Audio News for March 11 to March 17, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 11th to the 17th, 2012.

Early Anglo-Saxon burial sheds new light on so-called Dark Ages


Our first story is from England, where archaeologists in Cambridge have uncovered a young Anglo-Saxon woman, whose body was laid to rest on a bed more than 1300 years ago. Upon the woman’s breast lay a regal gold and garnet cross. Three more graves came to light nearby, containing two younger women and an older person, whose sex has not yet been identified.

Forensics on the bones of the young woman with the golden cross suggests she was about 16, but provided no explanation for her early death. Most probably a Christian, the woman was buried with the beautiful cross stitched into place on her gown. However, despite her apparently Christian nature, she was also entombed according to ancient pagan tradition, as shown by the other treasured possessions taken with her into the grave, such as an iron knife and a chatelaine (sha-tə-ˌlān), a chain hanging from her belt, and the sturdy iron-and-wood bed on which she lay. The wood of the bed is now completely decomposed. The grave was found in a field that hides a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon village. It may have been a wealthy monastic settlement, with more of it lying under the adjacent farmyard, although no records exist for any church earlier than the 12th century village that still overlooks the site. Pectoral crosses from the beginnings of Christianity in England, and bed burials, both are extremely rare. There is only one previous record of the two together, in a grave found in Suffolk in the 19th century. The excavation records for that find are not extensive, however.

Only an aristocrat or a member of a royal family could have owned a gold and garnet pectoral cross, a striking and sophisticated example of Anglo-Saxon workmanship. Only five pectoral crosses from the period are known, including one found in the coffin of St Cuthbert. In some contemporary pieces, the gems came from as far as India, and the gold from coins of Constantinople, melted down. According to Sam Lucy, an Anglo-Saxon researcher from Newnham College Cambridge, who assisted in excavating the site, the small loops on the arms of the cross were worn shiny by rubbing against the fabric, showing the woman probably wore the cross during her short life, at a time when the Anglo-Saxon aristocrats were gradually converting to the powerful new religion. The find helps to illuminate a period once known as the dark ages, but that is now being revealed by archaeology as a time of superb artistry and developed international trade routes.

Other distinctive burials of the time include the prince buried at Sutton Hoo in a ship under a great mound of earth, and the warrior at Prittlewell in an oak plank chamber hung with his weapons and treasures. The small group of bed burials so far discovered are all believed to be of women, all from the same region and the same late 7th century date. Like the cross, the beds were from the women’s daily life, as they appear to be pieces of everyday furniture, not made specifically for a funeral ceremony. At the newly discovered site, the evidence suggests the bed was lowered first into the ground, and then the body laid on it. The local fields have already produced a wealth of Iron Age and earlier material, but the Anglo-Saxon finds were a complete surprise. The bones and teeth are in good condition, so further scientific tests should be able to establish where the people buried here came from, what their diet was, and whether they were related.

Egyptian finds show how commoners joined in great ceremonies


Archaeologists from the University of Toronto excavating in the summer of 2011 have found a wooden statue of a king, a private offering chapel, a monumental building, and remains of over 80 animal mummies in Abydos (\ə-ˈbī-dəs\), the sacred city of upper Egypt. According to Professor Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner of the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, who presented her team's findings at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, the new discoveries reveal intriguing information about ritual activity associated with the great gods.

The statue is a rare example of royal wooden statues, and may represent the female king Hatshepsut (hat-SHEP-soot). She was often portrayed as male in stone because the Egyptian pharaoh was believed to be son of the god Amon-Re. Hatshepsut was also known to don male clothing for the role. However, this statue displays a smaller waist and delicate jaw line than that of a man, acknowledging the feminine aspects of her physique. The archaeologists believe the statue to be from a ceremonial procession that celebrated the afterlife of the god Osiris. Priests carried wooden statues of the royal ancestors and gods in boat-shaped shrines, transporting the statues from the temple of Osiris to his tomb.

