Audio News for December 2nd to December 8th, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 2nd to December 8th, 2012.


Terracotta warriors excavation grows to include vast palace

Original Headline:  China unearths ruined palace near terracotta army


Our first story is from China, where archaeologists have found the remains of an ancient imperial palace near the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (chin shee hwong) and his famous terracotta army.  The palace of Qin is the largest complex discovered so far in the emperor's expansive second-century BC mausoleum, covering 56 square kilometers, an area of more than 20 square miles.  The complex lies on the outskirts of Xi'an (she-AHN), an ancient capital city in central China.  According to the researcher, Sun Weigang, it is an estimated 690 meters long, nearly half a mile, and 250 meters wide, which makes this early palace about a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

According to Sun, the palace is a clear predecessor to the Forbidden City.  Emperors occupied the Forbidden City during the later Ming and Qing dynasties.  Like Qin, both were built on north-south axes following the traditional rules of Chinese cosmology.  The early palace complex held 18 courtyard-style houses with one main building at the center.  

Despite a period of wars after Qin Shi Huang's death, and more than 2,000 years of exposure, the building foundations are well preserved.  Archaeologists have found walls, gates, stone roads, pottery shards and some brickwork.  They have been excavating the foundations since 2010.  
Qin began designing the palace for his afterlife shortly after he became king of the Qin state at age 13.  The complex took 700,000 workers about 40 years to build and was completed two years after his death.  According to writings by the Han dynasty scholar Sima Qian, Qin Shi Huang's tomb is 120 meters high, sealed off by a stone wall, surrounded by rivers of mercury and protected by booby traps.  Beginning in 1974, an estimated 6,000 life-sized terracotta warriors have been found guarding Qin's tomb.  About 2,000 are currently excavated; 110 of these were unearthed this summer.  The United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization (Unesco) declared the army a World Heritage Site in 1987.  Excavation of the tomb itself is on hold for fear of damaging the potentially priceless artifacts inside.  

Chinese historians portray Qin as a great unifier, who conquered six states and established an expansive feudal kingdom with a united currency and writing system.  He was also a ruthless leader who burned books, buried his opponents alive and castrated prisoners of war.


Geological evidence shows role of drought in Sumeria’s ancient end

Original Headline:  Drought May Have Killed Sumerian Language


In our next story, Matt Konfirst, a geologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center, says a 200-year-long drought that hit Sumeria some 4,200 years ago may have killed off that ancient language.  Because no written accounts explicitly mention drought as the reason for the Sumerian demise, his conclusions rely on indirect clues.  Nevertheless, several pieces of archaeological and geological evidence tie the gradual decline of the Sumerian civilization to a drought.  The findings, presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, show how vulnerable human society may be to climate change, including human-caused change.  

According to Konfirst, this was not a single summer or winter dry spell, but an entire 200 to 300 years of drought.  The Sumerian culture began about 3500 BC and flourished in ancient Mesopotamia, located in present-day Iraq.  Sumerians invented cuneiform writing, built the world's first wheels, constructed the first arches in their architecture, and wrote the first epic poem, "Gilgamesh."  However, after about 1500 years of this industrious innovation, Sumerian culture descended into 200 to 300 years of upheaval, disappearing around 4,000 years ago, with all records of their written language ceasing soon after that.  

Konfirst investigated links between the Sumerian decline and a known ancient drought that spanned about 200 years.  Several geological records point to a long period of drier weather in the Middle East around 4,200 years ago.  Evaporation increased from the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, water levels dropped at Lake Van in Turkey, and cores from marine sediments around that period show much more dust in the environment.  As the 4,200-year-ago climate shift began, estimated rainfall decreased substantially in this region and the number of sites populated during this time period went down substantially.  According to a 2006 study of an archaeological site called Tell Leilan in Syria round the same time, as many as three quarters of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned.  The inhabited area itself shrank by over 90 percent.  

During the great drought, two waves of marauding nomads descended upon the region, sacking the capital city of Ur.  After around 2000 BC, ancient Sumerian gradually died off as a spoken language in the region.  For the next 2,000 years, the tongue lingered on as a dead written language, similar to Latin in the Middle Ages, but went completely extinct after that.  According to Konfirst, the co-occurrence of the social upheaval, depopulation in the area and the geologic record of drought suggests climate change might have played a role in the loss of the Sumerian language.  The findings also underscore the dangers that modern-day civilizations may be equally vulnerable to climate change.


New research deep in Maya caves shows early religious use

Original Headline:   Archaeologists find Maya ceramics and mural paintings in three underwater caves in Mexico


Traveling to Mexico, we pick up the story of underwater archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, who recently explored three caverns rich in Maya culture materials: two caves in Campeche and a cenote (sin-OH-tay), a water-filled limestone sink hole, in the Yucatan.  

The Cenote San Manuel stands out since it contains a distinctive style of ceramics dating back about 2,300 years ago.  To Helena Barba Meinecke, responsible for all the underwater archaeology of the Yucatan peninsula, the detailed recording of the caves and the cenote, together with the archaeological elements found in them, confirm their role as places of ritual in the pre-Hispanic era.  

