Audio News for January 13th to January 19th, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 13th to January 19th, 2013.

Shaman’s crystal cache found in Panama

Original Headline:  4,000-year-old shaman's stones discovered near Boquete, Panama


In our first story, archaeologists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute near the town of Boquete (boh-KET-tay), Panama, have discovered a cluster of 12 unusual stones in the back of a small, prehistoric rock-shelter.  The collection represents the earliest material evidence of shamanistic practice in lower Central America.

Ruth Dickau, Leverhulme Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter in England, unearthed the cache in the Casita de Piedra rock-shelter in 2007.  A piece of charcoal found directly underneath the stone was radiocarbon dated to 4,800 years ago.  A second fragment of charcoal in a level above the stones dated to 4,000 years ago.

According to the team’s geologist, Stewart Redwood, the cache includes one small dacite stone fashioned into a cylindrical tool, and a number of rocks and crystals that are commonly found in association with gold deposits in the Central Cordillera of Panama and Central America.  The collector of the stones clearly had an eye for unusual stones and crystals, which may have held a special significance.

According to Dickau, no evidence appeared of a disturbance or pit feature to suggest someone had come along, dug a hole and buried the stones at a later date, and the fact that the stones were found in a tight pile suggests they were probably deposited inside a bag or basket, which subsequently decomposed.  Both the placement and the unusual composition of the stones in the cache suggests they were part of the tool kit of a shaman or healer.  

Indigenous groups who lived near this site include the forebears of present-day Ngäbe (N-GAH-bay), Buglé (boo-GLAY), Bribri (BREE-Bree), Cabécar (cah-BAY-car), as well as the Dorasque (do-RAS-kay), a now vanished cultural group.  Shamans or healers belonging to these and other indigenous cultures of Central and South America often include special stones among the objects they use for ritual practices.  In particular, stones that contain crystal structures may be linked to transformative experiences in many of their stories.

Anthony Ranere, from Temple University in Philadelphia, first identified and excavated Casita de Piedra in an archaeological survey of western Panama in the early 1970s.  He found that the small rockshelter was repeatedly occupied over thousands of years and used for a variety of domestic activities such as food processing and cooking, stone tool manufacture and retouch, and possibly woodworking.  Dickau returned to the site to expand excavations from December 2006 to January 2007.

Dickau's new radiocarbon dates from the base levels of the shelter show that the earliest occupation was more than 9,000 years ago, much earlier than Ranere originally proposed.  Her research also showed that the shaman's people practiced small-scale farming of maize, manioc and arrowroot, and collected palm nuts, tree fruits and wild tubers.


Colosseum graffiti shows where crowds provided their own entertainment

Original Headline:  Roman era graffiti found on Colosseum


Now we move to Italy, where graffiti dating from the Roman era has revealed itself scrawled on the walls of the Colosseum during restoration work.  Restorers also discovered fragments of brightly colored frescoes, suggesting that the ancient monument bore gaudy decorations during its imperial days of gladiatorial fights and wild animal hunts.  

The fresco fragments are in ochre, red, blue and green, a stark contrast to the monochrome gray and white of the travertine marble that covers the facade of the amphitheater today.  The graffiti includes hard-to-decipher words and symbols as well as two large phalluses, possibly an erotic representation, or perhaps just lewd scribbling.

The new discoveries come from the third and highest level of the Colosseum, an area closed to the public.  They cover a 200 foot long section of a covered tunnel that would have funneled spectators up to these seats high above the arena.  The frescos would have been placed there to entertain the crowd as it moved upward to take their seats, but the graffiti show how the crowd, in addition, entertained itself as it slowly came and went.

According to Rossella Rea, who is in charge of the landmark in the center of Rome, the colored frescoes were an unexpected discovery that will lead to much further study.  The frescoes would have been rich and elaborate in color and detail, notes Ida Simonelli, the head of the restoration team.  

A multi-million-dollar restoration of the Colosseum, funded by Diego Della Valle, the wealthy founder of the Tod's shoe empire, is scheduled to begin within weeks.  It will be the most comprehensive restoration effort in more than 70 years and is expected to take two years.  The project, which will entail removing decades of grime from the facade of the Colosseum, will take place in phases so that the stadium can remain open to visitors.  The privately-funded work, delayed by months of bureaucracy, is envisioned as a model for the sponsoring of work needed at other ancient sites in Italy, including Pompeii.


