Audio News for July 15th to July 21st , 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 15th to July 21st, 2012.


Charred olive pit is clue to complexity of Iron Age England


In our first story, archaeologists in England have discovered an olive pit in an Iron Age well that suggests Iron Age Britons were importing olives from the Mediterranean a century before the Romans arrived.  Discovered at Silchester in Hampshire, the olive pit came from a layer securely dated to the first century BC, making it the earliest ever found in Britain.  Archaeologists surmise that since nobody ever went to the trouble of importing one olive, there must have been more, now rotted beyond recognition or perhaps still buried.  

The olive, along with earlier finds of seasoning herbs such as coriander, dill and celery, are all previously thought to have arrived with the Romans.  The new find, however, combines with the other discoveries of Mediterranean-origin herbs to suggest that the diet in Silchester might have been more like an Italian restaurant than was previously known.  

The pre-Roman well is part of a house complex, where the excavation team led by Professor Mike Fulford of Reading (RED -ing) University also found another more poignant luxury import:  the skeleton of a tiny dog, no bigger than a modern toy poodle, carefully buried, curled up as if in sleep.  According to Fulford, the dog was fully grown, two or three years old and showed no signs of butchery, so it wasn't a luxury food or killed for its fur.  However, it was found in the foundations of the large house, which by its size and complexity must have belonged to a chief or a sub-chief.  Whether this little dog conveniently died just at the right time to be put into the foundations, or was killed as a high status offering, archaeologists can’t tell.  

Fulford’s team is still uncovering the house, which is 50 meters long at least, or 165 feet, so it may turn out to be the biggest Iron Age building in Britain.  The survival of the olive pit, which was partly charred, was a lucky accident of preservation.  According to Fulford, to find more will require digging a lot more wells.  

Fulford has been leading the annual summer excavations at Silchester, which bring together hundreds of student, volunteer and professional archaeologists, for half a lifetime, and the site continues to throw up surprises.  Silchester was an important town from well before Roman times up till the 7th Century AD, when it was deliberately abandoned, its wells blocked up and its buildings knocked down.  It was never reoccupied.  Apart from a few Victorian farm buildings, it is still open farmland, surrounded by the jagged remains of massive Roman walls.  Fulford now believes that the town was at its height a century before the Roman invasion in AD 43, with streets that were planned and paved, a drainage system, shops, houses and workshops, trading across the continent for luxury imports of food, household goods and jewelry, enjoying a lifestyle in Britain that previously was believed to have arrived with the Romans.


New Maya temple stood out with giant red masks of the sun


Now we cross the Atlantic to Guatemala and an exciting new Maya discovery.  Some 1,600 years ago, the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles across the Mayan landscape, adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar.  Long since swallowed in the Guatemalan jungle, the temple finally  is resurfacing under the work of archaeologists to reveal new clues about rivalries in the kingdoms of the Maya.  

Unlike the relatively centralized Aztec and Inca empires, the Maya civilization, which covered much of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico's Yucatán region, was a loose aggregation of city-states.  According to Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, this awareness has been growing since the 1990s, when it also became clear that a few kingdoms were more important than others.  El Zotz, in current day Guatemala, was one of the smaller kingdoms, but one apparently bent on making a big impression.  In 2010 archaeologists who were working on a hilltop near the ancient city center discovered Diablo Pyramid, 13 meters, or over 40 feet, tall.  On its top it they found a royal palace and a tomb, believed to hold the city's first ruler, who lived around AD 350 to 400.  
Around the same time, Houston and a colleague spotted the first hints of the Temple of the Night Sun, behind the royal tomb on Diablo Pyramid.  Only recently, though, have excavations uncovered the unprecedented artworks under centuries of overgrowth.  The sides of the temple are decorated with 1.5-meter, or 5-foot tall, stucco masks that show the face of the sun god changing as he traverses the sky over the course of a day.  The first type of mask is shark-like, likely a reference to the sun rising from the Caribbean in the east.  The noonday sun is depicted as an ancient being with crossed eyes who drinks blood.  The final series of masks resemble the local jaguars, which awake from their jungle slumbers at dusk.  

The masks were colored crimson, as shown by many traces of paint still surviving, which would have helped them stand out even further.  The bright red pigment would have had a particularly marked effect at dawn and at the setting of the sun.  Importantly, it would also have been noticeable from Tikal, a larger, older, and more powerful kingdom than El Zotz, which was nearby, but may or may not have been on friendly terms.

In Maya culture, the sun is closely associated with new beginnings and the sun god with kingship.  The presence of solar faces on a temple next to a royal tomb may signify that the person buried inside was the founder of a dynasty or El Zotz's first king.  The Diablo Pyramid will certainly advance the knowledge of Early Classic Maya religion and ritual practice.  

