Audio News for October 21st to October  27th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 21st to October 27th, 2012.


Large early Hindu temple remains found in Bali


Our first story is from Indonesia, where construction workers in Bali have discovered what may be the biggest early Hindu temple ever found on the Indonesian island.  The workers were digging a drain in the island's capital, Denpasar, at a Hindu study center when they encountered the remains of the stone temple.  They reported the discovery to the Bali archaeology office, which then unearthed substantial foundations of a structure that the excavation team dates from around the 13th to 15th centuries.  According to Wayan Suantika, the team leader, they think this is the biggest ancient Hindu temple ever discovered in Bali.  Suantika estimated the age of the find by the square structure’s similarity to ancient temples found in East Java of the same era.  The use of strengthening layers in between the stone courses is also characteristic of 13th or 14th century structures.  Local residents also have found ceramic wares from the period at the site.  

The excavation is still in progress and the research team does not yet know whether they will unearth enough stones to allow them to reconstruct the temple.  The construction workers found the first stone one meter underground.  The building stones measure up to one meter long, by 40 centimeters deep and wide.  When the excavation team began uncovering more stones, they revealed what they believe is the foundation of the structure's east wing, which is 20 meters long, or about 66 feet.  The popular resort island of Bali is known for retaining its Hindu culture despite being surrounded by Islam on Indonesia’s other islands.  Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Crowdsourcing is newest tool in race to decipher old language


Researchers at Oxford University in the UK hope new technology and crowdsourcing on the Internet will help them decipher the world's oldest writing system that still remains a mystery.  The ancient writing from what is now southwest Iran, called proto-Elamite, was used during the Bronze Age between 3200 and 2900 BC, but has baffled academics, who long ago found Rosetta Stones to solve the riddle of Egyptian hieroglyphics and other ancient languages.  Although proto-Elamite was borrowed from neighboring Mesopotamia, its scribes devised their own symbols that have made it all but undecipherable for millennia.  

Now, however, scholars believe they have the tools to make significant headway.  According to Jacob Dahl, a fellow in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford University, they think they are finally on the point of making a breakthrough into this unknown, uncharted territory of human history.  Dahl and other researchers at Oxford have spent more than a decade studying the right-to-left writing on clay tablets.  They have deciphered 1,200 symbols, but that merely scratches the surface.  Even basic words like "cattle" remain unidentified.  

Now the scholars have turned to a device known as a Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, or RTI.  Developed by a team of international developers, RTI uses light to capture photos of every groove on a clay tablet to produce super-sharp images.  Dahl's team shipped an RTI machine to the Louvre museum in Paris, home to the world's largest trove of proto-Elamite tablets, and exposed the tablets to them.  The high-resolution images are to be put online to allow academics around the world to crowdsource a translation, ideally within two years.  

One reason this ancient script has proven particularly maddening to scholars is that it appears to be full of mistakes, which makes deciphering it much more difficult.  Investigators also have lacked bilingual texts to use for comparison or any lists of places, names, or other sets of words to use as a reference.  In addition, scholars do not know how the language was spoken and thus lack phonetic clues that might have helped their work.  Even so, the proto-Elamite writing system is hugely important to experts in ancient languages, because it was the first to use syllables and represents the first recorded example of one people adopting writing from another people nearby.


New tomb marks earliest years of Maya culture


In Guatemala, archaeologists announced they have uncovered the tomb of a very early Mayan ruler, complete with rich jade jewelry and decoration.  Researchers said the find at Guatemala's Tak'alik Ab'aj (ta-KAHL-ik ab-EYE) temple site could help shed light on the formative years of Maya culture.  According to Miguel Orrego (or-RAY-go), an archaeologist with the Mexican government’s research team, carbon dating indicates the tomb was built between 700 and 400 BC, several hundred years before the Mayan culture reached its height.  This is the oldest tomb found so far at Tak'alik Ab'aj, a site in southern Guatemala that dates back about 2,900 years.  

According to Orrego, a necklace depicting a vulture-headed human figure appears to identify the tomb's occupant as an "ajaw," (a-HAH), or ruler.  This symbol gives the burial greater importance, showing that he is one of the earliest rulers of Tak'alik Ab'aj.  No bones turned up during the excavation of the tomb in September, but they appear to have been there once and subsequently decayed.  The rich array of jade articles in the tomb will provide clues about patterns of production and trade at this pre-Classic city.  

According to Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist at the University of Florida who was not involved in the excavation, older tombs are recorded from ruling circles at the Maya site of Copan in Honduras as well as in southern Mexico, where the Olmec culture, a predecessor to the Maya, flourished.  Olmec influences are present in the area around Tak'alik Ab'aj, indicating possible links.  The city is near a center of jadeite production, so the artifacts in the tomb could shed light on early techniques and trade in jade, which the Maya considered to have sacred properties.

Neolithic figurine from northern Spain is ancient male idol


Our final story is from Spain, where a recently unearthed ceramic idol, missing a head and some limbs, may be the most ancient human figurine ever found in Spain.  The 3-inch-long pottery fragment came to light over the summer during excavations at Can Sadurni cave in Begues (beh-GAZE), Barcelona province, at a site already known for the discovery of the oldest evidence of beer-drinking in Europe.  Researchers say the statuette is 6,500 years old, making it the most ancient human figurine from Catalonia, as well as the whole Iberian Peninsula.  

The majority of Neolithic idols found in the Mediterranean are female, but the lack of breasts on the torso suggests this figurine is male.  Holes in the arms indicate it was strung on a cord or a leather strap to be used as a necklace or to decorate a residence.  According to a statement from the University of Barcelona, the characteristics of the figure show its religious or spiritual importance.  Because of its likely magical or religious significance, and the fact that Begues residents are sometimes given the Catalan nickname "El Encantats" (el en-can-TAHTS) or "The Enchanted," archaeologists have called the figurine "El Encantat de Begues."  

The lower limbs seem to be attached to the torso at an angle, suggesting that when the figurine was whole it would have been in a sitting position or would have had its legs bent.  From what is left of its arms, the archaeologists believe its upper limbs were outstretched.  Based on the shaping of the top of the neck, the team also suspects that the figure's head would have been mobile and interchangeable, fitting into the neck-hole like a puzzle piece.  The figurine is an important indicator of the relevance that Can Sadurní might have had as a meeting point for the inhabitants of the closest areas during the Neolithic Age.  The dig at Can Sadurni is led by researchers from the University of Barcelona and a local research organization.  The team hopes further excavations at the cave will turn up other fragments of the figurine.

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