German burial shows complexity of early Celtic culture

Original Headline:  Archeologists revise image of ancient Celts


Next we shift northward to Germany, where the Celts were long considered a barbaric and violent society,  new findings from a 2,600-year-old grave suggest the ancient people were much more sophisticated than previously thought.

In the summer of 2010, the little Bettelbühl stream flowing into the Danube River became a focus of attention when a spectacular discovery was made just next to the creek.  Not far from the Heuneburg, the site of an early Celtic settlement, researchers stumbled upon the elaborate grave of a Celtic princess.  In addition to gold and amber, they found a subterranean burial chamber fitted with massive oak beams.  

It was an archaeological dream come true to find that, after 2,600 years, the chamber was completely intact.  The wooden construction was preserved by the constant flow of water from the stream; in dry ground, the wood wouldn't have had a chance to survive over so many centuries.  Since the rings in the wood allow them to date the other items in the burial chamber, researchers now are hoping to gain a new understanding of Celtic culture and history.

The result could change our view of the Celts.  Roman writers in particular described the heterogeneous tribes as barbaric, excelling only in violence and war.  However, that is a distorted view, according to Dirk L. Krausse from Baden-Wurttemberg's state office for historic preservation.  There's more than a little bit of propaganda involved, since the Celts conquered Rome in the year 387 BC, so they couldn't have been so primitive.  

The findings at the Heuneburg near Hundersingen show another side to the Celts living in the upper Danube region.  The Heuneburg was a center of Celtic culture in southwestern Germany.  In its prime, massive defensive walls ran through the area, protecting a city of as many as 10,000 people.  Wealthy members of society led lives of luxury: Etruscan gold jewelry, Greek wine, and Spanish tableware were all traded here.  The Celtic princess' grave supports the hypothesis that her people were interested in culture and comfort.  Elaborate pearl earrings, solid gold clasps, an amber necklace and a bronze belt are just some of the findings from the grave.

The burial chamber is not only well preserved, but also full.  In most cases, archaeologists find themselves digging up graves plundered by thieves years ago.  Here, stacks of burial objects made of gold, amber, jet, and bronze appeared alongside the skeletons of the princess and an unidentified child.  The huge challenge was to retrieve the artifacts and tomb intact.  Specialists were called upon to place a steel frame around the burial chamber and lift it out of the gravel and onto a heavy truck.  The tomb was then transported to a laboratory near Stuttgart, where specialists are examining it in detail.

Archaeologists, restorers, excavation professionals, anthropologists, and botanists are all investigating the 3.6-by-4.6-meter burial chamber.  In addition to the gold and amber jewelry, the researchers are particularly interested also in the plant and animal remains found in the chamber. According to Nicole Ebinger-Rist, the director of the research team analyzing the find, organic material is actually just as important as the artifacts because it gives us information about burial rituals.
When the excavation of the grave is completed this spring, the six-person team will begin two years of detailed research.  For Ebinger-Rist, the priority is to uncover the identity of the buried princess.

The researchers are hoping also to learn more about the rise and fall of the Celts, who spread quickly across Europe starting in the sixth century BC but shortly after the beginning of the following millennium faded just as rapidly from the scene.


Theft of crucial artifact from ancient Shiloh

Original Headline:  Rare Artifact Stolen from Tel Shiloh Archaeological Site


For our final story, we visit Israel, where a recently uncovered rare archaeological artifact was stolen this week at the Tel Shiloh archaeological site.

The artifact, a broken clay pitcher lying in a layer of reddish ashes, helped complete the story of the devastation of Shiloh, the ancient capital of Israel during the First Israelite commonwealth. The ashes attest to a devastating fire that raged at the site.  The dating of the clay pitcher to 1050 BC correlates with the dating of the events depicted in the biblical Book of Samuel.  

This unique artifact was stolen from the location where it had been found, still lodged in the wall, with the thieves leaving only part of it behind.

Avital Selah, director of the Tel Shiloh site, could not imagine a motive for the theft.  According to Selah, it’s not clear what can be done with it: it has no value as an antique, but does have immense historical significance.  He believes it is the act of someone who desired to have the artifact in his possession after hearing about the discovery.  There is doubt as to whether there was criminal intent.  Officials believe this was not a professional job, only poor behavior.  Calls are out in the media to the person who took the artifact to return it and save this extremely important historical find.

Archaeological research has been conducted at Shiloh by the Archaeological Staff Officer for Judea and Samaria as well as the Binyamin local authority.  Past finds at the site have indicated that, after the disastrous loss to the Philistines, the area was inhabited until 722 BC, when Assyria defeated the Kingdom of Israel.

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