Audio news from January 8th to January 14th, 2012.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 8th to January 14th, 2012.


Medieval cave city falling into ruin


Our first story takes us to the eastern European country of Georgia on the Black Sea, where the cave city or monastery of Vardzia, near the town of Aspindza, will crumble away into oblivion without care and conservation.

Unlike the great monuments of other ancient civilizations, this remarkable cave city dug into the side of Mount Erusheli during the late 12th Century is off the beaten path of world tourism.  Yet it is every bit as impressive as the Roman Colosseum or the Pyramids of Giza.

Built into the sheer cliff face of a mountain, Vardzia was the inspiration of Queen Tamar, who in AD 1185 rose to the throne of what is today’s Georgia.  Steadfastly Christian and a champion of the arts, she presided over a cultural renaissance, but faced a constant threat from the expanding Mongol Empire in the east.  To protect the country's monastic tradition and her people from invading forces, she commissioned the construction of a massive underground monastic sanctuary only accessible through a secret tunnel near the Kura River.

It was a massive undertaking, resulting in a colossal rock-cut monastery with 13 levels and 6,000 dwelling places for monks and those fleeing any invaders.  The monks who inhabited the underground city also created a terraced agricultural and irrigation system that fed those inside.  In terms of food and water, it is regarded as perhaps the first eco-friendly, self-sustainable structure in Europe.

Having successfully frustrated the invading Mongols, the inhabitants considered the complex impregnable.  Nevertheless, nature did what humans could not.  In 1283 a massive earthquake destroyed much of Vardzia.  What remained of the monastery continued for another 268 years until the invading Persians under Sash Tahmasp sacked and pillaged it, slaughtering the monks.
No one lived at the site again until the 20th Century, when a small group of monks returned to the monastery.  To this day, the site serves as both a monastery and a museum.

However, Vardzia faces a new danger, predominantly related to priceless wall paintings that adorn the interior of the Church of the Dormition, considered the focal point of the monastery.  Here, wall paintings depicting images of the Virgin Mary, Queen Tamar, nationally revered saints, and the Passion of Christ have deteriorated and faded due largely to past neglect and mismanagement.  Recent study and examination have shown the paintings to be far more complex than previously thought, further inspiring a conservation movement to protect and restore the paintings as close as possible to their original luster. 


Ancient Mayans got a kick out of nicotine


Archaeologists examining late period Mayan containers have identified nicotine traces from a codex-style flask from southern Campeche, Mexico, revealing the first physical evidence of tobacco use by ancient Mayans.  The researchers determined that ancient Maya made the flask around AD 700.  

The investigators reveal that the flask is marked with Mayan hieroglyphics that say “the home of its/his/or her tobacco.”  Textual evidence written on pottery often is an indicator of the contents or of an intended purpose, but actual usage of a container may not correspond to the writing on it. For instance, many of the Mayan flask vessels from the Kislak collection of the Library of Congress examined in this study were filled with other substances, such as iron oxide used in burial rituals, making it difficult to detect the original content.  

The most indisputable evidence of a container’s usage is obtained when hieroglyphic text or pictorial illustration on the exterior of a container matches the chemical analysis of interior residues.  The nicotine traces plus the inscription make this flask only the second case to confirm that the text on the exterior of a Mayan vessel corresponds to its ancient use.  Prior to the current discovery, the only existing evidence showing a Mayan vessel to have the same content as indicated by hieroglyphic text was the identification of theobromine, an alkaloid found in cacao.

For the current investigation, researchers analyzed samples extracted from the Late Classic Maya period, AD 600 to 900, using gas chromatography mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.  The identified nicotine, the signature alkaloid in tobacco, is the major component of the extracts from one of the 150 vessels in the collection.  

Mass spectrometry has proven to be an invaluable method of analysis of organic residues in archaeological artifacts.  This discovery is not only significant to understanding Mayan hieroglyphics, but an important archaeological application of chemical detection.


Rare terracotta head sculpture found in Nigeria


Archaeologists in Nigeria recently discovered an unglazed clay sculpture of a head that dates to around 2000 years ago.  Other clay objects of this kind found previously have been nothing more than rubble, making this surprisingly well preserved specimen an incredibly rare find.

Archaeologists Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp of the Goethe-University Frankfurt in Germany uncovered the head in a small Nigerian village during the 2010 field season.  Its date signifies that the head is a product of the Nok culture, which flourished from about 1000 BC until it inexplicably died out around AD 500.  The Nok culture is thought to represent one of the earliest iron smelting groups in Africa, and thus has been of interest to archaeologists looking to study the spread of Iron Age technologies into the African continent.

The head itself, an example of the earliest figurative art in sub-Saharan Africa, occurred only 60 cm below the surface of the ground.  The purpose of this head and other Nok terracottas remains a mystery, although they may represent deceased members of the community and were used as votive offerings.  However, they also could have been used as grave goods.

Researchers are continuing to study the culture, despite the fact that many Nok terracottas have been looted and end up in private art collections.


3000 cave paintings found in central Mexico


Our final story is from Mexico, where archaeologists have found some 3,000-cave paintings, some dating back almost 2,000 years, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato (gua-na-HUA-toe).  According to the National Anthropology and History Institute, researchers directed by Institute archaeologist Carlos Viramontes made the discoveries between August and October 2011, but did not announce their finds until specialists confirmed their antiquity and completed their analyses.  

Archaeologists found the pictographs at 40 rock art sites in an arid northeastern area of Guanajuato.  The ancient hunter-gatherer societies that occupied the area during the first centuries AD created the images, which refer to rites of passage, healing, prayers for rain, and mountain worship.  The paintings, with yellow, red and black as the predominant colors, by and large represent human figures with headdresses, robes and shields, as well as some as yet unidentified instruments.  The figures often carry bows and arrows in hunting and battle scenes.
According to Viramontes, a great diversity of animals is also represented, chiefly deer, canines, insects like centipedes and spiders, a great variety of birds, generally with their wings outspread, along with radiating circles that probably represent the sun.  

The artists who drew the images on rock faces were doing more than just leaving an imprint of their collective memory of historic, climatic and ritual occurrences; they painted the exposed fronts and sheltered backs of boulders as points of contact between the material and spiritual world.  The researchers believe that this is evident from the symbolism they used to reflect the primeval worship of stone and mountain as living beings.

Archaeologists in the region also found religious images and inscriptions painted by Otomi (oh-toh-ME) Indian communities in the colonial era, as well as others created by ranchers and clergy dating to the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Mexico has hundreds of cave-painting sites, with outstanding examples in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Yucatan, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Durango, and Nuevo Leon, as well as in the Valley of Mexico.  The oldest rock art documented in Mexico up to now is in Baja California and dates back some 7,400 years.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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