Audio News for May 6th to May 12th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 6th to May 12th, 2012.


Oldest known Mayan astronomical tables discovered, casting further doubt on 2012 end of the world predictions


Our first story is from Guatemala, where archaeologists working at the ancient Maya ruins of Xultun (shool-TOON) have reported remarkable finds, including the oldest Maya astronomical tables ever discovered. The site also contains the first known example of Maya art painted on the walls of a dwelling. A report in the journal Science dates the discovery from the early 9th Century, pre-dating other Maya calendars by hundreds of years. Such calendars have gained fame in recent years due to claims that they predict the end of the world in 2012.

The Maya civilization occupied Central America from about 2000 B.C. until its decline in the 16th Century, following the colonization by the Spanish. Many early Maya sites remain undiscovered. Researchers first documented the ruins at Xultun in 1912, and mapping efforts in the 1920s and 1970s laid out much of the site's structure. Archaeologists have recorded the site's features, including a 35-meter tall pyramid, but thousands of structures on the 30 square kilometer site remain unexplored.

In 2005, William Saturno, then at the University of New Hampshire, discovered the oldest known Maya murals at a site just a few kilometers away called San Bartolo. Then, in 2010, one of Dr. Saturno's students was following the tracks of more recent looters at Xultun when he discovered the vegetation-covered structure.

The room measures about two meters on each side with a three-meter, vaulted ceiling. A stone bench is the prominent feature of the room, suggesting it was a meeting place. The art on the east wall features a number of nearly life-sized seated figures, dressed in black and wearing elaborate headdresses similar to a bishop's miter. They all look toward the north wall, on which a more elaborately dressed figure in orange holds a stylus in a hand outstretched toward a figure that Dr. Saturno believes represented the king of Xultun.

Scientists think the room was part of a complex associated with the work of Maya scribes. Most fascinating among the finds were astronomical tables, including four long numbers on the east wall that represent a cycle lasting up to 2.5 million days. The east wall is mostly covered by glyphs representing tabulations, and shows various astronomical cycles, specifically that of Mars and Venus and the lunar eclipses. Dr Saturno notes the scribes seem to have used it like a blackboard.

The Maya calendar is a complex one that, in modern terms, would turn over at the end of 2012. However, the new finds seem to undermine the prediction that this is tantamount to the end of the world, because the Xultun calendar stretches more than 7,000 years into the future.


Burial rituals shed light on history of people who once inhabited Cambodian mountains


Researchers from New Zealand’s University of Otago are working in the mountains of Cambodia in order to further illuminate the lost history of an unidentified people. Their research is focused on studying these lost people’s mysterious burial rituals. The Otago researchers now have done the first radiocarbon dating for the unusual jar and log coffin interments found on the exposed ledges high in southern Cambodia's rugged Cardamom Mountains. The researchers have been working since 2003 to geo-locate and survey the 10 interment sites. Samples of coffin wood, tooth enamel and bone are being used to date the site.

With colleagues from Cambodia, Australia, the USA, and Scotland, drs. Nancy Beavan and Sian Halcrow of the Department of Anatomy recently have published the dating of four sites in the journal Radiocarbon. These reveal that the mysterious funerary rituals, practiced from at least AD1395 to 1650, are unlike any other recorded in Cambodia.

Dr. Beavan says that this period coincides with the decline and fall of the powerful Kingdom of Angkor, which was based in the lowlands. According to Beavan, funeral practices in the Angkor Kingdom and its successors involved cremation rather than anything remotely like those found at the sites under study. This stark difference suggests that, in cultural terms, these unidentified mountain dwellers were very different from their lowland contemporaries.

Beavan notes that up to now, the bulk of research regarding the cultural history of the Khmer regions has focused on the lowlands. Through their work, the researchers hope to broaden the understanding of this history beyond the legacies of the great Khmer Kingdom to include those who lived within its margins. According to Dr. Halcrow, archaeological findings from another of the 10 sites, which she and Beavan are preparing for publication, will offer important new clues about these mysterious people, their culture, trade connections and biological adaptation to the environment.


