Audio News for December 4th to 10th, 2011.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 4th to the 10th, 2011.

Rare Neolithic “earth mother” found in Northern France


In our first story, French archaeologists have discovered an extremely rare example of a Neolithic "earth mother" figurine on the banks of the river Somme.  Measuring 8 inches tall, the 6,000-year-old statuette has inflated buttocks and thighs and a rudimentary head and arms and is  known as the "lady of Villers-Carbonnel" (Vee-ay Car bun el).  A Neolithic artist created her from local earth or clay.  She closely resembles figurines with similar, stylized female bodies found around the Mediterranean.  

The earth mother of the Somme may owe her survival, ironically, to problems at the time of her creation.  It appears she broke into five or six parts while being fired between 4300 and 3600 BC.  The pieces were in the ruins of a Neolithic kiln at a government rescue archaeological dig near Villers-Carbonnel on the banks of the river Somme. The figurine is part of a vast yield of finds expected, from Paleolithic times to the First World War, for the 77 sites to be explored by this project.  The French government's rescue archaeology agency, Inrap, has been granted permission and the funds to explore these sites along the new Seine-Nord (Sen Nord) Europe canal for ocean-going barges linking the river Seine to Belgium and the Rhine.  

The researchers noted that the stylized figure closely resembled similar figures from the period found as far away as the Middle East.  Archaeologists have found comparable figures in Europe but quite rarely so far north and seldom in such a complete and well-preserved condition. Neolithic researchers theorize that the figures connect to the existence of a cult that worshipped a goddess of the hearth or of fertility.  


Early humans disliked bed bugs as much as we do


In South Africa, a team claims to have found the earliest known evidence of insect repellents in sleeping mats, dating up to 77,000 years ago; 50,000 years earlier than previous evidence for human bedding.  These early mattresses apparently were specially prepared to be resistant to mosquitoes and other insects.  

Early members of our species, Homo sapiens, were nomads who survived by hunting and gathering.  They often created temporary base camps where they cooked food and slept.  One of the best studied of these camps is Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in a cliff face above South Africa's Tongati River.  

Sibudu, first occupied by modern humans around 77,000 years ago, continued to serve as a preferential gathering place over the following 40,000 years.  Since 1998, a team led by Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (Vit vaterz rand), Johannesburg, has been excavating at Sibudu, uncovering evidence for complex behaviors, including the earliest known use of bows and arrows.
Over the past several years, the team has found that many of the archaeological layers featured large, 1-centimeter thick swaths of plant remains, including the remnants of both stems and leaves.  Most of them cover at least three-square meters.  Researchers suspected that these swaths were the remains of bedding; however, the earliest previous evidence for sleeping mats is only between 20,000 and 30,000 years old, at sites in Spain, South Africa, and Israel.  

To confirm, the researchers put the remains under the microscope.  Wadley and her colleagues used two sophisticated archaeological techniques: analysis of phytoliths, tiny fossil plant remains, which allows identification of plant species; and micromorphology, the high-resolution examination of remains.  

The team found swaths made from sedges, rushes, and grasses, plants that grow down by the Tongati River but not found in the dry rock shelter.  Thus, the people at Sibudu must have gathered them deliberately and brought them to the cave.  Under the microscope, blocks of the plant material showed signs of compression and repeated trampling, consistent with use as bedding.

In the earliest layer, 77,000 years old, the team found the leaves of Cape laurel, or the "bastard camphor tree," an aromatic plant used in traditional medicines even today.  The leaves contain numerous chemical compounds that can kill insects, and the team suggests that early humans chose them to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests.  

Microscopic analysis also shows evidence of burned bedding, possibly to eliminate insect pests and get rid of accumulated garbage, to allow the addition of new layers of bedding.  To reinforce its case, the team members conducted an experiment.  They collected sedge plants, allowed them to dry, cut them into sections, and then layered them in a hole dug in some sand.  They compacted the plant mats with a tennis court roller, ignited them and let them burn, and then compacted them some more.  The resulting compressed layers looked similar to the ancient samples found at Sibudu.  

Among the plant remains, Wadley's team also found tiny fragments of chipped stone and crushed, burnt bone, which researchers interpret as evidence that these were not only sleeping mats but also work surfaces where tools were fashioned and food was prepared.


