Audio News for October 30th to November 5th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 30th to November 5th, 2011.


New digs near ancient Jericho trace the rise of early Islamic civilization


In our first story, new research in the ancient region of Palestine reveals that as the Byzantine Empire declined, Islam began to dominate the Middle East, with a remarkable culture that showed a command of technology and an appreciation of art and decoration.  To study Islamic civilization in its earliest days, Donald Whitcomb, director of the Islamic Archaeology project at the Oriental Institute, is undertaking new excavations with Palestinian colleagues at an early Islamic site north of Jericho that contains a palace, a bathhouse and what was in all probability a settlement to the north.  Whitcomb excavated the site at Khirbet Al-Mafjar last winter and will return in January as part of a joint archaeological project.  The team already has uncovered a gate and a stairway that led to the town toward the north, where they uncovered an ornamental pool surrounded by white mosaic paving, glass vials, lamps and other artifacts.  

The site, also known as Hisham’s Palace, has seen excavations since the 1930s; however, Whitcomb’s work is challenging some of the conventional wisdom about the earlier digs.  Whitcomb’s new interpretations are based in part on the site’s famous mosaics.  One superb example, known as ‘The Tree of Life,’ which was probably associated with the ruling caliph, shows two deer on one side of the tree, representing peace under the caliph.  On the other side is a deer attacked by a lion, which represents what life would be like without the caliph’s rule.  The mosaic, along with a brilliantly colored floor, comes from the period of caliph Hisham and his nephew, caliph Walid, spanning from AD 724 to 747.  Earlier researchers believed that the palace was used only during that period, but Whitcomb’s meticulous reading of the artifacts has shown that the site was occupied much longer; possibly as late as AD 1300.  It was that discovery that led to the invitation from the Palestinian director of antiquities, Dr. Hamdan Taha, to join the project.  Whitcomb and a graduate student took along iPads, which became an invaluable tool for recording and analyzing the artifacts found, cutting their lab time in half.   

The palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar lies in a green valley fed by plentiful springs.  Nearby Jericho is 850 feet below sea level, creating a sub-tropical environment of palms, citrus fruits, bananas and lush vegetation.  The work of the joint Palestinian-American team will uncover evidence of what kind of trade and agriculture could have sustained Khirbet al-Mafjar and the region around it, including Jericho.  Some of the artifacts uncovered by other teams show that the period at the immediate beginning of Islam had a more tolerant attitude toward images than was later the case.  This was also a time of tolerance as Christian and Islamic communities lived side by side.  As has been noted at other early Islamic sites, the taboos against showing images of animals, such as those of the deer in The Tree of Life, was not yet in effect.  The palace baths reflects a Roman style and are decorated with statues of loosely clad women, something later forbidden in Islam.  

By finding other examples of the products of technology, trade and agriculture, the team will better be able to explain the culture that was the foundation for Islamic civilization.


Chinese coin in the Yukon shows early Asian-American links


In Canada, a 340-year-old coin from China, unearthed near a planned Yukon gold mine, sheds fresh light on historic trade links between 17th-century Chinese merchants, Russian fur traders and the indigenous first nations people who lived in the northwest corner of North America.  The coin has traditional Chinese characters showing that it was minted during the Qing Dynasty reign of Emperor Kangxi (Kangshi), who ruled China from AD 1662 to 1722.  However, other information stamped on the piece, which has a large central hole and four smaller ones, indicates it was minted in China's Zhili (Zheelee) province between 1667 and 1671.  

The coin was discovered during a dig about 300 kilometers northwest of Whitehorse.  According to James Mooney, team leader for Ecofor Consulting, the find came from the high ground south of the Yukon River, where Ecofor Consulting Ltd. was conducting a heritage impact assessment in advance of the new mining.   Research revealed that it was just the third historic Chinese coin ever found in Yukon.  According to Mooney, the coin adds to the collection of evidence that the Chinese market connected with Yukon first nations through Russian and coastal Tlingit (pronounced like it looks) trade intermediaries during the late 17th and 18th centuries, and perhaps as early as the 15th century.  

