Audio News for August 12 to August 18, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 12th to August 18th, 2012.

Danish bog holds hundreds of warriors killed 2,000 years ago


Our first story is from Denmark, where a fractured skull and a thighbone hacked in half, along with other finds of damaged human bones, axes, spears, clubs, and shields, confirm that the bog at Alken Enge was the site of violent conflict.  According to Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst, professor of archaeology at Aarhus University, it is clear that this must have been a quite far-reaching and dramatic event having a profound effect on the society of the time.  

For two months, Dr. Holst and a team of fifteen archaeologists and geologists have been working to excavate the remains of hundreds of warriors apparently killed, sacrificed and thrown into a lake around 2,000 years ago in the Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland in Denmark.  An international team of researchers will attempt to discover who these warriors were and where they came from through detailed analyses of the remains.  The archaeological investigation of the site is nearing its conclusion for this year.  

However, the evidence indicates that the find is much larger than the area excavated thus far.  According to the dig’s Field Director, Ejvind Hertz of Scanderborg Museum, small test digs placed at different locations around the 40-hectare Alken Enge wetlands area have continued to produce new finds.  In fact, the find is so massive that researchers are not counting on being able to excavate all of it.  Instead, they will focus on recreating the general outlines of the events that took place at the site by performing smaller digs at different spots across the bog and reconstructing what the landscape might have looked like at the time.  

At the same time as the archaeological dig, geologists from the university’s department of geoscience have been investigating the development of the bog.  The geological survey indicates that the archaeological finds were thrown into the water at a point in time when a tongue of land jutting into Lake Mossø formed a smaller basin at the east end of the lake.  This smaller basin became the Alken Enge bog of today.  The geologists' analyses also indicate that the water level in the area has changed several times.  Mapping these periods of high and low water levels chronologically using geological techniques will tell researchers what the precise conditions were on the site at the time of the mass sacrifice.

Giant freeze-dryer will conserve colonial ship


More than three centuries ago, a French explorer's ship sank in the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it France's hopes of colonizing a vast piece of the New World in modern-day Texas.  Like La Salle in 1685, researchers at Texas A&M University are in uncharted waters as they try to reconstruct his vessel with a gigantic freeze-dryer, the first undertaking of its size.  

By placing the ship, the La Belle, in a constant environment as cold as 60 degrees below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be carefully removed from hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks.  The freeze-dryer, located at an old Air Force base, is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, the largest such machine on the continent devoted to archaeology.  After removing the moisture from the ship, researchers will then rebuild the 54 ½-foot-long vessel, which will become the centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.  

The supply ship La Belle was built in 1684 and sank only two years later in a storm on Matagorda Bay, about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi.  According to Jim Bruseth, who led the Texas Historical Commission effort to recover the remains, the loss of La Belle doomed La Salle's dreams of a French colony on the coast and opened up the door for Spain to come in and occupy Texas.  

Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, was the first European to travel the Mississippi River south to the Gulf, claiming all the land along the Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682.  In 1685, he sailed from France with more than 300 colonists aboard four ships, La Belle among them, to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi.  Maps of the time show he believed the river was closer to Mexico, and his expedition missed the Mississippi by hundreds of miles.  His team established a colony near Matagorda Bay, but disease, rattlesnakes and Indians ravaged them.  Three years later, La Salle led a handful of survivors inland in a last effort to get to the Mississippi.  Unfortunately for him, the doomed explorer never made it out of Texas: he was murdered by his own men.

La Salle’s sunken ship La Belle marks an important stage in naval architecture as well, according to Peter Fix, conservator at the school's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation.  Researchers have determined that, unlike earlier vessels, the French shipbuilders made detailed and carefully measured marks along the frames of the La Belle so that the wood comprising the hull could follow the complex curve of the ship.  According to Fix, this shows how the age of Enlightenment was beginning to affect shipbuilding, with more math coming into play.  

It took a decade-long hunt by the Texas Historical Commission archaeologists to locate the ship, which finally was found in 1995 in 12 feet of muddy water.  Then began the long recovery phase, starting with construction of a dam around the site.  The seawater then was pumped out, and excavation teams dug through up to 6 feet of mud in the Gulf of Mexico seabed to retrieve the nearly intact ship and some 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons and ammunition, as well as beads and mirrors meant for trade.  Archaeologists also found one skeleton, either a crewmember or settler who was among the 40 people aboard.  

