Audio News for February 12th to February 18th, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February12th to February 18th, 2012.

Stone warriors bring Sardinia’s Bronze Age society back to life


In our first story from Sardinia, an elite force of prehistoric warriors carved from solid rock 2700 years ago is returning from oblivion. Archaeologists and conservation experts on the Italian island have succeeded in reassembling thousands of fragments of smashed sculpture to recreate a small yet unique army of life-size stone warriors originally destroyed by enemy action in the middle of the first millennium BC. It’s the only group of sculpted life-sized warriors ever found in Europe.

Though this western Mediterranean group is a much smaller number of figures than China’s famous Terracotta army, the Sardinian warriors are 500 years older, and made of stone rather than pottery. After an eight-year program of restoration, 25 of the original 33 sculpted stone warriors, who represent archers, shield-wielding fighters and probable swordsmen, have now been substantially rebuilt.

Originally sculpted and placed on guard over the graves of elite Iron Age Sardinians buried in the eighth century BC, the stone guardians are thought to have represented the dead individuals, or alternatively, to have acted as their eternal bodyguards and retainers. However, within a few centuries, the Carthaginians invaded Sardinia, and archaeologists believe they shattered the stone warriors into five thousand fragments. It’s most likely that the invading Carthaginians viewed the stone army and the graves they were guarding as unwanted symbols of indigenous power and status. The site was abandoned and eventually forgotten.

Carthaginian control of Sardinia gave way to Roman, then Vandal, then Byzantine, Pisan (PEA-san), Aragonese (AIR-a-gon-ese), Spanish, Austrian, Savoyard (SAH-voy-ard) and finally Italian rule. After being rediscovered in the 1970s, the stone fragments were excavated in the early 1980s by Italian archaeologist Carlo Troncheti (tron-KEH-tee). Although two statues were reconstructed at that time, the vast majority of the many fragments were simply stored in a local museum until 2004, when reassembly work on the fragments was undertaken by conservators in Sassari (sah-SAH-ree) in northern Sardinia.

The newly recreated stone army calls attention to one of the world’s least known yet most impressive ancient civilizations, the so-called Nuragic (NOOR-ah-jic) culture, which controlled the island from the 16th century to the late 6th century BC. During its Bronze Age zenith, roughly from 1500 to 1200 BC, the Nuragic people constructed some of the most impressive architectural monuments ever produced in prehistory. The remains of 7000 Nuragic fortresses still stand today and are some of the oldest castles in Europe.

Many of the stone warriors are armed with bows or protected by shields. They wear protective armor over their chests and horned helmet on their heads. Some of the fighters carry shields in their left hands, held aloft over their heads. These so-called ‘boxers’ may represent shield-bearers serving the high-ranking people who were buried in the graves below. Among the graveside sculptures are also at least ten miniature Nuragic castles of different designs, some of them single-towered, others sporting more elaborate multi-tower fortifications. These models may represent the actual monumental buildings associated with each buried individual’s family line. The ruling class of this part of Sardinia may have comprised a group of closely related individuals. Work carried out on the skeletal material from the graves suggests that most of the dead individuals were from just two generations of a single extended family.


Aerial survey documents rare medicine wheels in eastern Oregon


In the United States, aerial photography is helping to document the first Native American medicine wheels ever reported in Oregon. Led by archaeologist Patrick O'Grady, a team from the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History is documenting two medicine wheels, which are large circular stone formations, sometimes with spokes radiating from the center, that native peoples may have used for ceremonial or religious purposes.

In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management discovered the two large stone circles in the Stinkingwater Mountains of southeastern Oregon. Their importance was immediately recognized and brought to the attention of the university museum, which in 2008 deployed its field school students, staff and volunteers to record and survey the site. The stone circles turned out to be the first of their kind reported in Oregon. Medicine wheels are common in the Great Plains, but are extremely rare this far west.

The site is located on gravelly mineral deposits that can easily be destroyed by trampling from cattle and the use of all terrain vehicles. During the 2008 visit, researchers attempted to document the stone circles using a laser transit, but because of the presence of numerous irregularly sized stones composing the two rings, adequate maps could not be generated. The team quickly needed to find a solution to their surveying problem. To further protect the site, the BLM and university teams needed to produce survey studies to nominate the site for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Sites.

