Audio News for April 15th to April 21st, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 15th to April 21st, 2012.


Statue of victorious female gladiator found in German museum


In our first story from Germany, a new study suggests that a small bronze statue dating back nearly 2,000 years may be that of a female gladiator. If confirmed by researchers, the statue would be only the second depiction of a woman gladiator known to exist.

According to Alfonso Manas of the University of Granada, the statue shows a topless woman, sporting only a loincloth and a bandage around her left knee. She is looking down at the ground, seemingly at her fallen opponent. Her hair is long and she raises what experts believe is a sica (SEE-kah), a short curved sword used by gladiators. The gesture she gives is a salute to the crowd, an action done by champion gladiators at the end of a fight.

The accurate real-life details of the statue suggest that an actual person inspired the depiction.
The origin of the statue is unknown, though it is currently in the Museum for Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany.  

The rarity of such statues reflects the likelihood that female gladiators in ancient Rome were scarce. Emperor Septimius Severus banned them in AD 200 with only about a dozen references to them surviving today in ancient writing. The only other known depiction is a carved relief from the site of Halicarnassus that shows two female gladiators fighting.

Some have made claims in the past about finding burials of female gladiators, but none has attracted widespread support among scholars. Researchers initially had suggested the statue represented a female athlete scraping herself with a strigil, a cleaning tool looking similar to a sword. However, Manas highlighted several aspects of the artifact to suggest it instead represented a female gladiator. One was the woman's stance. It would make little sense for an athlete to raise a cleaning instrument high in the air while looking down at the ground. In addition, a raised sword was a common victory pose among gladiators.

Moreover, female athletes in the Roman world did not go completely topless. They would wear a bikini or a tunic that left one breast exposed. Gladiators, on the other hand, tended to be slaves or people of low social status, so a topless gladiator was not scandalous. A bandaged knee is also a common feature of gladiators. Altogether, this evidence seems to indicate that the statuette represents a gladiator.

Anna McCullough, a professor at Ohio State University not affiliated with the research who has written about female gladiators, is cautiously optimistic about this identification. One potential problem she points out is the fact that the gladiator is portrayed without any form of armor, such as a helmet or shin protectors. McCullough suggests the reason for this woman being topless might simply be that whoever made it wanted to emphasize the fact that this is a female gladiator and not a male gladiator. Nonetheless, it is still a bit odd for her to be completely without armor.

Both Manas and McCullough point out that it wasn't uncommon for men to go into the arena topless, although typically equipped with defensive gear such as a helmet, shield, shin guards or even a breastplate. McCullough said that, in real life, female gladiators would likely have worn more than a loincloth and bandage into the arena. Without the protective gear, large numbers of fighters would die. In real life, a gladiator like this would have had at least a shield and possibly a helmet. Perhaps she had removed the helmet for the victory gesture or because the ancient artist wanted to show her hair. Alternatively, maybe she did in fact go into the arena without a warrior's helmet so that people could see her face. As for her shield, she may have been holding that in her right hand, which is no longer present on the statue.


Very early farming site discovered in Albania


In Albania, a research team from the University of Cincinnati is revealing early farming in a former wetlands region largely cut off from Western researchers until recently. According to Susan Allen, a professor in the UC Department of Anthropology and co-director of the project, a significant gap has persisted in documenting the Early Neolithic period, which encompasses the earliest phase of farming in Albania. While researchers excavated several Early Neolithic sites in the 1970s and '80s, they did not recover plant and animal remains, the key clues to exploring early farming, and investigators did not date the sites with the use of radiocarbon techniques.

At that time, Communist leader Enver Hoxha (HOE-jah), closed Albania to outside collaborations and archaeological methodologies that were rapidly developing elsewhere in Europe, such as environmental archaeology and radiocarbon dating. The country began forming closer ties with the West following Hoxha's death in 1985. The fall of Communism in 1989 further opened Albania, paving the way for international collaborations such as the Southern Albania Neolithic Archaeological Project, which has pushed back the chronology of the Albanian Early Neolithic and helped to explore how early farmers interacted with the landscape.

The findings show that farmers occupied Vashtëmi in southeastern Albania, around 6,500 BC, making it one of the earliest farming sites in Europe. The location of early sites such as Vashtëmi near wetland edges suggests that the earliest farmers in Europe preferentially selected such settings to establish pioneer farming villages because of the rich resources offered by the area. During this earliest phase of farming in Europe, farming was on a small scale and employed plant and animal domesticates from the Near East. At Vashtëmi, the researchers have found cereal-based agriculture including emmer, einkorn and barley; animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep or goats; and deer, wild pig, rabbit, turtle, several species of fish and eels. From these finds, it seems evident that these early farmers in the region had a wide net for food resources, rather than relying primarily on crops and domesticated animals, as is widely assumed.

