Audio News for March 25th to March 31st, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 25th to March 31st, 2012.

Excavations in Iraq resume with discovery of early royal tomb


Our first story is from Iraq, where a team of Italian archaeologists has found a third millennium BC tomb in the region that was the center of Sumerian civilization during the Bronze Age. The tomb was excavated at a site of more than 100 acres called Abu Tbeirah, which lies around 12 miles from the city of Ur.

The find may offer a more revealing portrait of the Sumerian civilization that prospered in southern Mesopotamia from 4000 to 3100 BC until the Akkadian Empire took over around 2270 BC. Considered the region’s first civilized group, Sumerians were pioneers in agriculture, industries, trade, metalwork, weaving, and pottery.

The tomb contained the remains of a young man, who may have been of high rank, or royalty, judging by the remains of his funeral clothes, which were embellished with three carnelian beads, semi-precious stones that were widely valued during the Bronze Age for making jewelry and in decorative arts. Also found in the tomb were four bronze vases, including one shaped like a boat, and a bronze dagger. According to Italian philologist and lead archaeologist Franco d'Agostino, a professor at Rome's Sapienza University, the richness of the burial is highlighted by the carnelian beads, which came from the Indus Valley and date back to the same age.

Dubbed the Tomb of the Little Prince, the grave is similar to the tombs excavated in the Royal Cemetery of Ur and at the religious city of Nippur, located about 300 miles to the north. According to d'Agostino, the study of this tomb has allowed archaeologists to hypothesize the steps and procedures followed to bury the corpse, which until now have never been described in Mesopotamian excavations. This should clarify many aspects of the funerary practices of ancient Mesopotamia.

Security concerns stemming from the Iraq War kept archaeologists away from the excavation sites of Iraq. The dig at Abu Tbeirah, which began last autumn, is the first foreign excavation mission in southern Iraq since the war began in 2003. After the successful excavation of the Tomb of the Little Prince, archaeologists have received a positive response from Iraqi authorities and are hoping to see more such projects in Iraq.

Western Europe’s oldest string instrument found on Isle of Skye


In Scotland, archaeologists believe they have discovered the remains of the earliest stringed instrument found so far in Western Europe. The small burnt broken piece of carved wood was found during an excavation in a cave on the isle of Skye, the most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides along Scotland’s northwest coast. Archaeologists said it is most likely part of the bridge of a lyre (LY-r) dating to more than 2,300 years ago.

According to music archaeologist, Dr. Graeme Lawson of Cambridge University, the discovery marks a giant step of change in music history. It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years. Moreover, not only the history of music is changed but, more specifically, our knowledge of song and poetry, which is what such an instrument was most often used for. The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq, and these were already complicated and finely made structures. However, in Europe even Roman traces of lyres have proved hard to locate. The new remains, made public in Edinburgh, were found in High Pasture Cave, where previous Bronze and Iron Age finds have been made.

Stringed instruments, usually made of wood, rarely survive in the archaeological record, but are referred to in the very earliest literature and came to be featured on many stone carvings in Scotland and Ireland, where they were emblematic of both countries. Steven Birch, an archaeologist involved in the excavation, noted that the field team reached deeper sections of the cave using a flight of stone steps. Within the cave, sound forms a major component of transformation as the visitor goes deeper and the human senses are accentuated. According to researchers, the evidence shows that Skye was a gathering place over generations and that confirms its important role in the rituals and celebrations of more than 2,000 years ago.

New site in Arizona hints at life before agriculture


Traveling to the United States, researchers have unearthed an ancient dwelling, along with thousands of artifacts dating back as far as 3,000 BC, at Luke Air Force base in Arizona. The excavation was triggered by preparations for a large solar array installation. According to John Hall, the senior project director with Statistical Research, the company conducting the excavation, the site could be of importance to Arizona and the Phoenix Basin.

One of the most interesting features about the site is that it dates to the poorly understood Middle and Late Archaic periods of the Phoenix Basin and south-central Arizona between 3,000 and 1,000 BC, pre-dating the better researched Hohokam people. The Hohokam of the Gila River valley are one of three major prehistoric archaeological traditions of the American Southwest. Archaeologists have spent considerable time researching the way these ancient people lived and their agricultural practices. The Hohokam occupied the valley and much of southern Arizona from AD 1 to 1450, building hundreds of miles of canals throughout the valley to irrigate their agricultural fields, which included corn, beans, squash, and agave. Hall notes that this site is 2,000 years older than the Hohokam and offers new insight into the lives of people in a time before agriculture and before maize was brought up from Mexico.

Researchers have dated some of the artifacts and confirmed that this site is almost 1,000 years older than any other site in the Phoenix Basin area. Since October 2010, the excavation team has been recovering thousands of artifacts around the area, giving them an idea of how the people here lived. The early peoples were nomadic, but left storage holes filled with stone tools and other things. The stone used clearly comes from a river and is very different from the stone found on the base. The new information thus gives a better idea of how people here got their food, and possibly narrow down the time frame when maize was brought in from the south.


Bone objects found in Amsterdam are tiny early telescopes


Our final story is from the Netherlands, where five tiny telescopes made of bone and dating to the 18th Century have been discovered in Amsterdam. This was the era known as the Age of Enlightenment, when telescopes were considered luxury items and were likely used to gaze at objects on land or sea, rather than to look at the stars. Crafted during a period when Amsterdam was a flourishing center for trade and attracted many talented craftsmen, these small early telescopes range in length from 80 to 140 millimeters and were made of cattle metatarsal bones. According to Marloes Rijkelijkhuizen, of the Amsterdam Archaeological Centre at the University of Amsterdam, this particular bone, from a cow’s lower leg, is quite straight and round with a narrow cavity.

Each telescope would have had a pair of lenses, similar to the system used by Galileo, using a convex objective and a concave ocular to magnify objects. Two of the five telescopes have one or more intact lenses. The longest of them had both lenses intact, is made of two parts joined together with a screw thread, and is equipped with a bone insertion containing a small hole, which likely functioned as an aperture stop. With a magnification of about three, the bone telescopes were the equivalent of opera glasses in strength, and may have been used at such events as well as for gazing at the nighttime stars. The 18th century Enlightenment was a time of great change with many new ideas and events, both scientific and political. The telescope, with its ability to let people see objects at a great distance, including the stars, played a significant role in these changes being invented only a century earlier.

The Office for Monuments and Archaeology in Amsterdam excavated the telescopes at different times over the past 40 years, but the details of the findings hadn't been published until now, partly because in the case of two of them, the artifacts remained unidentified until several years ago when then Master’s candidate Rijkelijkhuizen, started work on her thesis on organic artifacts found in Amsterdam. In the course of that work, she came across the bone artifacts that would later turn out to be telescopes. Her analysis of the five telescopes is published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries.

Reading the excavation reports, Rijkelijkhuizen found that two of the telescopes were discovered in cesspits, the 18th-century equivalent of a septic tank or a lined privy. Why luxury items like these would end up in sewage tanks is a mystery. One hypothesis is that the telescopes broke and their owners, despite the cost of producing them, threw them away in the cesspits, which also served as a dumping place for trash. Another idea is that their owners simply lost them. However it happened, it was fortunate for the archaeologists. Because it was a cesspit, a very wet environment, the objects in it generally remained very well preserved.


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