Audio News for October 14th to October 20th, 2012

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 14th to October 20th, 2012.


Building blocks for Angkor Wat floated to site via canals


Our first story is from Cambodia, where scientists long have known that the sandstone blocks used to build the famous Angkor Wat temple and other monuments in the ancient city of Angkor came from quarries at the foot of a nearby sacred mountain, Mount Kulen.  But the question remains: how did the 5 million to 10 million blocks, some weighing more than 1.5 tonnes, reach Angkor?  

When researchers from Waseda University in Tokyo examined Google Earth maps of the area, they saw lines that looked like a transportation network.  Field surveys revealed that the lines are a series of canals dating from the 9th to the 13th Century, connected by short stretches of road and river, which lead from the quarries straight to Angkor.  The researchers theorize that the roads and canals, some of which still hold water, could have carried blocks on a total journey of approximately 35 kilometers.  

The researchers do not know whether the blocks would have floated down the canals on rafts or via some other method.  Scholars had previously assumed that the blocks were floated down a canal to the Tonle Sap Lake and then upstream on the Siem Reap River, a route of 90 kilometers.  The newly reported canal network would have taken many months and thousands of laborers to construct, but it would have been all in a day's work for Khmer engineers, whose elaborate reservoirs and other hydraulic works at Angkor still inspire awe.  Investigators could confirm the theory by searching for blocks that fell overboard into the canals.

Ancient Troy to be re-excavated


In 2013, a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists and other scientists will begin new excavations in Troy, the grand city of prehistory, sacked by the Greeks through deception and a fabled wooden horse.

The new expedition leader is University of Wisconsin-Madison classics Professor William Aylward, an archaeologist with long experience digging in the ruins of classical antiquity, including Troy itself.  

The plan is to extend work to unexplored areas of the site and systematically employ new technologies to extract even more information about the people who lived here thousands of years ago.  Centuries after the supposed events of the conflict, Homer immortalized Troy and the Trojan War in his epic poem, the Iliad.  Homer's epic poems about a lost age of heroes and the legendary Trojan War have endured as sources of inspiration for art and literature ever since.
People occupied the site almost continuously for about 4,500 years, from the beginning of the Bronze Age to the 13th Century AD, then abandoned and consigned it to myth.  The wealthy German businessman and pioneering archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered the site in the 1870s.  His work there helped lay the foundations for modern archaeology.  

The site of Troy is in modern Turkey and situated on the Dardanelles, a crossroads between East and West and a trouble spot for conflict in both ancient and modern times.  The archaeological site is a complex and multi-layered stack of history and prehistory, with 10 cities superimposed one atop the other, some with clear evidence for violent destruction.  

Following the demise of Troy at the end of the Bronze Age, Greeks, Romans and others all resettled the site and claimed Homer's Troy and its cast of characters -- Achilles, Helen, Patroclus, Priam, and Ajax -- as their own cultural heritage.  The Persian general Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Roman emperors, including Augustus and Hadrian, all visited the ancient city.

At its zenith, Troy's citadel, with walls 12 feet thick and more than 30 feet high, was about 6 acres in size.  A walled lower town covered an expanse of 50 acres, much of which is unexplored.  Ancient Troy's royal cemetery, for example, remains undiscovered and archaeologists are enthusiastic to add to the single example of prehistoric writing known from Troy, a small bronze seal from the Bronze Age.  New scientific techniques may reveal the hidden record of the ancient city and its inhabitants.  New methods to examine chemical residues on pottery from ancient kitchens and banquet halls, for example, may reveal secrets of ancient Trojan culinary proclivities, and genomic analyses of human and animal remains may shed light on diseases and afflictions at a crossroads of civilization.

Although archaeologists have been digging at Troy for almost 140 years, with the exception of a 50-year hiatus between 1938 and 1988, they have scientifically excavated less than one-fifth of the site.  With about 4,500 years of nearly uninterrupted settlement at a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Troy is fundamental for questions about the development of civilization in Europe and the Near East.  


Wandering cat reveals ancient Roman CAT-acomb


We’ve been to Rome many times, and now we return to learn how a wandering cat has helped discover a new CAT-acomb.  Mirko Curti stumbled into a 2,000-year-old tomb piled with bones while chasing a wayward cat yards from his apartment building.  Curti and a friend were following the cat when it scampered towards a low rock cliff by his home near Via di Pietralata in a residential area of the city.  The cat managed to get into a grotto and the pair followed the sound of its meowing.  

Inside the small opening in the cliff, the two men found themselves surrounded by niches dug into the rock similar to those used by the Romans to hold funeral urns, while what appeared to be human bones littered the floor.  

Archaeologists called to the scene said the tomb probably dated from between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD.  Given that the Romans used the niches to store ashes in urns, the bones had probably tumbled into the tomb from a separate burial space higher up inside the cliff.  Heavy rains had caused rocks concealing the entrance to the tomb to crumble.   

