Audio News for September 9 th to September 15th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 9th to September 15th, 2012.


German military site was one of Caesar’s


In our first story, archaeologists from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz have confirmed the location of the oldest Roman military fortification known in Germany to date.  The site may be an early Roman camp built near the present-day town of Hermeskeil, some 30 kilometers, or about 20 miles, southeast of the city of Trier in the Hunsrueck region.  The camp was built during Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars in the late 50s BC, so the discovery sheds new light on the Roman conquest of Gaul.  

Nearby is a late Celtic settlement with monumental fortifications known as the “Hunnenring” or "Circle of the Huns," which was one of the major centers of the local Celtic tribe called Treveri (treh-VAIR-ee), who occupied the mountainous regions between the Rhine and Maas rivers.  Caesar’s army apparently set up their camp only a few kilometers away from the older Celtic fort.
According to Dr. Sabine Hornung, of the university’s Institute of Pre- and Protohistory, the remnants of the Roman camp are the first pieces of archaeological evidence of this important episode of world history.  The existence of the site, which measures about 260,000 square meters, or more than 64 acres, has been known since the 19th century, but its interpretation was controversial.  According to Hornung, some remains of the wall are still preserved in the forest, but it hadn't been possible to prove that this was indeed a Roman military camp as archaeologists and local historians had long suspected.  The breakthrough came during systematic investigations in the area of the Celtic fortification, so close that it is visible from the Roman site.

Because of agricultural development, large sections of the Roman camp are no longer recognizable and in danger of being lost forever.  Hornung’s team began their work in March 2010 and soon determined the size and shape of the camp, which was fortified by an earthen wall and ditch.  They established that the fortress was an almost rectangular earthwork enclosure with rounded corners, measuring 182,000 square meters, some 45 acres, that provided space for several thousands of soldiers, including both legionaries and mounted auxiliaries.  An extension of an additional 76,000 square meters, or about 20 acres, encircled a spring providing a water supply for the troops.  

These findings made it possible to undertake more targeted excavations in summer 2011, during which one of the gates of the camp was found.  This gateway is paved with stones crossing the fortifications consisting of wall and ditch.  In the gaps between these paving stones, the team found a number of shoe nails, fallen from the sandals of Roman soldiers when they loosened as the men marched along.  The size and shape of the nails were one of the first clues that the military camp dated back to the time of the late Roman Republic or the Gallic War.  The hypothesis was confirmed by shards of earthenware vessels discovered during excavations, and further verified using scientific dating methods.  Based on the findings of their recent excavations, Hornung and her team were able to confirm that the end of the encampment’s use was around the middle of the 1st century BC.  

In his well-known history of the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar reported that the tribe of the Treveri split into anti-Roman and pro-Roman factions.  The anti-Roman faction, led by the aristocrat Indutiomarus (in-DOO-tee-oh-MAHR-us), fomented unrest that resulted in Roman reprisals in 54 BC and 51 BC, over the course of which the Treveran resistance to the invaders was broken.  The discoveries near Hermeskeil potentially provide the first direct archaeological evidence for this dramatic episode in world history.

New Mayan mural turns up during home remodeling


In Guatemala, a kitchen renovation revealed an archaeological treasure.  While scraping his walls five years ago in an effort to remodel his kitchen, Lucas Asicona Ramírez discovered pieces of a Mayan mural centuries old.  According to National Geographic, the Ramírez family is currently looking to convert the room into a small museum but lack the funds.  Researchers are racing against time in an attempt to preserve the mural, before the light disintegrates the artwork and erases any unlocked secrets it may hold.  

The mural, hidden behind plaster that makes up the 300-year-old home, is in the Guatemalan village of Chajul (cha-HOOL).  According to Boston University archaeologist William Saturno, a National Geographic grantee documenting the paintings, it’s a rare type of artwork, not commonly preserved in the New World.  

The paintings date from a time after the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, as seen by numerous details.  In one portion of the mural, the painting depicts figures in procession, wearing a mix of traditional Maya and Spanish garb.  Some may be holding human hearts.  From the waist up these figures are typical Maya, with long capes, according to archaeologist Jaroslaw Źralka, who has inspected the mural.  However, they also have Spanish clothes, pants and European-style shoes.  Illustrations in the murals also have text that dates to the 17th and 18th centuries.  

The key behind the origins of the paintings lies in the location of Chajul village.  Many Mayan cities mysteriously disappeared around AD 900, but some southern settlements, such as what is now the village of Chajul, continued to be occupied into the time of the Spanish conquistadores and beyond.  As for the effort to save these murals, scientists lament that the Ramírez family did not stop scraping the plaster back in 2008, when they first uncovered the mural, but they are now working together with the family to balance preservation concerns against the homeowners’ rights.

New skeletal study confirms Hopewell were egalitarian and gender-equal


In the United States, Michael G. Koot recently earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State University with his study of leadership and biological status in the Ohio Hopewell culture.  Examining two Ohio Hopewell skeletal collections from the Middle Woodland period around 100 BC to AD 400, Koot showed the relationship between their biological wellness and their social positions of both leadership and prestige.  This study is summarized in a recent blog from Brad Lepper of the Ohio Historical Society.

