Audio News for January 27 to February 2, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 27th to February 2nd, 2013.


Soil studies show Poverty Point mound rose within months, not years

Original Headline:  Archaic Native Americans built massive Louisiana mound in less than 90 days, research confirms


Our first story is from the United States, where new research in the current issue of the journal Geoarchaeology offers compelling evidence that one of the massive earthen mounds at Poverty Point, in Louisiana, was constructed in less than 90 days.  It may even have taken as little as 30 days, an incredible accomplishment for what is thought to be a loosely organized society consisting of small, widely scattered bands of foragers.

According to study co-author T. R. Kidder, the chair of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, what is extraordinary about these findings is that it provides some of the first evidence that early American hunter-gatherer society was not as simple as we have tended to imagine.

The long-standing academic consensus on hunter-gather societies is that they lack the political organization necessary to bring together so many people to complete a labor-intensive project in such a short period.  But the new study, co-authored by Anthony Ortmann, an assistant professor of geosciences at Murray State University in Kentucky, overturns this view of the Poverty Point hunter-gatherers with a detailed analysis into the construction of the massive Mound A some 3,200 years ago along a Mississippi River bayou in northeastern Louisiana.

Over a decade of excavations, core samplings and sophisticated sedimentary analysis at Mound A supports the key conclusion that it must have been built in a very short period.  The crucial insight came from finding that soils in the mound show no signs of rainfall or of erosion during the construction.  Given that this area of northern Louisiana tends to receive a great deal of rainfall, even in a very dry year, it would seem very unlikely that this location could go more than 90 days without experiencing some significant level of rainfall.  Yet, there was no sign of rain on the soil during the construction period, and at the same time no regional evidence of any notable drought at this time, either.

Part is of a much larger complex of earthen works at Poverty Point, Mound A is believed to be the final and crowning addition to the 700-acre site, which includes five smaller mounds and a series of six concentric C-shaped embankments that rise in parallel formation surrounding a small flat plaza along the river.  At the time of construction, Poverty Point was the largest earthworks complex in North America.

Built on the western edge of the complex, Mound A covers an area larger than 12 acres, roughly 50,000 square meters.  The huge pile rises 22 meters, or nearly 75 feet, above the river.  Its construction required an estimated 238,500 cubic meters of soil, about eight million bushel baskets, which were brought in from various locations near the site.  A modern, 10-wheel dump truck would need over 31,000 loads to move that much dirt today.  Yet, 3,000 years ago, people who had no access to domesticated draft animals, no wheelbarrows, and no sophisticated tools for moving earth built the mounds, probably in a simple bucket brigade system, with thousands of people passing soil along from one to another using some form of crude container, such as a woven basket, a hide sack or a wooden platter.

To complete such a task within 90 days, the study estimates it would require some 3,000 laborers.  Assuming that each worker brought along at least two other family members, say a wife and a child, the community gathered for the build must have included as many as 9,000 people, the study suggests.  Given that a band of 25 to 30 people is considered quite large for most hunter-gatherer communities, the new results create an additional mystery for research: how this ancient society could bring together a group of nearly 10,000 people and find some way to feed them as they built the mound for three months.

Soil testing showed that the mound lies on what was once low-lying swamp or marshland, which was cleared for construction by burning before soils were brought in and dumped in small adjacent piles, to gradually build the mound, layer upon layer.  Mound A is much larger than almost any other mound found in North America; only Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in Illinois is larger.  Nominated early this year for recognition on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the earthworks at Poverty Point are described as one of the world’s greatest feats of construction by an archaic society of hunters and gatherers.

 Sicilian mummies tell stories of life and death

Original Headline:  Sicilian Mummies Bring Centuries to Life


Now our attention shifts to Sicily, where, laid in crypts and churches, with parchment skin, the desiccated dead of Sicily have been silent for centuries.  Now, five years into the Sicily Mummy Project, six collections of mummies have plenty to say about life and death on the Mediterranean island from the late 16th to the mid-20th century.

