Audio News for November 4th to November 10th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 4th to November 10th, 2012.


Early Neolithic hoard shows life in Central Europe, 8000 years ago


In our first story, visitors to the Tübingen University Museum are seeing the first display of the jewelry and female figurines from Belica, Serbia’s huge early Neolithic hoard.  Archaeologists from Tübingen's Institute of Prehistory are working with the Serbian Archaeological Institute in Belgrade to continue their analysis of the most comprehensive Early Neolithic hoard ever discovered, with funding from the Thyssen Foundation.  

The nearly 8000-year-old collection of jewelry and figurines comprises some 80 objects made of stone, clay and bone.  According to Tübingen archeologist Dr. Raiko Krauss, who heads the German side of the project, this collection from Belica, in all its completeness, provides a unique glimpse into what was meaningful to the earliest farmers and herdsmen in Europe.  The objects include stylized female figures and parts of the human body, as well as miniature axes and abstract figures.  Much attention has been given to the corpulent female figures of water-smoothed stone given human features by human hands.  The hovering question is whether they were idols, lucky charms or fertility symbols.  Their exact meaning still remains unknown.  
The stone objects are mainly carved of serpentinite (SER-pen-tin-ite) from an ophiolite (OH-fee-oh-lite) belt running some 40 km, or 25 miles, west of the Belica site.  The rock fragments washed out of the mountains and were worn smooth by rivers and streams, and the Neolithic artists selected the pebbles they wanted from riverbeds in the valleys.  

Archaeologists mapped the outline of an Early Neolithic settlement in June 2012 using the distribution of finds on the surface as a guide.  In the center of the ancient settlement area, they found the largely undisturbed hoard.  Following the guidance of geophysical subsurface mapping, they were able to bring buried parts of the settlement to light during summer excavations.

According to Krauss, important finds like this usually would be prominently displayed in the Serbian National Museum.  However, the National Museum in Belgrade has been closed since the civil war.  Therefore, the German researchers have worked with their Serbian colleagues to share this unique ancient hoard with the public at the University of Tübingen Museum in Hohentübingen Castle.  A complete account of the hoard, and the results of the ongoing analysis, will be published in both German and Serbian.


New dating technique puts precise range on Polynesian coral files


Moving to the Pacific Ocean, new research shows that the first Polynesian settlers sailed to Tonga between 2,830 and 2,846 years ago.  The findings, newly published in the online journal PLoS One, relied on ultraprecise dating of coral tools found at Tonga's first settlement.  According to David Burley, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the technique provides us with far greater precision than any previous method in dating quite ancient materials.  For example, these coral tools are almost 3,000 years old, yet the date range is within 16 years.  

The new techniques could be used to trace the migration of Polynesia's prehistoric seafarers as they colonized the archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean.  The Lapita people, ancestors of modern-day Pacific Islanders, may have their origins in Taiwan roughly 5,000 to 6000 years ago.  They appeared in the Bismarck Archipelago off the coast of New Guinea around 3,250 years ago and gradually expanded farther east toward what is now the Tonga archipelago.  

Across a string of Pacific islands, the Lapita left traces of their culture.  The best surviving tool type is a file made from coral broken from staghorn coral reefs.  The ancient inhabitants of Oceania likely used these coral files to smooth the surfaces of wooden objects or shell bracelets.  Archaeologists determine when the Lapita migrated to an island by estimating the age of the earliest coral files there.  

Historically, archaeologists have dated the coral files by measuring the presence of radioactive carbon isotopes, atoms of the same element with different weights.  However, precise numbers were elusive, because carbon dating can be off by several hundred years.  To improve on this, Burley and his team analyzed 16 coral files found buried in the sand under the site of Polynesia's oldest known settlement, a small village called Nukuleka on the Tongan island of Tongatapu.  Instead of using radioactive carbon, the team used radioactive uranium and developed a method to date the ancient coral fragments with incredible precision.  The researchers pinpointed the date of first landfall at Tonga to within eight years of 826 BC.  According to Burley, because the Lapita scattered such coral files at many sites, the new technique could be used to retrace the steps of the ancient seafarers throughout Oceania with astonishing accuracy, letting us see this progression across the Pacific in ways we couldn't before.


Norway finds medieval copper smelter, and a mystery


In Norway, a new find suggests that medieval copper production was surprisingly sophisticated.  This summer, along a rushing river near the Swedish border, archaeologists excavated a smeltery on a little island where advanced metal production was carried out in the 1300s.  According to Associate Professor Lars F. Stenvik, at the Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in Trondheim, this is the first evidence that copper was produced from copper ore in Norway during the Middle Ages.  

In many ways, ore extraction and copper smelting were the starting point for a major modern Norwegian industry, with big mines operating in the 18th and 19th centuries.  However, evidence of domestic copper production prior to 1500 has been scant.  Copper was an important metal in medieval times and used in a number of products, from coins to church bells.  Previously, it was thought that all copper in Norway during the Middle Ages times was imported, since archaeologists found no archaeological finds of medieval ore extraction and smelting.  Now, signs of advanced copper production from the 1300s or even earlier are being uncovered in the municipality of Meråker.  