At the Cenote San Manuel, the underground water is more than 20 meters deep, and has to be accessed through the town well by rappelling into the dark chill waters below.  The divers must not be in the water longer than 20 minutes, making multiple shifts of divers a necessity.  At least six hours of such shifts were needed to retrieve two Maya pots, possibly dating back to AD 200 or 300 during the Late Postclassic period.  One of the pots is globular with a braided handle and was shaped to show an anthropomorphic face and a body represented with the attributes of a plant.  The other pot shows a Maya face with a crown or headdress detailed in a red and blue pigment.  According to Barba Meinecke, until now, such elaborate ceramics had not been found in the peninsula’s underwater spaces, nor any ceramics as well preserved as these.  

The explorations of the Underwater Archaeology Atlas project also recorded the semidry cave of Huachabi, Campeche.  This cave, more than 500 meters long, or nearly one-third mile, lies in the still largely unrecorded Miramar archaeological district in the Chenes region.  Inside the cave, whose several levels required rappels of up to 20 meters, nearly 50 areas or alcoves revealed pre-Hispanic offerings of distinct types.  Carbon samples were taken to estimate the approximate dates.  According to archaeologist Eunice Uc, a ceramics specialist, the contexts of the ceramic elements show a preliminary date of the Classic period, from AD 600 to 900.  As well as these materials, fragments of mural paintings turneed up in different chambers of the cave.  The designs are anthropomorphic as well as showing vegetables and insects that inhabit the subterranean environment, and along with their execution in red clay taken from inside the cave, this suggests they were older than the rest of the elements found.  

The third cave is named Aktun aam (ahk-toon AHM) after its sizable population of violinist spiders, also known as the brown recluse.  Also located in Campeche, it contained objects suggesting that initiation or purification ceremonies i took place in the cave.  According to Barba Meinecke, in each branch of the cavern, usually in groups, were placements of decorated black colored pots and metates that had been broken intentonally.  The metates were made with the same limestone as the cave, suggesting that the objects were created inside the cave for the specific purpose of the ritual.

Secrets of Egypt’s largest sarcophagus decoded

Original Headline:  Fit for a King: Largest Egyptian Sarcophagus Identified


Our final story is from Egypt, where researchers have identified the ruler once laid to rest in the largest ancient sarcophagus ever found in a tomb in Valley of the Kings.  Archaeologists are reassembling the giant coffin of Merneptah, reduced to fragments more than 3,000 years ago.

Merneptah, an Egyptian pharaoh who lived more than 3,200 years ago, was a warrior king famous for defeating the Libyans as well as a group called the "Sea Peoples."  He also waged a campaign in the Levant attacking, among others, a group he called "Israel," in the first mention of that people in ancient historical records.  

When he died, Merneptah’s mummy went into a series of four stone sarcophagi, one nestled within the other.  Archaeologists are re-assembling the outermost of these sarcophagi, its size dwarfing the researchers working on it.  Made of red granite, the royal sarcophagus measures more than 4 meters long, nearly 15 feet.  At 2.3 meters wide and 2.5 meters tall, the massive box towers above the ground as well.  The lid is still intact.  

According to project director Edwin Brock, a research associate at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, as far as is known, this is the largest of any of the royal sarcophagi.  The four sarcophagi were brought into the tomb already nested together, with the king's mummy inside.  Holes in the entrance shaft to the tomb indicate a pulley system of sorts, with ropes and wooden beams, used to bring in the sarcophagi.  When the workers got to the burial chamber, they found they could not get the sarcophagi box through the door.  Ultimately, they had to destroy the chamber's door jams and build new ones.  

When Brock first examined fragments from Merneptah's tomb in the 1980s, they were piled up in no particular order in a side chamber.  Even when put together, the fragments made up just one-third of the box, so researchers had to reconstruct the rest.  Not only was the pharaoh's outer sarcophagus huge, but the fact that he used four of them, made of stone, is unusual.  Merneptah was unique in having four stone sarcophagi to enclose his mummified remains.  Within the outer sarcophagus was a second granite sarcophagus box with a cartouche-shaped oval lid that depicts Merneptah.  Within that, was a third sarcophagus, removed and reused in antiquity by another ruler named Psusennes I.  Within this was a fourth sarcophagus, made of travertine, which originally held the actual mummy.  

Only a few fragments of this innermost box survive today; the mummy itself was reburied in antiquity, after the tomb was robbed more than 3,000 years ago.  It was after this robbery that the outer sarcophagus box, and the second box within it, was broken apart, although the lids for both boxes remained intact.  They were destroyed not only for their parts but also to get to the third box that was reused by Psusennes.  Scorch marks, splinters and circular cracking on various locations of the interior and exterior of the box attest to the use of fire to heat parts of the box, followed by rapid cooling with water to weaken the granite.  Hammer stones also appear to have been used to break up the outer two sarcophagi. 

According to Brock, the reason why Merneptah built himself such a giant sarcophagus is still unknown.  Other pharaohs used multiple sarcophagi, but none with an outer box as big as this.  The decorations on Merneptah's different sarcophagi offer one clue as to why he built four.  They contain illustrations from two compositions that describe the sun god's journey at night: one is called the 'Book of Gates' and one is called the 'Amduat.' These books are divided into 12 sections, or hours.  Brock notes that the same hours tend to repeat on the box and lids of Merneptah's sarcophagi.  One motif the king appears particularly fond of is the opening scenes of the "Book of Gates," including one depicting a realm that exists before the sun god enters the netherworld.  For the king, repeating scenes like this may have held special importance, as though by enclosing the king's body with these magical shells they increased the certainty of his resurrection.

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