Audio News for February 3rd to February 9th, 2013.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 3rd to February 9th, 2013.


Ancient rock art uncovered in Scottish Highlands

Original Headline:  ‘Largest’ Scottish ancient artworks revealed

Our first story is from Scotland, where a retired silversmith has uncovered the largest collection of ancient rock art ever found in the Highlands.  The carved rocks, some almost 10 feet across, lay scattered across a hillside near Evanton, in Rossshire.

Douglas Scott, the amateur archaeologist who has recorded the remarkable find, believes the “cup-marked” rocks, dating up to 5,000 years old, form part of a ritual center of some significance where ancient people worshipped the sun and performed rites connected to the underworld.

Scott has found and recorded 28 carved rocks on Swordale Hill.  He explained that farmers had first found a small number of the carved stones, with hollow cup marks carved into them, in 1985.  A year later, he and another archaeologist scoured Swordale Hill and recorded and photographed another 14 cup-marked rocks on the ridge.  Over the past two years, Scott has completed the task of searching the entire hilltop, photographing and recording 28 carved rocks across the site.

The findings make this the largest concentration of cup-marked stones so far found in the north of Scotland.  Cup-marked stones are not unique, but this is the biggest concentration found in this area and that is quite significant in itself because no one knew these monuments were up there.

The carvings on the rocks comprise hollows, some surrounded by rings, and grooves which all line up, pointing to the spot on the horizon where the sun rises in midwinter.  This concentration of petroglyphs spreads across 150 meters.  Also found on the hill is a chambered burial cairn and a circular ditch, possible evidence of an ancient henge.

According to Gaelic folklore, the ancients believed that the sun was rising and setting in the underworld.  They would carve these cup marks into the rock at the times when the sun was coming up, out of what they believed was the underworld.  Researchers have found cup marks throughout Europe, where they are associated with carvings of the sun, solar chariots, and boats; the latter believed to carry souls of the dead to the underworld.


Pilgrims’ First Meeting House possibly discovered in Massachusetts

Original Headline:  Scan discovers possible site of meetinghouse


Now we jump over the Atlantic to the United States, where an archaeological recovery project has discovered what might be the site of the Pilgrims’ First Meeting House.  Located in Duxbury, Massachussetts, the site features a historically significant building in the center of a fledgling English settlement where Pilgrims Myles Standish, John and Priscilla Alden, and Elder William Brewster established a new community.

A ground radar scan revealed straight-line trenches that mark a partial outline of a building that is consistent with what historians know about the First Meeting House.  The scan is in an old burial ground now called the Myles Standish Burial Ground, where historians and local residents believe the pilgrims built their first simple meetinghouse.

Some of the  Pilgrims who left the Plymouth settlement sought permission to hold worship services near their new homes rather than travel to Plymouth each Sunday.  The colony’s governor required them to build a meetinghouse first.

Seventeenth-century builders placed meetinghouses on rises in the center of a community as a way of epitomizing its central role in religious and civil life.  The building served as both government center and church.

The three straight-line trenches the scan revealed are not a natural pattern.  The soil trenches appear to occur in an E-pattern that analysts could interpret as the remains of foundation sill trenches associated with a structure.  The scan also found gravesites dug close to these remains, consistent with the 17th-century practice of burying people close to their church without stone markers.

Researchers had hoped to excavate the site to support the findings of the radar scan.  However, the property is both a town-owned cemetery and a National Register of Historic Places site, and a reluctance to disturb graves and the protections of the historic site caused the town’s Cemetery Commission to allow only the radar scan.


King Richard III found in a parking lot

Original Headline:  Richard III: found!


In England, scientists announced that the human remains found in Leicester [LESS-ter] beneath a city center parking lot last August are beyond reasonable doubt those of Richard the Third.

The panel reported that the skeleton was that of an adult male, aged in his late 20s or early 30s when he died.  Richard the Third was 32 when he meet his end at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  Two radiocarbon dates obtained from the remains also fit with the interpretation that the skeleton is that of England’s last Medieval king, as it gave a date range of 1455 to 1540.