Led by anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity in Palermo, the ongoing investigation is revealing how religious men and their wealthy supporters ate, interacted, dealt with disease, and disposed of their dead.  According to Piombino-Mascali, these mummies are a unique treasure in terms of both biology and history, if studied appropriately.  In this case, that means x-ray exams and CT scans rather than invasive sampling and autopsy.  Radiographic techniques preserve the specimens, the oldest of which dates to 1599, when Capuchin [KAP-yu-chin]  friars began mummifying clergy, and later on nobles and bourgeoisie as well, in hopes of securing an afterlife.

According to Piombino-Mascali, whose international team includes scientists from Germany, Brazil, and the United States, the evidence shows a good diet.  Since most of the mummies were well off in life, they ate a balanced mix of meat, fish, grains, vegetables, and dairy products.  However, that gastronomic affluence came with a price.  Radiographs of the bones also show signs of maladies like gout and skeletal disease.

Other discoveries are coming from more unusual forms of analysis.  Karl Reinhard, a forensic scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with his graduate students, recently conducted a program to see what they could learn just by examining intestines.  Their subject was "Piraino 1," a male in his 40s who lived at the turn of the 19th century, one of 26 mummies in the Piraino Mother Church's Sepulcher of the Priests in northeastern Sicily, which dates to the 16th century.  Radiology revealed that he had multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.  Nevertheless, the real surprise came when a Reinhard's student found evidence of milkwort, a pollen plant with antitumor agents used in China and Turkey but thought to be uncommon in Sicily.  This indicates that people had an esoteric knowledge of medicinal plants.

What's more, Reinhard's student Kelsey Kumm found an enormous whipworm infection, involving more than 600 worms, in the mummy's intestinal tract.  Kumm concluded that because the man had been sick with other diseases, his immune system was vulnerable to whipworm, a fecal-borne parasitic disease usually associated with poverty.  From all these intestinal findings Reinhard was able to put together an interesting picture, a sort of thumbnail sketch of the man’s disease, his diet, and his death, from the inside of a mummy.

Mummification in Sicily originally meant stowing a body in a ventilated chamber, draining it of bodily fluids, and stuffing it with straw or bay leaves, to preserve its shape and combat the stink of death.  Months later, the body was washed with vinegar, dressed in its Sunday best, and laid in a coffin or hung on a wall.  The more recently mummified—like two-year-old Rosalia "Sleeping Beauty" Lombardo, who died of pneumonia in 1920 and lies with 1,251 others in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo—were embalmed with chemicals, and thus better preserved.

Piombino-Mascali is eager to perform DNA investigations on the mummies—including those at newly studied collections in the towns of Caccamo and Gangi, where wax was used to create partial and complete death masks, to understand how they might be related to one another.  But with moisture, humidity, and dust preying on some of the collections, particularly those at Palermo and Piraino, time may be running out.  According to Piombino-Mascali, climate-control systems such as air conditioning are urgently needed, although it's unclear if the money or political will exist to put them in place.

Hunley cleaning process suggests entirely new cause of its sinking

Original Headline:   Hunley legend altered by new discovery


In the United States, for nearly 150 years, the story of the Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic has been Civil War legend.  And it has been wrong.

Scientists have discovered a piece of the Confederate submarine’s torpedo still attached to its spar, debunking eyewitness accounts that the Hunley was nearly 100 feet away from the explosion that sent a Union blockade ship to the bottom of the sea off Charleston in 1864.  Instead, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were less than 20 feet from the blast.  Moreover, that changes everything about the story, and possibly even provides a clue as to why it sank.

According to Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project, conservators found a piece of the torpedo’s copper shell, peeled back from the blast, when they removed a century of hardened sand and shell from the submarine’s 20-foot spar.  The torpedo was bolted to the spar, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the torpedo was planted in the side of the Housatonic [HOOS-a-tonic]  with a barb like a fishing hook, slipped off the spar and then detonated by rope trigger when the sub was a safe distance away.

