Audio News for April 8th to April 14th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 8th to April 14th, 2012.


Carved comb spells out early German runes


Our first story is from Germany, where archaeologists have found the oldest engravings of letters ever discovered in the central region of the country. Scientists working on the site in Saxony-Anhalt believe the ancient letters, called runes, were scratched onto a 12.5 centimeter-long comb, about 5 inches, by Germanic settlers living there in the Second Century A.D.

According to Sven Ostritz, the president of the state Heritage and Archaeology Management Office, the letters spell out the word “Kama,” meaning comb, which is the oldest example of runic writing to be found in that part of the country. Germanic languages used the runic alphabet before switching to the Latin alphabet during the early Middle Ages. The earliest runic engravings date back to AD 150. Engravings from a similar period have turned up in the Märkische Schweiz region near Berlin, and in western Ukraine.

The comb is made from deer antler and was found nearly two meters below the ground several years ago. Nevertheless, it was tucked away until recently, when researchers put it under a microscope to examine the marks. Before doing that, though, the team first had to painstakingly reassemble it from the many pieces it was originally found in. Historians have been since 2002 working on the ancient Germanic settlement where the comb was found.


Newly discovered dolmen site may hold new evidence on early Britons


Moving on to Wales, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Neolithic portal dolmen in an isolated field. The dolmen is one of Western Europe's oldest ritual burial chambers, a monument to both these early people’s skill with maneuvering massive rocks and their enduring respect for their dead.

Neolithic farmers built the tomb from several giant boulders around 5,500 years ago. Its capstone, which would have been levered into place to span the half-buried standing stones that hold it up, bears an apparently random pattern of dozens of circular holes gouged into its surface, surviving symbols of Neolithic or Bronze Age ritual burial activity. The site is particularly important because, unlike most, it contains remains of human bones as well as shards of decorated pottery. Radiocarbon dating and other tests planned for the remains may give new insight into the early farmers from that ancient time.

The excavation near Newport in Pembrokeshire, under the direction of George Nash, Thomas Wellicome and Adam Stanford, will continue next September. According to Dr. Nash, an archaeologist at Bristol University, the dolmen is the earliest type of monument known from the Neolithic era. Sites of this type and age are very rare, because the increase in intensive farming practices since the 1600s has led to the destruction of many ancient sites.

While the tomb is thought to date from around 3,800 BC, the pottery with its grooved design appears later and would be contemporary with late Neolithic activity, according to Dr. Nash. Additional finds include two perforated, sea-worn shale beads, measuring 4.5 cm in diameter, nearly two inches across, which are believed to be some form of jewelry. Dr. Nash has linked them to hundreds of examples found in the 1970s at a nearby coastal settlement from the Early Mesolithic period 9,000 years ago. These varied finds suggest this Neolithic site may have even older, Mesolithic origins.

The carved stone, which is thought to be the capstone of the dolmen, long ago fell or was pushed off onto its side in a field. Although its existence was recorded in 1929, and it was listed as a monument, it was just thought to be an ancient standing stone some 1.2 meters high. In 1972, the archaeologist Frances Lynch referred to the site as a possible portal dolmen site because of the shape of the capstone. She did no geophysical survey or excavation to follow up on this assessment. Now, a geophysical survey has confirmed her interpretation, revealing the lines of the dolmen, including a linear stone alignment, which is in keeping with an ancient burial monument and was itself previously mistaken for a field boundary.


New understanding of early Amazonian farming holds promise for agriculture today


Now we cross the Atlantic to South America. An international team of archaeologists and paleoecologists has analyzed records of pollen, charcoal and other plant remains spanning more than 2,000 years to create the first detailed picture of land use in the Amazonian savannas of French Guiana. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that indigenous people, living in the savannas around the Amazonian forest, farmed without using fire and practiced ‘raised-field’ farming, in which they constructed small agricultural mounds with wooden tools.

Raised fields provide better drainage, soil aeration and moisture retention, an ideal model for an environment that experiences both drought and flooding. The fields also benefited from increased fertility from the muck continually scraped from the flooded basin and deposited on the mounds. The analysis also shows that, contrary to some earlier interpretations, these early raised-field farmers limited their use of fire and thus were better able to conserve soil nutrients and organic matter and preserve the soil structure.

According to study co-author Dr. Mitchell Power, a curator of the Garrett Herbarium at the Natural History Museum of Utah and an assistant professor at the University of Utah, the team used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of the raised beds. They established that the corn pollen they found is dated to 800 years ago, based on dates for charcoal deposits from above and below the sediment where the pollen was found. Archaeologists have long assumed that indigenous people used fire as a way of clearing the savannas and managing their land. However, the new study shows that this was not the case here. The results force reconsideration of the long-held view that fires were a pervasive feature of Amazonian savannas.

This study could provide insights into the sustainable use and conservation of these globally important ecosystems, which are being rapidly destroyed. The ancient, time-tested, fire-free land use method could show how to implement a similarly sustainable raised-field agriculture in rural areas of Amazonia, notes lead study author Dr. José Iriarte of the University of Exeter. Intensive raised-field agriculture can become an alternative to burning down tropical forest for slash and burn agriculture by reclaiming otherwise abandoned and new savannah ecosystems created by deforestation. It has the capability of helping curb carbon emissions and at the same time provide food security for the more vulnerable and poorest rural populations.


New tombs in Alexandria are from Greek and Roman times


In our final story from Egypt, archaeologists have found four Greek and Byzantine-era tombs in old Alexandria’s eastern necropolis, bringing a halt to a planned residential construction project. The excavations uncovered four rock-hewn tombs dating from Greek to Byzantine times containing a collection of funerary pots, perfume containers and lamps. According to Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of State for Antiquities, the aim of the excavations was to inspect the area for archaeological artifacts before declaring it free for residential building.

The discovery is very important for the detail it adds to the archaeological map of Alexandria. According to Mohamed Mostafa, Alexandria’s Director General for antiquities, the most important tomb is one dating from the Greco-Roman era that includes an open courtyard with two cylindrical rock columns in the middle. Two burial shafts filled with human skeletons and clay pots also were uncovered.  A decorated 'Hidra' container, a large pot filled with burned human remains, was unearthed as well along with a tombstone bearing the deceased’s name. The tomb’s walls still bear layers of plaster and traces of red paintings.

The second tomb has eight rock-hewn steps and is located under a modern building. The third and fourth ones occur on a deeper level and house a collection of clay lamps and pots of different sizes and shapes.   Within the debris, archaeologists discovered a small burial site for a woman and her son dating from the late Roman period. Following this discovery, the area is now a protected archaeological site and officials have prohibited all construction work.


That wraps up the news for this week!
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