Russian traders seeking furs from North America, including the sea otter, seal and beaver, are known to have exchanged tobacco, tea, kettles and other goods, some obtained from Chinese traders, with the Tlingit peoples of coastal Alaska.  The Tlingit, in turn, controlled direct trade with the interior first nations through the Chilkoot Pass, one of the few entry points through the coastal mountains to the interior.  The region where the coin was found, along the prehistoric trade route, and at a likely place for a traveler to have rested or camped, is now part of Selkirk First Nation territory in southwestern Yukon, a short distance from the U.S.-Canada border.  Apart from the traditional center hole in the coin, the four smaller piercings could have been made in China, where it was common for coins to be nailed to gates or doorways for good luck, Mooney explained.  On the other hand, he also noted, first nations in Canada might have made the extra holes to attach it to clothing.  First nations used the coins as decoration or sewed them in layers like roofing shingles onto hide shirts to protect warriors from arrow impacts.


In tiny bone box, roots of Christian icon painting are seen


In Israel, a tiny, delicately made box found on an excavated street in Jerusalem shows how early Christians created portable tokens of faith.  Measuring only 2 centimeters by 1.5 centimeters, the box is carved from the bone of a cow or horse, decorated with a cross on the lid, and was likely carried by a Christian believer around the end of the 6th Century AD.  

According to Yana Tchekhanovets (Check-a-novets) of the Israel Antiquities Authority, one of the directors of the dig, when the box is opened it shows the remains of two portraits, still visible in paint and gold leaf.  The figures, a man and a woman, are probably Christian saints, possibly Jesus, and the Virgin Mary.  The box was found in an excavation outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, in the remains of a Byzantine-era thoroughfare.  Uncovered two years ago, it was preserved and extensively researched before it was unveiled at an archaeological conference last week.  

The box is important in part because it offers the first archaeological evidence that the use of icons in the Byzantine period was not limited to church ceremonies.  Part of a similar box was found three decades ago in Jordan, but this is the first well-preserved example found.  Similar icons are still carried today by some Christian believers, especially from the eastern Orthodox churches.  The tiny reliquary was found in the City of David excavation, a Jerusalem dig named for the biblical monarch believed to have ruled a Jewish kingdom from the site.  The area lies in what is today the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the old city walls in east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war but still claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Early church in Cyprus reveals richness of Byzantine shrines


Our final story is from Cyprus, where the Department of Antiquities has revealed a monument from the proto-Byzantine period after year-long excavations at the site of Katalymmata (Katalimmata) on Plakoton at the Akrotiri peninsula.  Under the directions of Dr. Eleni Procopiou, the department’s senior archaeologist, excavations that started in 2007 have uncovered a distinctively different church type forming a T-shape layout with three branching aisles.  The date of the structure has been placed at the end of the first decade of the reign of Emperor Heraclius, around AD 616-619, and its abandonment and destruction occurred before the middle of the 7th Century.  

The date of the church’s building, its short lifespan, and its layout all show typological similarity to the Justinian era structures of Alexandria.  Its elaborate liturgical order, as well as its funerary character suggests its identification with one of the places erected especially for giving refuge to the joined churches, or patriarchates, of the eastern provinces of the empire -- Syria, Palestine, and Egypt – who passed under Persian rule during this period.  

The uniqueness of the monument and the decorative mosaics of its floors and other parts suggest that this must have been an extravagant monument of its time, designed both for ecclesiastic purposes and as a sacred shrine.  The best-preserved inscription is that of the north aisle which bears the first verse of the 142nd psalm of David, which reads: “My lord listen to my prayer.”  

Finds in the church remains included many bronze coins, which helped date the building, as well as bronze brackets used for securing decorated ceramic plaques, iron nails, fragmented marble offering tables, glass pieces from windows, and glass oil lamps.  The project provided archaeological training as well for advanced students from United Kingdom universities and through the Graduate European Archaeological Skills Exchange.

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