In fall 2009 and summer 2010, the teams, armed with helium balloons and camera equipment, returned to the site. A 30-foot blimp and an eight-foot round balloon were both tested over the stone circles. A 12.3-megapixel camera was attached to the blimp and balloon. The camera itself was mounted on a carriage, or gimbal, which provided a 360-degree continuous pan and 100-degree tilt, vertical to horizontal. Both camera and gimbal were operated remotely by an airplane radio control unit.

The use of 3-D software found matching points on photos taken from different angles to create a surface model for photogrammetric measurement and visualization. The resulting images create a remarkable record of the complexity and interaction of both feature and setting, providing perfect support for the site's nomination for the National Register. Explanations for the creation of the medicine wheels are beginning to form. The Stinkingwater Mountains are known to have played a significant role in the seasonal round of the Northern Paiute people due to the abundance of root crops found on its sunny slopes in early spring. These nutritious plant foods provided a reliable and welcome respite from the lack of food sources in winter. Families would gather at the root camps to engage in social activities such as gambling, horse races and catching up on the news. The location attracted people from a wide area, encompassing at the very least what is now northeastern California, northern Nevada, western Idaho, southern Washington and much of Oregon east of the Cascades.

Artifacts uncovered at Lost Dune near Malheur Lake, to the southwest of the stone circles, are physical evidence supporting the historical documentation that travelers from the east, including Bannock and Shoshone, visited the area in the late prehistoric period. According to O'Grady, while we may never know exactly which cultural group was responsible for the stone circles, their rarity in this region deserves a level of protection that will guard them for future study.


Famous sunken city of ancient Greece returns to light


In Greece, a team of scholars and students will return to explore and investigate the site now thought to be the remains of the lost city of Helike (hel-LEE-kee). Helike was a mystery for explorers and scientists for over 2,000 years.  Now the Helike Society, under its director, Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou (kat-soh-NOP-pool-oo), is uncovering a plethora of artifacts and structural remains dating from the Bronze Age through the Roman and Byzantine periods at a series of sites situated near the southwest shore of the Gulf of Corinth in the northern Peloponnese (PEH-lo-pon-EEZE).  In 2000 and 2001, the research team uncovered an area that is now thought to be the remains of ancient Helike, on the coastal plain between the Selinous (SEL-in-oose) and Kerynites (care-in-EYE-tees) rivers.  Excavation of trenches revealed the architectural remains of Classical period buildings located at a depth of 10 feet. This city from the 4th century BC was destroyed by an earthquake, and its remains became submerged in a shallow lagoon, just inland from the Gulf of Corinth. The lake subsequently silted over, preserving both the architectural remains and a rich array of artifacts.

Nearby, researchers also uncovered evidence of a large and incredibly well-preserved Early Helladic coastal settlement from between 2600 and 2300 BC. This town is about a half-mile from the present shoreline, with its remains lying at a depth of about 10 to 20 feet below the surface. Uncovered so far are the foundations of houses and other buildings along cobbled streets, along with abundant pottery. This early period city appears to have been wealthy, as luxury items such as small gold and silver ornaments have turned up. The sediments covering this Early Bronze Age city contained both marine and lagoon microfauna, suggesting that seawater submerged the town for some period of time. A clearly offset wall of one building provides strong evidence of seismic activity, suggesting that an earthquake may have destroyed and engulfed this early settlement.

According to Greek and Roman historical accounts, Helike also dates from the Bronze Age, being founded in the time of Mycenae by Ion (EYE-on), from whom the Ionian people took their name. Helike was subsequently known as the principal city of Achaea (a-KEY-ah), the leader of what were known as the Twelve Cities of ancient Achaea. Helike was also anciently considered the homeland of Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, and its sanctuary to Poseidon was the second most important Greek religious site, after Delphi. Helike’s association with Poseidon was widely noted by many ancient Greek and Roman writers and visitors such as Strabo, Pausanias (pow-SAY-nee-as), Diodoris (die-o-DOR-is), Aelian (EE-lee-an) and Ovid (AH-vid), and some scholars suggest it inspired the story of Atlantis when it was destroyed, purportedly by Poseidon’s wrath. Precisely what the Helikeans (hel-EEK-ee-ans) did to bring down this divine vengeance on their city, however, has never been clear.

