Audio News for January 20th to January 26th, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 20th to January 26th, 2013.


Roman researchers find 19th century benchmark used to measure shape of earth

Original Headline:  Roman Marker Used to Measure Earth Found


We begin in Italy, where researchers have unearthed a marble benchmark once used in the 19th century to measure the shape of the earth.  The excavators found the artifact along one of the earliest Roman roads that links Rome to the southern city of Brindisi.

Placed there by Father Angelo Secchi, a pioneer of astrophysics who lived from 1818 to 1878, the marker consists of a small travertine slab with a metallic plate in the middle.  The plate features a hole at its center.

According to a cartographic consultant at the department of mathematics and physics of Roma Tre University, the hole was the terminal point of the geodetic baseline that ran in the ancient Appian Way near Rome, between the tomb of Cecilia Metella, a daughter of a Roman consul, and a tower near Frattocchie about 12 kilometers away.

Geodesy is a science that deals with the size and shape of the Earth and the determination of exact positions on its surface.  Essentially, scientists in this discipline abstract the shape of the Earth from its topographical features, and a baseline is the fundamental requirement for computing the triangulation of a region.  In order to determine the extension of the triangle, it is necessary to know the exact distance between two points on the baseline: A, the starting point, and B, the ending point.

While researchers found Benchmark A, the starting point of the baseline, in front of the Cecilia Metella mausoleum in 1999, Benchmark B’s location was unknown.  Researchers found it after  long archival research and a georadar survey.  The discovery will allow the team to precisely verify the old measurements with modern GPS technologies, Aebischer notes.

The measurements along the Appian Way were part of surveys, which began in the middle of the 18th century, and spread all over Italy, in Europe, especially in France and Lapland, and in South America, to measure the shape of the Earth.

In 1735, the Académie Française proposed the verification of Isaac Newton’s theory about the shape of the planet Earth.  Newton predicted the Earth to be an oblate ellipsoid, so several scientific expeditions attempted to assess the length of one degree of a meridian measured at different latitudes.  In 1750, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned the measurement of the length of the meridian arc stretching from Rome to Rimini and passing through St. Peter’s dome.

To do so and to produce a geodetic triangulation of the Papal States, the Jesuits Christopher Maire and Roger Boscovich measured a baseline between the tomb of Cecilia Metella and an anonymous ruin near the town of Frattocchie.   The baseline measures 12,043.14 meters.

The newly discovered benchmark most likely will remain in its original place just as benchmark A remains hidden under a manhole in the middle of the road at the Cecilia Metella mausoleum.


Rare jade spoon uncovered in situ in Central America

Original Headline:  Trent University Archaeologists Find Ancient Jade Spoon in Belize

Over in Central America, archaeologists from Trent University have discovered a rare jade artifact while excavating the ancient Maya city of Ka’Kabish in Belize.

The six-centimeter jade object, known as an Olmec spoon, was unearthed in June 2012 from a 2,700-year-old grave beneath the Ka’Kabish plaza along with 16 other jade artifacts.  It is similar to objects previously recovered in Mesoamerica, but this is the first time archaeologists have found an Olmec spoon in the original context of an archaeological site.

According to Dr. Helen Haines, project director and assistant professor of Anthropology at Trent University, examples of these rare objects exist in museums, but they are largely from private collections, meaning they lack the archaeological details necessary to understand how and when the native people used them.  This object is one of only two of this type that have been found undisturbed.

The purpose of Olmec spoons is still unknown.  Researchers have speculated that ancient people used the spoons for snuffing hallucinogens or bloodletting or even weaving.  Based on the location of the grave and the number of jade artifacts recovered, the excavation team believes the person buried there could be one of the city’s founders.  


Turkish weaving dates back millennia

Original Headline:   Loom weights reveal existence of weaving since 2,500 years ago


Now we cross the Atlantic again and go to Turkey, where 2500-year-old loom weights point to a long history of weaving in that country.  Excavators discovered the weights in the ancient city of Assoss, the modern city of Behramkale, in the northwest of the country, on the Aegean Sea, where even today carpet weaving is world-famous.  

According to Professor Nurettin Arslan, head of the excavation, the art of weaving in ancient times was a bit different from the weaving of today.  In antiquity, ropes hung from the loom and weavers attached loom weights, made of earthenware, to the ropes.  Weavers also used weights to prevent the threads of ropes from interlacing with each other.  The newly discovered loom weights came in various types, some round and some cubic; weavers even used broken ceramic pieces by making a hole in the center of them.  Some of these ceramic weights have seals and inscriptions on them and date from around 500 B.C.

These findings showed that the textile industry has been in existence in Turkey for an extraordinarily long time.  Assos was an important port in the Classical world.  It is the site of an academy opened by Aristotle and was visited by the Christian apostle, St. Paul.


Mexican petroglyph panel discovered in new archaeological zone

Original Headline:  Mexican archaeologists find complex panel of 1,000 year-old petroglyphs in Nayarit

Our final story is from Mexico, where archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History have found a complex panel of petroglyphs thought to date between AD 850 and 1350, in a site called “Cantil de las animas” or “Cliff of the Souls” in Tepic, Nayarit, near the west coast of the country just north of Puerto Vallarta.

The bas-relief representations, attributed to ancient groups that some believe were connected with the mythical Aztlan culture, are located in a virtually new archeological zone in the region of Nayarit’s mountainous southern high plateau.  The reliefs cover a surface of about 4 meters long and 2 meters wide and face south.

The symbolic content of the representations seems to divide the petroglyph panel in two parts.
In the eastern half designs relate to fertility: rain clouds, sectioned snail shells, and feminine vulvae; in the western half, cranium profiles point to the east, precisely towards the sunrise.  The petroglyphs contain two distinct pictorial styles, one with realistic or figurative representations of curved design, and one of schematic designs with rigid angular lines.

The petroglyph symbolic representation links to the pictorial tradition to ancient groups who, during this era, settled primarily in the lower coastal regions in the northern part of Nayarit and just to the north in southern part of Sinaloa.  The panel is also significant because it is located in an area almost unknown to the region’s archaeology.  

Researchers also want to investigate if the inhabitants used the site as an astronomical indicator, since the vertical panelin which these designs are oriented follows an east-west axis.   Archaeological and astronomical observations will be necessary to determine the precise date at which the sun illuminates this place, and to explore the function of this site in the annual ritual cycle and in the cultural interaction sphere of this region.

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