The research team then transferred the ship to the Texas A&M University lab, where the waterlogged wood was immersed in a chemical solution that would gradually switch the water for a solid preservative.  Initially, the ship was going to be reassembled using this conventional two-stage chemical process, but as oil prices rose, so did the cost of the key chemical, polyethylene glycol.  That made the freeze-dry process more economical, and the switch would also shorten the preservation timeframe.  So the hull was then disassembled, with each piece of wood catalogued and digitally scanned to record its original shape.

Normally, wood that's been wet for hundreds of years will shrink, crack and warp when it suddenly begins to dry.  The physical stress caused as the water leaves the wood will essentially cause the wood to fall apart, crumble, and powder into pieces.  Freeze-drying, however, uses temperature and pressure to change water directly into gas, skip the dangerous liquid phase.  A similar preservation using freeze-dryer technology is planned for a medieval ship discovered in 2002 in Newport, South Wales, which is about twice the length of La Belle.  The freeze-drying of the La Belle will take about a year, and her rebuilding for analysis and museum display will start late next year.  


Zapotec burial tomb shows local differences in play


In Mexico, the tomb of a high-ranking member of Zapotec society has come to light at a 1,200-year-old funerary complex in the southern state of Oaxaca.  According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the funerary complex itself, which has three burial chambers, was found about three months ago at the Atzompa archaeological zone.  

Archaeologists have now penetrated into the third pre-Columbian burial chamber, finding human remains that are likely those of a male.  The remains are to be analyzed to determine the age, nutrition and health of the individual, as well as whether the skeleton has intentional deformities.  Archaeologists found a fractured skull belonging to another individual next to the remains, leading them to suspect that it was an offering.  

Also found in the burial chamber were a small, black tubular pitcher and pieces of a vessel.  According to archaeologist Eduardo Garcia, the ceramic vessel was a red urn with a human face on it, measuring 50 centimeters tall, or nearly two feet, and is estimated to date back to AD 650 to 850.  Researchers believe they are dealing with a building containing the remains of people with a very high status.  Who they were and what role they played in Zapotec society is still to be determined based on the findings that are being made and their later analysis.

Archaeologists found the building, designed specifically as a burial site, in late April.  The tombs are located one on top of the other and, unlike previous discoveries, are not underground.  One of the burial chambers is decorated with a mural of a ball game, a theme not found before in Zapotec funerary practices.  Atzompa was a small satellite city of Monte Alban, the main center of the Zapotec state that dominated what today is Oaxaca, southeast of Mexico City.  The discovery, however, changes the previous perception that such a satellite city was similar to Monte Alban.   Instead, as Institute archaeology coordinator Nelly Robles Garcia noted, the discovery of unique new local architectural forms shows that Atzompa developed its own cultural expressions.  This may help shed light on understanding the political and social relationships between the Zapotecan center and its thickly settled countryside.

Greenland shipwreck is vessel that carried doomed South Pole explorer


Our final story is about another ship, the wreck of the Terra Nova, which carried Captain Robert Scott to his doomed expedition to Antarctica a century ago.  A team from a US research company discovered the remains of the SS Terra Nova off the coast of Greenland.  

Scott and his party set off from Cardiff, Wales, aboard the SS Terra Nova in 1910 with the aim of becoming the first expedition to reach the South Pole.  Scott’s endeavor became popularly known as the Terra Nova expedition, from the ship that carried them to the southern icecap.  Upon arriving at the geographical South Pole in January 1912, Scott discovered that a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them there.  Scott’s team died on their return journey from the pole, and a search party found their bodies eight months later.  

After that epidose, the Terra Nova went on to many other journeys, including one in 1943 to deliver supplies to base stations in the Arctic north.  It was off Greenland's south coast when it was damaged by ice.  The US Coast Guard cutter Southwind rescued the ship’s crew before the Terra Nova sank.  

A crew from the Schmidt Ocean Institute discovered the Terra Nova while testing echo-sounding equipment aboard its flagship vessel, the R/V Falkor.  One of the scientists noticed an unidentified feature during sonar mapping of the seabed.  Team members then noted that the 57-meter length of the feature matched the reported length of the Terra Nova.  Technicians dropped a camera package to a point just above the presumed wreck to film it.  Camera tows across the top of the target showed the remains of a wooden wreck lying on the seabed.  Footage from the camera also identified a funnel lying next to the ship.  Taken together, the features of the wreck closely matched historical photos of the Terra Nova, leading to the identification.  

According to Brian Kelly, an education officer from the Discovery Point museum in Dundee, where the ship was built, the Terra Nova has many stories in her lengthy history.  Her construction and long lifespan are testimony to the skill of Scottish wooden shipbuilding during its peak years.  The Terra Nova’s find comes appropriately enough exactly 100 years after the race for the pole, and adds to international commemoration of the event being celebrated this year.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!