Audio News for December 18th to 24th, 2011

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

3300-year-old cuneiform inscription found on Malta


Our first story is from Malta, in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, where excavations among what many scholars consider the oldest monumental buildings on the island continue to unveil surprises and raise new questions about the significance of these megalithic structures and the people who built them.  

Among the latest finds is a small but rare, crescent-moon shaped agate stone featuring a 13th-century BC cuneiform inscription.  Normally excavators find such stones much farther east in Mesopotamia.  

Led by paleontology professor Alberto Cazzella of the University of Rome, the team found the inscribed stone in the sanctuary site of Tas-Silg, a megalithic temple of the mysterious Temple Culture of Malta and built no later than 2500 B.C.  Ancients from later times, at least from the Punic or Carthaginian period in the Sixth Century B.C. through the Byzantine era used this precise location as a temple and then a monastery site.  Archaeologists know little about how people used the site between 2500 and 550 B.C.  Bronze Age pottery from that gap that is plentiful on a nearby hillslope matches the age of the newly found inscription. The text on the stone is a dedication to the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin, the father of Ninurta who for centuries was the main deity worshiped far to the east in the city of Nippur in Mesopotamia.

Nippur, considered a holy city and a pilgrimage site, had a scribal school that produced literary texts.  The find’s location is the westernmost place where researchers have identified the ancient script and raises the question about how it ended up in such a remote location.  Some scholars suggest that looters took the piece from the temple of Nippur during warfare and then transported it westward through an exchange with Cypriot or Mycenaean merchants, thought to have had trade connections at that time with the central Mediterranean.

Moreover, because cuneiform-inscribed agate would have been very valuable during the late Bronze Age, some scholars believe its presence within the Tas-Silg sanctuary means that the sanctuary had a much wider significance than for those who lived on Malta at this time.  Historians know that the sanctuary was an important place of worship in the Mediterranean during the Punic and Roman eras, and now it appears its ritual importance may have been continuous going back through the Bronze Age and into the earlier time of the megalithic temples.

And coincidentally, the December 2011 edition of our monthly video newsmagazine show, the Video News from TAC, features our in-house production on the megalithic temples of Malta.  You can find that program at and on many cable TV stations across the US.


Clues to unnamed civilization discovered in Central America


At a site in Panama called El Caño, newly discovered tombs are giving up thousand-year-old gold, gems, and even suggestions of poisoning by pufferfish.  However, the real treasure is the excavation's clues to the mysterious society of the golden chiefs of Panama, as they are called.

Until now, a nearby site, Sitio Conte, provided the only major evidence of the golden-chiefs culture, which lasted from about AD 250 to the 16th Century, when Spanish conquerors arrived.  The new finds at El Caño date to between AD 700 and 1000.  

Archaeologist Julia Mayo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute decided to investigate El Caño in 2005.  Her ground surveys traced the circular outline of a series of burials, about 80 meters wide.  Not long after digging began in 2008, the team uncovered the skeleton of a high-ranking chief, clad in circular breastplates embossed with macabre faces, patterned arm cuffs, and a belt of large golden beads.  

In the most recent dig, early in 2011, the team uncovered a similarly adorned chief in a multilevel burial pit once sheltered by a wooden roof.  Surrounding this golden chief are at least 25 carefully arranged bodies, making the assemblage the largest of the six El Caño burials revealed to date, according to Mayo.  

Among the corpses, they found golden attire for a child, possibly the chief's son: tiny gold plates, bracelets, earrings, and a necklace of semiprecious stones.  At the bottom of the pit, they located the chief himself supported by a sort of platform created from the tight arrangement of 15 bodies.  Mayo believes those individuals could be war captives, sacrificed slaves, or even mourners who committed suicide.  The bodies provide a potential link to Sitio Conte, where archaeologists have found similar burial arrangements.  

The team also uncovered a gruesome clue as to how the apparent sacrifices might have met their fates, though forensic analysis is still underway.  They discovered a vessel full of bones of a very poisonous fish, the pufferfish, near the bodies.  Another surprising find was pieces of ceramic plates covering the bodies lying beneath the chief.  Though the significance of the plates is not yet clear, Mayo commented that the makers apparently created them specifically to cover the corpses.  The plates’ decorations are only on what would normally be the undersides.  The team found them face down on the bodies.  

Among other El Caño mysteries are the half-human beings and mythological creatures in the designs of the gold jewelry and other burial finery.  According to some scientists, these designs could represent the ancestors of clans or kinship groups.  Project leader Mayo hopes the collection of material emerging from El Caño, including axes, packets of stingray spines, and a belt made of whale and jaguar teeth, can illuminate the golden chiefs and their people, which left little historical record before they disappeared under the Spanish onslaught.


Stonehenge stones definitely come from Wales


Now we skip across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom and pay yet another visit to Stonehenge, where a new geologic study indicates that some of the volcanic bluestones in the inner ring of the megalithic monument conclusively match an outcrop in Wales that's 260 kilometers from the world-famous site.  

