Audio News for November 25th to December 1st, 2012.  


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 25th to December 1st, 2012.


Stone Age viticulture verified in Turkey


In our first story, from Turkey, the spectacular, desolate landscapes of Anatolia may not seem like good wine-growing country, but DNA analysis suggests it is here that Stone Age farmers first domesticated the wine grape.  Today Turkey is home to countless archaeological sites as well as vineyards of ancient grape varieties like Bogazkere and Okuzgozu, which drew the curiosity of the Swiss botanist and grape DNA sleuth Jose Vouillamoz.

Working with the biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, Vouillamoz has spent nearly a decade studying the world's cultivated and wild vines.  The researchers collected samples from wild and cultivated grape vines from across the Near East, including southeastern Anatolia, Armenia and Georgia, to determine in which place the wild grape was genetically linked most closely to the cultivated variety.  It turned out to be southeastern Anatolia, the Asian part of modern Turkey.  Based on this genetic evidence, southeastern Anatolia is most likely the first place of grape vine domestication.  

McGovern's lab at the University of Pennsylvania Museum also provided archaeological evidence of wine's Anatolian roots after analyzing residues of liquid recovered from vessels thousands of years old.  McGovern, who has written two books on the subject, "Uncorking the Past" and "Ancient Wine," used a sensitive chemical technique to find early wine traces.  Tartaric acid, in significant amounts, has only one source in the Middle East -- grapes.  The preliminary results of his tests on pottery and even older clay mineral containers show that Georgia, Armenia and Iran all played a role in ancient winemaking, but the oldest and strongest evidence is from southeastern Anatolia.  According to McGovern, this places the very first domestication of the wild Eurasian grape Vitis vinifera in southeastern Anatolia sometime between 5,000 and 8,500 BC.  

Southeastern Anatolia is part of the Fertile Crescent, the name given to a vast area stretching through modern-day Iraq and Iran to the Nile Valley in the south, widely seen as the birthplace of the eight so-called "founder" crops, from chickpea to barley, that are the world's first known domesticated plants.  Evidence found by the new research suggests that for wine too, hundreds of today's grapes find their roots in their own set of founder varieties, all descended from the wild grapes of the region.

According to Vouillamoz, by tracing the family trees of European fine wine grapes he has isolated 13 of these foundational grapes.  Based on the geographical evidence of their origins, he hypothesizes that farmers across southeast Anatolia or the Near East started domesticating the wild grape around the same time, giving rise to the 13 foundation types.  This contradicts the long-held notion that Western European grape growers could have domesticated different grapes independently at different times and in different places.  

But this vine and grape heritage is now under threat.  In the Kurdish Diyarbakir region, where women on subsistence farms tend the vines and goats do the pruning, the disease phylloxera is killing vineyards not yet grafted onto disease-resistant rootstock.  Phylloxera annihilated vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century.  Wild vines are somewhat protected by their eco-system, but cultivated vines are extremely vulnerable.

Silver and gold playing cards date back 400 years

Original Headline:  400-Year-Old Playing Cards Reveal Royal Secret


In our next story, a historian with expertise in gold and silver decorative arts has called attention to an exceptional set of 52 silver playing cards gilded in gold and dating back 400 years.  Created in Germany around AD 1616, the cards were engraved by Michael Frömmer, who created at least one other set of silver cards.  According to an oral tradition, backed up by a 19th-century brass plate, a Portuguese princess owned the cards at one point.  She fled the country, cards in hand, after Napoleon's armies invaded in AD 1807.  

At the time of their creation in 1616, no standardized cards existed; different parts of Europe had their own card styles.  This particular set uses a suit seen in Italy, with swords, coins, batons, and cups in values from ace to 10.  Each of these suits has three face cards, consisting of a king, a knight, also known as the cavalier, and a knave, now known as the jack.  There are no jokers.  

In 2010, an anonymous owner put the set up for auction at Christie's in New York, not for playing with, but as works of art for the collector's cabinet.  Today, few such early sets survive; collectors know of only five sets of silver cards and of them all, only this set is complete.  

Two of the kings on the set wear ancient Roman clothing, while one wears the garb of a Holy Roman Emperor and the last wears the garments of a Sultan.  The knights and knaves take different poses to show off their Renaissance era military or courtly costumes.  Each card measures about 8.6 centimeters by 5 centimeters in size and is blank on the back.  

