Audio News for July 1st to July 7th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 1st to July 7th, 2012.


Chinese find makes pottery much older than first farmers


Our first story is from China, where pottery fragments found in a southern cave are confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world.  The findings, which appear in the journal Science, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery finds elsewhere in East Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, and contradict existing opinions that pottery was invented about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers.  

The new findings from a team of Chinese and American scientists pushes the emergence of pottery well back into the last ice age, a correlation that should spark new explanations for how and why pottery was first created.  In an accompanying article of comment by Gideon Shelach, chair of the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at The Hebrew University in Israel, who is not involved in the research project, this kind of research is fundamental to better understanding of the socio-economic changes 25,000 to 19,000 years ago that led to the emergence of sedentary agricultural societies.  According to Shelach, the disconnection between pottery and agriculture as shown by this new East Asia research focuses new attention on specifics of human development in the region.  

According to Wu Xiaohong (WOO shau-hong), the professor of archaeology at Peking University who is the lead author of the article detailing the radiocarbon dating work, her team was building on the work of generations of scholars to reach the point of being able now to explore the big questions: why there was pottery in that particular time, what the vessels were used for, and what role they played in human subsistence and society.  

The newly dated fragments were discovered in a cave in south China's Jiangxi (DZHONG-shee) province, which was excavated in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.  The geology of the cave and context of the find suggested that the pieces could be 20,000 years old, but doubts remained.  It was not until 2009 that Wu’s team was able to calculate the age of the pottery fragments with precision, by confirming that the sediments in the cave accumulated gradually without disruption that might have altered the sequence of the ceramic fragments, bone and charcoal within each layer.  In 2009, Wu’s team published related research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined a set of pottery fragments found in south China's Hunan province were 18,000 years old.  

Islamic extremists in Mali attack an ancient shrine


In the sub-Saharan country of Mali, five times a day for more than 15 years, Aphadi Wangara has led prayers at Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu, one of three in the ancient Malian desert town on the Niger River.  But the day after hard-line Islamists attacked and damaged the 15th-Century mosque, the softly spoken imam had no consoling words to offer.  Barely one day earlier, a group of Islamist militants appeared outside the clay-coated mosque, armed with pickaxes and shouting "Allahu Akbar."  They broke down the entrance and destroyed a door locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world.  

The militants, who belong to the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine [AN-sar DEEN], had already defaced mausoleums and tombs of local Sufi saints, prompting UNESCO to declare Timbuktu an endangered world heritage site.  According to Haidrata, a resident who gave only his first name, there is a door that absolutely cannot be opened at the entrance of the mosque.  They believe it is a profanity to open this door; as it can only be opened on the day the world will end.  The militants broke it down.  When asked why, they said it was because they were being accused of destroying endangered monuments when they hadn't done so and they wanted to show what they were really capable of.  

Ansar Dine and the Tuareg separatist MNLA movement say the local monuments sprinkled throughout Mali, including distinctive sun-baked mosques renowned for palm trees protruding from their earthen walls, are idolatrous and contrary to their strict interpretation of Islam.  An Ansar Dine spokesman called the monuments "un-Islamic."  

Almost 1,000 kilometers south, in Bamako [ba-MAH-ko], the transitional government of Mali, which has struggled to exert control over the vast territory amid violent demonstrations and attempted counter-coups, appears powerless to stop the attacks.  The assault on the Sidi Yahya mosque, however, has angered ordinary Malians.  According to Tiégoum Maiga, organizer of a march through the capital, everybody is angry, and many of those people are willing to take to the streets to push the government into doing something.  The government says it can't do anything, but people in Timbuktu are using sticks and stones to defend themselves.  Cheick Oumar Cisse, a former culture minister and one of Mali's most famous filmmakers, commented that the more people denounce them, the more they will defy the international community to prove they are masters in their own territory.  He hopes the destruction will stop here, but characterized the vandals as people who are completely mad, incapable of being reasoned with.  