Mysterious carvings baffle archaeologists in Israel


In Israel, mysterious stone carvings made thousands of years ago and recently uncovered in an excavation underneath Jerusalem have archaeologists stumped.  Israeli diggers who uncovered a complex of rooms that ancient builders carved into the bedrock in the oldest section of the city recently found three "V" shapes cut next to each other into the limestone floor of one of the rooms, about 5 centimeters deep and 50 centimeters long.  There were no finds to offer any clues pointing to the identity of who made them, or what purpose they served.  The archaeologists in charge of the dig know so little that they have been unable even to conceive a theory about their nature.
The rooms were unearthed as part of the excavation of fortifications around the ancient city's only natural water source, the Gihon spring.  According to Eli Shukron, one of the two directors of the dig, it is possible that when the builders made the markings at least 2,800 years ago, the shapes might have accommodated some kind of wooden structure that stood inside them, or they might have served some other purpose on their own.  They might have had a ritual function or one that was entirely mundane.  Archaeologists faced by a curious artifact can usually at least venture a guess about its nature, but in this case, no one, including outside authorities consulted by Shukron, archaeologists with decades of experience between them, has any idea.  

There appears to be at least one other ancient marking of the same type at the site.  A century-old map of an expedition led by the British explorer Montague Parker, who searched for the lost treasures of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem between 1909 and 1911, includes the shape of a "V" drawn in an underground channel not far away.  The archaeologists have not excavated that area yet.  

Ceramic shards found in the rooms indicate last use around 800 BC, when Jerusalem was under the rule of Judean kings.  At around that time, builders filled the rooms with rubble to support the construction of a defensive wall.  It is unclear, however, whether the Judean kings built the walls or if the Canaanite residents built then centuries earlier.  

The purpose of the complex is part of the riddle.  The straight lines of its walls and level floors are evidence of careful engineering.  A spring is located nearby, suggesting the complex might have had an important function.  A unique find in a room beside the one with the markings, a stone similar to a modern grave marker, which builders left upright when the room was filled in, might offer a clue.  Such stones were used in the ancient Middle East as a focal point for ritual or a memorial for dead ancestors, the archaeologists say, and it is likely a remnant of the pagan religions that the city's Israelite prophets tried to eradicate.  It is the first such stone found intact in Jerusalem excavations.  However, the ritual stone does not necessarily mean the whole complex was a temple.  It might simply have marked a corner devoted to religious practice in a building whose purpose was commonplace.  

With the researchers unable to come up with a theory about the markings, the City of David dig posted a photo on its Facebook page to solicit suggestions.  The results ranged from the thought-provoking-- a system for wood panels that held some other item, or molds into which molten metal would could have been poured--to the fanciful: ancient Hebrew or Egyptian characters, or a symbol for water, particularly as it was near a spring.


British site reveals Bronze age boats and bowls


Our final story is from England, where six boats hollowed out of oak tree trunks are among hundreds of intact artifacts from 3,000 years ago discovered in the Cambridgeshire fens.  The objects, which are the largest Bronze Age collection ever found in one place in Britain, have astonished archaeologists.  They include unique textile fragments, wicker baskets, and wooden sword handles.  There are even containers of food, including a bowl with a wooden spoon still wedged into the contents, now analyzed as nettle stew, possibly a favorite dish in 1000 BC.  
The boats, two of which bear unusual decoration, are in such good condition that viewers can see the wood grain and color as well as signs of repairs by their owners.
One of the boats measures 8.3 meters long, and the smallest boat is just over four meters long.  The finds reveal how, with the rise in water levels in the Bronze Age, people adapted to a wetland environment, using rivers for transport, living off pike, perch, carp, and eel.  How far they could travel in the log boats is unclear.  Although the boats were unlikely at sea, one of the Bronze Age swords is of a type normally found in northern Spain.

The artifacts were submerged under an ancient watercourse along the southern edge of the Flag Fen Basin, land altered over millennia by rising sea levels.  The artifacts survived because of immersion in deep layers of peat and silt.  With those layers removed, the objects are pristine as if 3,000 years never happened.  In a Bronze Age landscape, you could have walked along the bottom of the fenland basin all the way to the North Sea hunting for deer.
Along the 150-meter stretch of a Bronze Age river channel, excavators have found the best preserved example of prehistoric river life.  Weirs and fish traps stand in the form of big woven willow baskets, and fragments of garments have ornamental hems made from fibrous bark and jewelry, including green and blue beads.  Extensive finds of metalwork include bronze swords and spears, some apparently tossed into the river in perfect condition, possibly as votive offerings.

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