Audio News for April 29 to May 5, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 29th to May 5th, 2012.


Students on practice dig find real, and really unexpected, Roman temple


In our first story from Germany, archaeology students who were conducting a practice excavation stumbled upon the actual remains of a Roman temple, far from anywhere historians thought the Romans had been.

Lecturers at Bonn University had set up a mock archaeological dig at a campus building site to teach a class of historians-in-training good digging techniques. What they did not expect was that the practice excavation would find the real remains of a 2,000-year-old building, nestled into the dense, clay-like mud.

Historians previously had thought that the only settlement in that area from the time was near the Rhine. According to Dr. Frank Rumscheid, archaeology professor at the university, the temple suggests people lived away from the lush riverbanks, where the Poppelsdorf campus now lies, several miles away from the water.

Although the students made the initial discovery in March, it was only in the past two weeks that analysis confirmed the foundations were from a Roman era temple, the floor of which was scattered with broken pottery dating as far back as 800 BC.

The temple, which could have been part of the buildings on a wealthy country estate, was over about 20 feet high and 25 feet long. The temple probably was made of wood or clay, although students fished roof tiles and iron nails out of the rubble that matched Second Century Roman buildings.

The design was a single room surrounded by an enclosed walkway. Researchers have found the only other temple of that style in North Rhine-Westphalia. Excavators discovered that temple during the construction of the Bonn World Congress Center in 2006.

Work is set to continue in order to completely excavate the temple before scheduled construction work at the site resumes. According to Rumscheid, the structural remains are not enough to completely lift the foundations out and create a replica, but further archaeological investigation of the Poppelsdorf site now looks likely to turn up more interesting finds.


New clue hints Roanoke’s Lost Colony may be under a golf course


A cross-Atlantic quest has turned up perhaps the strongest clue in more than 420 years to one of the biggest mysteries in the history of colonial North America.

Researchers at the British Museum in London, prompted by questions from an amateur historian who teaches economic development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found a symbol hidden for centuries under a patch on an Elizabethan map. The previously unsuspected symbol could show where the settlers of the Lost Colony went after they vanished in 1587. The missing colonists, it turns out, may have moved to what is now a golf course in Bertie County.

The clue came from the elaborate Virginea Pars map, created by John White, the leader of an expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. White returned to England in 1587 for supplies, leaving about 115 colonists behind on Roanoke Island, site of present-day Manteo. Due to war with Spain, he was unable to return for three years, and when he finally did, he found the colony abandoned. Someone had carved the word “Croatoan” into a post at the abandoned fort, and slashed the letters “Cro” onto a nearby tree, prompting centuries of speculation that the colonists had left for Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan. The uncertain fate of the colony spurred several expeditions to find them, as well as centuries of study and searching by scholars and archaeologists.

It also sparked the creation in 2004 of the First Colony Foundation, which uses archaeology and historical knowledge to study and explain Sir Walter Raleigh’s various colonial expeditions from 1584 to 1590. The group includes many professional historians and archaeologists, but it was a gifted amateur who asked the simple questions that uncovered the new clue.

Last year Brent Lane, an adjunct professor of Heritage Economics at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and a member of the foundation, was studying the map as part of the group’s efforts to understand the Native American villages of the time. Two small patches of paper pasted over parts of the map intrigued him. The patching technique was normal for the time. When artists wanted to make changes to a map, they’d paste on a patch and draw or paint over it. Still, Lane was curious about what lay beneath the patches.

The map was so precise and so well-made that Lane thought that the patches seemed out of place. So he asked British Museum officials whether they had ever tried to determine what was under the patches. They hadn’t.

When they put the map on a simple light table, which shone through the paper, they saw something startling. Under one patch was a large, square symbol with oddly-shaped corners.
Panelist Eric Klingelhofer, a history professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, who edited a book on the archaeology of early fortifications, said the shape was clearly similar to several depictions of forts from that era, including the same colonists’ Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island.

A small adjacent circle matches circles elsewhere on the map marking Native American village sites. Analysis showed that the pigments used for the symbol seemed to match those used in the rest of the map, and the material used for the patch also matched the paper used. Further analysis, using ultraviolet light, showed markings on top of the patch that appear to depict the fort with other markings outside its walls that could be expanded plans for a town or even a city.

Lane and researchers theorize that the map-maker may have used an invisible ink based on an organic material, such as lemon juice or urine. It’s possible that Raleigh wanted to hide the location in case Spanish spies operating in the court of Queen Elizabeth saw the map, which could lead to a Spanish attack to uproot the English colony. According to the group of scholars, the fort symbol is too large to be in scale, and so the location isn’t precise. But it appears to be in the area around Salmon Creek where a golf course and residential community now take up much of the area.

Sir Walter Raleigh had planned a capital, the “Cittie of Raleigh,” and Lane said that the symbol could show both the planned location of that and the most likely place for the colonists to have moved. Or it could simply show that Raleigh planned a settlement there, then changed his mind.
Evidence shows that after the main body of settlers left Roanoke Island, a small group stayed behind to wait for White and then moved to Hatteras, hence the carved letters that White found. The fort symbol was another clear intention, marked on a map, that the settlers planned to move to Bertie. But the question of whether they did needs archaeological evidence for an answer.

According to another team member, archaeologist Nick Luccketti, archaeologists investigated several sites of interest in that part of Bertie County decades ago, and the First Colony team had already begun comparing ceramics found there with those from known English sites of the same era, including Fort Raleigh. Artifacts from one of the earlier Bertie digs matched up, but the site seemed too small to be a fort or settlement. Nevertheless, the results are encouraging, given that the work of exploring the new clue has just begun.


