Audio News for January 29 to February 4, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 29th to February 4th, 2012.

Axe may mark the spot of Viking invasion


Our first story is from England, where a Viking axe head found in a Gloucestershire (GLAU-sta-sher) village could be evidence of a battle more than 1,100 years ago. According to archaeologists, the wrought iron object, found in 2008, has now been identified as Viking in origin. Historical accounts record that a band of Vikings sailed up the River Severn and fought against the Anglo-Saxons in AD 894. Archaeologists say the place where the axe head was found is where they could have tied up their ships.

The man who discovered it under a hedge in his garden in Slimbridge did not believe what he saw at first. He thought it must have been an agricultural implement of some sort. When the archaeological team came to investigate, they recognized this as about 10 miles from Minchinhampton, where King Alfred the Great fought the Vikings in a bloody battle in AD 894. Three Viking princes were killed in the battle, and fighting could have ranged over a wide area of the Berkeley Vale.

For over a century, archaeologists have pondered where the Viking invaders might have moored their ships. Members of the Slimbridge local history society are now working to gather more evidence of Viking activity in the village. According to Peter Ballard, from the society, a member of a local family claimed he found a Viking sword in a ditch by the River Cam many years ago, but that has now been lost. They are asking for residents who may have found other Viking objects to come forward. Meanwhile, the axe head will go on display at the village museum.


Aztec excavation finds school for children of nobles and priests


Now we go to the ancient ruins of a school in the sprawling pre-Columbian city of Tenochtitlan (Te·noch·teet·LAWN), where children of the Aztec nobility received military and religious training. Known as the Calmecac (kalˈmekak), the school was built between AD 1486 and 1502, some 100 meters from the Templo Mayor, the main ceremonial center in the Aztec capital, where present-day Mexico City is located. New archaeological finds have been recovered during renovation work in recent years to expand the area on display there, according to the project’s coordinator, German Rostan.

According to archaeologist Raul Barrera, head of the Calmecac excavation work and the study of its remains, the school was one of the most important architectural complexes at the height of the Aztec civilization, serving as the institution where future political leaders, priests and warriors were groomed for leadership. The new find includes a platform with a stucco floor and a pavement in front, along with the remains of basalt stone slabs. Sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli (MICT-lan-te-COOT-lee), the god of the dead, and Xiuhtecuhtli (SHOO-te-COOT-lee), the god of fire, day and heat, were found near that structure, as well as vestiges of structures that date to the colonial period and the mid-20th Century.

More than 100 artifacts representative of the pre-Columbian, colonial and modern periods also were found nearby, and 88 of them will be exhibited, with the rest going into storage. Among the architectural elements found are two almenas, (ahl-MAIN-ahs), a type of rooftop decoration made of clay in the shape of a spiral. Each measures more than 6 feet by 4 feet across, over 1 by 2 meters, and had been deposited as an offering. Other important artifacts include a stone head of Ehecatl, (AYE-huh-COT-tul) the god of the wind, as well as a human jaw engraved with a carving of Mixcoatl, (MISH-co-AH-tul) the cloud serpent and the god of hunting and war. According to the Center's director, Ana Tome (AH-na toh-MAY), the discovery has been one of the best opportunities to learn about aspects of Mexico’s ancient civilizations, and took about two years to complete, working in the complex ruins of the New World’s biggest early city.

Technology and history help trace origins of jade tool from New Guinea


The discovery of a 3,300-year-old jade tool has led researchers to the rediscovery of a lost 20th Century manuscript and a geochemically extraordinary bit of earth. Discovered on Emirau (Emmy-row) Island in the Bismark Archipelago, a group of islands off the coast of New Guinea, the stone tool is about 5 centimeters, across, and is shaped for use in carving or gouging wood. It might have fallen from an early islander’s house, raised on stilts for dryness, and thus landed in a tangle of coral reef that was eventually covered over by shifting sands. The jade gouge may have been made by the Lapita people, who appeared in the western Pacific around 3,300 years ago, then spread across the Pacific to Samoa over a couple hundred years, and from there formed the ancestral population of the people we know as Polynesians.

Jade gouges and axes have been found before in these areas, but what's interesting about this one is the type of jade it's made from. It clearly came from another region, possibly even the Lapita’s area of origin to the west, somewhere between Taiwan and Indonesia. Jade is a general term for two types of tough rock, one group called jadeite jade and another called nephrite jade. Both are both greenish in color, but nephrite jade is slightly softer, while this one is jadeite jade, which is less often found outside of Central America and Mexico. According to George Harlow, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, jadeite jade as old as this artifact is only found with any frequency in the Pacific region in Japan and Korea. Here in New Guinea, it has never been found.

Researchers from American Museum of Natural History studied the artifact with X-ray micro-diffraction, bouncing a small beam of X-rays off the specimen in order to find its atomic structure, and in turn, the minerals within the rock. A rock's mineral composition varies depending on what chemicals are in the ground when it forms. The signatures are so specific researchers can sometimes pinpoint the origin of rocks. The jadeite in this stone tool is different from the jadeite jades found in Japan and Korea at the time. It's missing certain elements and has more than the expected amounts of others. This confirms that the stone came from another geological source, but the researchers aren't sure where. The only chemical match the researchers knew of was a site in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The researchers don't think it's likely that Neolithic people of thousands of years ago could have transported it across the Pacific, but they couldn't find any more local sources to explain it.

That is, until they came across an unpublished 20th-Century German manuscript. The writer, C. E. A. Wichmann, describes some curious rocks he collected in Indonesia in 1903, about 1,000 kilometers from the site where the jade tool was found. The chemical properties Wichmann reported for his jade seem very similar to those of the artifact. Researchers now are investigating those samples to see if modern techniques can prove that the tool came from Indonesia. The jadeite jade source, if found, would be something geochemically extraordinary, according to the researchers. Their work will be published in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Mineralogy.


Connecticut spear point marks student pathway to archaeology


Our final story is from Connecticut in the United States, where a high school student taking a local college archaeology program has found an ancient spearhead more than 4,000 years old. Chelsea Dean, a high-school senior, took the Norwalk Community College’s introduction to archaeology course during the fall 2011 semester, in order to explore her career interests. According to Dean, she has an interest in archaeology, but before looking for a college where she could study it as a major, she decided to get a taste of it to be sure. She loved the course, especially the accompanying field work.

Students had a weekly opportunity to go to an actual archaeological site in Redding, Connecticut, and help with the excavation. At the site, Dean worked side by side with archaeologists, other students, and members of the college’s archaeology club. On the last hour of the last day of the season, Dean made her most exciting discovery, a projectile point dating between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.

According to Professor Ernest Wiegand, coordinator of the college program, the spearpoint is made of white quartz, and is of a type known as a Burwell projectile point, which probably armed the business end of a spear, and was the first one found at the Redding site. Burwell points date to around 2,000 or 1,800 BC, but may extend farther back than that. The Burwell type, defined by archaeologist Dr. Lucianne Lavin on the basis of her work with Lyent Russell at the Burwell-Karako site near New Haven, Connecticut, dates to the Late Archaic period and typically is found associated with other point types of the Narrow Point tradition in Connecticut.

One of the things Dean learned from the class is that she wants to continue with archaeology, whether professionally or as a skilled amateur. Norwalk Community College's Archaeology as an Avocation Certificate Program is designed to train the amateur archaeologist.  Successful completion of the certificate enables students to participate effectively in archaeological excavations at home or abroad. The training includes a wide variety of courses ranging from physical geology and forensic sciences to cultural anthropology, world prehistory, historical archaeology, surveying, and advanced techniques for survey and analysis. 

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