Audio News for August 5 to August 11, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 5th to August 11th, 2012.


Piles of human bones unearthed in Aztec burial


Our first story is from Mexico, where archaeologists have found an unprecedented human burial: the skeleton of a young woman surrounded by piles of nearly 2000 human bones.  Located at Mexico City's Templo Mayor, the burial is about five meters below the surface, next to the remains of what may have been a sacred tree at one edge of the plaza, the most sacred site of the Aztec capital.  

The National Institute of Anthropology and History noted that the find was the first of its kind.  

The Aztecs did not generally use mass sacrifice or the reburial of bones for the interment of a member of the ruling class.  Except for special circumstances, during their rule from 1325 to the Spanish conquest in 1521, the Aztecs usually cremated members of the elite.  Although researchers have found the bodies of sacrificial victims in burials of elite persons in Mesoamerica going back to at least the preclassic period 2000 or more years ago, they have only rarely encountered funerary deposits for Aztec elites.  The Institute said some of the bones showed what may be cut marks to the sternum or vertebrae, places where a ritual heart extraction might leave a mark, but added that it did not seem likely the dead were sacrificed on the spot to accompany the burial because their bones were found separated.  The researchers discovered the skulls of seven adults and three children in one pile, with long bones including femurs in another grouping, and ribs in another.  

The dig leader suggested the Aztecs may have disinterred the bones from previous burials and reburied them with the woman.  While some pre-Hispanic cultures disinterred bones as part of ancestor worship, it is not clear the Aztecs did.  The burial dates to around 1481 to 1486, based on the stage of temple buildings at which they were found.  

At Templo Mayor, as at many sites, successive generations rebuilt one stage atop another.  
Another unusual finding was the sacred tree, a battered oak trunk planted on a small, round platform near the burial at what would have been the edge of the temple complex.  It may be a couple of decades older than the burial.  The Aztecs, like other pre-Hispanic cultures, venerated trees, believing they had spiritual importance.  


Ancient food transport ship found buried off Italian coast


Off the Italian coast, a police squad has found an ancient ship buried in deep waters.  For more than 80 years, local fishermen had been collecting Roman artifacts and pots in their nets.  Finds of this nature are common in Italian waters, which are littered with cultural objects going back thousands of years.  However, these particular artifacts told a different story, and it attracted the interest of the archaeological community and a police commander who heads an expert diving squad in the city of Genoa.  

Lieutenant-Colonel Francesco Schilardi is the commanding officer of the police team that found the wreck.  His nickname is ''Top Gun'' of the oceans because the finds his team has made by locating and recovering wrecks.  This time the team, including state archaeologists and historians, were so positive that the ocean near the town of Varazze, Liguria, would yield something special that they went to a little more expense to find out what was down there.  They used a submarine, a robot and sophisticated mapping and tracking equipment, along with the results of extensive historical studies of the area.  

The work paid off.  They discovered a 2000-year-old Roman vessel on the sea floor 70 to 100 meters deep, encased in layers of mud, that promises to reveal secrets about the way of life in the 1st Century AD, not only in Rome but also in other regions that traded with the empire.  

The discovery of the food transport vessel, with an estimated 200 clay amphorae on board with caps of pine and pitch intact, sent ripples of excitement through archaeological communities because the ship and its contents are remarkably well preserved.  The finds go back to the Roman Republican and Imperial ages, when Rome traded with other Mediterranean countries, including Spain, and at a time when the Ligurian Sea was the crossroads of Roman marketing and trade.  The Romans used the sea lanes in the area to export food including honey, spices and wine from the late Roman Republican era to the beginning of the Augustan Age.  

Tests on some of the recovered jars revealed they contained pickled fish, grain, wine and oil.  The containers were so well preserved that they will assist in revealing important information about diet at the time and perhaps add to cultural and commercial profiles of the period.  

A sandy mud bed that is typical of the area encases the wreck and helped keep the vessel in a good state of preservation.  Authorities have sealed off the area to prevent looters from plundering the site.  The attention of the researchers has turned to getting financing and state support to recover the wreck and its contents.  Meanwhile the search continues, with archaeologists excited by sonar readings that indicate the sand covering the vessel may well contain further rare artifacts.


