Audio News for September 16 th to September 22nd, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 16th to the 22nd, 2012.


Italian tunnels lead to Etruscan pyramidal chambers


Our first story is from Italy, where initial investigations have begun on a series of pyramidal chambers carved from the tufa rock beneath the city of Orvieto.  Dr. David B. George of the Department of Classics at Saint Anselm and Dr. Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeogico Ambientale dell Orvietano (PAAO) are the co-directors leading the excavation with students from Saint Anselm College.  

At some point, someone filled the interior of the subterranean space almost to the top, and modern occupants used the upper section as a wine cellar.  However, one feature surprised researchers: a series of ancient stairs carved into the wall, a type consistent with an Etruscan date.  
The Etruscans controlled Orvieto around 1000 BC until the Roman conquest in 264 BC.  Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, they started to decline during the fifth century BC as the Romans grew in power and by 300 to 100 BC, they had been absorbed into the Roman state.  Almost all we know about this highly prominent culture comes from their ornately decorated tombs that help to reconstruct their history.  

The team initially noticed how the sides of the rock-hewn chamber, where the wine cellar is now located, tapered up in a pyramidal fashion.  Even more interesting were a series of tunnels, again of Etruscan construction, running underneath the wine cellar and hinting at a deeper undiscovered structure below.  Excavations commenced on May 21, 2012, first penetrating a 20th century floor and then into late 19th century remnants.  

About a meter below that, the diggers reached a medieval floor surface.  However, immediately beneath this floor was a layer of fill that, to the surprise of everyone, contained cultural material and artifacts, such as  red-figured pottery from 5th Century BC Athens and 6th and 5th Century BC Etruscan pottery with inscriptions and objects that dated to 1000 BC.  

This fill layer apparently came from various tombs as part of a clearing operation and deposited into the pyramidal cavity through the center of its peak, now topped with a medieval arch.  The layer is striking for its lack of Etruscan black-gloss ceramics, suggesting that someone sealed the site before the Hellenistic period in the middle of the fifth century BC.  As excavations continued below this layer of fill, the excavators came upon 1.5 meters of sterile gray material intentionally deposited from a hole in the top of the structure now truncated by medieval construction.

Beneath this, however, appeared another layer and a set of carved stone stairs, giving the first hints of the structure’s origins.  The material from this context all dates tightly to the middle of the fifth century BC with nothing later.  Also found at this level was a tunnel running to another pyramidal structure; this tunnel dates from before the 5th Century BC.  

So far, the excavators have removed 3 meters of infill and the pyramidal structure continues down.  It is now a cavernous space rising about 10 meters from the current level of excavation to the present cellar ceiling.  The lead archaeologists still  are perplexed as to the function of the structure, but it is clearly not a cistern.  


1000-year-old village found in Philippines


Now we teleport to the Philippines, where archaeologists have unearthed remnants of what could be a 1,000-year-old village on a jungle-covered mountaintop with limestone coffins of a type never before found in this Southeast Asian nation.  

The village, located in Quezon province, could be at least 1,000 years old, based on carbon dating tests done on a human tooth found in one of 15 limestone graves dug out since last year.  
The discovery of the rectangular tombs, carved into limestone outcrops jutting from the forest ground, is important because it is the first indication that Filipinos at that time practiced a more advanced burial ritual than researchers previously thought and used metal tools to carve the coffins.  Past discoveries have shown Filipinos of that era used wooden coffins in the mountainous north and earthen coffins and jars elsewhere, according to National Museum official Eusebio Dizon, who has done extensive work and studies in the Philippines.  

Aside from the tombs, archaeologists have found thousands of shards of earthen jars, metal objects and bone fragments of humans, monkeys, wild pigs, and other animals in the tombs.  The limestone outcrops displayed round holes where wooden posts of houses or sheds once stood.  The tombs were similar to ancient sarcophagi, although the ones found in here were simple box-like limestone coffins without mythological or elaborate human images engraved in them.  

Archaeologists have worked only  on a small portion of a five-hectare forest area, where officials think early residents could have buried more artifacts and limestone coffins.  According to a preliminary National Museum report, its top archaeologists found a complex archaeological site with both habitation and burial remains approximately  from the 10th to the 14th century, the first site of its kind in the Philippines having carved limestone tombs.  

This site is part of 280 hectares of forest land that the government protected in 1998 to keep out treasure hunters and slash-and-burn farmers.  Treasure hunters looking for gold exposed some of the limestone tombs years ago, but only last year Manila-based archaeologists started to unearth the graves and artifacts and realized the significance of the find.  Treasure hunting has damaged many archaeological sites in the country.  


Did a comet cause an ice age 12,900 years ago?


Now we have a story with more cosmic connections.  A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has tried to answer this question: did a massive comet explode over Canada 12,900 years ago, wiping out both beast and man in North America and propelling the Earth back into an Ice age?  

Scientists have debated this question since 2007, with the Topper archaeological site, located on the Savannah River in South Carolina, right in the middle of the comet impact controversy.  The new study provides further evidence that it may not be such a far-fetched concept.  

