Audio News for November 18th to November 24th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 18th to November 24th, 2012.


Massive city gate highlights Bronze Age dig in Jordan


Our first story is from Jordan, where a team of archaeologists and excavators are uncovering a site that could be among the largest ancient Bronze Age cities of the Near East.  Current efforts are focusing on a massive, newly discovered city gate from the Middle Bronze II Period, from 1800 to1540 BC.  The gate is part of a complex of related structures that formed part of a nearly impenetrable defensive system, which ringed and protected a city that the excavators suggest may have commanded and controlled a group of other nearby ancient settlements.  

The city gate came to light during excavations directed by Dr. Steven Collins of Trinity Southwest University of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Yazeed Eylayyan of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.  It was one of a number of major architectural features associated with a massive defensive fortification system built to protect the city.  The fortifications include a city wall 4 meters thick, or nearly 15 feet, built on a foundation of large stones, rising up to 5 meters, or over 15 feet, high.  This stone wall was then topped by a superstructure of mud brick.  More mud bricks then reinforced the entire wall with an earthen exterior rampart system that sloped outward and downward about 35 to 38 degrees from the wall.  

Based on current excavated evidence and analysis, the newly discovered gateway constitutes the main, monumental gateway leading into the city through the fortifications.  According to Collins, the sheer size and extent of the defensive system would have been most impressive, and virtually unassailable.  Thus far, no evidence suggests that conquest ever destroyed the wall during the duration of its Bronze Age existence.  A substantial ring road apparently ran between the inner face of the city wall and the first row of houses.  

The remains of the ancient city encompass an area so large that it dwarfs surrounding ancient settlements.  Within the city area are finds and structures roughly of the same period, and analyses of the context, finds, and other data have led scholars to suggest the city may have been the hub of a group of settlements with relations economically or politically, as a Bronze Age city-state.  The site, called Tell el-Hammam, is located in the southern Jordan River Valley, about 9 miles, or 14 kilometers, northeast of the Dead Sea.  The investigations there, now entering their 8th season, have revealed a long occupation history, starting with the Chalcolithic Period and continuing to Islamic times, but with a distinct occupational gap of at least five centuries after the Middle Bronze Age.  The reasons for the gap are not as yet known and the project is continuing to search for clues.  Archaeologists and a team of students and volunteers will be returning to the site to excavate and explore more of the city gate and other related structures in January 2013.


Thieves steal rock art from Sierra Nevada sacred site


Our next story is a tragic one from the United States, where rock carvings that graced a sacred American Indian site in California’s Sierra Nevada for thousands of years have fallen prey to modern thieves armed with power saws.  At least four petroglyphs, measuring up to 2 feet wide  and located 15 feet above the ground, were hacked from lava cliffs in the Eastern Sierra.  Visitors to the area, known as the Volcanic Tableland, discovered the theft and reported it to the federal Bureau of Land Management on Oct. 31.  

According to BLM archaeologist Greg Haverstock, this was the worst act of vandalism ever seen on the 750,000 acres of public land administered by the BLM field office in Bishop, California.  The thieves used ladders, electric generators and power saws.  In addition to the four carvings that were stolen, another one was defaced with deep saw cuts on three sides, and a sixth petroglyph was removed but broke and was left propped against a boulder near a visitor parking lot.  

Native Americans carved the pictures of hunters, deer and other animals, and geometric and other designs more than 3,500 years ago on hundreds of lava boulders along a half-mile-long volcanic escarpment.  The stolen petroglyphs are each probably worth around $500 to $1,500 on the illegal art market but are priceless to American Indians, authorities said.  According to Paiute tribal historic preservation officer Raymond Andrews, the tribe still uses this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about their historical and spiritual connections.  The tribal elders are appalled by what happened.  

Volunteers have stepped up surveillance at the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The BLM is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrests.  A first-time felony conviction for damaging or removing petroglyphs can carry a one-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine.  Meanwhile, federal officials and American Indian leaders plan to mark the damage with signs noting that the destruction was perpetrated, as Haverstock put it, by malicious, selfish individuals.