Timbuktu continues to endure the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites, in attacks reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.  Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, and the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that threatened sanctions on rebel fighters in northern Mali and decried the vandalism of cultural sites.  But this resolution seems unlikely to end the destruction.  The prospect of international intervention of any kind remains uncertain.  In the meantime, the desecration of Timbuktu will likely continue.


New finds add to information on Wari culture of Peru


In the Ayachucho region of Peru, new research links a sundial, ancient relics and an underground tunnel to the Wari civilization.  Ayacucho holds one of the most spectacular ancient landmarks in the country, the Wari Archaeological Complex.  According to Joseph Ochatoma, who is leading the excavation, the sundial is believed to be a precursor to an Incan sundial, while 18 niches painted in white on the walls of a large D-shaped room may have held ancestral mummies.  

The Wari culture was a Middle Horizon civilization that flourished in the south-central Andes and adjacent coastal areas of modern-day Peru from about AD 600 to 1000.  Wari, as the former capital city was called, is located 11 kilometers, or about 6 miles, northeast of the modern city of Ayacucho, Peru.  Other Wari ruins have been discovered in the cities of Chiclayo and Moquegua.  Archaeologists from the San Cristobal de Huamanga National University found the newly discovered room while working in an area of the site originally discovered in 1931.  The newly announced finds took place several months ago, during the current season of excavation.

Pakistani province races to save Mohenjo-daro from decay


Our final story is from Pakistan, where officials say they are doing their best to save one of the most important archaeological sites in south Asia, Mohenjo-daro.  Nevertheless, some researchers fear the Bronze Age site could be lost unless radical steps are taken.  The site is known for its breathtaking preservation of homes built 4,500 years ago that can still be walked through and viewed, with recognizable front and back entrances, interconnecting rooms, neatly laid fired-brick walls, even a basic toilet and sewage outlets.  Remarkably for their age, the homes were even two stories tall.  Even more impressive is to walk outside, down a real Bronze Age street, and see all of the other homes lining it, and to look into the precise lanes running off to the sides before it reaches a grand, ancient marketplace.  

Mohenjo-daro was one of the world’s earliest cities, and the most complex in its day, about 2600 BC, with its evidence of urban planning, precise architecture, and complex water and sewage systems advanced far beyond cities of far later dates.  The city is thought to have housed up to 35,000 inhabitants of the great Indus Civilization.  Now, according to Dr. Asma Ibrahim, one of Pakistan's most accomplished archaeologists, any visit is distressing, as she notes signs of major decay such as in the lower town, where the middle and working classes once lived, where walls are crumbling from the base upwards due to salt in the ground water.  The salts are eating away at bricks that, before excavation, had survived thousands of years.  

Signature buildings like the large public bath are in even worse condition.  Some walls have collapsed completely; others seem to be close to doing so.  According to Dr. Ibrahim, it is definitely a complicated site to protect, given the problems of salinity, humidity and rainfall.  Most of the attempts at conservation by the authorities have been so poorly conceived or executed, they have only accelerated the damage.  One approach has been to cover all the brickwork across the vast site with mud slurry in the hope that the mud will absorb the salt and moisture.  However, where the mud has dried and crumbled, it has taken with it fragments of ancient brick, and the decay goes on underneath.  In parts of the site, millennia-old bricks have even been replaced with brand new ones.  

Compounding the problem, the Mohenjo-daro museum has been looted.  Many of its famous seals, believed to have been used by the traders who brought in the city’s wealth, are among the artifacts stolen.  At least one guide at the site has also described the changes in the site’s condition and upkeep as a dramatic downturn.  

Given the damage being done to this World Heritage Site, a poor tourism strategy has become the least of its troubles.  The government of Pakistan, which was in charge of Mohenjo-daro for decades, recently handed over responsibility to the provincial authorities in Sindh.  They have now set up a technical committee to rescue the site.  According to Dr. Ibrahim, they need urgently to listen to professionals from all fields to save Mohenjo-daro.  One redeeming feature may be that some of the city remains unexcavated and so remains protected, and some have gone so far as to suggest the entire site should be buried again to halt its decline.  That proposal signals the desperation of those who love Mohenjo Daro, who are pained to see a city that once rivaled sites of contemporary civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China lose its glory in this undignified way.

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