Audio News for March 18th to March 24th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 18th to March 24th, 2012.


Partying for social status in Iron Age Europe


Our first story is from southwest Germany, where artifacts recovered from 2,600-year-old Celtic burial mounds offer a glimpse of how people lived in a time before recorded history. According to Bettina Arnold, anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the items, including vessels for alcohol and personal adornment, show that pre-Roman Celtic people practiced what she calls "competitive feasting," in which people vying for social and political status tried to outdo each other through power partying.

Getting ahead in Iron-Age Central Europe apparently meant using an age-old strategy: Dress to impress and host parties offering free alcohol, or so the team found in over ten years of research and excavations at the Heuneburg hillfort, in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

Based on the drinking vessels found in graves, archaeologists have concluded that central European Celts were trading with people from around the Mediterranean. The quantity of alcohol consumed was as important as the quality. Beer was the barbarian's beverage, while wine was for the elite.

Since grapes had not yet been introduced to central Europe, imported grape wine would indicate higher social status and access to trading networks. The Celts also made their own mead, a honey-based wine flavored with herbs and flowers, which was less expensive than grape wine, but still a step higher than the barbarian’s beverage.

Boozy drinks were not the only vice of this period, as the Celtic populations from this period were reported by Greeks and Romans to favor flashy ornaments and brightly colored fabrics. Although this claim is difficult to prove, the Heuneburg mounds yielded evidence of both, in spite of their inherent fragility.

Arnold’s team was able to reconstruct elements of dress and ornamentation using new technology. Rather than excavate fragile metal remains such as hairpins, jewelry or clothing fasteners, they encased blocks of earth containing the objects in plaster, then put the bundles through a computerized tomography, or CT, scanner.

The archaeologists theorize that some of the items were not just for fashion. From what they were wearing, we can tell whether someone was adult, child, married, if they occupied a certain role in society, and much more. Other adornment was gender-specific. Skeletons sporting bracelets worn on the left arm occurred in men’s graves, while bracelets worn on both both arms and neck rings were found only in womens’ graves.

It was the metal implements in close contact with the textiles in the graves that allowed for their preservation. Using microscopic inspection of the bits of fabric clinging to the metal, archaeologists were able to recreate the fabric’s colors and patterns.


Cut marks on extinct sloth bone are evidence of earliest humans in North America


A Canadian scientist's analysis of ancient animal remains found in Ohio provides support for argument that humans arrived in North America thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The discovery of what appear to be dozens of cut marks on the leg bone of an extinct giant sloth believed to have been butchered by Ice Age hunters more than 13,000 years ago is being hailed as the earliest trace of a human presence in the New World.

The find also represents a significant new piece of evidence in support of the notion that the first inhabitants of the Americas were not the so-called Clovis people, but a much earlier wave of Ice Age migrants ancestral to many of today's aboriginal populations.

Clovis people left distinct tools at various archaeological sites beginning about 12,600 years ago. University of Manitoba researcher Haskel Greenfield recently confirmed the sloth discovery in a paper that was published in the latest issue of World Archaeology. The research strengthens the growing consensus that prehistoric Asians entered the Americas as early as 16,000 years ago.

The study shows that humans were in Ohio and predated Clovis in the region by at least 700 years. They possibly traveled down the coast before spreading to the continental interior and the far reaches of South America. These pre-Clovis people left indications of their presence in the Western Hemisphere that mainstream archaeologists only recently have begun to accept.

The sloth bone took a roundabout route to scientific significance. Some time after the specimen’s first discovery in an Ohio swamp, a U.S. geologist documented it in 1915. The object then sat on the shelf of a local museum for nearly a century, overlooked by modern science.

Researchers from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History recently re-examined the bone and contacted Greenfield to help determine if ancient humans made the 44 incisions on the giant sloth's femur as they stripped meat from the limb. According to Greenfield, the location and morphology of the marks is most similar to those made by stone tools.