Native Americans drank caffeinated “black drink”


Across the Atlantic in the United States, a new study is showing that, like other pre-Columbian Native Americans in the southeastern U.S., people living 700 to 900 years ago in Cahokia, Illinois,  consumed a "black drink."  The leaves of a holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away from the Cahokia site were the source of the caffeinated drink.  Consumption had a ritualistic or religious significance.  Cahokia is a large settlement, in fact the largest urban center in the Mississippi River Valley, distinguished by its massive earthenwork mounds.  

The research team was sampling plant residue found in distinct and relatively rare ancient cylindrical Cahokian mugs.  They found key biochemical markers, of theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid, much like that found within drinking vessels at other sites in the southeastern U.S.  The mugs date from AD 1050 to 1250.  The study was, in part, the result of a similar project where they performed tests on ceramic vessels found at the Chaco Canyon archaeological site in New Mexico.  

Between AD 1100 and 1125, the inhabitants of Chaco consumed liquid chocolate from special ceramic vessels, as the ancient Maya did in Mexico and Central America centuries before.  
According to Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study, this finding brings us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past.  Furthermore, the findings add to evidence of a widespread trade network between Cahokia and other settlements throughout the North American continent, particularly with those of the southeast.  

Emerson argues that this was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because it contains evidence of both widespread contacts and emigrants.  The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region were in contact with Cahokia.  It had a level of population density and a level of political organization not seen before in North America.  

Although the "black drink" appears to represent trade, the Cahokia mugs are locally made.  As cylindrical pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other, many are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld.  The vessels are similar to the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies recorded by early European explorers in the southeast, where the source of the drink, the Yaupon holly, grows.  The Yaupon holly contains very high levels of caffeine, as much as six times that of strong coffee.  Rapidly drinking large quantities of it, as described in the early accounts, caused vomiting, an intentional part of a purification ritual practiced before battle or other important events.  

Along with the black drink, researchers found a series of local pipestone figurines representing agricultural fertility, the underworld and life renewal.  Most of these figurines were associated with temple sites.  

Greater Cahokia, a city with as many as 50,000 residents in its peak during the 12th and 13th centuries AD, was the largest prehistoric North American settlement north of Mexico.  However, scholars puzzle over its sudden emergence and decline within a 200-year period.  Despite its short-lived existence, however, it influenced art, religion and architecture at settlements as far away as present-day Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin.


Ancient Egyptian custom of cutting off enemies’ hands verified


Finally, we go to Nile Delta of Egypt northeast of Cairo, where a team of archaeologists has made a gruesome discovery while   excavating a palace in the ancient city of Avaris (AY-var-iss), the capital city of Egypt under the Hyksos between the 18th and 16th centuries BC.  The team has unearthed 16 human hands buried in four pits.  Two of the pits, located in front of a throne room, hold one hand each.  Two other pits, constructed at a later time in an outer space of the palace, contain the 14 remaining hands.  They are all right hands; there are no lefts.  

According to Manfred Bietak, project and field director of the excavations, most of the hands are quite large and some of them are very large.  The finds Cairo, date back 3,600 years to a time when the Hyksos, a people believed to be originally from northern Canaan, which today would be Lebanon and southern Syria, controlled part of Egypt and made their capital at Avaris, known today as Tell el-Daba.  At the time the hands were buried, Hyksos ruler, King Khayan, occupied the palace. 

It's not known whose hands they were; they could have been Egyptians or people the Hyksos were fighting in the Levant. 

As Bietak explains in the most recent edition of the periodical Egyptian Archaeology, the hands appear to be the first physical evidence of a practice shown in ancient Egyptian writing and art, in which a soldier would present the cut-off right hand of an enemy in exchange for gold.  Bietak notes that this is the earliest evidence and the only physical evidence at all, with each pit representing a ceremony.  Cutting off the right hand, specifically, not only would have made counting victims easier, it would have served the symbolic purpose of taking away an enemy's strength and depriving him of his power eternally.  

One account referring to the practice is written on the tomb wall of Ahmose, son of Ibana, an Egyptian fighting in a campaign against the Hyksos, about 80 years later than the time the 16 hands were buried.  The inscription reads in part:  "Then I fought hand to hand.  I brought away a hand.  It was reported to the royal herald."  

Scientists are not certain who started this gruesome tradition.  No record of the practice is found in the Hyksos' likely homeland of northern Canaan.

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