Audio News for February 5th to February 11th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 5th to February 11th, 2012.


Ruins in Israel may date to time of the prophet Jonah


Our first story is from Israel, where an archaeological find at the Hill of Jonah near the town of Ashdod on the Israeli coast may date to the time when archaeologists believe Jonah the prophet walked the Earth.

Archaeologists uncovered the remains of massive walls, which may be the those of a fortress, and date to the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC. The find is significant because Muslims and Jews traditionally consider the site to be the location of the tomb of Jonah and the wall remains hint that human activity at the site during the time of Jonah. Excavation director Dmitir Egrov estimated that the fortress likely stood on the hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea during the First Temple Period, which dates to the eighth century BC, the time period in which biblical historians believe Jonah lived.

According to Sa'ar Ganor, the Ashkelon District Archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hill of Jonah is a strategic location, as the hill rises about 50 meters above sea level, making it the highest point in the area with a view that probably overlooked a port and Tel Ashdod. These natural strategic advantages probably led the occupying power at the time to build a fortress on the hill.

Researchers believe there are two possibilities regarding who inhabited the fortress at that time. One possibility is that the Assyrians, who were the regional rulers in the Iron Age, controlled the area. Another possibility is that Josiah, king of Judah, occupied the fort. Researchers know from records that Josiah conquered the Assyrians in the region of the fort and controlled Ashdod-Yam in the seventh century BC.

Previous to the discovery of the wall remains at the Hill of Jonah, archaeologists uncovered similar wall ruins in a nearby area prior to the construction of the modern Ashdod lighthouse. These remains, dated to the First Temple and Persian periods, have Aramaic phrases of financial and religious offering written on them.


Unusual residential area excavated in Mexico


In Mexico, some unimpressive ruins have experts excited. They have uncovered stone and clay footings for houses in the hills east of Mexico City at a spot known as Amecameca. What makes the site important, according to Felipe Echenique, a historian for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, is that it is a residential area, not a ceremonial or religious site.

Echenique explained that in Mexico, very little evidence exists for what the cities really looked like, or how people lived. So, although much is known about the pyramids in Mexico like Chichen Itza or the temple complexes like Uxmal (üsh-ˈmäl), little is known about the urban centers that supported them, due to the fact that little remains of them.

One of the still-unnamed cultures that populated the Valley of Mexico before the Aztecs appeared in AD 1225 apparently built the structures at Amecameca. Researchers have found ceramic pots and bones at the site as well. Additionally, a stone serpent's head turned up at the site, suggesting that the early inhabitants worshipped the god Quetzalcoatl (ketz -ahl-KO-atl), "the Feathered Serpent," centuries before the Aztecs paid him reverence.

Though few in number, the excavations of ancient residential areas in Mexico have provided fascinating details. In Teotihuacan ([te-aw-tee-wah-kahn), one of the most populated pre-Hispanic cities, some houses appear to have been illuminated by water mirrors. The water mirrors worked by reflecting light off shallow pools located on the central patios of the house. The light from the pools shone through narrow doorways that led into the house, thereby brightening the rooms of the house. Excavators at Amacameca believe a similar set-up could be uncovered there, where so far they have excavated only about 120 square yards of an estimated 5-acre site.

In what archaeologist have excavated so far, some strange settlement patterns are emerging, notes Echenique. For example, between one housing compound and another, researchers found an empty area that contained no artifacts. Noting that this would be unusual for a densely populated settlement, some explanations put forth for the empty area are that it is a border between neighborhoods, a street, or the site of a long-vanished wooden structure. Perhaps the most unusual thing is that local residents were the ones who noted the ancient traces and called in researchers - after setting up a protest camp to block backhoes from tearing up more of the area for a planned highway. The inhabitants of Amecameca were more or less following the work on the roadway, and when they saw that there were many artifacts coming up, they notified the Institute. The Amecameca protesters now guard against construction workers and looters and to explain the ruins to passers-by. They are asking authorities to reroute the road.

Vikings in Greenland were not teetotalers


Across the world, archaeologists have settled the long-standing question of whether or not the Vikings were able to cultivate barley when they settled in Greenland in the year AD 1,000. Researchers from the National Museum in Copenhagen say the answer to the question is “yes.”

In 2010, Peter Steen Henriksen, an archaeobotanist for the museum, led an expedition to Greenland to study how the Vikings tackled the task of settling in a cold and harsh environment. Barley, used to bake bread, make porridge and brew beer, had always been a key staple in the Viking diet. Henriksen and his team carried out excavations at twelve surprisingly well preserved Viking farms in the southernmost region of Greenland in hopes of finding proof of early settler cultivation. Because there was little chance of finding agricultural remains in modern fields used for sheep farming in Greenland’s thin soil, they carried out their search in nearby rubbish heaps known as middens.

The middens, containing food remains, household rubbish and ashes from the fires, contained charred barley grains in their bottom layers, preserved from 1000 years ago when the first Vikings arrived on the island. The find is final proof that Vikings were able to grow barley in small quantities in order to continue their way of life from back home.

The find also substantiates a well-known text from about AD 1250, “King’s Mirror,” which mentions in passing that the Vikings attempted to grow grain on Greenland. This is the only report about cultivating barley known from that time.

Around AD 1000, Greenland’s climate was slightly warmer than it is today, and the southernmost tip of the great island looked fertile and green and no doubt tempted Eric the Red and his followers. This encouraged them to plant some of the seed they brought with them from Iceland. The Vikings also tried to grow other agricultural crops.

Their attempts to grow these crops and barley did not last long, however, as the climate began to cool until the Little Ice Age started during the 13th century. At some point, the Vikings were no longer able to maintain seed production for their food and drink. This situation may have led to their mysterious disappearance in the early 1400s.


Thousands of historical sites disappear in China


In our final story from China, the results from China’s most recent national heritage census, the first in more than 20 years, are not encouraging. According to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, or SACH, around 44,000 of China’s 766,722 registered heritage sites have completely disappeared, while approximately a quarter of those remaining are either poorly preserved or in a state of poor condition. 

While the census didn’t specifically mention any sites, the study included ancient ruins, temples and other heritage artifacts. According to Liu Xiaohe (leo she'ow-heh), deputy director of the survey, one of the biggest contributions to the destruction is the economic development taking place in China.  Unprotected by laws or overlooked by the very protection units overseeing national and provincial cultural resources, many sites have been demolished in favor of construction projects.  In addition, destruction of some heritage sites is unexplained.

Meanwhile, a recent report highlighted the increasingly sophisticated looting gangs that are devastating China’s heritage sites. As many as 100,000 looters are working within the nation to serve international dealers and collectors.  According to the report, the thieves’ tactics include the use of dynamite and sometimes bulldozers to force their way into ruins. They use night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search and loot artifacts from the site. One archaeologist whose teams researched more than 900 tombs in Shaanxi (shaw-on-she) province found that raiders had hit almost every one. 

The SACH survey determined Shaanxi province to be the hardest-hit region, with more than 3,500 cultural sites eliminated. Wei Zheng (way jung), a Peking (pee-king) University archaeologist noted that at one time, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs, and although it was depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to find a similar one in the future.  Nowadays raiders have destroyed so many that it s difficult to find similar tombs.


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