Audio News for May 20th to May 26th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 20th to May 26th, 2012.


Scottish graveyard find is ancient Christian “cursing stone”


Our first story is from Scotland, where an ancient “cursing stone” used more than a thousand years ago has been discovered on the island of Canna. The round stone with an early Christian cross carved on it is known as a “bullaun” stone, and is thought to be the first of its type to be found in Scotland. Used to wish harm on enemies, it was discovered by chance in an old graveyard on the island. Such stones often are found along ancient routes of Christian pilgrimage, . Pilgrims would stop and turn them while praying, but alternatively, might also turn them when casting a curse. The turning motion would wear a distinctive depression, sometimes even a hole, in the bigger socket stone placed underneath. Traditionally, the stone was turned clockwise.

According to Derek Alexander, the head of archaeology for the National Trust for Scotland, finding the entire stone is a rare delight. Usually just the socket stones or the dished depressions remain, and evidence of cursing stones is much more common in Ireland. The Canna stone measures approximately 10 inches in diameter, and is marked clearly with a engraved early Christian cross.

Once the Canna cursing stone was found in the island’s graveyard, archaeologists discovered that it fit into a larger stone located near the large sculptured stone cross elsewhere on the island, known as the Canna Cross. The entire island is known as an early Christian site, which is thought to have been owned by the monastery of Iona as early as the Seventh Century. In Ireland, folklore attached magical significance to bullaun stones, such as the belief that rainwater collected in the stone’s hollow could have healing properties. However, many of the stones, such as the St. Brigit’s Stone in County Cavan in Ireland, were more famous for their use as cursing stones.

According to the University of Glasgow’s Katherine Forsyth, a leading researcher in the history and culture of the Celtic-speaking peoples in the first millennium AD, the discovery of a stone like this in Scotland is a unique surprise, which not only provides important new insight into religious art and practice in early Scotland, but also demonstrates just how much there is still yet to be discovered out there.


Israeli jewelry cache is 3000 years old


In Israel, archaeologists working at Tel Megiddo in the northern region have uncovered a cache of jewelry dating from about 1100 BC in a jug stashed in a private residence. The key piece in the jewelry is an unusual gold earring decorated with molded ibexes, or wild goats. According to archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, the design shows a strong influence from the Egyptian culture that dominated the area politically during the 12th century BC. The city was demolished and rebuilt many times as its fortunes changed, and has 11 different, well defined archaeological layers. The jewelry was in a layer that dated to the 11th Century BC, just after the Egyptian withdrawal, and may have been left behind during this turbulent time. By the early 10th Century BC, Tel Megiddo was an important Canaanite city-state, and in the 9th and 8th centuries became one of the main cities of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

The jug itself was found in 2010, but researchers did not discover the jewelry cached inside until it was washed out with the dirt contained in the jug earlier this year. The jewelry was wrapped in textile, now being analyzed, and is well preserved. Some of the jewelry, including beads made of carnelian stone, is consistent with Egyptian designs from the same period. Also included are a number of moon-shaped earrings of Canaanite origin, and other gold items. According to archaeologist David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, co-director of the excavation, the jewelry most likely belonged to a Canaanite woman who hid it when she had to flee the city.

Chemical researchers are analyzing the composition of the ibex earring. An earring of pure gold indicates an origin in Egyot, where there was little silver available to strengthen gold alloys. A significant amount of silver would indicate the item was made locally.


Early tomb at Pachacamac holds 80 burials


Traveling to Peru, a team of archaeologists from the Free University of Brussels has discovered a remarkable tomb at Pachacamac, containing more than eighty individuals of different ages from around 1000 years ago. Lying on the Pacific coast about 20 miles from the Peruvian capital Lima, Pachacamac is one of the largest Prehispanic sites in South America.

