Audio news from January15th to January 21st, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January15th to January 21st, 2012.


New research starts in ancient Ostia


In our first story, we go to Italy, where archaeologists are investigating a large unexplored harbor structure using a new excavation model.  The port is the Roman harbor city of Ostia, the crucial town of maritime commerce near the sea at the mouth of the Tiber River.  Today it is a large archaeological site over a mile from the seacoast, left behind by a drop in sea level or emergence of the land over time.  

Ostia is known for its many impressively well-preserved buildings, mosaics and frescoes.  But now, archaeologists are investigating a find that was not previously explored.  The mystery structure is a large building, over 30 feet or 10 m long by 10 feet, or 3 m, wide.  Features of interest include the concrete walls faced with brick, a vaulted roof, several marble features and huge travertine blocks.  Hidden now by vegetation and a large fig tree, it once was located along the ancient coastline, where it may have been a part of the ancient port facilities.  

The project co-directors, Dr. Darius Arya and Dr. Alberto Prieta of the American Institute of Roman Culture, have chosen an approach that exemplifies the new leaner model of archaeological investigation, which takes advantage of technology to lower the costs and impacts, while yielding more data compared to the traditional open-area excavation model, which has higher costs of labor, maintenance, and conservation.  Operating under the newer low-impact, high-return model, the team is beginning this winter to defoliate and clear the structure so that they can document and analyze the standing remains.  Next, a series of carefully placed trenches are to be excavated along the standing walls to determine the foundation depths, the height of the structure, and its chronology.  Finally, they hope to be able to analyze the various finds excavated from the trenches and determine the purpose and function of the structure and its relationship to the activities carried out at ancient Ostia.  At the same time, the team will continue important conservation work in a nearby area of ancient structures using an experimental technique that shows promise for protecting and sustaining them from the negative effects of invasive vegetation growth, a problem that continues to threaten their integrity and visibility.  

The significance of the site of Ostia lies in its importance as a port and harbor for incoming and outgoing ships of commerce and for military purposes.  The building stones of the walls of the 3rd Century BC castrum or military camp that was stationed at Ostia provide important information about the building techniques of earlier Rome, under the Republic.  By the time of its peak use in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Ostia contained about 75,000 inhabitants, living and working in a bustling city crowded with tall buildings and large engineered structures.

Archaeologically speaking, the architectural remains and artifacts of ancient Ostia have contributed and will likely continue to contribute immeasurably to the world's understanding of Roman life-ways from its early beginnings through the Imperial period.  Large-scale excavations began in 1938 and have continued off and on since that time.  It's estimated that approximately two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but much more remains in terms of additional excavation, study, conservation and restoration.


Peruvian popcorn helps trace early evolution of varieties


In Peru, people living along the coast were eating popcorn 2,000 years earlier than previously reported.  According to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, coastal Peruvian cultures took to popcorn even before they began to use ceramic pottery.  One of the co-authors is Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archaeology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and emeritus staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  

Evidence for the popcorn begins with some of the oldest known corncobs, husks, stalks, and tassels, dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago, which were found at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru's arid northern coast.  The team that discovered this, led by Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Duccio Bonavia from Peru's Academia Nacional de la Historia, also found corn microfossils, comprising starch grains and phytoliths.  The corn cobs are the earliest ever discovered in South America, and their details show that the ancient inhabitants of these sites ate corn in several ways, including as popcorn and as flour.  However, corn still was not an important part of their diet.  

According to Piperno, corn was first domesticated in Mexico nearly 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte (tay-oh-SIN-tay).  A few thousand years later, corn arrived in South America, and it is there that the ancestral corn began developing into the different varieties that are now common in the Andean region.  This evidence further indicates that early experimentation with corn as a food was not dependent on the presence of pottery.  

Understanding the subtle transformations in the characteristics of cobs and kernels that led to the hundreds of maize races known today, as well as where and when each of them developed, is a challenge.  Corncobs and kernels do not survive well in the humid tropical forests between Central and South America, including Panama, which means the primary dispersal routes for the crop after it first left Mexico about 8,000 years ago are poorly known archaeologically.  According to Piperno, the new South American races of corn may have developed quickly in South America, however, because there was no chance that they would continue to be pollinated by wild teosinte.  

Because so few data are available from other places for this time period, the wealth of morphological information about the cobs and other corn remains at this early date is very important for understanding how corn became the crop relied on so heavily around the world today.


