Audio News for December 25th to 31st, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 25th to December 31st, 2011.


Basque region pendant may be oldest on Iberian Peninsula


Our first story is from the Basque region of Spain, where researchers believe a recently discovered pendant could be as old as 25,000 years, making it the oldest on the Iberian Peninsula.  The stone measures nine centimeters long and is perforated, presumably for hanging it from a cord, although it would seem the owner used it to sharpen tools. 

The open-air site, called Irikaitz, is alongside the river Urola.  The earth at this location is so acidic that it has consumed almost everything organic, leaving only stone tools and plant fossils, which makes dating difficult.  At the same time, the site is yielding lots of interesting finds.

Two periods of human occupation took place in Irikaitz, the most recent being 25,000 years ago. The new pendant comes from that time, referred to as the Upper Paleolithic.  

But a big dating problem applies to the much older occupation of the site in the Lower Paleolithic.  According to the team leader of the excavation, researchers know of few sites from this period along the strip of land bordered by the Bay of Biscay, and only a few like it in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, making it is impossible to narrow the dating to less than an interval of 350,000 years.  Researchers know this older part of the site cannot date from later than 150,000 years ago, and neither can it be prior to 500,000 years ago, because the sea covered the area during earlier times.

Of the dating methods currently available, two are applicable to the site.  Both involve luminescence that comes from stored radiation energy.  The first method points to the time when the sun illuminated a piece of quartz for the last time.  The second is based on thermo-luminescence, a method applied to certain types of stones which have undergone heating from fires, and the measurement is based on the amount of thermal radiation accumulated.  Researchers of the site now are trying to use these methods to narrow down the dating.  

One attribute that sets Irikaitz apart is its geology.  Because of the lack of similar sites to compare this one to, researchers were fascinated when they came across totally exotic raw material: volcanic stones.  At first, they thought that someone might have brought the rocks there when they were building the Urola railway, to use them as ballast.  However, this discovery had another logical explanation--a geological rarity.  Buried In the Urola River valley is a layer of volcanic stones.  The river cut through this layer, lifted the stones to the surface and brought them to this place.  No other place in the Basque Country has stones like these.  This raw material, which is useful for making stone tools, apparently is the reason early humans came here.

Rare seal uncovered beneath the Western Wall provides link to ancient rituals


Moving eastward to Israel, excavators have found a rare clay seal under Jerusalem's Old City near the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall.  The seal may be associated with religious rituals practiced at the Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago.  The coin-sized seal bears two Aramaic words meaning “pure for God.”  According to archaeologist Ronny Reich of Haifa University, the co-Director of the excavation, it dates between the First Century BC to AD 70, the year Roman forces put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem.  

The find marks the first discovery of a written seal from that period of Jerusalem's history and, according to Reich, appeared to be a unique physical artifact of ritual practice in the Temple.  So far, excavators have not discovered many artifacts linked to the temples.  The site of the Temple itself, the enclosure known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, remains off-limits to archaeologists because of its religious and political sensitivity.  

Archaeologists believe Temple officials likely used the seal in approving an object for ritual use such as oil or an animal intended for sacrifice.  Materials used by Temple priests had to meet rigorous purity guidelines stipulated in detail in the Jewish legal text known as the Mishna, which also mentions the use of seals as tokens by pilgrims.  

The site where archaeologists found the seal is in the path of a main road that ran through ancient Jerusalem just outside the Temple compound.  The seal is notable because it connects an activity recorded in ancient sources with archaeological finds.  The dig is under the auspices of a broader dig nearby known as the City of David, where archaeologists are investigating the oldest part of Jerusalem.  This work is controversial, as it is located within a Palestinian district and is funded by a group affiliated with the Jewish settlement movement.


Privys, teapots, dolls and newspapers revealed in gold-rush site in San Francisco


Half way around the world, in San Francisco, urban archaeologists working ahead of the building of a new transportation terminal have discovered Gold Rush artifacts from the 1850s, including many pieces owned by Irish laborers.  The 70 artifacts have archaeologists excited about what potentially lies underneath the site in the Financial district near downtown San Francisco.

The new transportation project, called the Grand Central of the West, is located where Irish and Chinese immigrants lived side by side during the Gold Rush days immediately after 1849. Researchers have found names such as the Donahues and the Dollivers, the Wings and the Lings.  They have also uncovered teapots, hand-painted dolls, animal bone toothbrushes, serving dishes, and even chamber pots as well as opium pipes.  

James M. Allan, an archaeologist with William Self Associates, the contracting firm that is doing the work, notes that what is unusual about the find is the identification of specific people and occupations of the early Gold Rush period.

The artifacts include historic photos and newspapers, including an 1885 article from the San Francisco Chronicle in which Irish property owners, J.S. and Mary W. Dolliver were seeking $500 in damages from Ah Wing and 11 Chinese tenants for the offensive smells from the laundry that allegedly injured the rental value of the plaintiff's premises.  

In addition, researchers found a wooden floor and a lot of bottles, barrels, a privy, leather shoes and boots.  A porcelain chamber pot was an intriguing find.  Typically, a chamber pot goes under the bed for use at night so one doesn't have to go out and use the privy.  The diggers found it somewhat ironic that they would find a chamber pot in the privy, although this perhaps is not so surprising when you realize that people brought chamber pots to privies every day to empty them.


300-year-old French fur-trade vessel may lie at bottom of Lake Michigan


In our final story, we move over to the eastern United States, where tests performed at the bottom of Lake Michigan’s northern area have generated enough evidence for researchers to recommend an excavation of a shipwreck to determine if it’s the Griffin, a French vessel that was loaded with furs when it sank in 1679.

Sonar scans of the lake bottom and profiling below it showed a mass consistent with other images of a buried ship hull, according to Ken Vrana, director of the Michigan-based Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management.  Vrana is very confident that they have located an old vessel.  However, the real question is whether this the Griffin.  The Griffin was a 17th Century sailing ship built and commanded by Rene-Robert Sieur de La Salle on behalf of King Louis XIV.  La Salle is the French explorer who charted the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France.

While the maritime center recommends moving ahead with the excavation, the ultimate decision rests with the three parties involved: Michigan, France, and the Great Lakes Exploration Group, founded by Steve Libert.  Libert discovered the site in 2001.  During years of litigation with Libert’s group, the State of Michigan has sought to have any wreckage declared state property.  However, that position changed after France entered the case  in 2009 and claimed ownership. The State of Michigan has said it won’t stand in the way of France taking ownership if the ship is the Griffin.  According to Vrana, all the parties agree that if the wreck is the Griffin, it would stay in the Great Lakes region.  Whether to raise it to the surface or leave it on the lake bottom will depend on its condition.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!