Audio News for June 24 to June 30, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 24th to June 30th, 2012.


Downtown Phoenix construction site reveals ancient artifacts


Our first story is from the United States, where archaeologists have found ancient artifacts that could date to one of the earliest phases of the Hohokam, who became the most skilled irrigation farmers in the American Southwest.  The finds were in dirt removed from the downtown Phoenix construction site of the new County Sheriff’s headquarters.  In May, shovels hit an archaeological jackpot at the site when workers unearthed remnants of graves that local preservation researchers traced back to Arizona’s American pioneers who died in the mid- to late-1800s.  

The findings were sparse, but workers found coffin handles, wood slivers and some human remains, suggesting an incomplete job of moving pioneer remains from the city’s first cemetery to the later Pioneer and Military Memorial Park, an 1881 editorial in the Phoenix Herald suggests.  However, the recently found grindstones and pottery fragments could date as far back as 1,700 to 2000 years ago.

According to Mark Hackbarth, an archaeologist contracted with the county to examine any finds during construction, the finds date to the Red Mountain Phase, very early in the Hohokam period and a time before any currently named tribal group.  Although people at that time were farmers, they did not have the more complex sociopolitical organization that was to come later.  

The possibility of an additional Red Mountain Phase archeological site is exciting, notes Laurene Montero, city of Phoenix archaeologist at the Pueblo Grande Museum, where the grindstones and pottery will eventually find a home, as required by federal law.  Montero continued that it is an early phase scientist do not see too much of.  There are only a handful of sites identified that date from roughly AD 1 to 300.  

If confirmed, a new Red Mountain Phase discovery could tell archaeologists why the Hohokam people started farming with large irrigation channels, since Red Mountain probably is ancestral to the later Hohokam.  Scholars believe the people from the Red Mountain Phase seasonally farmed corn from the floodplain, in this case near the Salt River.  Because finds of this age are rare, any additional information pertinent to what was going on at that time would be of great value.  

Archaeologists are not surprised that artifacts roll in with the dirt as developers dig up downtown Phoenix.  A lot of Hohokam occupation took place  in the downtown Phoenix area.  


Palestinian village caught between World Heritage site and Israeli defense plans



Residents of a small Palestinian village in the West Bank hills near Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, say a week lasts eight days, not seven.  That is because Battir’s eight extended families take daily turns watering their crops from the natural springs that feed their ancient agricultural terraces, a practice they say has worked for centuries.  

The water flows through a Roman-era irrigation system down into a deep valley where a railway track, a section of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway built in Ottoman times, roughly marks the 1949 armistice line between the West Bank and Israel.  The area is dotted with tombs--and ruins upon ruins of many civilizations.  

When the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, over the next two weeks, this pastoral area will plunge into the spotlight momentarily as the villagers and conservation professionals fight to save what they say is a unique living cultural and historical landscape.  The researchers say the Battir terraces are under imminent threat because Israel plans to build a section of its West Bank security barrier right through the valley, parallel to the railway track.  They are seeking to have Battir nominated as a World Heritage site on an emergency basis, a move that might persuade Israel to change its plans for the construction.  

Hassan Muamer, a civil engineer working for the Battir Landscape Eco-Museum, notes that the people here constructed their village but always preserved the terraces which are part of their mentality and a living history.  However, internal Palestinian disagreements, designs, and interests have bogged down the effort to secure a nomination for Battir.  The formal submission of the case ground to a halt at the last minute on the grounds that it had come too late.  Instead, the Palestinian delegation to UNESCO is pushing a higher-profile, more political effort to have Bethlehem’s acclaimed Church of the Nativity and pilgrimage route placed on the list of World Heritage sites on an emergency basis.  A panel of experts already has determined that, although the church needs renovation and conservation, it does not appear to be in impending danger and therefore does not qualify for emergency status.  

Leaders of the three churches that share control of the Church of the Nativity also expressed some early reservations.  When UNESCO granted Palestinians full membership in the organization last October, Israel and the United States viewed the development as part of a controversial, wider Palestinian campaign for international recognition of statehood, absence an agreement with Israel.  Now some Palestinian and Western officials say that by pushing the case of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the Palestinian leadership is putting prestige above professional and technical considerations.  

In response to the criticism, the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, wrote a letter condemning what he called a persistent campaign of rumors aimed at discrediting Bethlehem’s candidacy by those who do not want to see Palestine exercise its legitimate rights.  He attached a statement from two of the three church leaders expressing their thanks to the Palestinian leadership for its efforts to safeguard and advance the Christian congregations’ freedom and cause.  Still, specialists in the Palestinian territories say Battir is in more urgent need of protection.  

According to Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, the cultural heritage program specialist at the UNESCO office in Ramallah, in the West Bank, if conservationists submit Battir next year, it may be too late.  If the wall goes through the valley, it will destroy the integrity of the site, he added.  Noting that the terraces are supported by dry stonewalls made up of many millions of stones, Mr. Fontana characterized the valley as not monumental but historical, an example of outstanding engineering and the work of centuries.  