Croatian cave reveals earliest example of astrology tool


Moving on to Croatia, a research team has discovered what may be the oldest astrologer's board, engraved with zodiac signs and used to determine a person's horoscope.  Recovered in a cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea, the board dates back more than 2,000 years.  The surviving portion of the board comprises thirty ivory fragments engraved with signs of the zodiac, which took years for researchers to dig up and put back together.  The surviving portion is inscribed in a Greco-Roman style, and includes images of Cancer, Gemini and Pisces.  The fragments were found next to a phallic-shaped stalagmite amid thousands of pieces of ancient Hellenistic drinking vessels. 

According to Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, an ancient astrologer, trying to determine a person's horoscope, could have used the board to show the position of the planets, sun and moon at the time the person was born.  He would show the client where each planet was, as well as the sun, the moon and the points on the zodiac that were rising and setting on the horizon at the moment of birth.  

The Croatian astrologer’s board is probably older than any other known example.  It's also older than any of the recorded horoscopes surviving from the Greco-Roman world, which were written down on papyrus or on a wall.  

The analysis, carried out by Jones along with researchers from the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, is reported in the most recent edition of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.  The work began in 1999, when the team was digging near the entrance of the Croatian cave and discovered a section that had been sealed off more than 2,000 years ago.  Burrowing through the debris, the team found themselves exploring a wide low passageway that continued in the dark for nearly 10 meters.  Evidence showed it was sealed up in the First Century BC, possibly in response to a military campaign waged against the local people by the Romans.  Within the hidden section, the archaeologists found the phallic-shaped stalagmite, numerous drinking vessels that had been deposited over hundreds of years, and many very tiny bits and pieces of ivory that turned out to be the astrologer’s board.  No evidence yet shows how the board came to the cave or where it was made originally.  

Astrology originated far back in antiquity, and the Babylonians developed their own form of horoscope around 2400 years ago.  Within a few centuries, around 2100 years ago, astrology spread to the eastern Mediterranean, becoming especially popular in Egypt, which at that time was ruled by the Ptolemaic Greek kings.  Radiocarbon dating shows that the ivory used to create the zodiac images dates back around 2200 years ago, placing its use during the time of this early spread.


Valley of the Kings produces the tomb of a woman singer


Our final story is from Egypt, where archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a singer in the Valley of the Kings.  A team from the University of Basel in Switzerland came across the tomb by chance, and learned from the tomb inscriptions that it was housing the mummy of Nehmes Bastet, a woman temple singer during Egypt's 22nd Dynasty, approximately 945 to 712 BC.  

Bastet’s wooden sarcophagus was painted black and decorated with hieroglyphic texts.  According to Professor Susanne Bickel, of the University of Basel, the coffin, when opened this week, contained the carefully wrapped and intact mummy of the woman singer, nearly exactly as preserved almost 3,000 years ago.   Professor Bickel was joined by her Basel colleague, field director Elina Paulin-Grothe, the Chief Inspector of Antiquities of Upper Egypt, Dr. Mohammed el-Bialy, and inspector Ali Reda, for the opening of the coffin.  

The upper edge of the tomb was found on the first day of Egypt's revolution, January 25th, 2011.  At that time, the team sealed the opening with an iron cover and kept the discovery quiet.  After the start of this year's field season, they returned to the feature, identified it as a tomb, and found that it is one of the very few tombs in the Valley of the Kings not looted.  According to field director Paulin-Grothe, the tomb was not built for the singer, but rather was re-used for her, 400 years after the burial of its original occupant.  Other non-royal tombs exist in the Valley of the Kings, however, mostly dating from 500 years earlier, in the 18th Dynasty, around 1,500 to1,400 BC.  

Inscriptions show that Nehmes Bastet was the daughter of the high priest of Amon, and thus a far from ordinary person, even though not royalty.  We can only imagine how her voice sounded!  The discovery is important also because it shows how the Valley of the Kings was used for burial of non-royal individuals, including priests, during the 22nd Dynasty.  Only the second one found in the Valley of the Kings since the discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922, the tomb is referred to as KV64 in the Valley of the Kings naming system.  It is one of a cluster of tombs without any wall decorations found near the royal tomb of Thutmoses III.  A tomb found in 2006, known as KV63, had seven coffins in it but seems to have been used as a burial cache only, with none of them containing any mummies.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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