In 2007, archaeologists led by Dr. Richard Firestone of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found tiny spheres of metals and nano-sized diamonds in a layer of sediment dating 12,900 years ago at 10 of 12 sites with layers of the proper age.  Researchers think the mix of particles is the result of a comet or meteorite exploding in the atmosphere.  Among the sites examined was the Topper, one of the most pristine sites in the United States for research on Clovis, one of the earliest ancient peoples.  

According to Dr. Albert Goodyear, an archaeologist with University of South Carolina and co-author on the new study, this independent study is yet another example of how the Topper site with its various interdisciplinary studies has connected  archaeology with other significant studies of the Pleistocene.  Younger Dryas is what scientists refer to as the period of extreme cooling that began around 12,900 years ago and lasted 1,300 years.  While that brief cold episode is well documented, occurring during a period of progressive solar warming after the last Ice age, the cause of it has long remained unclear.  Dr. Firestone’s team presented a provocative hypothesis: that a major impact event, perhaps a comet, was the catalyst.  His profuse sampling and detailed analysis of sediments at a layer in the earth dated to 12,900 years ago, also called the Younger Dryas Boundary, yielded numbers of unusual micro-particles, such as iron, silica, iridium, and nano-diamonds.  The research team proposed that these particles were evidence of a massive impact that could have extinguished the Clovis culture and the large North American animals of the day.  Thirty-six species, including the mastodon, mammoth and saber-toothed tiger, went extinct aroudn that time.  

Dr. Malcolm LeCompte, a research associate professor at Elizabeth City State University and lead author of the new study, began independent research in 2008 using and further refining Dr. Firestone’s sampling and sorting methods at two sites common to the three studies: Blackwater Draw in New Mexico and Topper.  He also took samples at Paw Paw Cove in Maryland.  At each site, he found the same microscopic spherules, which are the diameter of a human hair and distinct in appearance.  He describes their look as tiny black ball bearings with a marred surface pattern that resulted from being crystallized in a molten state and then rapidly cooled.  

The investigation also confirmed that the spherules were not of direct cosmic origin but formed from earth materials due to an extreme impact.  The Topper Site was an active stone quarry that had lots of pieces of manufacturing debris from stone tool making by the Clovis people.  Dr. Goodyear showed Dr. LeCompte where the Clovis level was in order to accurately sample of sediments for the Younger Dryas Boundary layer.  He advised him to sample around Clovis artifacts and then carefully lift them to test the sediment directly underneath.  If debris had rained down from the atmosphere, the artifacts should have acted as a shield preventing the tiny spherules from accumulating in the layer below them.  This sampling method apparently worked.  Up to 30 times more spheres occurred at and just above the Clovis surface than beneath the artifacts.

While the hypothesis of the comet and its possible impact on Clovis people isn’t resolved, this independent study lends greater credibility to the claim that a major impact event happened at the Younger Dryas Boundary 12,900 years ago.  Additionally, the impact hypothesis now appears to be a viable solution to the mystery of what happened at the Younger Dryas Boundary, with its sudden and unexplained reversion to an ice age climate, the rapid and seemingly simultaneous loss of many Pleistocene animals, and the demise the Clovis culture.


Poolside mosaic from Roman times uncovered in Turkey


Our final story is from southern Turkey, where a giant poolside mosaic featuring intricate geometric patterns has come to light, revealing the far-reaching influence of the Roman Empire at its peak.  The mosaic that once decorated the floor of a bath complex runs adjacent to a 7-meter long pool, which would have been open to the air, according to Michael Hoff, a University of Nebraska at Lincoln art historian and director of the mosaic excavation.  The find likely dates to the Third or Fourth Century A.D.  

The mosaic itself is an amazing 1,600 square feet or 149 square meters, the size of an ordinary family home.   The first hint that something stunning lay underground in southern Turkey came in 2002, when Purdue University classics professor Nick Rauh walked through a freshly plowed farmer's field near the ancient city of Antiochia ad Cragum.  The plow had turned up bits of mosaic tile.  Rauh consulted other archaeologists, including researchers at the local museum in Alanya.  The museum did not have the funds to excavate more than a tiny slice of the mosaic, so archaeologists did not open up more area than that.  Last year, with a new archaeological permit for the site, museum archaeologists invited Hoff and his team to complete the dig.  So far, the field team has revealed about 40 percent of the mosaic.  

In a university video about the dig, Hoff notes that the floor is in pristine condition.  It would have fronted an open-air marble swimming pool flanked by porticos.  The mosaic itself comprises large squares, each sporting a unique geometric design on a white background, from starburst patterns to intertwined loops.  According to Hoff it's the largest Roman mosaic ever found in southern Turkey, previously regarded as rather peripheral to the Roman Empire.  

The existence of the mosaic suggests that the Romans influenced Antiochia ad Cragum more than the experts thought.  The city of Antiochia ad Cragum, founded during the Hellenistic Period in the Second Century BC, has a number of Roman features, including bathhouses and markets.  Hoff's team also has been excavating a Third Century AD Roman temple in the city and a street lined with colonnades and shops.  The team will return with students and volunteers in June 2013 to complete the mosaic excavations.

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