Audio News for September 2nd to September 8th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 2nd to September 8th, 2012.


Ancient Peruvian tomb may have been designed to flood


In our first story. from Peru, archaeologists believed they had discovered something special when they uncovered the tomb of a pre-Inca priestess and eight other corpses in 2011 in the Lambayeque region.  Continuing their search a year later, the team dug beneath the priestess, uncovering a basement tomb that they believe was built by an ancient water cult.  The tomb builders apparently wanted to flood the tomb.  

The little-known culture that built the stacked tomb lent its name to the region.  The nearly 800-year-old basement burial sheds light on complex social structures and on the worship of water in the culture.  Researchers found four sets of water-saturated human remains in the flooded tomb, one adorned with pearl and shell beads, which were indicators of wealth or status.  The other three corpses likely were intended to accompany the body into the next world.  Copper sheets covered the faces of both privileged individuals, in the lower and upper tombs, and they wore ear spools bearing similar, wavelike designs.  

The Lambayeque, sometimes called the Sicán, settled along the drought-prone Peruvian coast nearly a hundred years before the Inca arrived.  The stacked tomb sits in the ceremonial complex called Chotuna-Chornancap, close to the modern city of Chiclayo.  The spiritual center's coastal location, water-themed art and recently discovered grave may help round out the creation story of the Lambayeque.  

According to folklore, their mythical founder, Naymlap, arrived on a raft from the sea and walked on crushed Spondylus shells, a ritual item treasured throughout the Andes.  When he died, he turned into a bird.  The watery grave contained piles of shells and wave-embossed gold ear spools; more evidence of the importance of water to the Lambayeque.  They knew the tomb, located below the water table, where the ground is always saturated, would flood and they likely wanted it to flood, perhaps to ensure the region's agricultural fertility.  

Stacked burials are highly unusual in Andean archaeology.  Typically, excavators find elite tombs in isolation.  While archaeologists have not yet determined the sex of the person in the flooded tomb, they believe that individual is linked somehow to the important woman overhead.  Alternatively, the two may have shared a religious, commercial or political relationship, such as a succession of power.  

While some researchers believe that the Lambayeque intentionally placed the grave in groundwater, other archaeologists question whether the tomb actually flooded during Lambayeque times.  The area water table, they note, fluctuates with rainfall and irrigation levels.  Some archaeologists say modern agriculture may have raised the water table, meaning the original grave would have been dry.  The more cropland farmers irrigate, the more runoff percolates into the soil and underground water table.  Regardless of water levels, this find is one of the very few elite tombs dating to the Late Sicán.

 500-year-old Alaskan settlement disappearing into Bering Sea


A recently discovered 500-year-old Alaskan settlement is rapidly disappearing into the Bering Sea.  The exceptionally well preserved frozen site provides an impressive insight into the Yup'ik Eskimo culture.  Researchers at the site from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland are using isotope analyses on recovered Eskimo hair to investigate how humans adapted to rapid climate change in the Arctic village.  

The Yup'ik culture was one of the last contacted Eskimo societies, but it occupied a large area between Nome, Alaska, and the Alaska Peninsula.  According to Dr. Rick Knecht, of the University of Aberdeen, it is probably the most spectacularly well preserved and valuable site in terms of information content he has ever seen.

In the first couple of years of excavations, researchers found about 7,000 artifacts, including items like ivory, woven grass, incredibly well preserved animal remains, animal fur and even human hair.  However, permafrost has protected the site, and the permafrost is melting due to climate change.  As it melts, it exposes the very soft soil to marine erosion, damaging the retreating shoreline and the sites.  This year, scientist were shocked by the amount of destruction; artifacts as big as tables thrown up on the bank by a single storm on a high tide near the modern village of Quinhagak.  The storm periods are now lasting weeks longer because of the lack of ice cover.  The sea ice cover is at a record low right now and continuing to drop, and every time that happens, the site is more at risk.  

Ironically, the artifacts released by the effects of sea ice reduction may help the scientists better understand how the Yup'ik people adapted to a rapidly changing climate.  The Yup'ik people inhabited this locality, known as Nunalleq, from around AD 1350 to 1650, during which time the area suffered through The Little Ice Age.  By analyzing extremely well preserved hair found there, the team hopes to understand how the people of Nunalleq altered their behavior with a changing environment through the chemical signatures, the isotopes present in the food they ate, left behing in their hair.  