Isotope analysis suggests mass burial in Oxford is grave of Viking raiders


In Oxford, 37 skeletons found in a mass burial site in the grounds of St John's College may not be who they initially seemed. When Thames Valley Archaeological Services discovered the bodies in the grounds of the college in 2008, it seemed that they could have been part of the St. Brice's Day Massacre, a well documented event in 1002, in which King Aethelred the Unredy ordered the killing of all Danes living in England. However, a new research paper, led by Oxford University, has a new theory that local residents may have captured and executed Viking raiders.

The skeletons, found in the ditch of a previously unknown Neolithic henge monument, are mostly of men from ages 16 to 25 who were robust and taller than average. Skeletal evidence shows multiple stab wounds on each body, and the severity of the wounds attest to a brutal slaughter. Some of the men also appear to have older scars, suggesting they may have been warriors by profession. Charring on some of the skeletons shows their killers may have burned the bodies before burial.

Researchers from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford carried out a chemical analysis of collagen from the bones and the teeth of some of the individuals and found their diet had contained a substantial amount of seafood, more than the local Oxfordshire population. The tests involved strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel, which provides evidence of where an individual lived when he was developing his teeth. Strontium is a naturally occurring element in rocks and soils, absorbed by both plants and animals through their local diet. The trace amount of strontium isotopes in dental enamel reflect each particular environment, so even small traces can be revealing of an individual's location.

For comparison, the analysts also looked at data from an isotopic analysis of dismembered skeletons from a burial pit at the Weymouth Ridgeway in Dorset, identified as Scandinavian Viking raiders. Researchers believe the decapitated Dorset skeletons, from between AD 890 and 1030, are a group of young men from different Scandinavian countries. Similarities show in the isotopic analysis of the Dorset group and the individuals found in the mass burial site at St John's College.

According to the lead researcher, professor Mark Pollard, Director of the Research Laboratory in the School of Archaeology, it’s still possible that the Oxford remains are from the documented massacre at St. Frideswide's Church in AD 1002. Evidence of knife wounds and the burning of the bodies are consistent with the story of the burning of the church. However, following the chemical analysis of the teeth and bones, an alternative interpretation is feasible, that this was a group of professional warriors killed after capture.


Egyptian style chairs gave early Northern chieftains a lift


In our final story, from Germany, archaeologists are wondering whether a group of chairs that are more than 3000 years old and look remarkably similar to a famous style seen in Tutankhamen’s tomb are an example of very early industrial espionage. When Tutankhamen died, his mourners filled his tomb with precious objects, including two folding chairs. The brilliantly simple design comprises two movable wooden frames joined by pins through the crosspieces, and with an animal hide stretched between the top members, forming a light, collapsible and portable stool.

Now researchers have determined that the early chieftains of northern Europe also sat on such chairs. Since the 19th Century, excavators have discovered some 20 Nordic folding stools, most of them north of the Elbe River in Germany. Most have their wood rotted away, leaving only the golden or bronze clasps, rivets and knobs. A lucky excavator found the only complete specimen in 1891 in Guldhøj near Kolding on the Jutland peninsula, which forms modern-day mainland Denmark. A tree-trunk coffin, dated to 1389 B.C., housed the chair, made of ash wood and with an otter-skin seat.

But folding chairs clearly originated in the Middle East. Researchers found the oldest depiction of such a chair on roughly 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian seals. Egyptians also depicted folding chairs at an early date. Dignitaries used them as mobile thrones, and the long stretchers at their bases prevented the legs from sinking into the sand.

The discovery that the design reached so far north led some scholars to theorize that northern Europeans developed it independently and in parallel to the Egyptians. But the new evidence challenges that view. According to German archaeologist Bettina Pfaff, the design and dimensions of the chairs are too similar. In other words, someone copied the idea. This, in turn, presupposes that there was contact between sunny Egypt and the swampy North some 3,400 years ago.

Evidence for such long-distance contact has been turning up in recent years, as archaeologists uncover artifacts showing how far-reaching the trade network had already become in the Bronze Age. Blacksmiths from Germany's Harz Mountains worked with gold from Cornwall, while others imitated Mycenaean swords or looped needles from Cyprus.

According to archaeologist Bernd Zich, the elites throughout Europe were in communication at the time. Peoples exchanged luxury goods across great distances, generally moving from tribe to tribe and from region to region in a kind of slow-motion relay. But something was different with the folding chairs. Archaeologists have not found any examples in the wide swath of land between northern Europe and the Middle East. One possibility, then, is that a northern trader made the long journey from the Baltic Sea to Egypt, recorded the design, and brought it back home. Archaeological evidence of long-distance travelers who carted tin from southern Germany up into Sweden more than 3,000 years ago show that this is actually plausible. Ancient trade caravans probably also traveled along southern routes heading toward Africa.

Such knowledge transfers may have quickened after Egypt became a major power under Thutmose III, from 1479 to 1426 B.C. It was precisely at this time that a messenger from the North Sea coast could have been in Egypt and observed the chair’s design.

Starting in 1400 B.C., builders started making the stools in the far north. It appears that every chieftain in the northland was suddenly determined to have one of the new thrones from the south. Their craftsmen copied the exotic chairs down to the last detail, often using oak or ash for a long-lasting frame and adding elaborate ornamentation, such as one found in Bechelsdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which has decorative metal tassels that chime and a deerskin seat.

Clan leaders could have used the folding chairs to elevate them above others in councils, since everyone else would be sitting on the ground. But according to Pfaff, this theory is unconvincing, because excavators often found the stools in poorly furnished graves, not characteristic of the ruling elite. Instead, she believes the strange pieces of furniture belonged to a spiritual elite, such as healers and magicians.

The man from Guldhøj could have been such a sorcerer. Apparently afraid of the dead, those who buried his body placed one of his own shoes under his head. According to Pfaff, this ensured that his corpse could not climb out of the grave.

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