Audio News for October 7 th to October 13th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 7th to October 13th, 2012.


Spanish team finds concrete evidence of the spot where Caesar died


In our first story, researchers in Italy have found concrete evidence of the spot where Julius Caesar died at the hands of assassins in 44 BC.  Augustus, the adopted son of Caesar, placed the concrete structure inside the Theater of Pompey, a building where the Roman senate met, to condemn his killing.  

The concrete structure measures about 10 feet or three meters wide, and rises over six feet, or two meters, high.  It turned up in the remains of the Theater of Pompey, which was built by the famous general Pompey in 55 BC to commemorate his military successes in the East.  The Theater was a sprawling, multi-use complex that also included four temples, a series of covered arcades where paintings and sculptures were displayed, an ornamental garden, and behind the gardens, a meeting room or Curia, in which the Senate often met.  It was here, according to historical accounts by Plutarch and Suetonius, that conspirators surrounded and stabbed Julius Caesar as he entered the Curia to preside over a meeting of the Senate.  

The remains of the Theater of Pompey, one of the oldest major monuments in Rome, are located in the archaeological area of Torre Argentina, right in the historic center of the Roman capital.  Most of the structures of the Theater complex were dismantled during the Middle Ages for reuse of the stone building blocks and columns, and the area of the monument is largely covered by a modern roadway.  A team of researchers, however, funded by the Spanish National Research Council, has been investigating the accessible ruins of the Curia and other parts of the complex to clarify the connections among archaeology, history, and artistic depictions of the infamous assassination that ended the Roman Republic.

According to Antonio Monterroso of the research team, although the classical texts agreed that Julius Caesar was killed in the Curia of Pompey on March 15th, in 44 BC, no material evidence of this fact, so often depicted in art and films, had ever been recovered.  Classical sources also, however, refer to the closure, years after the murder, of the Curia, turning it from a meeting hall into a memorial chapel.  Now the research team has found, quite literally, the concrete evidence.  

The rectangular structure of concrete corresponds to the description of what Augustus had placed in the Curia after he became emperor.  The concrete was poured as four walls, with a solid concrete filling inside.  Further research will attempt to determine whether this entryway closure made the Curia completely inaccessible.  In addition to the Curia of Pompey, the researchers have begun studying the remains of another part of the Theater of Pompey complex, known as the Portico of the Hundred Columns or Hecatostylon (HECK-a-to-STY-lon).  According to Monterroso, beyond identifying links among archaeology, art history, and cinema in these spaces of the death of Julius Caesar, the aim is to understand better that sense of closure and dismal place described in classical texts.  The two buildings are part of the monumental complex that Pompey the Great, one of the greatest military leaders  in the history of Rome, built in the capital to commemorate his military successes in the East around the year 55 BC.   

Deep excavations trace Thai culture’s long development


Our next story takes us to Ban Non Wat, or the “Village of the Temple Mound," located in central Thailand near the city of Phimai.  Monks from the many Buddhist temples in this area make their rounds among the villages every morning for alms, and during January and February, many of the richly decorated temples host public festivals open to the locals and visiting public.  In many ways, it is a typical rural landscape in Thailand.  However, beneath the surface near Ban Non Wat rest remains of thousands of years of history, much of it built long before the vast Khmer Empire embarked on its sprawling and majestic temple building projects, such as that of Angkor Wat, that came to dominate the area and much of Southeast Asia by AD 900.  

Since 2002, archaeologists have uncovered remains representing a cultural sequence that suggests 11 prehistoric phases.  The earliest phases feature flexed human burials of what are thought to be hunter-gatherers.  These are partly contemporary with initial Neolithic rice farming settlements, dating to the 17th century BC, which also show evidence of the raising of pigs, hunting, fishing, and shellfish gathering.  After this comes a late Neolithic period, six Bronze Age phases and three from the Iron Age, all dated through radiocarbon treatment and Bayesian (BAYZ-yan) analyses. 

According to original excavation leader, Professor Charles Higham of the University of Otago (oh-TAHG-oh)  in New Zealand, the flexed burials, where individuals are positioned on their sides with the legs bent, may represent even earlier hunter-gatherer occupants, and a concentration of animal bone and shellfish has been dated as far back as 15,000 years.  In later stratigraphic layers, graves containing jewelry and tools indicate the introduction of metals in the region between about 3,000 and 3,500 years ago.  These Bronze and Iron Age phases include large graves with a rich array of pottery and other grave goods, suggesting a greater social complexity than previously thought.  

Other prominent finds include the discovery of a well-preserved, 2,000 year old, Iron Age dog.  According to the key investigators, it seems that this tradition of dog burials may have continued throughout the prehistoric occupation of Ban Non Wat, indicating that these dogs were important and familiar animals in the community.  

Excavators found that during the Iron Age, ornaments of rare and exotic materials were placed with the dead, including carnelian, agate and glass.  In the later Iron Age, built-up earthen banks and two moats surrounded the site to direct and control the flow of water from the nearby river.  The researchers also turned up evidence of ancient rice fields thousands of years old.  Dr. Nigel Chang of James Cook University, Australia, currently directs the excavations with support from the Earthwatch institute.  According to Chang, many of the artifacts recovered have suggested an ongoing link with the Khmer culture during that period, unsurprising given the site's proximity to one end of the ancient Khmer Highway, at the Phimai Historical Park.  Excavations will continue in January of 2013.