Mesolithic house foundations are Britain’s first


In Britain, understanding of the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic, is being changed forever after archaeologists digging near Liverpool discovered the foundations of three houses from nearly 8,000 years ago.  Environment Agency officials were undertaking a project to enhance clean water supplies but commissioned archaeology professionals from the Museum of Liverpool to oversee the excavation of any archaeological materials found.  What turned up were the foundations of three houses lying only one meter underground, along with several tools, remains of campfires and even remnants of food such as hazelnut shells.  

The find is a first for archeologists, many of whom have assumed that Mesolithic people were nomadic, but this site presents the possibility that several families could have lived in just one place.  Radiocarbon dating places the houses back to around 5,800 BC.  During this era, Britain had finally physically separated from Northern Europe to become the island as we now know it, so these were among the first original Britons.  According to Ron Cowell, curator of prehistoric archaeology at the Museum of Liverpool, the find has national importance.  Cowell is participating in the excavation, which is taking place at the earliest dated site found in the region.  
The dig is not yet finished and more radiocarbon dates are needed to provide a fully detailed picture, but already this will clearly be one of the key heritage sites in Britain.  The people of this period were hunter-gatherers, following a relatively mobile lifestyle in order to exploit different areas of the landscape at different times of the year.  The significance of the newly discovered site is that it suggests the transition to more permanent dwellings, where people could have settled in this area.  Environmental evidence shows they were living on the edge of a swamp or a lake.  Researchers found a range of stone tools, including microliths, which are typical of the period, and can be used for arrowheads or piercing tools.  The homes are a comfortable size for a family, made in hollows in the sand that may have offered natural shelter.  The artifacts found on site will be analyzed and kept by the Liverpool Museum.

New chemical analysis shows how New World silver traveled to Europe


In our final story, chemical studies of old English coins are helping untangle a centuries-old mystery: What happened to all the silver that Spaniards dug out of the New World?  Silver from Mexican mines started being incorporated into English coins around the mid-1550s, the new study shows.  However, silver from the legendary Potosí mines, in what is now Bolivia, did not show up until nearly a century later, researchers report in a recent edition of the journal Geology.  
The new study adds hard data to theories linking the transatlantic influx of silver to price inflation across Europe from about 1515 to 1650.  Anne-Marie Desaulty and Francis Albarède of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, analyzed 15 English coins, dated between 1317 and 1640, for variations in their copper, lead and silver.  Traces of other minerals appear in each region’s deposits of gold and silver, providing a chemical fingerprint of their origin, which in turn can be correlated with the age of their formation and the history of their mining.  

Lead in all the coins before the reign of Mary I, which began in 1553, showed that the ore was at least 220 million years old, suggesting it came from ancient rocks in either central Europe or England.  Lead in later coins showed a much higher contribution of silver younger than 50 million years, suggesting it came instead from the mines of Mexico.  The coins show very little hint of Potosí silver, which has a distinctly different lead signature than Mexican ore.  That is surprising, Desaulty notes, because the Potosí mines were mining far more silver at the time than those in Mexico.  

Geography may be the reason, because it was easier to ship Mexican silver eastward to Europe than to get Potosí silver across Brazil to the Atlantic.  Instead, Potosí silver went west, from Lima to Acapulco and onward to markets in China.  Scholars have known of this westward trade route before, which did not become really important until the early 17th century, according to John Munro, an economist at the University of Toronto.  It’s not yet clear, however, whether these particular English coins reflect a larger trend across Europe.  

In work published last year, Desaulty analyzed Spanish coins and found that they contained very little silver from either Mexico or Potosí until the 18th century.  However, Maria Filomena Guerra, of the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France in Paris, has used a different technique to analyze chemical elements that appear in trace amounts in Spanish, French and Italian coins.  She found Potosí silver reaching Spain around 1570, and France and Italy in 1575.  Guerra concluded that Spain received the silver directly from Potosí, so it is evident it must have reached Spain before the other countries.  What’s clearer yet from the newly published analysis is that chemical studies of the metals will be further developed and tested against each other, to refine our understanding of how exploitation of the New World’s resources changed the Old World along with the New.

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