Exhumed skulls from Spain dating to the Middle Ages display marks of trepanation


Moving on to Spain, researchers working in the area of Gormaz in the northern province of Soria have exhumed two skulls with perforations that indicate trepanation. They’ve been dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, a period in which trepanation was not commonly practiced. Trepanation is a surgical procedure by which the practitioner drills or scrapes a hole into the human skull, usually in order to treat cranial health problems.

This practice has been around for a very long time. The earliest examples found date back some 10,000 years ago to the beginning of the Neolithic period. However, little evidence exists for later periods, such as the Middle Ages.

The two skulls in Soria trepanned between the 13th and 14th centuries are a surprising find. According to Belén López Martínez, researcher and co-author of the study from the University of Oviedo (Oh-vee-AY-doh), cases of trepanation are common for the Bronze Age throughout Europe, mainly in the Mediterranean Basin. In the Iberian Peninsula, many cases have been dated back to the Copper Age some 4,000 years ago. However, few descriptions of trepanation date to the Middle Ages.

One of the most outstanding cases actually comes from Spain. The King of Castile, Henry I, ruler from AD1204 to1217, underwent trepanation while still alive, possibly in an attempt to stop a hemorrhage caused by an accidental blow to the head. The accident subsequently led to his death.

The two skulls found in the cemetery in Soria belong to a male between the ages of 50 and 55 years and a woman between 45 and 50 years. Another interesting aspect of the find is that trepanation in women is considered rare throughout all periods in history. In Spain, only 10% of those trepanned skulls found belonged to women.

The procedure’s technique differs between the two skulls. In the woman, the practitioner used a scraping technique while she was still alive. According to the researchers, the advanced wound scarring around the hole indicates she survived for a relatively long amount time post-trepanation. The skull of the male was grooved with a sharp object, and it is unknown whether trepanation occurred before or after his death. No signs of healing or scarring are visible.

Researchers suspect various reasons for trepanation. Possibilities include magic or religious reasons such as to free people from demons thought to be torturing them and initiations as a way of performing rites of passage to adulthood or to turn someone into a warrior. Therapeutic reasons also are possible for the trepanation, such as to treat and cure tumors, convulsions, epilepsy, migraines, loss of consciousness, and behavioral changes. Unfortunately, the physical evidence of trepanation doesn’t tell us why it was performed.


Ancient language of first “barbarians” discovered amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace


In our final story, clay tablets buried amidst the ruins of a 2800-year-old Middle Eastern palace have provided evidence for a previously unknown ancient language.

The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first so-called “barbarians.” Residing in the mountains, these tribal groups preyed on the world’s first great civilizations in the area of Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day Iraq.

A Cambridge University archaeologist found evidence of the long-lost language, probably spoken by a previously unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, as he deciphered an ancient clay writing tablet unearthed by an international archaeological team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan in south-east Turkey.

The tablet had the names of 60 women, probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer program. However, when the Cambridge archaeologist, Dr. John MacGinnis, began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45 of them bore no similarity to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.

Because ancient Middle Eastern names are normally composites in full or abbreviated form, made up from ordinary words in the relevant local lexicon, scholars see the particular nature of the tablet’s 45 mystery names as evidence of a previously unknown language. Originally part of the palace’s archive, the clay tablets were used by local Assyrian imperial officials to record their administrative, political and economic decisions and actions.

The palace authorities were almost certainly deploying the 60 women, including the 45 with the unknown names, for some economic purpose such as a craft activity like weaving. The text mentions that some of them were being sent to specific local villages. Archaeologists and linguistics experts are ready to analyze the mystery names in greater detail to try to discover whether the letter order or letter frequency shows any similarities to previously known ancient tongues to which this mystery language could be related.

The 45 women are thought to originate from somewhere in the central or northern Zagros Mountains, because that is the only area in which the Assyrians were militarily active at the relevant period for which the ancient languages are still largely unknown. The conquerors of the Zagros in the second half of the 8th Century BC may have forced the women from their homeland and assigned them to work near Tushan.

A German archaeological team directed by Dr. Dirk Wicke of Mainz University is carrying out the excavation of the palace at Tushan, as part of an archaeological investigation into the ancient Assyrian city led by Professor Timothy Matney, of the University of Akron in Ohio.

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