Egyptians from all social levels ensured their eternal participation in the festival by building chapels and monuments along the processional route, putting their identification with Osiris into tangible form. However, building too close to the route was prohibited by the state, and infringement carried the threat of the death penalty. The offering chapel just uncovered is believed to be that of a privileged person, dating from about 1990 to 1650 BC. It also shows where the restriction boundary of the route was.

According to Pouls Wegner, the offering chapel proves that people were able to build monuments right next to the processional route in the Middle Kingdom, and that at least one such chapel was allowed to stand in this increasingly densely built-up area and continued to receive offerings even 800 years after its initial construction. The larger structure discovered is likely either a temple or royal chapel from the time of Ramesses. Long after its initial construction, the structure was re-used as a depository for animal mummies.  Here researchers found a mass of animal bones and linen fragments, representing two cats, three sheep or goats, and at least 83 dogs. Several of the animals had recovered from injuries, suggesting that they had been cared for before being sacrificed, most likely for the jackal god Wepwawet. Wepwawet was an important deity in the Osiris festival as the leader of the procession and protector of the cemetery.


Large clay figures mark early Japanese burials


Traveling to Japan, a different kind of ritual activity is witnessed by fragments of fifth century clay figures, called haniwa (HA-nee-wa), which are shaped in human form. Recovered from the Ishiya (Ee-shi-ya) burial mound in the Shimane (She-mah-nay) Prefecture capital of Matsue (Ma-TSU-eh), these are the oldest such figures ever discovered in Japan, according to local officials.

The terra-cotta haniwa figures are believed to be for ritual use and were buried with the dead in ancient Japan. Archaeologists found six figures, two depicting sumo wrestlers, two representing warriors, and one showing the chair portion of a seated human, which archaeologists believe may depict an aristocrat. One of the sumo wrestling figures shows the lower part of a human body dressed in a loincloth with spiny weapons attached to the ankles. The completed figure’s height is estimated to be nearly four feet tall. According to officials, several other ancient human-shaped haniwa parts, including a shrine maiden's head, previously were discovered at Emperor Nintoku's (nin-TOE-ku) mound in Sakai (sah-kai), Osaka Prefecture. This find is significant, though, because it is the first time that haniwa in the form of wrestlers, warriors and a seated person have been found in Japan.

Archaeologists believe that the use of human-shaped haniwa sets started around the fifth century, about the same period to which the recently discovered haniwa are presumed to date. The haniwa have been found at large keyhole-shaped mounds in the southern-central Kinki region of Japan, which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and other prefectures. According to Katsuhisa Takahashi (ka-tsu-hee-sa taka-ha-shi), a professor of archaeology at Hanazono University in Kyoto Prefecture, this is a major discovery, because it shows that the Yamato rulers at the time had close ties to powerful clans in the Izumo region or modern day Shimane Prefecture. In addition to the six human-form haniwa, archaeologists unearthed two horse figures, also presumed to be among the oldest of their kind in Japan.


Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried Viking village


In our final story, Norwegian archaeologists have discovered the foundations of at least 15 buildings, an 80-meter long street and a harbor near Gokstadhaugen burial mound in Sandefjord (san-de-fyord) without turning a shovel. The remains were located using ground penetrating radar and a magnetometer and could be part of an entire village.

Archaeologists from the Cultural and Historic museum in Oslo, the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research ,and Vestfold County made the discovery near the location of the famous Gokstad viking ship and burial ground, which were discovered in 1880. According to Professor Jan Bill at the University of Oslo, this is a very exciting and surprising find that shows that several buildings were situated close to the burial mound Gokstadhaugen. Artifacts turned up in the area back in the mid-1990s, when archaeologist Terje Gansum carried out minor excavations in advance of road construction.

The archaeologists will conduct more research this coming summer. The discovery came about with help from Austrian experts, whose radar and magnetometer equipment helped archaeologists verify the remains believed to be buried beneath the topsoil.

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