The new discovery happened on an island in the Kopperåa River.  The river’s name, Kopperåa, was used in old written documents and, as it refers to copper, is one of the reasons why Stenvik and his colleagues picked this as a place to look.  Previous finds from the location include charcoal, slag and small green clumps of copper.  The archaeologists became energized this summer when they made several new discoveries, including the remains of wooden structures beneath a collapsed pile of stones that provided evidence of technologically advanced production methods.  One surprising find was a split log that could have been used as a shaft in a drive gear that would enable its makers to capture the power of the rushing river.  The shaft was inlaid with some sort of hinge that possibly attached to a pair of bellows.  

The site in the middle of the river, the drive gear and other discoveries suggest that waterpower rather than manpower drove a bellows here.  According to Stenvik, this would have been an advanced technique in Europe for the 1300s.  Traces of what might have been a dam connected to the facilities also have turned up.  The smelter on the island in Kopperåa is likely the country’s oldest processing facility for the production of metals from any kind of mined ore.  Even though Norway produced iron starting around 500 BC, it was made from bog ore, rather than ore extracted from solid rock.  Copper smelting required other knowledge and depended on a complicated, multi-staged metallurgical process.  

Who had the knowledge and wealth at that time to begin smelting copper?  Stenvik says it’s possible local farmers in Meråker carried out copper production, but more likely the knowledge and the funding for the operations came from farther away.  Two key powers were at play in the medieval Trøndelag – the Cistercian Monks and the Archbishop of Nidaros.  The Cistercians founded a monastery at Munkeby in Levanger Municipality in the 1100s.  Orders of Catholic monks and nuns established international networks of monasteries and abbeys all over Europe.  They could also read, and had the means of disseminating important technological knowledge. Stenvik’s team knew that the Cistercians were on the cutting edge for that time in knowledge of metallurgy and the use of water power from dams.  Geographic and archaeological evidence suggests the Cistercians were also interested in copper extraction.  Later copper mines operated near the monastery in Levanger, and some of the stones in the monastery walls contain copper ore.  

The other likely candidate in the region is the Archbishop of Nidaros, with Nidaros the ancient name for today’s Trondheim.  The archbishop represented a power center second only to medieval Norway’s kings, and the Church would have been interested in controlling copper production.  The archbishop needed copper for church bells and roofing.  At times, he also had the power to mint coins, which required copper, too.  In the Middle Ages, even silver coins contained a certain amount of copper.  According to Stenvik, the evidence so far can’t prove who was behind the smelting operations, but research continues.


Precise precipitation record links climate change and Maya collapse


In our final story, a new study concludes that it was decades of extreme weather that crippled, and ultimately decimated, the ancient Mayan political organization and later even the human population.  The evidence was compiled by an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by anthropologists from the University of California at Davis.  

The collapse of the Maya is one of the world's most complex and enduring mysteries.  Now, for the first time, researchers have combined a clear-cut climatic record of the Maya environment with a precise record of Maya political history to provide a better understanding of the role weather had in the civilization's downfall.  Their findings are published in the current issue of the journal Science.  According to UC Davis anthropology professor and co-author Bruce Winterhalder, the collapse has been compelling because it concerns a state-level society that had created calendars, magnificent architecture, and works of art, and engaged in trade throughout Central America.  They were highly skilled craftspeople, proficient in agriculture, diplomacy and warfare, yet within the span of about 80 years, their complex sociocultural system fell apart completely.  

To determine what was happening in the sociopolitical realm during each of those years, the study tapped the extensive Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project, run by UC Davis Native American Language Center director and linguist Martha Macri, a specialist in Maya hieroglyphs who has been tracking the culture's stone monuments for nearly 30 years.  Aiding Macri’s work was the fact that every one of these Maya monuments is political history.  Inscribed on each monument is the date of its erection and dates of significant events, such as a ruler's birthday or accession to power, as well as dates of some deaths, burials and major battles.  

The number of monuments decreases in the years leading to the collapse.  However, the monuments make no mention of ecological events, such as storms, drought or references to crop successes or failures.  For that information, the research team studied the record in stalagmites, focusing on one collected from a cave in Belize, less than 1 mile from the Maya site of Uxbenka (OOSH-ben-ka) and about 18 miles from three other important centers.  The scientists dated oxygen isotopes in 0.1-millimeter increments along the length of the stalagmite, to assemble a physical record of rainfall over the past 2,000 years.  When combined, the stalagmite data and the hieroglyphs allowed the researchers to link precipitation to politics.  

The results show that periods of high and increasing rainfall coincided with a rise in population and political centers between AD 300 and 660.  A climate reversal and drying trend between AD 660 and 1000 triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall sociopolitical instability, and finally, political collapse.  This was followed by an extended drought between AD 1020 and 1100 that likely corresponded with crop failures, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.  Researchers long have suspected that weather events can cause a lot of political unrest and subject societies to disease and invasion.  Now the Maya record appears to demonstrate through physical evidence that societies depend on climatological events that are beyond our control.

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