Audio News for February 26th to March 3rd, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 26th to March 3rd, 2012.

Tomb of last Inca emperor is sought


Our first story takes us to Ecuador, where researchers have pinpointed a site that could be the resting place of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor. From AD 1438 to 1533, the Inca Empire spanned much of South America's Andean region, stretching over 1000 miles, from modern-day Bolivia and Peru to Chile in the south, and Ecuador and Colombia in the north.

Atahualpa was the last of the powerful dynasty that ruled the sprawling empire. During the Spanish conquest, he was taken captive, forced to convert to Christianity and then executed by the Spanish in 1533. With his death, the empire disintegrated.

Now, Ecuador’s Cultural Patrimony Institute is about to start work on what promises to be the site of his burial. Ecuadoran historian Tamara Estupinan found the massive complex sprawling across a high ridge in June 2010. Estupinan, who is currently a researcher with IFEA, the French Institute for Andean Studies, identified a complex of walls, aqueducts and stoneworks that lies inside an area known to locals as the Machay (ma-CHAI). Machay means burial in the Quechua language.

According to Estupinan, the complex follows a late imperial design, with several rectangular rooms, built of cut and polished stone, around a trapezoidal plaza. Archaeologist Tamara Bray, of Wayne State University in Michigan, and a colleague of Estupinan, confirmed that the site contains an Inca structure that is extraordinarily well preserved and scientifically significant. Inside the structure, a walled walkway starts at the Machay River and one can see the shape of stairs that form a pyramid believed to be the Emperor's throne. A tiny cut channel of water was engineered to emit a small waterfall, and this has long been known as “the Inca's bath.”

According to the director of IFEA, Georges Lomne, the find gives evidence that the Incas were active in a low-lying area that lies outside their best-known area of operations in the Andean highlands. The location is part of a broader area that all belonged to Atahualpa as his personal fiefdom, much like the way that French kings had royal domains. Very few such Inca sites are found in this type of tropical lowland. Estupinan believes Malqui-Machay may be Atahualpa's final resting place. Although there are other theories, Estupinan believes that Atahualpa’s remains could have been brought for burial here by his most loyal man, Ruminahui (ROO-mi-NA-whee), because this is the where Ruminahui made his own stand, fighting against the European intruders.


Ancient Arabic records help reconstruct past climate


Ancient manuscripts written by Arabic scholars are supplying modern scientists with valuable meteorological data that will help in reconstructing the climate of the past. Published in Weather magazine, the research culls the writings of ancient Baghdad scholars, historians and diarists who were recording during the Islamic Golden Age, from AD 816 to 1009, to find evidence of abnormal weather patterns.

Reconstructing past climates puts together a historical baseline for comparison to modern events, thus providing an invaluable frame for understanding climate change. Evidence of past climate generally comes from annual rings in trees and ice cores, as well as variations in coral, because few detailed older human records are available. Until now, researchers have used more recent official records, such as air force reports from World War II, and 18th century ship's logs, for historical information on weather patterns.

Now a team of Spanish scientists from the Universidad de Extremadura has begun analyzing Arabic documentary sources from a thousand years earlier. The records are historical accounts and political commentary of the era, which focus on social and religious events, but do refer to abnormal weather as well. According to lead author Dr. Fernando Domínguez-Castro, climate information recovered from these ancient sources mainly refers to extreme events with a wide societal impact, such as droughts and floods. However, they also document conditions rarely experienced, such as ancient Baghdad’s hailstorms, ice on the rivers, or even snow.

Baghdad was once the hub for trade, commerce and science in the ancient Islamic world.. Berber geographer al-Ya'qubi wrote in AD 891 that Baghdad, with its hot summers and cold winters favorable for agriculture, had no rival in the world. While many of Baghdad’s ancient documents have been lost during its long history of invasions and warfare, the surviving works of writers is enough for some meteorological information to be rescued. When collated and analyzed, the collected information showed an increase of cold events in the first half of the 10th century. This included a considerable drop of temperatures during July 920 and three separate events of snowfall occurring in 908, 944 and 1007. In comparison, the only record of snow in modern Baghdad was in 2008.

Domínguez-Castro notes that these signs of a sudden cold period confirm suggestions of a temperature drop during the Tenth century, immediately before the well documented Medieval Warm Period. Researchers believe the drop in July 920 is possibly linked to a great volcanic eruption, but more work would be necessary to confirm this idea. The team believes the records show Iraq to have undergone a greater occurrence of significant meteorological events and severe cold weather than today.

While this study focused on Iraq, it shows the wider potential for piecing together climate history from an era before meteorological instruments and formal weather records. Ancient Arabic documentary sources are a very useful tool for finding eyewitness descriptions, which support the hypotheses made by models. The ability to reconstruct past climates provides us with useful historical context for understanding. That understanding assists in the study of many scientific disciplines, including archaeology.

Greek helmet from Israel documents early invasions of Middle East


Traveling to Israel, we find a Greek bronze helmet embellished with gold leaf and decorated with snakes, lions and a peacock's tail, which was discovered in Haifa Bay. Dated to around 2,600 years ago, the helmet was most likely the property of a Greek mercenary who took part in the series of wars that erupted in the region at the time. Archaeologists believe that he likely fought for an Egyptian pharaoh named Necho II. 