The published paper noted that, until now, evidence of butchering and human utilization of ground sloths has been limited to South America. The breakthrough discovery shows that early humans were hunting giant sloths as far north as the Great Lakes, and the extreme age of the specimen, pegged at about 13,600 years old through radiocarbon dating, provides a new clue in the mystery surrounding humanity's arrival in the Americas and their migration throughout the hemisphere.


Archaeological excavations reveal extensive 18th century town in Azerbaijan


Now we move on to Azerbaijan (a-zur-by-JAHN) in the Caucasus, where large-scale archaeological excavations conducted in 2010 and 2011 at the site of Agsu has revealed an extensive late medieval 18th century town.

The site is rich in architectural remains and artifacts, illuminating the history of a settlement that had solid trade and cultural connections to other parts of the world. The town represents a settlement of inhabitants resettled or deported in 1735 from a city called Shamakhi. Nadir Shah, who ruled as Shah of Iran from AD 1736 to 1747, destroyed Shamakhi in a military conquest.

The city of Agsu eventually developed into one of the largest cities of Azerbaijan by the end of the 18th century, despite being repeatedly exposed to feudal attacks, destruction, and inhabitant deportation. Enough of the site remains to show the features of a city confined within fortified walls, a castle with round defensive towers, and other dwellings erected very close to each other with narrow streets, along with other comparatively wider central streets. 

The excavations, undertaken by archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan and the National Museum of History of Azerbaijan, surveyed a large area and uncovered fortress walls, large streets, water and sewage lines, a bathhouse complex, dwellings, shops, and workshops.

Additionally, ceramics, coins, art patterns, and other materials show trade and cultural relations between Agsu and a number of countries and cities of the world. In 9000 square meters of excavation, archaeologists also discovered numerous metal ingots and industrial production pits, as well as instruments used in metallurgy, indicating a thriving metallurgical production industry during the 18th century.

These new archaeological finds have enriched Azerbaijan’s history and enlarged Azerbaijani museum collections with new artifacts that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Azerbaijan Republic have organized for public viewing.


Satellite photos illuminate 8000 years of settlement in the Middle East


In our final story, archaeologists have mapped approximately14,000 settlements in northeastern Syria using a large-scale method that could uncover long-term trends in urban activity.

Beyond the striking mounds of earth that represent lost cities, the ancient landscape hidden in the fertile crescent of the Middle East contains overlooked networks of small settlements holding crucial clues to ancient civilizations. Now researchers have created a new method for mapping large-scale patterns of human settlement using spy-satellite photos obtained in the 1960s, combined with modern multispectral images and digital maps of Earth's surface.

The approach mapped the 14,000 settlement sites spanning eight millennia in 23,000 square kilometers of northeastern Syria. The results are published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Jason Ur, an archaeologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, traditional archaeology goes straight to the biggest features, the palaces or cities, but tends to ignore the settlements at the other end of the social spectrum. Such comprehensive maps promise to uncover long-term trends in urban activity and give archaeologists a broader perspective.

The satellite-based method works by utilizing the fact that human activity leaves a distinctive signature on the soil, called anthrosols. Anthrosols are formed from organic waste and decayed mud-brick architecture and contain higher levels of organic matter. Anthrosols have a finer texture and lighter appearance than undisturbed soil, resulting in reflective properties that satellites can detect.

Co-author Bjoern Menze trained software to detect the characteristic wavelengths of known anthrosols in images spanning 50 years of seasonal differences. Menze and Ur also used digital elevation data collected in 2000 by the space shuttle as part of NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. This information enabled the authors to estimate the volume of the larger sites for the first time and to use this volume to estimate a site's longevity. Essentially, the bigger the mound, the longer the settlement survived.

The importance of water to urban development already is being highlighted by the satellite method. The study found that a handful of sites are unexpectedly large, considering that they are not located near rivers or in areas of high precipitation. Jennifer Pournelle, a landscape archaeologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, believes these findings validate hypotheses she introduced about southern Iraq: that irrigation is an after-effect of urbanization. Pournelle notes that this approach offers a valuable way to learn more about large regions, particularly when they are remote and difficult to access because of local conflicts.

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