Audio News for November 11th to November 17th, 2012.


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November11th to November 17th, 2012.


Maya infant burials reveal poor health and malnutrition


Our first story is from Mexico, where evidence of the depressed life lived by the Maya during the Spanish conquest of the 16th century has emerged in an ancient settlement on the east coast.  Archaeologists are unearthing dozens of infant skeletons with signs of malnutrition and acute anemia.  Found in the recently opened archaeological site of San Miguelito, in the middle of the hotel chain area of Quintana Roo [keen-TAWN-a ROH], near Cancun, archaeologists excavated human burials in 11 residential buildings dating to the Late Post classic Mayan Period of AD 1200 to 1550.  Archaeologists of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, estimate that at least 30 burials from the 16th Century belong to infants between the ages of three and six.  The majority suffered from hunger and likely died of related diseases.  

These skeletons point to a high infant mortality rate, probably derived from poor health and malnutrition.  The humble offerings in the graves of some infants are typical of an impoverished society.  One of the burials contained a hummingbird-shaped figurine and another that of an old woman with perfectly detailed wrinkles on her face.  

In addition to the infant burials, the archaeologists unearthed another 17 burials, some belong to adult individuals, while others are so fragmented that they are unidentifiable.  Two of the 17 burials were in ceramic urns, while others contained simple offerings, such as deer antlers, a knife and projectile points.  The archaeologists also discovered fragments of a mural painting with faunal designs and marine elements, pottery, lithic tools, and a two-inch earring, made of shell and engraved with the face of an individual.

Strategically located at the entrance of the Nichupte Lagoon, San Miguelito was an important trading center.  The population exploited marine resources and the place thrived, noted archaeologist Adriana Velazquez Morlet, director of the INAH Center in Quintana Roo [keen-TAWN-a ROH].  Pre-Hispanic structures built at that time in the settlement included the 26-foot-high by 39-foot-wide Great Pyramid, and four other  architectural complexes called South, Dragons, Chaac, and North.  

Things radically changed as the Spanish arrived on the Yucatan peninsula.  The conquest was different from the rest of Mesoamerica because Yucatan had so many scattered and independent cities.  It took the Spanish 20 years to conquer them all and, when they did, people settled in the west Yucatan and Campeche.  

All the eastern part of Mesoamerica suffered the consequences of severed Maya trade routes.  Predictably, the population abandoned San Miguelito.  


3000 year old Pakistani graves point to complex burial rituals


Moving now to the Eastern Hemisphere, an Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan has discovered an ancient cemetery in Swat, believed built between 1500 BC to 500 BC.  Researchers have excavated 23 graves at the ancient cemetery, which belongs to the pre-Buddhist era.  

In some graves, researchers found two skeletons, one in a primary position and one in a secondary position.  The structures of the graves are also unique.  Some have small walls; some are dug in clay while clay benches make up others.

The site is home to unique ancient graves, pottery, ornaments made of bronze and copper, spindles, and hairpins.  Archaeologists unearthed personal ornaments including bronze earrings and spindles made out of ivory, which indicate the role woman played in those days.  

According to Massimo Vidale, a professor of Archaeology at the University of Padua, the graves indicated the society was well organized and apparently very peaceful, because excavators have not found weapons at the site, a circumstance unlike most civilizations.  Vidale expressed the view that the people of this civilization had very complex rituals, since the excavated graves revealed that one grave contained two bodies placed strategically such that they face each other.  They might be relatives: Father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister or wife and husband.  This signifies the emphasis they placed on the strong bonds of familial ties.  

Researchers discovered the ancient remains at Odigram, which was the capital of Swat between the 8th and 10th centuries AD, during the Hindu Shahi period.  Hungarian-British Archaeologist Aurel Stein a century ago identified the region as Ora, the city where Alexander the Great fought one of his battles.


Near-perfect Civil War site unearthed in Virginia


In the United States, a construction site in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has become a Civil War time capsule.  Last September, as Jon Tucker sifted soil through a screen, a corroded lead slug jiggled into view amid the sand and ash excavated from the pit.  Tucker waved to his supervisor, archaeologist Taft Kiser, and held up the bullet for him to see.  Hundreds of artifacts followed, along with the contours of a buried cellar holding a rich trove of Civil War history sealed since a ferocious 1862 battle in this city.  