Overweight, diabetic abbot’s grave found in England


Moving on to the United Kingdom, researchers have discovered unexpected medieval artifacts in a grave at an old abbey along with the bones of the abbot they belonged to. He was a well-fed man in his 40s, who engaged in little physical activity and suffered from arthritis and type 2 diabetes.

Excavators made the discoveries on the outskirts of Barrow in Cumbria at Furness Abbey, that in its day was one of the most powerful and richest Cistercian abbeys in the country. Founded in the 12th Century by Stephen, who later became king of England, the abbey was a source of inspiration for both Wordsworth and Turner. By the time Henry VIII ordered its dissolution in 1537 it was the second richest abbey in England

Oxford Archeology North researchers made the discoveries because workers were doing stabilization work at the abbey, as wooden foundations gave way and cracks appeared in the walls. During structural investigations of the abbey, members of the team came across the undisturbed grave of the abbot together with his personal belongings. Archaeologists found a well-preserved silver-gilt staff of office, called a crosier, and a jeweled ring. According to Kevin Booth, senior curator at English Heritage, these artifacts are a very rare find which underlines the abbey's status as one of the great power bases of the middle ages.

According to Curator Susan Harrison, it was particularly surprising because neither 16th-century post-dissolution robbers nor Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen antiquarians had ransacked the grave, leaving it unexplored until now.

The crosier is unusual and the first excavated in the country for 50 years. It has a central gilded silver plaque that shows the archangel Michael slaying a dragon with his sword. The abbot probably received the ring, which is quite large, probably for a man with chubby fingers, on his consecration. Harrison notes that it is an unusual ring. The bezel is a pyramid shape and is pointed; it would stick in to your finger. The wearer would have felt it when he wore it as a reminder of the piety of the office.

An examination of the skeleton has shown he was big, overweight, and between 40 and 50 years old, arthritic and enjoyed a fairly easy life. Evidence also suggests that he had later-onset diabetes. Harrison believes the finds may help researchers in understanding Cistercian burial practices in general and Furness Abbey in particular. The crosier and ring will now go on display at the abbey.

Priestess’s burial excavated in Peru


Finally, from Peru, researchers at the Chotuna-Chornancap archaeological digs near the city of Chiclayo have found the funerary remains of a woman who was a priestess of the Lambayeque (lahm-ba-YAY-ke) or Sican culture. She was a woman between 25-30 years old who lived during the second half of the 13th century AD in the waning days of that culture on Peru’s northern coast.

The research, promoted by Peru’s Culture Ministry, began eight months ago with an excavation that two months later came upon the tomb, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that excavators determined the sex and age of the priestess.

The bundle of her possessions found in this tomb at the palace where she most likely lived, together with the remains of another seven individuals, a llama, and a quantity of impressive goods in terms of quality and technology, all point to the high social standing she enjoyed in her lifetime. According to the project director, Carlos Wester La Torre, her youth indicates that the post was hereditary and its functions were eminently religious, related to such rituals as sacrifices, the receipt of offerings, and celebrating changes of the seasons, the moon and the tides. She also had contact and relations with neighboring cultures like the Cajamarca and others coming from Ecuador that provided her with the era’s most valued materials and products, such as shells, gold, and ceramics. Researchers also found ceremonial urns bearing icons and objects including a golden scepter with the image of a Lambayeque divinity beside her remains.

According to Wester La Torre, this is extraordinary information for researchers because it unmistakably places the woman within the power structure of a complex society and reveals that power and religious hierarchy were not the sole province of men, since there is no reason to think there were not more women just like her. He compares this discovery with that of the priestesses found 20 years ago at San Jose de More. These women held positions of religious power in the Mochica culture, which occupied the northern coast of Peru between 100 BC and AD 700. Another example is the intact mummy of the Lady of Cao, the only woman known to have ruled ancient Peru and whose subjects believed she had supernatural powers.

Although the state of the skeletal remains of this new discovery are good in general conservation terms, they will be removed as a whole without taking them apart, in order for the researchers to continue studying them in the laboratory and later exhibiting them as testimony to women’s access to power in pre-Columbian civilizations.

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