Tomb builders dug in soft tufa rock over the centuries in Italy, but the softness of the rock means that the elements often threaten the ancient sites.  Extensive quarrying also has occurred in the cliffs near Via di Pietralata.  

Romans citizens are underwhelmed and sometimes irritated to find they are living on top of priceless remains.  Shoppers arriving at the Ikea store on the outskirts of Rome leave their cars alongside a stretch of Roman road unearthed in the parking lot, while fans lining up to enter the city's rugby stadium need to skirt around archaeologists excavating the Roman necropolis that stretches under the playing field.  

Even so, cat owner Curti expressed amazement that he could find a tomb so close to his house and said it was the most incredible experience of his life.


Vikings and Native Americans may have interacted on Baffin Island


Our final story is from Canada, where for the past 50 years, since the discovery of a thousand-year-old Viking way station in Newfoundland, archaeologists and amateur historians have combed North America's east coast searching for traces of Viking visitors.  

At a conference earlier this month, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland announced new evidence that points strongly to the discovery of the second Viking outpost ever discovered in the Americas.  While digging in the ruins of a centuries-old building on Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle, a team led by Sutherland, adjunct professor of archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, found some very intriguing whetstones.  Wear grooves in the blade-sharpening tools bear traces of copper alloys such as bronze; materials known to have been made by Viking metal smiths but not by the Arctic's native peoples.  Taken together with her earlier discoveries, Sutherland's new findings further strengthen the case for a Viking camp on Baffin Island.  

Archaeologists long have known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around AD 1000.  A popular Icelandic saga tells of the exploits of Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland who sailed westward to seek his fortune.  According to the saga, Eriksson stopped long enough on Baffin Island to walk the coast, named Helluland, an Old Norse word meaning "stone-slab land," before heading south to a place he called Vinland.  

In the 1960s two Norwegian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad discovered and excavated the Viking base camp at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland; the first confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas.  Dated to between 989 and 1020, the camp boasted three Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.  Sutherland first caught wind of another possible Viking way station in 1999, when she spotted two unusual pieces of cord excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.  Sutherland noticed that the strands bore little resemblance to the animal sinew Arctic hunters twisted into cordage.  The cords turned out to be expertly woven Viking yarn, identical in technique to yarn produced by Viking women living in Greenland in the 14th century.  

The discovery encouraged Sutherland to scour other museum collections for more Viking artifacts from Baffin Island and other sites.  She found more pieces of Viking yarn and a small trove of previously overlooked Viking gear, from wooden tally sticks for recording trade transactions to dozens of Viking whetstones.  The artifacts came from four sites, ranging from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador, a distance of 1,600 kilometers.  Indigenous Arctic hunters known as the Dorset people had camped at each of the sites, raising the possibility that they had made friendly contact with the Vikings.  

Curious, Sutherland reopened excavations at the most promising site, a place known as Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island.  In the 1960s, U.S. archaeologist Moreau Maxwell had excavated parts of a stone-and-sod building there, describing it as difficult to interpret.  Sutherland suspected that Viking seafarers built the structure.  Since 2001, Sutherland's team has been exploring Tanfield Valley and carefully excavating surviving parts of the mysterious ruins.  They have discovered a wide range of evidence pointing to the presence of Viking seafarers: pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; and more Viking yarn and whetstones.  

In addition, the stone ruins bear a striking resemblance to some Viking buildings in Greenland.  However, some Arctic researchers remained skeptical.  Most of the radiocarbon dates obtained by earlier archaeologists had suggested that inhabitants occupied the Tanfield Valley long before Vikings arrived in the New World.  Nevertheless, as Sutherland points out, the complex site shows evidence of several occupations, and one of the radiocarbon dates indicates that the people lived in the valley in the 14th century, when Viking settlers were farming along the coast of nearby Greenland.  

In search of other clues to help solve the mystery, Sutherland turned to using a technique known as energy dispersive spectroscopy.  Employing this technique, the team examined the wear grooves on more than 20 whetstones from Tanfield Valley and other sites.  Sutherland and her colleagues detected microscopic streaks of bronze, brass, and smelted iron, clear evidence of European metallurgy.  She speculates that parties of Viking seafarers travelled to the Canadian Arctic to search for valuable resources.  In northern Europe at the time, medieval nobles prized walrus ivory, soft Arctic furs, and other northern luxuries and Dorset hunters and trappers could readily stockpile such products.  To barter for such goods, Viking traders likely offered bits of iron and pieces of wood that carvers could use for figurines and other goods.  If Sutherland is correct, the lines of evidence she has uncovered may point to a previously unknown chapter in New World history in which Viking seafarers and Native American hunters were partners together in a transatlantic trade network.

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