Houston's team also found hints that the Maya, who added new layers to the temple over generations, regarded the building as a living being.  For example, the noses and mouths of the masks in older, deeper layers of the temple were systematically disfigured.  According to Houston, this action is actually quite common in Maya culture.  It's hard to find any Maya depiction of the king that doesn't have its eyes mutilated or its nose hacked.  Houston sees it more as deactivation than mutilation.  

Maya scholars have hailed the discovery of the masks and the newfound sun temple as a uniquely valuable find, because they can help verify interpretations about Maya portrayals of the sun god.  The temple is also wonderfully well preserved, making it a real gold mine of information.

Despite the obvious care that was taken to construct and preserve the newfound temple, it wasn't used for long.  Evidence at the site suggests the building was abandoned sometime in the Fifth Century, for reasons unknown.  The answer to this mystery and others could become evident as more of the Temple of the Night Sun is uncovered.  So far, only 30 percent of the facade has been exposed.


Chinese tomb illustrates era of the Three Warring Kingdoms


Moving on to China, about 1,800 years ago, at a time when the country was breaking apart into three warring kingdoms, a general was laid to rest.  Buried in a tomb with a domed roof, along with his wife, this warrior was about 45 years old when he died.  Two wooden coffins, now rotted away, housed the skeletal remains of the couple, whose names are unknown.  Based on the tomb design and grave goods, archaeologists believe he was a general who had served one or more of the country's warring lords, perhaps Cao Cao (TSOW TSOW) and his son Cao Pi (TSOW PEA).  

The tomb was discovered in the city of Xiangyang (shi-ang-YAHNG), which at the time of the Three Kingdoms was of great strategic importance.  Rescue excavations started in October 2008 and now the discovery is detailed in the most recent edition of the journal, Chinese Archaeology.  
According to archaeologist Liu Jiangsheng (je-ahng-SHENG), one of the biggest finds of the rescue operation was a life-size bronze horse, the largest ever found in China.  It measures 163 cm by 163 cm, or more than 5 feet in either direction.  The bronze horse stands upright, with raised ears, prominent eyes, and an open mouth.  A long and broad neck, upright mane and drooped tail bring the horse vividly to life.  

The tomb also held a highly detailed glazed pottery model of a two-story mansion surrounded by an enclosing wall with a gateway.  The gate has two main doors, each decorated with a doorknocker ring and two feathered human figurines.  Many of the decorations on the house feature the motif of a bear.  Pottery houses like these are known from the preceding Han Dynasty, although detailed multi-story houses are rare.

Like any good warrior, the general made sure he was well equipped for the afterlife.  The excavators found bronze and iron sabers in the tomb along with a bronze crossbow trigger still in good condition after 1,800 years.  Other artifacts found in this tomb include gold and silver disks, crystal and agate beads, and gold bracelets.  Among the finds is a jade pig figurine, with a finely detailed snout.  Another work shows a glazed pottery figurine of a dog barking furiously while standing on all fours.  Also found was a bronze mirror with a round knob in the center.  The mirror is decorated with elaborate patterns that include depictions of the phoenix and a kui, the one-legged mountain demon that resembles a dragon.  The Three Kingdoms period is one of the most celebrated periods of Chinese history.  It marked the end of the 400-year-long Han Dynasty and the emergence of the kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu.


Hellenistic harbor found on Israeli seacoast


In our final story, archaeologists in the Israeli port city of Acre (AH-krey) have discovered an ancient harbor where warships may have docked 2,300 years ago.  According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hellenistic period harbor is the largest and most important one found in Israel from that time.  The signs of a constructed seaport include a quay (kee) uncovered during archaeological excavations carried out as part of a seawall conservation project.  

Among the finds were large mooring stones incorporated in the quay and used to secure sailing vessels.  According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the IAA’s marine archaeology unit, this unique and important find  of the mooring stones unequivocally answers the question of whether the finds might simply represent the floor of a sunken building.  Many stones were found spread over dozens of meters in the excavations, and appear to have belonged to collapsed, large buildings.  What emerges from these finds is a clear picture of systematic and deliberate destruction of the port facilities that occurred in antiquity.  

Sharvit’s team will continue excavation in those sections of the harbor that extend in the direction of the sea to try to clarify any connection between the destruction of the harbor and the Hasmonean uprising in 167 BC, the destruction wrought by Ptolemy in 312 BC or some other event.  Parts of the quay continue beneath the Ottoman city wall, and it may not be possible to excavate these.  Along with the mooring stones, archaeologists found thousands of fragments of pottery vessels, as well as unbroken vessels and metallic objects.  Preliminary identification of the pottery vessels indicates that many of them come from port cities in the Aegean Sea, including Knidos, Rhodes and Kos.

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