To establish the biological status of the Hopewell people through their skeletons, Koot analyzed skeletal markers that reveal such things as physiological stress, dietary nutritional stress, infection, disease, and trauma to the skeletal system.  Utilizing the collections held by the Ohio Historical Society, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, he compared sets of human remains from two separate Hopewell regions: 46 adult burials from the Turner Mound Group in southwestern Ohio, and 91 adult burials from six separate sites in the south-central region, including the Hopewell Mound Group, the Seip Earthworks, Raymond Ater Mound, Edwin Harness Mound and Rockhold Mound.  

Koot's results confirm the now accepted view of Hopewell society as strongly egalitarian with no inherited leadership positions.  However, some leaders certainly were honored at their deaths with elaborate burials.  That honor evidently acrued from the lifetime achievements of individual men and women or by the special circumstances of their deaths.  The bones and burials show that no Hopewell kings or chiefs held their leadership positions based on the families they were born into.  Moreover, according to Koot, whatever status differences existed in Hopewell societies, they were not dramatic enough to show up at all in an individual's biological status.  Therefore, apparently, the benefits of high status didn't include access to more and better food or relief from the ordinary labors of the less high-ranking people.  

Koot was able to show as well that few or no differences in biological status existed between men and women in either region.  This indicates that women were not subordinate to men in Hopewell societies.  In fact, at the Turner Mound Group, female leadership appears to have predominated.  One exception to this pattern is that women at Turner had a higher frequency of linear enamel hypoplasia, or LEH, than did the men.  LEHs are growth lines in the teeth that indicate periods of stress during the time that the teeth were growing, before age 7.  This raises the question of why, if women were the important leaders in this region, girls suffered more dietary stress than boys.  When Koot compared all the people from Turner with the people from the South-Central region, he found that the overall frequency of LEH was higher at Turner.  Koot interprets these regional differences as relating either to environmental changes and resulting food shortages at Turner, or possibly to variations in diet between the two regions.  

Finally, based on the differences between Turner and the south-central Hopewell sites, Koot suggests there may have been no pan-Hopewellian contact sphere that resulted in similar cultural features across Hopewell regional traditions, or even in local regions within the same regional tradition.  Perhaps calling these groups of people the Scioto Hopewell and the Little Miami Hopewell would better recognize the biological and cultural variation that existed between Hopewell groups from different river drainage areas in Ohio.  

In Lepper’s view, Koot's important conclusions demonstrate the value of museum collections for archaeology.  Data curated in museums can be studied repeatedly as new analytical techniques are developed or as scholars come up with new questions to ask of the old data.  In particular, this study speaks to the value of curating ancient human remains: the analysis of skeletal stress provides insight into Ohio Hopewell inter-regional differences in subsistence and habitation lifeways that cannot be seen by analyzing archaeological artifacts and material culture alone.

Mummy case is saved by engineering and a little bit of LEGO


In our final story, thanks to an ambitious conservation project and some tiny pieces of plastic, the ancient Egyptian mummy case of Hor is now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.  The conservation of the delicate mummy case, undertaken with the assistance of the Department of Engineering, which used Lego blocks to construct ingenious frameworks to support the fragile case during conservation and to build the internal supports of a new display case.  

The mummy case, found in the Ramesseum at Thebes in 1896, where thieves had torn out the gilded wooden face and removed the mummy, belonged to a man named Hor.  His casket had been made of cartonnage, a uniquely Egyptian material consisting of layers of plaster, linen and glue and often only a few millimeters thick.  The resulting laminated material is remarkably rigid but also very sensitive to humidity.  At some point Hor had been exposed to damp conditions, so that his mummy case now sagged dramatically around the chest and face.  This caused structural problems and also serious cracking and instability in the painted decoration.  Technicans had made some attempts at repair and restoration, most probably in the cartonnage's early years in the Museum.  

In the recent project, the conservators wanted to reshape the cartonnage by using humidity to soften it and allowing manipulation.  However, introducing water into this material was risky because the painted surface could be easily damaged by moisture, and furthermore, if the whole cartonnage were softened at once there was a real danger it would collapse.  Introducing water in a controlled way to the distorted area could only be done if the cartonnage was facedown, the fragile state of the chest and face made this almost impossible.  

Help came from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, which in the latest of a series of collaborations with the Museum's conservators, offered the problem as a project for a final year student.  David Knowles took up the challenge.  In close consultation with the Fitzwilliam, he devised and made a frame to suspend Hor facedown while the reshaping was carried out.  Using a combination of traditional wooden frames and moldable materials designed for medical use, the museum team could support Hor completely for weeks at a time, allowing conservator Sophie Rowe to reshape the cartonnage very gradually.  

Once Rowe had successfully reshaped the chest and face and stabilized the surface, Knowles designed and built a display mount for the mummy case.  An essential part of this is the internal support that ensures that the structure cannot collapse again in the future.  The project staff placed six light, ingenious little structures made from LEGO inside the chest cavity.  These structures are adjustable using screw threads and are padded with archival foam where they are in contact with the ancient surface.  The result is a great success for Hor, now displayed safely, as well as for David Knowles, awarded a prize by the Department of Engineering for his final presentation on the project.

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