Audio news from October 9th to October 15th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 9th to October 15th, 2011.

Roman fort in Scotland turns up 60 pairs of ancient shoes


Archaeologists have unearthed about 60 pairs of shoes and sandals that once belonged to Roman soldiers at a supermarket construction site in Camelon, Scotland.  The 2,000-year-old leather footwear come from a ditch at the gateway to a Second Century AD fort built along the Antonine Wall, which defended the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire.  Also found in the ditch were Roman jewelry, coins, pottery, and animal bones.  

According to dig coordinator Martin Cook, an archaeologist with AOC Archaeology Group, the many shoes and sandals, one of the largest troves of Roman footwear ever found in Scotland, probably accumulated as Roman centurions and soldiers stationed at the fort tossed away their worn-out shoes.  The ditch gradually silted up with refuse, leaves and other organic material, which allowed the shoes to preserve for 2000 years, and despite being discards, the hobnailed shoes are in relatively good condition.  Other finds include a Roman axe and spearhead, three or four brooches, French Samian ware (a high-prestige ceramic glass), and standard pots.

The Antonine wall is a massive defensive barrier that the Romans built across central Scotland during their brief penetration beyond the better-known Hadrian’s Wall.  While the site also includes the remains of a First Century Roman fort and ancient field systems, excavations have centered on the area of younger fort from the Antonine period, in the mid- to late-Second Century AD.  Researchers have found evidence of a substantial structure composed of a stone walled square fort and three or four ditches surrounding it.  

Cook and his team suggest that this was one of the most important forts in Scotland, and will be one of the most important Scottish excavations in the last decade.  Traditional history holds that the Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall by about AD 165 and retreated south into England.  The Camelon dig team is on the lookout for evidence that could challenge this by suggesting the Romans stayed longer in the region.  To date, however, the excavation seems to confirm that the Romans did retreat at this earlier date, minus their footwear.

Serpent-carved stone may be legendary platform for funerals of Aztec emperors


An exciting discovery of a round Aztec ceremonial platform studded with stone carvings of serpent heads, has raised hopes that archaeologists are close to discovering an Aztec emperor's tomb in Mexico City.  If the tomb is nearby, it could become the first tomb of an Aztec ruler  ever located.

Researchers have been on a five-year mission to find a royal tomb in the area of the Templo Mayor, a complex of two massive pyramids and numerous smaller structures that contained the ceremonial and spiritual heart of the pre-Hispanic Aztec empire.  According to INAH, Mexico's National Institute of History and Anthropology, the stone platform is approximately 15 meters in diameter, nearly 50 feet across, and was built around AD 1469.  The site lies in downtown Mexico City, which was built by the Spanish conquerors on top of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.  

According to archaeologist Raul Barrera, historical records state that rulers were cremated at the foot of the Templo Mayor, and the massive stone platform is believed to be this same structure, the 'cuauhxicalco' (CWOW-she-CAHL-co).  The historical sources refer to accounts written by Roman Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish soldiers in the 1521 conquest.  Researchers are currently seeking the archaeological evidence to corroborate that.

The platform, still under excavation, is decorated with carvings of at least 19 serpent heads, each about a half yard long.  According to Barrera, accounts from the 1500s suggest that the platform was also used in a colorful ceremony in which an Aztec priest would descend from the nearby pyramid with a snake made of paper and burn it on the platform.

Records indicate there were a total of five such platforms in the temple complex.  One was found several years ago, but lies farther from the ritually important spot at the foot of the pyramid, where this most recent find is situated.  In 1997, archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar on a site very close to this latest stone platform detected possible underground chambers that they believed at the time might contain the remains of Emperor Ahuizotl (AH-whee-ZO-tl), who ruled the Aztecs when Columbus first landed in the New World.  Subsequent excavations turned up a sort of stairway leading down and many ritual offerings of shells, animal bones and pots, but no tomb.

Gigantic Celtic burial mound from Germany is early lunar calendar


Moving back to Europe, a huge early Celtic calendar construction was unearthed in the royal tomb of Magdalenenberg, in the Black Forest of Germany.  The function of the giant burial mound was determined after archaeologists from the Roman-Germanic central Museum at Mainz analyzed plans of excavations at the mound.  

It turns out that the ancient builders positioned long rows of wooden posts in the burial mound to enable focus on specific lunar events, known as the Lunar Standstills.  These Lunar Standstills occur every 18.6 years and were the 'corner stones' of the Celtic calendar.  The layout of the burials in the mound around the central royal tomb fits exactly with the sky constellations of the Northern hemisphere.  

The position of the burials represents a constellation pattern that would only be seen between midwinter and midsummer.  With the help of special computer programs, Dr. Allard Mees, researcher at the Roman-Germanic central Museum, can reconstruct the position of the sky constellations in the early Celtic period that would have been visible at midsummer.  This archaeo-astronomic research resulted in a date for the mound of Midsummer, 618 BC, making it the earliest and most complete example of a Celtic calendar focused on the moon.

Whereas Stonehenge was oriented towards the sun, the more than 100-meter wide burial mound of Magdalenenberg was centered on the patterns of the moon.  Julius Caesar described the moon-based calendar of the Celtic culture in his commentaries on the Gallic Wars.  Following his conquest of Gaul and the destruction of Celtic culture, this type of calendar was completely forgotten in Europe.  Under the rule of the Romans, a sun-based calendar became adopted throughout Europe.  Now, the full dimensions of the lost Celtic calendar system are once again known through the details of the monumental burial mound of Magdalenenberg.

Stone Age paint production workshop found in South Africa


In our final story, an ochre-rich mixture from South Africa appears to have been used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago.  The ochre, stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town.  According to Professor Christopher Henshilwood of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, the ochre was used as decoration, possibly with symbolic intent, on both bodies and clothing during the Middle Paleolithic.  

Henshilwood, working with an international team, discovered a processing workshop in 2008 where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced.  The findings, now released in the current issue of Science, describes two spatially associated toolkits, dating to the same time period, which were found in situ.  The kits include ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammerstones; a set of tools that in their variety and efficiency suggests a well-developed practice of ochre pigment production.  The grinding and scraping of ochre to produce a powder for use as a pigment became common in Africa and the Near East after about 100,000 years ago.  

According to Henshilwood, this new discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human mental processes because it shows that humans had developed the conceptual ability to source, combine and store these substances for varied purposes, such as decoration, that indicate the elaboration of thinking about aesthetics and social rituals.  Researchers believe that the actual process of paint-making involved the crushing and grinding of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder.  Ochre was then combined with heated and crushed mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, put into the abalone shells, and gently stirred to mix to the preferred consistency.  

The abalone containers of ochre were found in cave sediments dated to about 100,000 years using optically-stimulated luminescence dating.  This is consistent with the other results from the site, including thermoluminescence dating of burnt lithics, and the dating of calcium carbonate concretions using uranium-series dating methods.  The recovery of the toolkits is compelling evidence for early technological and behavioral developments associated with humans, and documents their deliberate planning and production of pigmented compound as well as the use of containers.  Henshilwood also notes that it shows that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning as long as 100,000 years ago!

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