Audio News for June 10 to June 16, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 10th to June 16th, 2012.


Dutch explorers created early postal system on Madagascar beach


Our first story is from the island of Madagascar, where Australian researchers have discovered a 17th-century postal system made of dozens of stone inscriptions.

Sailors headed towards the East Indies aboard Dutch East India Company ships carved the inscriptions between 1601 and 1657. They often placed letters at the base of the stones, carefully wrapped in layers of canvas, tar and lead envelopes, for other ships to pick up.

According to Wendy van Duivenvoorde, a lecturer in maritime archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, the idea was that the crew of the next Dutch ship to anchor in that same place would inscribe the message on the rock and collect the letters, basically creating an early postal system.

In the 1500s, the Portuguese were the only Europeans who knew the route to southeast Asia, making them the sole spices and exotic goods supplier to the Netherlands. In 1595, the Dutch made their way to Batavia, modern day Jakarta, for the first time. As they voyaged, the sailors realized there was no communication system in place with which they could send messages back home via other Dutch ships, nor was there any way to relay their last port of call. According to van Duivenvoorde, from the first voyage on, the Dutch sailors went to a small beach in Antongil Bay on the northeast corner of Madagascar. They knew from the Portuguese that they could get fresh water there and that it was the only place in the bay where they could anchor safely to ride out a storm or repair a ship. They started using the beach as a communications area by inscribing messages on the rock faces and frequently leaving letters for other ships to pick up.

Investigators discovered about a dozen of these inscriptions in the early 1920s, but a recent expedition led by van Duivenvoorde was the first to conduct a detailed archaeological assessment of the rock carvings within their environment.

The team discovered more than 40 inscriptions left by at least 13 different ships. Some of the carved messages revealed official communications that recorded the names of ships, the times and dates of their arrivals and other such details. The stone inscriptions also contained unofficial messages left by higher-ranking seamen, who carved their names into the stone.

According to the researchers, the crew of the fifth Dutch expedition to the Indies carved the earliest inscriptions in 1601, one year before the official founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. One carving detailed the troubled voyage of the ship Middelburg, which reached the bay after a cyclone in 1625 destroyed its masts, and anchored there for seven months while being repaired.


Racial tension existed in early Annapolis


In the United States, University of Maryland archaeologists are discovering a forgotten period of racial tension at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis pitting Filipino immigrants against African-Americans.

The relations between the groups go back a century, and is a history marked both by violence and by considerable social mixing and even intermarriage. The researchers say changing racial practices at the Naval Academy propelled the tension.

Archaeologist Mark Leone [lee-OH-nee], who is directing the research, says the team is discovering family stories carved in irony. The home they are excavating belonged to an African-American woman married to a Filipino man, anchored in Annapolis by the Naval Academy, brought together by its racial stereotyping, and yet conquering cultural and racial barriers quite successfully in their own lives.

This by no means is an isolated incident, and descendants of mixed Filipino and African-American families continue to thrive today in a loose community along the East Coast of the United States. Leone's Archaeology in Annapolis Summer Field School has resumed digging for a third year at the East Street home of James Holliday, a freed slave and one of the first African-Americans employed by the Naval Academy. Holliday served as a courier for the Academy’s superintendent and lived a middle class existence before the Civil War. In the early 20th Century, the end of the Philippine-American War resulted in a wave of Filipino immigrants to the United States. The Naval Academy had many employment opportunities for the immigrants and made Annapolis a beacon for these immigrants. The Academy hired Filipinos to work in the kitchen as messmen, officer stewards or laborers. In practice, this meant replacing African-Americans in their jobs.

In 1919, the Academy's Commandant of Midshipmen Wat Tyler Cluverius, Jr., expressed a clear preference for Filipinos over African-Americans, stating that they were clean, honest, military, studious, amenable to discipline, and cost less to feed. The policy had profound implications. Over the years, it created economic competition between the two groups that occasionally led to racial confrontations and violence, explains Kathryn Deeley, one of Leone's Ph.D. students who is analyzing the archaeological finds at the Holliday House and related sites.

Deeley points to a February 7, 1931, news article in Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper reporting a new kind of race war. The article describes feuds at the Naval Academy and says that a riot almost broke out when a Filipino enlisted man knocked an African-American kitchen worker unconscious. The racial realities of the time thrust these minority groups together, even while pushing them apart, explains Leone.

