Audio news from October 2nd to October 8th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 2nd to October 8th, 2011.

Turkish “temples” may have been communal houses


In Turkey, ancient structures thought to be the world's oldest temples are being reexamined, leading some to believe that they weren’t religious buildings after all.  Archaeologist Ted Banning of the University of Toronto argues that the buildings found at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been houses for people, not the gods.  

Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute and colleagues from the ?anl?urfa Museum in Turkey originally found the buildings just outside of the Turkish city of Urfa in 1995.  The oldest of the structures at the site, dating back more than 10,000 years, are enormous buildings with large stone pillars, many featuring carvings of snakes, scorpions, foxes, and other animals.  Due to the existence of art in the buildings, the considerable effort that must have been involved in making and erecting them, and a lack of evidence for any permanent settlement in the area, Schmidt  concluded that Göbekli must have been a sacred place where pilgrims traveled to worship, much like the Greek ruins of Delphi or Olympia.  If this interpretation is true it would make the buildings the oldest temples ever found.  

However, Banning offers a different interpretation that challenges some of Schmidt's claims.  He outlines growing archaeological evidence for daily activities at the site, such as flint knapping and food preparation, which suggests that the site was not devoid of residential occupation.  He argues that the population may have lived in the large structures, suggesting that the purported temples may instead have been communal houses.  He suggests that these monumentally decorated houses were similar in fashion to the large plank houses of the Northwest Coast of North America - with their remarkable house posts and totem poles.  The presence of decorative pillars or massive construction efforts, he argues, does not necessarily mean that the buildings could not have been residential spaces.  

In addition, he reminds us that the presupposition that ‘art,’ or even 'monumental' art, is exclusively associated with specialized shrines or other non-domestic spaces also fails to withstand scrutiny.  There is abundant ethnographic evidence for considerable investment in the decoration of domestic structures and spaces, whether to commemorate the feats of ancestors, advertise a lineage's history or a chief's generosity, or record initiations and other house-based rituals.  Archaeological evidence for domestic art from the Neolithic period exists in other sites, including some in Turkey, and therefore the possibility that these structures had residential purposes should not be ruled out.

Early California natives possible victims of toxic tar


The everyday use of tar in California may have resulted in a long-term health decline among prehistoric Indians in the area.  A recent study proposes that naturally occurring polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs in bitumen tar could partially explain a decrease in skull size over a period of about 7,500 years in the Chumash people.  Decreased head size usually reflects decreased stature, a biological indicator of a population's declining health.  
The Chumash, who lived in dense villages of up to 20,000 people in the Channel Islands and used shell beads as currency, collected tar from natural seeps on the islands and used the gummy substance for just about everything. A few of its uses include building canoes, casting broken bones, and making chewing gum.  

According to Sabrina Sholts, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study’s co-author, though the PAHs in bitumen are known toxins, no one has considered the risk in the context of the Chumash before now.  The decline in health was a very gradual process, taking place over thousands of years.  Daily exposure of the Chumash to these carcinogins may have been part of the cause.

Ronald Kendall, an environmental toxicologist at Texas Tech University, notes that although the results are still preliminary, the idea that tar exposure caused the Indians' health problems is certainly reasonable.  In the modern world, PAHs are widespread as byproducts of fossil fuel combustion, cigarette smoking, road paving, and roofing.  Previous research has shown that the human body easily absorbs these chemicals through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact and the chemicals can easily be distributed to organs, tissues, and fetuses.  

While analyzing skeletons of 269 Chumash males and females from various periods, the team found a marked decrease in skull size over time.  To find out if PAHs in tar were possible contributors to the shrinkage, the researchers tested modern tar from seeps in ancient Chumash territory, which turned out to have high levels of toxic PAHs.

