Audio News for July 22nd to July 28th, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 22nd to the 28th, 2012.


Hittite lion statues perplex researchers


In our first story, from Turkey, archaeologists have discovered two sculptures of life-size lions, each originally weighing about 5 tons.  The Hittites, who controlled a vast empire in the region at a time when Asiatic lion roamed the foothills of Anatolia, created the lifelike lions, but the purpose of the granite cats as well as a large stone basin at the site is perplexing researchers.
According to an article in the American Journal of Archaeology, a search of the surrounding area revealed no evidence of a Hittite settlement dating back to the time of the statues.  Also, the sheer size of the sculptures meant that the sculptors likely did not intend to move them very far.

One idea is that the statues, created between 1400 and 1200 B.C., were part of a monument for a sacred water spring.  To the Hittites, the natural world, springs included, was a place of great religious importance, one worthy of monuments with giant lions.  According to Hittite cuneiform texts, the people saw water as an effective purifying element.

The two lion sculptures have stylistic differences indicating the different sculptors made them. The lion sculpture found in the village of Karakiz is particularly lifelike, with rippling muscles and a tail that curves around the back of the granite boulder.  This sculpture has an orange color caused by the oxidization of minerals in the stone that archaeologists do not believe was present at the time of carving.

The story of the discovery of the massive lions began in 2001, when a man from Karakiz village and an official from the Turkish Ministry of Culture alerted Erol Özen, the director of the Yozgat Museum, to the existence of the ancient quarry.  Looters, however, beat the archaeologists to the catch. They dynamited the Karakiz lion in half, likely in the mistaken belief that it contained hidden treasure.

Looters reportedly also split the second lion in two at its location to the northeast of the village,.

The danger of new looting loomed over the researchers while they went about their work.  In the summer of 2008, they found evidence of fresh treasure hunting along with damage to a drum-shaped rock that the carvers had not finished carving.


Northern Ireland bog site in danger of destruction


A medieval artificial island, or crannog, site at Drumclay in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is in imminent danger of destruction as part of a road-building scheme.  The site originally was intended to be preserved, but construction work elsewhere on the project  led to a sudden dewatering of the bog in which the crannog stood.

In view of the crannog’s now extremely fragile state, archaeologist decided to conduct emergency excavation rather than to seek to preserve the medieval occupation levels.

A spokesman for the Department of Regional Development said that excavations have revealed a medieval site, at least 700 years old, with evidence of its timber-and-soil construction, as well as a wicker-walled structure, possibly a house.  It also has produced fragments of millstones, wooden plates, small crucibles for metal-working, vast quantities of pottery and even pieces of cloth and part of a wooden plough, as well as some human remains.

The bog possibly contains prehistoric material as well and investigation and discussions are underway to ascertain whether these potential earlier remains can be preserved below the road.  The Institute for Archaeologists, a professional organization in Northern Ireland, now is asking some tough questions of the road project management, including why the road was planned so close to an important archaeological site and why the construction was allowed to affect the site’s hydrology and precipitate an emergency situation.


First evidence of Ice Age ceramic figures in southeastern Europe found in Croatia


Now we go to Croatia, where an international team of archaeologists has uncovered the first evidence of ceramic figurative art in the Upper Paleolithic period of southeastern Europe – from about 17,500 years ago, thousands of years earlier than the common use of pottery there or anywhere else.

As described in a paper published in the international online journal PLOS ONE, Researchers found evidence of a community of prehistoric artists and craftspeople who seem to have independently invented ceramics during the last Ice Age at the archaeological site of Vela Spila, Croatia.

The finds consist of 36 fragments, most of them apparently the broken-off remnants of modeled animals.  The archaeologists believe that they were the products of an artistic culture that sprang up in the region about 17,500 years ago.  Their ceramic art flourished for about 2,500 years, but then disappeared.

Views as to when about when humans first developed the ability to make ceramics and pottery are rapidly changing.  Most histories of the technology begin with the more settled cultures of the Neolithic era, which began about 10,000 years ago.

Now it is becoming clear that the story is much more complex.  Over thousands of years, humans invented ceramics, lost the art, reinvented it, and lost it again.  The earliest producers did not make crockery, but seem to have had more artistic inclinations.

Vela Spila is a large, limestone cave on Korčula Island, in the central Dalmatian archipelago. Researcheres have found evidence of occupation on the site during the Upper Paleolithic period, roughly 20,000 years ago, through to the Bronze Age about 3,000 years ago.

Excavators almost overlooked the first ceramic finds because ceramics were so unexpected in the Upper Paleolithic record.  As more ceramic items emerged, however, the excavators set aside examples for careful analysis.  Those that researchers identified appear to be fragments of modeled animals.

Craftspeople who knew what they were doing made the ceramics with care and attention. One of the better preserved items seems to be the torso and foreleg of a horse or deer.

As well as being the first and only evidence of ceramic, figurative art in southeastern Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, the collection’s size, range and complexity suggests that Vela Spila was the heart of a flourishing and distinctive artistic tradition.  Although the finds bear some similarities to ceramics discovered in the Czech Republic, which date back 10,000 years earlier, enough structural and stylistic differences – as well as separation by a huge gulf in time – exist to suggest no continuity between the two.

As a result, the Cambridge-Croatian team believes that these ceramics came from a hitherto unknown artistic tradition that flourished for about two millennia in the Balkans.  Like their Neolithic descendants, these people may have had no knowledge of ceramics before they invented the technology for themselves.


Wisconsin prehistoric village explored during highway construction


Archaeologists in Wisconsin are recovering a remarkable deposits of an ancient Native American  village during  the reconstruction of Highway 35 near La Crosse.

Excavators from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center in La Crosse have found hundreds of food and garbage pits, cooking hearths, tools and other artifacts of the Oneota people who inhabited the La Crosse area between about A.D. 1300 and 1600.  They also have encountered almost two dozen likely human skeletal fragments.

All burial sites are protected by state law.   According to Jim Becker, the archaeology program manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, whenever human remains turn up during construction, the state must stop work and consult with the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Complying with federal law, state officials met with interested parties, including the historical society and the Native American Ho-Chunk Nation to agree on a process for monitoring construction and looking for archaeological and human remains.

Accordiing to laboratory director Connie Arzigian, the Oneota were ancestors of the Ho-Chunk, Ioway, Oto, and Missouri tribes.  When human remains are found, archaeologists usually try to leave them in place, but in this case the road project makes that difficult.

Bill Quackenbush, historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, expressed the view that how and where those remains are interred will be determined at the end of the process.

At one point during the excavation, archaeologists unearthed a bison scapula shaped into a hoe blade that would have been hafted on a stick.  They also found a bone awl used to make clothing from animal hides.

The Oneota people were farmers, growing mostly corn, squash and beans, but also hunted deer and elk and caught catfish, drum, northern pike, and other fish.  Arzigian reported that the bison hoe probably arrived at the site through trade or from a winter hunt on the western plains.

Archaeologists have been surprised by the density of features found — more than 400 pits in a four-block area.  Unlike other local sites, this one hasn't been plowed or eroded, and actually has been protected by the roadway until now.

The discoveries have delayed construction somewhat, but construction contractors are working in other areas while archaeologists dig.  The November 16 completion date still appears realistic, thanks in part to the unusually dry summer.

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