Israel says its barrier, a system of fences and walls, razor wire and patrol roads, is to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities.  The villagers have petitioned the Supreme Court in Israel to have the barrier rerouted to prevent the destruction of the beauty of the area and its ancient system of cultivation.  A decision is pending.  

The conservationists hope that a recommendation from the World Heritage Committee may help persuade the court not to reject the villagers’ petition.  The steep slopes across from Battir are in Israel, making this shared landscape a transboundary site in the UNESCO dictionary.  

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that works to promote cooperation on environmental issues in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories added that alternative ways exist to bring about Israeli security without destroying 4,000 years of cultural heritage for the Israelis, the Palestinians and all of humanity.  

Until the late 1940s, Battir was the last stop before Jerusalem on the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway.  The train platform used to turn into a bustling market, and the villagers maintained strong connections with the city.  The train does not stop here anymore, and most of the produce is now for home use or for local sale.  But the villagers are keeping up with the times, swapping news about the UNESCO effort through a Facebook group of 2,000 residents and supporters.


News Flash!  New evidence shows Mayans did not think world would end in 2012!
Original Headline:  Maya archaeologists unearth new 2012 monument


Moving on to Guatemala, archaeologists working at the site of La Corona have discovered a 1,300-year-old-year Maya text that provides only the second known reference to the so-called "end date" of the Maya calendar, December 21, 2012.  The discovery is one of the most significant hieroglyphic finds in decades and indicates that the Maya did not think the world would be ending this year.  

According to Marcello A. Canuto, director of Tulane's Middle American Research Institute and co-director of the excavations at La Corona, this text talks about ancient political history rather than prophecy.  Since 2008, Canuto and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala have directed excavations at La Corona, a site previously ravaged by looters.  Last year, they realized that looters of a particular building had discarded some badly eroded carved stones because they were unable to sell them on the antiquities black market, so researchers knew they found something important, but they also thought they might have missed something.  

What Canuto and Barrientos found was the longest text ever discovered in Guatemala.  Carved on staircase steps, it records 200 years of La Corona history, according to David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center at The University of Texas at Austin, who was part of a 1997 expedition that first explored the site.  

While deciphering these new finds, Stuart recognized the 2012 reference on a stairway block bearing 56 precisely carved hieroglyphs.  It commemorates a royal visit to La Corona in AD 696 by the most powerful Maya ruler of that time, only a few months after his defeat by his long-standing rival in AD 695.  Scholars believed the ruler died in the battle, but he apparently was visiting allies and allaying their fears after his defeat.  This was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012, notes Stuart.  In times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability rather than predict apocalypse.  Therefore, rather than to prophesy, the 2012 reference places this king's troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological framework.  


Oldest European Neolithic bow found in Spain
Original Headline:  La Draga Neolithic site in Banyoles yields the oldest Neolithic bow discovered in Europe


Our final story is from Spain, where archaeological research carried out at the Neolithic site of La Draga, near the lake of Banyoles, has yielded the discovery of an item unique in the western Mediterranean and Europe.  The item is a bow that appeared in a context dating from the period between 5400 and 5200 BC, the earliest period of settlement at that site.  This is the first bow found intact there.  

It also is the oldest bow of the Neolithic period, the time of the first farmers, so far found in Europe.  The study of La Draga will analyze the technology, survival strategies, and social organization of the first farming communities that settled in the Iberian Peninsula.  The yew wood bow measures 108 cm long, or about 3 and a half feet.  In previous excavations, researchers found two bows from the same time period, but since they are fragmented it is impossible to analyze the characteristics of these tools.  

The current discovery opens new perceptions to understanding how these farming communities lived and organized themselves.  These bows could have served different purposes, such as hunting, although taking into account that this activity was not common in the La Draga area, it cannot be ruled out that the bows may have represented elements of status or relate to defensive or offensive activities.  

Central and northern Europe are home to the majority of bows from the Neolithic period in Europe.  Some fragments of these Neolithic bows date from the end of the 6th millennium BC, between 5200 and 5000 BC, although generally they are from later periods, often more than a thousand years younger than La Draga.  Based on this, archaeologists can assert that the three bows found at La Draga are the most ancient bows in Europe from the Neolithic period.  

The site at La Draga is exceptional for several reasons.  First, due to its antiquity, it is one of the oldest of the Neolithic period known on the Iberian Peninsula.  Second, it is an open-air site with a fairly continuous occupation.  Lastly, and most remarkably, it is in exceptional condition.  The archaeological levels are located in a saturated layer surrounding Lake Banyoles whose conditions favor the preservation of organic material.  These circumstances make La Draga a unique site in all of the Iberian Peninsula.  The phenomenon of archaeological deposits in Neolithic lake settlements is well known in later periods in central Europe, where there is an abundance of lakes and humid environments, but such circumstances are extremely rare outside that geographic area.

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