To learn more about Phimai, go to The Archaeology Channel and watch our video, “Computer Reconstruction: Temple Site at Phimai.”

British Columbia site yields thousands of artifacts showing long prehistory of the area


Moving on to Canada, archaeologists near Vernon, British Columbia, have uncovered thousands of Native American artifacts, some of which could be more than 6,000 years old.  Archaeologists have been working since January along a stretch of highway in the south-central part of the province, at the northern end of the Okanagan Valley, some 400 kilometers or 275 miles east of Vancouver.  In this long-occupied lake country, excavators have pulled thousands of artifacts from the ground.  

According to archaeologist Clinton Coates, among the unique discoveries are the apparent remains of a fishing net.  Evidence of the net includes 30 flat, notched rocks spread out over an area about three meters, or nine feet, across.  The net was laid there with its stone net-weights attached, and they remain to show its size and structure even though the fiber of the net rotted away long ago.  Thousands of arrowheads, spear points and hammer stones are among the finds. According to Coates, most of the styles are consistent with ones that are as recent as 200 years ago but at least one may date back 5,000 or 6,000 years.  Scientists are waiting for the carbon dating results.  

For area First Nations, as Native Americans are called in Canada, the find is exciting, but also confirms what they already knew.  According to Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis, the discovery will re-write area history to include a time before settlers arrived.  Too much of local history texts begin with the arrival of European missionaries and ignore the thousands of years prior to that.  Many of the artifacts rested two and a half meters, or over 7 feet, underground, and this placement assisted in good preservation.  According to Coates, the level of detail and amount of data will be hugely helpful in cross-referencing and correlating the data with other information, to start answering more in-depth questions about what people were doing here 4,000 or 5,000 years ago.  The recovery of data at the site is almost complete, but the painstaking task of cataloguing all the artifacts has yet to begin.

3D laser scan of Stonehenge reveals new details of construction – and sometimes destruction


In our final story, from England, the ancient stonemasons who built Stonehenge turn out to have been much like any corner-cutting modern builder – they lavished the most work and best materials where they would first be seen.  This sense of connection across the millennia is one result of the first complete 3D laser scan of the stone circle, which also reveals tool marks made 4,500 years ago, scores of axehead graffiti added when the enormous slabs were already 1,000 years old, and damage and graffiti contributed much more recently by Georgian and Victorian visitors.  

The survey, carried out for English Heritage, exposes numerous details now invisible to the eye and will be used in displays for the long-awaited new visitor center.  It shows the stones in unprecedented precision, from the tall sarsens from Salisbury Plain that give the monument its unmistakable profile to the smaller bluestones brought from west Wales by means still hotly debated, as well as the stumps of stones that have almost been destroyed.  It also confirms the importance of the prehistoric monument's alignment with the winter and summer solstice.  

The largest, most uniform and most imposing stones, carefully shaped and dressed through hundreds of hours of work with stone hammers, were set where they would be seen first by people approaching the monument from northeast along the Avenue, a processional way that would have cast its most impressive shadows at the midwinter sunset.  In an epic piece of work, the stones facing in that direction were laboriously shaped to appear straight and regular, their original rough brown weathered surfaces hammered away to expose the lighter inner layer of stone, which when newly worked would have shone in the sunlight.  

The gigantic lintels that bridge the uprights were also elaborately worked to even out their size and height.  In contrast, on the opposite side of the circle, the builders bothered only to pick-dress the inner faces of the surviving uprights.  The backs, they must have reckoned, would never be studied in detail.

According to Clive Ruggles, emeritus professor of archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester (LESS-ter), it has long been clear that Stonehenge is one of the earliest examples of a monument aligned with the winter and summer solstices.  Now we can see how the builders devoted care and attention to ensuring the pristine appearance of Stonehenge for those completing their final approach to the monument along the solstitial (sol-STI-shial) axis.  The effect would have been especially powerful at the two times of year when the sunlight itself shone along the alignment, when those approaching had the midsummer rising sun behind or the midwinter setting sun ahead.  

The 3D laser scan has revealed that some hollows, cracks and lines interpreted in the past as carvings are actually natural features, but what is astonishing is the extent of surviving tool marks.  Some are quite visible, and have long been noted, but what is new is the discovery that on every surface, even on very weathered faces of stones that have been lying on the ground for centuries, now one can see evidence of the stone working.  The new data even, and very interestingly, show how different groups worked on different areas of the same stone with varying skills.  Later on, long after the monument was built, when Bronze Age burial mounds rich in grave goods began to be scattered across the plain around Stonehenge, and it appears that those who could make or trade in metal goods had almost shamanic status, people carved little images of daggers and axes, many now invisible to the naked eye, into the stones.  Scores more than were previously known have been revealed by the 3D scan, including 71 new axe heads, which brings the total to 115, and doubles the number ever recorded in Britain.  

Researchers processed the data digitally to strip away weathering and surface texture, and as well as revealing carved details, were able to show that some stones that now appear insignificant were originally much more imposing, but have either broken naturally or been quarried for building stone.  Fallen stones were particularly vulnerable.  The analysis suggests that six of these have lost tens of tons of stone, especially after Stonehenge became a major tourist attraction in the 19th Century and visitors could actually rent chisels and hack away their own souvenirs.

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