According to the University’s professor Peter Eeckhout, who has been carrying out fieldwork at the site for the past 20 years, the current season stands out for several notable discoveries. The excavation team was recording and excavating a series of Inca storage facilities dating to around the 15th to16th centuries AD, along with a more ancient cemetery which had been detected during earlier exploratory work, when they made the new find directly in front of the Temple of Pachacamac. Within a scatter of later period burials lay a vast burial chamber more than 50 feet long. Miraculously, it had survived the pillaging of the colonial period, particularly intensive on this site, and was completely intact. The tomb is oval in shape, dug into the earth and covered with a roof of reeds supported by carved and shaped tree trunks. The main chamber was divided into two sections, separated by a wall of mud bricks.

Inside the chambers, the archaeologists found the remains of more than 70 skeletons and mummies. Many of the mummies still retained their wrappings. All of the burials were in the characteristic fetal position. The burials were of both sexes and all ages. Babies and very young infants were particularly common. Artifacts were part of many burials, including ceramics, tools and ornaments of copper and gold, and painted wooden masks. These items are currently undergoing restoration and analysis.

The team's group of physical anthropologists, under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Owens of the University of London, traced morphological traits across a number of the skeletons that show possible genetic relationships among many of the individuals. Many skeletons show the signs of severe or fatal injuries, from either physical trauma or serious illness. Previous work by the project revealed the extensive presence of disease in the Pachacamac skeletal population, suggesting that the affected individuals came to the site in search of a cure, a practice recorded in Inca sources. Professor Eeckhout and his colleagues are carrying out laboratory analyses aimed at answering numerous questions arising from the new discovery, and to place it within the wider context of the site and the period in question.

Questions include whether the infants were sacrificed, and whether the bodies were all interred at the same time as a form of communal burial, or if the chamber was reused over longer periods of time like some sort of crypt. The tentative date of around AD 1000 for the tomb is based on the style of the artifacts found, and is yet to be confirmed through other techniques. The importance of the site cannot be overstated, as Pachacamac is a candidate for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.


At 42,000 years, bone flutes from German cave mark dawn of instrumental music


In our final story, Oxford and Tübingen University scientists have identified what they believe are the world’s oldest known musical instruments. In their paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers report new radiocarbon dating results for animal bones, excavated in the same archaeological layers as the musical instruments and early art, at Geißenklösterle Cave in the Swabian (SWAY-bee-an) Jura of southern Germany.

The instruments are in the form of flutes and made from bird bones and mammoth ivory. The animal bones display cuts and marks from human hunting and eating.

The flutes come from a key site, believed to have been occupied by some of the first modern humans to arrive in Europe. They were members of the Aurignacian culture, which is linked with early modern humans and dates to the Upper Paleolithic period. Data from Geißenklösterle Cave show human occupation began here between 42,000 and 43,000 years ago, which makes the artifacts 2,000 to 3,000 years older than previously thought.  So far, these dates are the earliest for the Aurignacian and pre-date all known Aurignacian sites from Italy, France, England, and other regions.

To obtain new dates, the team used an improved ultra filtration method designed to remove contamination from the collagen preserved in the bones. According to lead author, Professor Tom Higham of Oxford University, high-resolution dating of this kind is essential for establishing a reliable chronology for testing ideas about the expansion of modern humans into Europe, and the processes that led to the wide range of cultural innovations, including music and art.

The new results are consistent with a hypothesis the team made several years ago that the Danube River was a key corridor for the movement of humans and technological innovations into central Europe between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago. Geißenklösterle is one of several caves in the region that have produced important samples of personal ornaments, figurative art, mythical imagery, and musical instruments. The new dates prove the great antiquity of the Aurignacian in Swabia. The study results also suggest that modern humans entered the Upper Danube region before an extremely cold climatic phase set in around 39,000 to 40,000 years ago. Previously, researchers theorized that modern humans initially migrated up the Danube immediately after this event.

The results are important for understanding the relationship between early moderns and Neanderthals in Europe. Despite efforts to identify archaeological signatures of interaction between Neanderthals and modern humans in this region, researchers have yet to discover indications of any cultural contact or interbreeding in this part of Europe.

Besides that, we’d really like to know what songs were played on those flutes!

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