Since September, the team's shovels and trowels have scraped away cinders and sand to reveal the basement's contents: Dozens of bullets, buttons from Union jackets, shards from whiskey bottles, a metal plate from a cartridge box, chinstrap buckles, tobacco pipes, a brick fireplace, and charred floorboards.  

According to Kiser, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.  With the project paused, the team raced to document what they concluded was the basement of a building set afire shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg.  The timing was opportune, because the battle's 150-year anniversary is next month, and Fredericksburg has been preparing to mark the sesquicentennial.  

Fredericksburg's city planners hired Kiser's firm, Cultural Resources, Incorporated, to investigate the historical significance of the property chosen for the courthouse complex, as they would require a private developer to do in a historic district.  There was no expectation that the investigators would find anything.  When the archaeologists initially checked city records, they were unable to find any indication that a building had been on the property before 1886.  Shortly into the dig, the crew discovered a sandstone cellar wall, a clue that time had preserved something below.  When the crew dug at another location, it found a brick wall flush against the sidewalk.  The dig then accellerated from a quiet investigation into a dash to extract as much information as possible.  

The crew also discovered an 18th-century well and latrines across the site, where livery stables once stood.  The near-perfect preservation of the site has helped to paint a vivid portrait of the aftermath of the battle, when Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside tried to take the city from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, as Union troops forged toward Richmond.  When Union forces charged on Dec. 13, 1862, Lee's men were perched on the heights above the city.  They easily repelled the Union soldiers, inflicting terrible casualties.  Afterward, Union soldiers likely sheltered anywhere they could, including in the basement Kiser's crew discovered.

Modern war rages around ancient biblical battle site


In our final story, few archaeological sites seem as entwined with conflict, ancient and modern, as the city of Karkemish.  The scene of a battle mentioned in the Bible, it lies on the border between Turkey and Syria, where civil war rages today.  Twenty-first Century Turkish sentries occupy an acropolis with recently demined ruins dating back more than 5,000 years.  Visible from crumbling, earthen ramparts, a Syrian rebel flag flies in a town that Assad regime forces fled just months ago.  

A Turkish-Italian team is conducting the most extensive excavations there in nearly a century, building on the work of British Museum teams that included T. E. Lawrence, the adventurer known as Lawrence of Arabia.  The plan is to open the site along the Euphrates River to tourists in late 2014.  

The strategic city, its importance long known to scholars because of references in ancient texts, in its long history has been under the sway of the Hittites and other imperial rulers and independent kings.  However, World War I halted archaeological investigations.  Hostilities between Turkish nationalists and French colonizers from Syria, who built machine gun nests in its ramparts, didn’t help.  Mining occurred in part of the frontier in the 1950s, creating deadly obstacles to archaeological inquiry.  

All this military history is very powerfully represented by Karkemish, notes Nicolo' Marchetti, professor of archaeology and art history of the Ancient Near East at the University of Bologna.  He is the project director at Karkemish, where the Turkish military let archaeologists resume work in the designated military zone for the first time since its troops occupied the site about 90 years ago.  Archaeologists say they felt secure on the Turkish side of Karkemish during a 10-week season of excavation that ended in late October.  The team arrived in August, one month after Syrian insurgents ousted troops from the Syrian border town of Jarablous.  

About one-third of the 90-hectare archaeological site lies inside Syria and  therefore is off-limits.  Construction and farming in Jarablous have encroached on what was the outer edge of the ancient city.  Researchers have made most discoveries on what is now Turkish territory.  

When a British team began work in 1911, the undivided area was part of the weakening Ottoman Empire.  Germans nearby were constructing the Berlin-Baghdad railway, which traverses the ancient site along the border.  Archaeologist C. L. Woolley and his assistant, Lawrence, found basalt and limestone slabs carved with images of soldiers, chariots, animals and kings; the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Turkish capital, houses many of them today.  The excavators also uncovered the remains of palaces and temples.  

The book of Jeremiah in the Bible refers to Karkemish for a battle in which the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar (NEB-yu-kad-NEZ-ar) II, defeated the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies.  In the ruins of the excavation house of its British predecessors, the Turkish-Italian team discovered old archaeological tools, statue fragments and a Roman mosaic.  Elsewhere, they found a bronze cylinder seal inscribed with hieroglyphs that belonged to a town official and a bronze statuette of a god with a double-horned tiara and a skirt, along with a silver dagger set into the left hand.  

Because the British excavated only  a small area of Karkemish and the Turkish military occupation since then has shielded the site from looters, its archaeological potential appears to be huge.

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