Accidentally uncovered in 2007 during commercial dredging operations, the helmet was then given to the Israel Antiquities Authority who went to work cleaning it and archaeologists began their analysis. Researchers discovered it is very similar to another helmet found in the 1950s near the Italian island of Giglio (JIG-leeo), over a thousand miles away. That helmet dates to around 2,600 years ago, and researchers suspect the very similar one from Haifa Bay is about the same age.

The gilding and figural ornaments make this one of the most ornate pieces of early Greek armor discovered, according to Jacob Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and John Hale, a professor at the University of Louisville. They reported on their research in January at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The helmet’s owner would have been a very wealthy man, as few soldiers could afford such an elaborate helmet. The origin of the helmet is uncertain, although Hale and Sharvit suspect the warrior could be from one of the Greek colonies in Ionia, on the west coast of modern-day Turkey. At the time the helmet was made, around 600 BC, the Mediterranean coast contained a number of Greek colonies, spanning from the Black Sea to the southern France. There is no evidence of any Greek colonies in Israel, though, suggesting that the helmeted warrior who traveled into Haifa Bay was likely the leader of a group of Greek mercenaries.

Mercenary armies fought across Israel for the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II, who sent troops and a fleet of ancient ships to carry out military campaigns in the region for nearly a decade, in a series of wars that drew in Egypt, the Jewish kingdom of Judah, Assyria, and Babylon. Egypt’s Necho II intervened on the side of Assyria, and the result was the conquest of Judah and the rise of an invigorated Babylon led by King Nebuchadnezzar II.

So how did the helmet end up at the bottom of Haifa Bay? The simplest explanation is one of clumsiness, namely that somebody dropped it while the warrior’s ship was sailing in or out of the harbor. Another possibility is that the ship carrying the warrior sank, suggesting an ancient shipwreck awaits discovery.


Professional archaeologists protest new treasure hunters TV shows


Our final story is from the United States, where archaeologists are mounting a campaign against two new cable TV shows that encourage and highlight looting of American archaeological sites. Debuting March 20th, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut on February 28th. Both shows promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites, according to Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp.

Spike TV laid out the premise of American Digger, hosted by a former professional wrestler, in a recent announcement. The show, according to Spike TV, will feature a team of so-called "diggers" who will scour areas like battlefields and historic sites in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history. The second show, National Geographic's Diggers, is already on the air with a similar premise. In its second episode, Diggers finds a former plantation in South Carolina yielding Revolutionary War era buttons, bullets, and coins. After watching the first two episodes of Diggers, Iowa's State archaeologist John Doershuk posted a review to the American Cultural Resources Association listserv, in which he criticized the show’s failure to document where anything came from or to observe the associations between artifacts.

Not sitting idle, the archaeological community has taken its campaign online, in the form of protest petitions on listservs and Facebook. Additionally, professional societies such as the SAA have sent letters of condemnation to Spike TV and National Geographic. According to Limp, writing on the SAA listserv, Spike TV has not yet responded to professional archaeologists’ concerns, but National Geographic indicated it would place a disclaimer into its show that affirms there are laws in place protecting archaeological and historic sites.

In an argument made by Shana Tepper, a spokesperson for Spike TV, the treasure-hunting theme of both shows does not violate federal and state regulations against unlawfully acquiring antiquities because excavations are not taking place in National Parks or other federal lands but only on private property. If the property owners agree to the terms of the show, then digging is legal and property owners can do whatever they choose with artifacts found on their land. Tepper also claimed that the artifacts are otherwise rotting in the ground.

However, archaeologists remain concerned about the way these programs encourage artifact collecting as the principal approach to any site, according to an email from University of Colorado archaeologist Steve Lekson. In particular, National Geographic's approval of such shows rankles the professional community. According to archaeologist William Lipe, of Washington State University, National Geographic puts its reputation as a credible scientific and educational institution behind its shows, and by endorsing such material and featuring a treasure hunt in its show it effectively normalizes looting. According to Lekson, this widens the gap between the scientific approach to archaeology as a pursuit of knowledge and the popular notion of archaeology as just an organized treasure hunt. That conception of archaeology dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when museums in the United States sponsored large field expeditions to dig up Native American ruins to enlarge their collections. That philosophy gave way quickly, however, to the modern science of archaeology, which now includes a set of ethics and practices that does away with its more exploitive roots. Nevertheless, the idea of archaeology as a treasure hunt continues in popular culture.

Professionals regard archaeological sites not as warehouses of treasures to loot, but as a library of history, to be read carefully, page by page, to learn about pasts we would otherwise never know. This requires study of all aspects of the sites, including artifacts in their original contexts. As Lekson notes, when treasure hunters loot sites, ripping artifacts out of the ground, we lose any chance of understanding context, such as an artifact’s date, how it was used, and what it can tell us about history. All so somebody can have a trinket on a mantelpiece.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!