By analyzing strands of the hair of multiple individuals, they are getting a picture of a very mixed and generalized economy incorporating salmon, caribou and other animal species.  This is in the earlier cultural phasee.  They are working on younger sites that will give a clear idea of how the people's diet was adapting to changes in climatic conditions, which would have affected the availability of the different food species.  

King Richard III long-lost burial church uncovered


Moving on to the United Kingdom, University of Leicester [LESS-ter] archaeologists have found the lost church where mourners buried Richard III over 500 years ago, under a City Council parking lot.  After his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, his subjects brought the body of Britain’s last Plantagenet king to Leicester and buried it in a Franciscan friary.  

This was known as the Church of the Grey Friars.  Henry VIII had the structure demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541.  Over the years, people forgot its location.  Recently, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services launched its investigation for the church and the first-ever search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England.  

Very soon after the opening of their excavation, the research team came down on the remains of a medieval building that they are confident are part of the lost friary.  Together with medieval window tracery, glazed floor tile fragments, a fragment of stained glass window, and roof tiles only used on high-status buildings, the investigations have uncovered the floor of a passageway that archaeologists believe might be part of the cloister, and a section of wall that could have belonged to the church.  

According to Co-Director Richard Buckley, the discoveries so far leave researchers in no doubt that they are on the site of Leicester’s Franciscan Friary, meaning they have crossed the first significant hurdle of the investigation.  The third excavation trench now  has made scientists certain that they have located the Friary church, marking not only a huge step forward in the search for the remains of Richard III, but also important new evidence for one of Leicester’s major religious buildings, lost for over 400 years.

With the church identified, the hunt is now on for Richard III’s grave, although some historical accounts say that those involved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries removed the king’s bones from Greyfriars and threw them into the River Soar.  


Wonderfully preserved Roman shipwreck excavated on French Riviera


Our final story is from France, where archaeologists have discovered a shipwreck during a dig in Antibes, on the French Riviera, at the ancient site of the Roman port of Antipolis.  Archaeologists have gradually uncovered a 15-meter length of hull and structural timbers, in exceptional condition, according to Giulia Boetto, a specialist in ship design at Aix-Marseille University involved in the dig.  Saw and adze marks are still visible on the wood.  

The ground in which the researchers found the ship is waterlogged, preventing the timber from rotting and decomposing.  Sprinklers have kept the hull and its structure moist since its discovery.  The ship, a merchant vessel from the imperial period, measures about 22 meters long and six or seven meters across.  Investigators believe it sank in the second or third century.  It has a typical Graeco-Roman flat-bottomed design with a hold three meters deep and would have had a square sail to drive it, suspended from a mast, not yet found.  The archaeologists have made some interesting discoveries; including a little 15-centimeter brush dropped by a shipwright sealing the hull.

A ship like this could carry a cargo of up to about 100 tons.  While this may seem a lot, it is well below the tonnage reached by other vessels; at the time, the boats transporting Egyptian corn back to Rome could be as long as 40 to 50 metres, loaded with up to 400 tons of grain.  

How did the ship come to be lying at a depth of barely two meters in the port of Antibes?  Researchers can't be absolutely sure, but it's possible, as sometimes happened, that the Romans deliberately scuttled the ships to serve as a landing stage.  It also may be that a rogue wave swamped it.  Nowhere on the section of the vessel that has been uncovered have archaeologists found any signs of repairs, so probably it was not particularly old when it sank.  In due course, the research team will properly date the timber itself.  

The archaeologists working on the dig have found no evidence of any cargo.  This is not surprising, because when a ship went down, the crew normally would salvage as much cargo as possible.

In excavating the 5,000-square-meter site, the archaeologists have uncovered more than just the remains of the vessel.  The floor of the old Roman port holds a remarkable record of the diversity of sea trade between the late fourth and early sixth centuries, including amphorae dropped in the water during unloading, damaged crockery thrown overboard and the soles of leather shoes.  

The cargo that the ship brought to Antipolis will probably remain a mystery but the odds are high that had it sailed away it would have been loaded with garum, a fermented fish sauce that contributed to the prosperity and fame of the city for several centuries.

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