Like Atlantis, the actual whereabouts and evidence of Helike's remains were also unclear, even though classical era travelers, such as Pausanias, wrote of seeing the city’s fallen walls beneath the sea in the Gulf of Corinth. Despite many underwater searches of the sea floor, including some by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s and 70s, the city’s location eluded scholars and explorers for 2,000 years. In 1988 Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou launched the Helike Project to locate the site, including magnetometer survey of extensive areas, carried out in collaboration with the University of Patras, in the delta region near the Corinthian Gulf coast. Excavations followed, unearthing Roman era buildings with standing walls in the 1990s, and finally, the long-sought city of Helike itself in 2001. Far from being below the modern sea, it turns out that Helike became buried under the silt of an ancient lagoon after the famous earthquake of 373 BC.  This massive earthquake struck the entire southwestern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, and not only toppled Helike’s buildings, but also changed the elevation of the land enough to drop it below the water of the adjacent lake. Subsequent silting-in of the lagoon quickly buried the remains, both hiding them from explorers and preserving them for rediscovery.

Excavations continue in the Helike delta area every summer under Dr. Katsonopoulou’s leadership. These excavations have uncovered significant archeological finds dating from the time of Helike's founding to the area’s revival during Hellenistic and Roman times.


Stone slabs at Aztec temple illustrate its history of gods and wars


Our final story is from Mexico, where a total of 23 pre-Columbian stone plaques dating back approximately 550 years, illustrating Aztec myths such as the birth of the god of war Huitzilopochtli (WHEET-zil-o-POCH-tlee), were discovered by archaeologists in front of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (ten-ohch-tit-LAHN). The bas-relief (bah-re-lief) sculptures on slabs of tezontle (teh-ZONT-lee), or volcanic rock, narrate the mythological origins of the ancient Mexica (meh-HEE-cah) culture through depictions of serpents, captives, ornaments, warriors and other figures.

The remains are of great archaeological value not only because this is the first time such pieces have been found within the sacred grounds of Tenochtitlan, but because they can be read as an iconographic document narrating specific myths of that ancient civilization. The Great Temple, in front of which they were found, was the most important center of the Mexicas' religious life, built in what is today the great square of Mexico City, known as the Zocalo (SOH-cah-lo).

The stone carvings focus on the myths of Huitzilopochtli's birth and the beginning of the holy war that led up to the founding of the Aztec empire. The carvings were placed so as to face the center of the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, meaning that they are contemporaneous with the flooring of pink andesite and slabs of basalt, dating back to the fourth stage of the Great Temple's construction, around AD 1440 to 1469. According to archaeologist Raul Barrera (bar-AIR-ah), the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth begins with the goddess of the earth and fertility, Coatlicue (kwat-LEEK-way), who was impregnated by a feather that entered her womb as she was sweeping. But the pregnancy angered her existing children, so a group of 400 warriors, serving a rival goddess, left their homeland in the south, to attack and kill her. A series of battles ensued between powerful gods and their warrior children, spanning both earthly locations and the heavens, so that among other outcomes, the stars and the moon were created as a result.

The newly discovered stone slabs show several kinds of links to the myths, illustrating both divine and human aspects of the battles. On one slab is a dart with smoke along its sides, in front of which an obsidian arrowhead was found. Another shows a star warrior carrying his chimalli (chee-MAY-yee) or shield in one hand, and in the other a weapon for shooting darts, the same sort that the war god Huitzilopochtli used to vanquish his rival gods. Defeated warriors are shown on several stone slabs, including a figure of a captive on his knees with his hands tied behind his back, a tear falling from his eye, and another showing the decapitated head of a man wearing a feather headdress with an earflap. Work is continuing on the complete exploration and analysis of the slabs and their location.

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