According to Leone, both Filipinos and African-Americans were legally prohibited from marrying whites then, and their economic horizons were limited. They lived near each other, socialized and intermarried, although community relations frayed at times. Leone and his team will use the continuing archaeological dig and further community research to uncover more of the family dynamics and the extent of the Filipinos' cultural adaptation. So far they have not found a signature of Filipino culture in the excavations, notes Deeley, who is supervising the analysis of the artifacts. This could reflect a high degree of Filipino cultural adaptation or families in which these immigrant men left the running of the household to their American wives. Alternately, the archaeologists might have missed something or not known what to look for and hope this year to find more evidence to answer the question.

When the UMD team stopped their work at the James Holliday House last summer, they had begun excavating the remains of a former kitchen underneath the building's current basement. The team will continue work there and nearby parts of the house this summer. The team was surprised to find the kitchen used for dressmaking. They discovered a large number of common pins, dress buttons, thimbles, and an awl. Children’s toys found in the kitchen showed that young children used this space too. In addition, like many Annapolis African-American homes from the period, the team found evidence of a continuing use of West African spirit practices.


Welsh building could be older than the pyramids


Moving on to Wales, archaeologists claim to have unearthed the remnants of a large prehistoric building, which could be older than Egypt's pyramids. The unique find on the site of a housing development in Monmouth is mystifying researchers. Researchers from Monmouth Archaeology, who discovered the wooden foundations, say the structure dates to at least the Bronze Age, but could be as old as the early Neolithic period, about 6,500 years ago. If that is true, it would make the Monmouth building 2000 years older than the pyramids.

According to Steve Clarke of Monmouth Archaeology, the builders created the structure on the edge of a now-vanished lake, which silted up over time. Entire tree trunks comprise the building's foundations, which measure about a meter wide. Researchers think it's a long house, which would have been home to a family, and perhaps used for gatherings and meetings. Although the researchers admit they are not entirely sure what the building may have been, they are certain the discovery is the foundation for something. Clarke said the wooden foundations were at least 15 meters long.

Clarke commented that posts about 30 centimeters wide form most of the bases of known long houses, but the base of the Monmouth structure used trees, which prehistoric people placed on a burnt mound. Clarke described a burnt mound as stones heated in a fire and then thrown into a pot or trough to boil water, although some think the stones formed an early type of sauna.

Archaeologists have ordered radiocarbon tests of the foundations. These results are expected later this month.


100 more soldiers march in China’s terracotta army


Our final story is from China, where Chinese archaeologists have unearthed more than 100 additional soldiers in Emperor Qinshihuang's (chin-shee-hwang’s) terracotta army, although the new find suggests the warriors fell prey to arson and looting by the military leader who overthrew the First Emperor's dynasty in the late Third Century B.C.

According to Shen Maosheng, the teams have found large quantities of red clay and charcoal along with looting holes in the major pit. Rebel leader Xiang (shi-ang) was the person with the power, time and motive to destroy the terracotta warriors. Shen Maosheng believes Xiang's troops stole the weapons and smashed figures before setting fire to parts of the pit.

More than 8,000 soldiers have been uncovered at the world famous mausoleum in Xi'an, in northwest China, but much still remains unexplored. The 310 relics from this excavation, which began in 2009, are believed to be only a fraction of the relics that remain to be discovered.

Archaeologists found scores more soldiers, warhorses, two sets of chariots, weapons, drums, and a shield. The shield is the first of its kind found in the three pits containing the warrior statues, archaeologist Yuan (yu-ahn) Zhongyi (jong-yi) said in a statement.

Eight of the figures were officials, sporting more complicated and delicately detailed armor than that of the rank-and-file figures. More color appears on these newly excavated figures than in previous excavations. Some had black and taupe eyeballs and one even showed signs of eyelashes painted on.

Yuan said the other figures may have lost their color from being submerged in water or from Xiang’s arson of the statues. Another possibility was that the paint simply had flaked away. At that time, craftsmen would paint raw lacquer on statues before decorating. After so many years, the lacquer separates from the body, stripping off the color.

A separate excavation in a nearby pit at the site has found more than 20 terracotta figures in two lines facing each other, which researchers believe may have been part of a performance troupe. Even more striking is a headless figure standing more than 7 feet tall, which archaeologists believe would have measured more than 8 feet with its head.

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