Next, the team examined previous studies regarding how PAHs enter the human body.  They realized that the Chumash's use of bitumen would have allowed the toxins to enter the their bodies in multiple ways, from direct ingestion to inhalation.  As an example, the Chumash would have even drunk PAHs, since they used bitumen to waterproof tightly woven fiber baskets that served as water bottles.  The Indians also heated the tar to make it more malleable, producing fumes that would have been inhaled.  

The Chumash not only used the tar regularly, they used it more and more as the years went on, based on increasing levels of bitumen found in artifacts.  The Chumash began building canoes with multiple wooden planks about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, using tar to seal any spaces where the planks met and to plug holes.  Tar was used an adhesive in a canoe's body and paddles as well as in bone whistles, flutes, shell containers, abalone dishes, pipe mouthpieces, and musical rattles.  Bitumen was even integrated  into the culture's dress, as women wore grass skirts weighted with bits of tar.  

However, there is no established way to test for hydrocarbons in ancient bones, and there are numerous factors that could have contributed to this decrease in stature and health over time.  

Long-lost coat found under melting glacier


Traveling to Norway, a melting glacier in the Breheimen National Park has left a well-preserved hunter’s coat dating to around AD 300.  The coat is the oldest piece of clothing ever to be found in the country.  According to Marianne Vedeler, Manager and Textile Expert at the Museum of Cultural History, such an artifact is very rare.  In total, the museum received seventeen textiles and garments from the receding glacier, including a leather shoe and several other pieces of clothing.  

However, the men’s coat is the first one that researchers have dated and preserved.  It is well-used, and has a few tears that have been patched together.  Researchers intend to do further chemical analysis to determine its color and to learn more about clothing in Roman Norway.  Other finds from the old camp and hunting ground included containers that were possibly used as bags or purses, a wooden spade, horseshoes, arrows and arrowheads.

The warmer weather caused by climate change is providing archaeologists, researchers and museums with new opportunities to find artifacts dating back hundreds of years.  A new exhibition at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo will feature all finds from the melting glaciers, most of which date back to Roman times.  


Maya road provided escape route from ancient volcano


Our final story is from El Salvador, where on an evening in August some 1,400 years ago, life stopped short in the Maya village of Ceren as the Loma Caldera volcano erupted less than a third of a mile away.  Now, while excavating the town, researchers have discovered a unique road, called a “sacbe” (SOCK-bay), which likely served as an escape route to flee the plume of volcanic ash as it rolled through the town.  

The word sacbe translates in Yucatan Maya to “white ways,” referring to the white lime plaster used to create these raised paved roads.  According to study researcher Peyson Sheets, of the University of Colorad, until this discovery, researchers knew these roads only from the Yucatan area in Mexico. The sacbe usually connected temples, plazas and groups of structures within ceremonial centers or cities; some longer roads actually connected cities to each other.  This is the only known sacbe that has been found without a border of stone, revealing that there was variation in building techniques.

Ceren was an ancient community of about 200 people, buried it under 5 meters of volcanic ash and isolated it from human activities for the last 1,400 years.  The ash is so fine that it even preserved plants at the site, making the area essentially a time capsule.

The team discovered the road accidentally while excavating an area 3 meter wide near Ceren.  They hit the 6-foot wide road straight on and, upon further excavation, uncovered a drainage ditch on one side of the road and the remains of crops along the other side.  To date, they have followed the road 45 meters along its length.  

Amazingly well preserved, the researchers can even see repair workers' hand marks along the edges of the elevated road.  The road's direction seems to be leading from the outskirts of town to the main temple where, at the time of the eruption, the villagers had been preparing for a ritual.  In an emergency, people would have rushed to this road to escape the city, evidenced by the preserved belongings and half-eaten food left behind.  There is no evidence of anyone going back to their houses, gathering up valuables, and fleeing, leading Sheets to believe a ceremony was taking place. He suggests that people may have left the plaza and ran south, possibly on the sacbe, away from danger in the North.  Since researchers have not found any bodies at the site, most people probably had time to flee before the disaster struck.

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