richter, project director and University of Copenhagen professor.

The now nearly dry wetlands were very different 20,000 years ago, according to archaeological
record.  Excess water flowed into the basin, providing a life source for the surplus of animals and
multiple human settlements that called the area home.  Gazelle, wild ass, and cattle roamed the
wetlands and served as a major food source for the earliest communities.  Almond trees
flourished and provided firewood and an additional food source for the ancient humans.  People at the time were hunter-gatherers, living in semi-settled communities around the oasis.  Predecessors to the Neolithic humans who later gave rise to the first settled communities, Stone
Age humans such as the settlers at Azraq experimented with agriculture, hunted extensively and
developed social patterns that would later develop into villages and cities.  The results of a series
of excavations revealed that the people were skilled artisans, fashioning long-blade knives,
scrapers and other tools from flint and used them for hunting, hide skinning and drilling.

Along with stone tools and animal bones, teams uncovered the complete skeleton of a male in his
30s, only the seventh complete human remains ever uncovered regionally from the period and the second in Jordan.  What makes the discovery unique is not only the age, which radiocarbon dating places at some 20,000 years old, but the position of the body.  The deceased's legs were splayed wide apart in a crouching position, with the torso and skull collapsed together, leading experts to believe that the body was bound in an upright sitting position, resulting in the first such sitting burial to be discovered in Jordan.

Scientists believe the people of the area most likely left the bodies of their deceased exposed to
the elements, providing a possible explanation for the lack of existing human remains dating
back to the period.  A tomb-like structure covered human remains at a nearby site, however.  The
difference in burial method possibly is one of the earliest cases of class distinction. What the two ceremonial burial practices show is that humans developed burial rituals hundreds of years earlier
than previously believed.

Archaeologists are hoping that further DNA study of the remains will unlock even more secrets
such as the diet, biology and ancestry of these people who established communities thousands
of years before the first Neolithic settlements emerged.

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