Creating the card set would have been a hazardous job.  To gild the thin silver cards, the craftsmen used mercury, a poisonous substance that can potentially kill.  First they ground up gold into dust, then mixed it with mercury, and painted it onto the surface where the gilding was to appear.  Finally, they burned off the mercury in a kiln, which would leave the gold chemically bonded to the silver.  Both as a liquid, and through the vapors it constantly gives off, mercury gets into the skin and lungs of workers, where even small accumulations lead to severe and long-term nervous system damage.  The early madness of the wealthy and noble-born for beautiful, elaborate cards could lead to real madness for the artisans who crafted them.

Microbreweries aren’t so modern after all

Original Headline:   Remember when drinking beer was 'healthy'?  Manchester archaeologists discover 3,500-year-old microbrewer


Traveling to Cyprus, archaeologists have found one of the oldest microbreweries in history.  Microbreweries may seem modern, but researchers have now discovered that our ancestors were sipping different flavored concoctions 3500 years ago as a safer alternative to bread and water.  

Archaeologists have excavated a two by two meter, or about 6-foot diameter, domed mud-plaster structure that ancient people used as a kiln to dry malt to make beer.  Early beer makers brewed beers of different flavors from malted barley and fermented them with yeasts with an alcoholic content of around 5%.  The yeast would have either been wild or produced from fruit such as grape or fig.  Beer drinking was an important part of society from the Neolithic onwards and may have even been the main reason that people began to cultivate grain in the first place.  However, it’s extremely rare to find the remains of production preserved from thousands of years ago.  The excavation of the malting kiln with associated sets of pottery types and tools left in place produced a fantastic opportunity to expand understanding of Bronze Age toolkits, as well as to figure out techniques and recipes.  

The oven was located at one end of a 50-meter square courtyard with a plastered floor.  The researchers found grinding tools and mortars that the brewers used to break down the malted grain, a small hearth, and cooking pots made of clay to cook the beer gently.  They also found small jugs that they believe probably contained yeast additives or sweeteners to produce beers of different strengths or flavors.  The team found the beers’ ingredients as carbonized seeds.  

Ancient people drank beer because it is more nutritious than bread and less likely to contain harmful pathogens than drinking water.  Nevertheless, they also used alcoholic beverages to oil the wheels of business and pleasure in much the same way as today: work brought communities together for tasks such as bringing in the harvest or erecting special buildings.  Instead of payment, participants celebrate with a special feast, often involving quantities of alcohol, which also transformed the work from a chore into a social event.

Clay balls were part of Maya kitchens
Original Headline:  Mayans Cooked Food With Clay Balls


In our final story from Mexico, clay balls are one way the Maya cooked their food, according to U.S. archaeologists who have unearthed dozens of rounded clay pieces.  The excavation of a kitchen at Escalera al Cielo (es-cah-LAIR-ah all see-AY-lo) in Yucatán revealed 77 complete balls and 912 smaller fragments.  Measuring about one-half inch diameter, or 2 centimeters, and dating back to more than 1,000 years ago, the clay balls contained microscopic pieces of maize, beans, squash, and other root crops.  

The finding supports the hypothesis that the balls were involved in kitchen activities related to food processing.  This is the first time archaeologists have studied fired clay balls in the Maya area and, even though clay balls are still used in modern Maya cooking, little research exists on this ethnographic technique.  

Located in the Puuc (poo-OOK) hills of Yucatán, the Maya site of Escalera al Cielo was an elite residential settlement. Residents rapidly abandoned it sometime near the end of the Terminal Classic period around AD 800-950, as evidenced by ceramic vessels, stone tools, personal adornments, and other material assembled on the floors.  

We know much about the nature of ancient Maya kings and queens, but this type of study helps see how the Maya worked in the kitchen, what kinds of tools they used and the ways they might have prepared their cuisine.  To understand the meaning of the fired clay balls, the researchers used a suite of microscopic techniques and experimental replication.  The tests revealed that the potters produced the balls from local clay in a standardized set of sizes.  The manufacturers fired them at a fairly low temperature and used them repeatedly in the kitchen.  

Most likely, the Maya either placed the fired balls directly into pots of food to cook or heated them for pit oven cooking installations.  The process continued by placing whole roots, squash fruits or packets of food wrapped in maize on the hot stones. The cooks then covered everything with earth and leaves to seal in heat. Cooking took from one hour to up to a day or more.  

The experimental tests showed how the ancient Puuc Maya manipulated materials available to them to produce objects that potentially represent a staple of every Puuc Maya kitchen inventory, maybe even representing a local cooking technique and cuisine.  

Archeologists have described fired clay balls from a variety of archaeological contexts worldwide, particularly in the Lower Mississippi River Basin and southeastern United States, and in areas of southwest Asia where clay is abundant but stone are not.  

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!