Instead, the Feb. 17, 1864, attack off Charleston was a dangerous, close-quarters assault.
When the Hunley was built in 1863, it was originally intended to attack ships using a contact mine towed from the end of a long rope. The idea was that the submarine would dive under a ship and drag the mine into its flank, by which time the Hunley would be safely on the other side of the ship.

But based on a test run coupled with experience on surface boats, Confederate engineers refined the Hunley’s method of attack.  The sub was equipped with an adjustable spar that could be raised or lowered.  The torpedo was fixed on the spar at an angle, so that when the spar was lowered for an attack, the torpedo was sitting dead horizontal.

The torpedo, like the Hunley, had been upgraded through trial and error. Because triggers and detonators on these torpedoes were woefully unreliable, the Hunley’s torpedo had three triggers, any one of which would blow the charge.

And, because a conventional 65-pound torpedo had recently failed to sink a northern ship, the Hunley’s torpedo was packed with more than double the gunpowder, 135 pounds.
When the Hunley planted its charge in the lower part of the Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864, the blast left a hole in the Housatonic so large that accounts say a couch floated out of the breach sideways.

However, what did that blast do to the Hunley and its crew, less than two dozen feet away? How well would it hold up against shock waves?

That question may not be answered soon.  The Hunley’s hull is still covered with a shell of hardened sand that scientists are leaving in place to protect the metal until the conservation process begins.  When that concrete-like casing is removed next year, scientists at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center should get a better idea of what, if any, damage the blast caused the sub.

It could have buckled hull plates, allowing enough water into the sub to sink it.  One enticing clue that suggests a shock wave hit the Hunley hard:  Dixon’s pocket watch is stopped at almost the exact moment the Housatonic crew said the Hunley attacked.

Until the sub itself is examined more closely, scientists will use this new information and data to simulate the blast to offer a better idea of what impact the blast had on the Hunley.  They will begin with computer simulations and may eventually move to scale models of the attack to shed further light on one of the most mysterious legends of the Civil War.

Nabatean city re-opened after vandalism repairs

Original Headline:  Ancient site restored after modern vandalism


Our final story is from Israel, where the southern Negev city of Avdat, built by Nabatean King Obodas 2000 years ago, and severely damaged by vandalism three years ago, has been restored.
Six different Israeli ministries invested nearly $2 million to address the damage, much of it irreversible, after unknown vandals in October 2009 assaulted the site, designated by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as a world cultural heritage site.

The vandals managed to pull down columns that had stood for centuries, along with other damage on a scale never before seen in Israel.  According to the Nature and Parks Authority’s southern district official, Raviv Shapiro, stones were smashed and graffiti were scrawled on an altar, on one of the oldest wine presses in Israel and on walls over a large area.  Even though the site has now been re-opened for visitors, the archaeological value of many fragile artifacts has been lost forever.

Restoration work included preserving the remains of the site, including church columns.  Displays that demonstrate how the Nabatean city appeared 2,000 years ago have been erected, and, better late than never, security cameras have been installed to deter future vandalism.

The Nabatean city of Avdat, now in Avdat National Park, was named after King Obodas, who was known in Arabic as Abdah.  Avdat lay along the ancient spice route along which merchants traveled with perfumes and spices from East Africa and Arabia.  The Nabateans were nomadic tribes from northern Arabia who settled in the area around the Fourth Century B.C., built agricultural terraces on the hillsides for farming, and blended their own traditions with the influence of the Greek Hellenistic world.  Nabatean Avdat included a residential quarter, a military camp and herds of camels, sheep and goats as well as racehorses famous in the ancient world.  After the Romans conquered the Nabatean kingdom around A.D. 100, Avdat fell into decline, and suffered a major earthquake in the year A.D. 363.  In the sixth century, under Byzantine rule, a citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis and residential quarters were established on the slopes.  This version of the city was also destroyed, probably by another earthquake, and abandoned in the seventh century.  Israeli archaeologists uncovered Avdat in a series of excavations starting in 1958.

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