As we see it today, 5,000-year-old Stonehenge has an outer ring of 20- to 30-ton sandstone blocks and an inner ring and U-shaped arrangement of 3- to 5-ton volcanic bluestone blocks.  The monument's builders likely quarried the larger outer blocks, called the Sarsen stones, some 32 to 48 kilometers away, where sandstone is a common material.  The origin of the bluestones, however, has persistently mystified archaeologists.  Rocks microscopically identifiable as the source haven't been found anywhere relatively near Stonehenge, at least until now.  Sourcing the bluestones is essential if we are to figure out how so many huge monoliths ended up on the Salisbury Plain where Stonehenge is located.  

For about two decades, Robert Ixer of the University of Leicester and study co-author Richard Bevins of the National Museum of Wales have combed the landscape of Wales, looking for stones that resemble the bluestones.  As late as two years ago, the pair thought the blocks couldn't have come from Wales, because they had found no samples from Welsh outcrops matching the Stonehenge bluestones.  However, they weren’t done: they hadn’t yet prepared some of the samples collected over 20 years for microscopic examination.  So they went back to work on the remaining samples and started cutting them up.  As luck would have it, they hit paydirt with the very first sample, a stone collected in Wales 20 years ago.  Remarkably, this one perfectly matched the Stonehenge bluestones.

Then geologists spent another two years checking a bluestone sample against other Welsh outcrops, but found nothing that came close to a match.  The rocky outcrop that now clearly is the source of the bluestones is called Craig Rhos-y-Felin, on private land near a sheep farm.  The site is a long, bush-covered set of massive upright crags.  

The new find leaves two prominent proposals for how the Welsh rocks got to Salisbury.  Humans could have quarried the site and dragged the blocks on wooden rafts.  Alternatively, a giant glacier may have chiseled off the blocks and ferried them about a 160 kilometers toward Stonehenge, with humans dragging them the rest of the way.  If humans did the digging, archaeologists might detect marks left by tools or some other evidence.  However, if signs of human quarrying are lacking, the glacier idea might gain the upper hand.


New discoveries offer hints about the rise of Pueblo societies


Our final story is from the United States, where excavations at a site in Colorado are revealing clues to the beginnings of the great Pueblo societies of the American Southwest.  Located within the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado, a previously obscure archaeological site is beginning to offer up some hints about the early rise of the Pueblo society, often referred to as the Anasazi, that gave rise to the great cliff dwellings and other settlements often associated with the famous Native American desert cultures of that region.  

Called the "Dillard" site, it doesn’t display architectural wonders such as those at the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado or Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.  However, excavations by a team of archaeologists, students, and volunteers from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, are bringing to light remains that may improve our understanding of the beginnings of the Basketmaker III period of the Pueblo culture.  The evidence from this site could shed light on important mysteries, such as where these people originated, how their population grew, how they organized their communities, and how they impacted their environment.

Located a few miles from the team's headquarters at Crow Canyon, the Dillard site is a Seventh Century ceremonial center that features a great kiva , which is a circular structure built for ceremonies or other public events, and at least several other pithouses or dwellings dug into the ground.  

Surveys previously conducted in 1991 in the surrounding area by Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants also revealed more than 120 other pithouse structures, making it one of the largest concentrations of dwelling from this era.

Dating of the great kiva itself identifies it as one of the oldest public structures in the Mesa Verde region.  Although excavations have only just begun, investigations have yielded a few surprises.  According to Project Supervisor Shanna Diederichs, archaeologists working in the great kiva have uncovered traces of stone-and-mortar masonry that apparently formed the upper wall of the kiva, which is a large structure.

The discovery is eye-opening, because construction using wet-laid, stacked masonry is extremely rare in ancestral Pueblo sites until approximately AD 850, or 200 years later than the Dillard site.  Some of the stones are 80 centimeters wide and would have required substantial effort to transport them to the site.

Excavations in a nearby burned pithouse uncovered remains that may cause archaeologists to develop a new picture of pithouse structures.  At that location, they found an area of compact, discolored soil that may indicate a ramped entryway into an antechamber of the pithouse.  Archaeologists have documented few doorways for Basketmaker III pithouses in the Mesa Verde region, so if this proves to be an entryway, researchers may have to reconsider their previous assumptions about roof entry into these structures.

The Basketmaker III period, dating from about AD 500 to 750, experienced  rapid population growth in southwestern Colorado.  Current thinking is that this growth resulted primarily from the inflow of groups from other locations.  Evidence indicates that earlier peoples had concentrated largely in the eastern and western fringes of the Mesa Verde region, as well as areas outside the region.  Beginning in the Sixth Century, however, they began a move into the central Mesa Verde region, bringing with them an agricultural way of life.  Significant technological advancements and social changes arrived during this time, including such developments as domesticated beans, pottery, and the bow and arrow.  Scientists have suggested that the climate here, which was favorable for agriculture at the time, attracted people to come from locations where the climate was less favorable.

Until now, much archaeological attention in the Southwest has focused on the Thirteenth Century in an effort to learn why ancestral Pueblo societies declined and moved away.  However, the Dillard Site and its revelations are calling attention again to the fascinating question of how and why these societies began and flourished in earlier times.

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