The critical detail, however, was whether the researchers had been able to extract DNA from the 500-year-old remains, and whether these had shown a link with Michael Ibsen, a known descendant of Richard the Third’s sister, Anne of York.

Professor Kevin Schurer and Dr. Turi King, who have worked on this aspect of the research, explained that they had in fact been able to identify two descendants along the maternal line, both of whom had provided a sample, enabling the experts to triangulate their results, comparing both to a sample taken from the Medieval individual’s tooth.  Analysis of mitochondrial DNA, passed down the female line, provided a conclusive match.

Identifying the king’s remains has enabled the team to rewrite our understanding of how the monarch died, and how those who buried him treated his body.  While initial conservation had revealed two wounds on the king’s remains, today the team announced that they had identified ten, eight inflicted on his skull, and two more to his rib and pelvis.  They had initially interpreted corroded iron object as an arrowhead, but now say it is a Roman nail that had intruded into the grave.  The injuries are all characteristic of perimortem wounds, meaning someone caused them at or just after the time of death, making them consistent with battle injuries.

A small penetrating wound to the top of the skull, believed caused by a direct blow from a weapon rather than a projectile, would not have been fatal.  A more severe wound appeared at the back of the head, however, where a sword or halberd had sliced away a large piece of bone.  Another nearby blow had cut 10 cm into the skull.  Both of these would have caused immediate unconsciousness with death following shortly.

This concentration of injuries to the head suggests that Richard had lost his helmet at some point during the battle.  Researchers interpret the other wounds as evidence that someone had mistreated the body after death.

A small cut to the cheekbone, consistent with a dagger, and a cut to the lower jaw, were very shallow and unlikely to have been battle injuries.  The other two wounds seem to support desecration: a cut to a rib, inflicted from the back, and another to his pelvis, from a blow thrust through the right buttock, which should not have been able to penetrate his amour.  Historical sources describe how his enemies stripped his body naked and then threw it over a horse to take it back to Leicester.  They may have inflicted wounds to his remains at this time. 

Analysis of the king’s grave also points to an unceremonious end.  The grave was very irregular, with sloping sides and a concave base and appears hastily dug.  Additionally, it was too short for the individual interred in it.

Whoever buried him seems to have dumped his remains unceremoniously into the grave.  His legs were lower than the rest of the body, suggesting that those who buried him put his legs in first, and then twisted his torso, propping his head by a corner of the grave.  In an unusual fashion for Medieval burials, no one had extended his arms at his sides, but someone had crossed them at the wrists over his pelvis.  Excavators didn’t find any evidence of clothing, a shroud, a coffin, or personal effects.  The body was unusually slender, with an almost feminine build that is consistent with historical descriptions of Richard.

Nevertheless, while much of the research has revealed a rather ignominious end for England’s last Plantagenet [plan-TA-dje-net] king, the research team also was able to lay to rest some common misconceptions about Richard the Third’s appearance – while he did suffer from severe scoliosis, he did not have the withered arm popularized by Shakespeare.  The skeleton had ideopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, which means he wasn’t born with a crooked spine, but would have started to develop scoliosis when he was around 10.  

Leicester Cathedral eventually will be Richard the Third’s final resting place.


2000-year-old pyramids excavated in Sudan

Original Headline:  35 Ancient Pyramids Discovered in Sudan Necropolis

Our final story is from Sudan, where researchers have discovered at least 35 small pyramids, along with graves, clustered together at a site called Sedeinga in northern Sudan.

The discovery has researchers surprised at how densely the pyramids are concentrated.  In one field season alone the team discovered 13 pyramids packed into roughly 500 square meters, a space only slightly bigger than a basketball court
The pyramids date back around 2,000 years to a time when a kingdom named Kush flourished in Sudan and shared a border with Egypt and, later on, the Roman Empire.  The desire of the kingdom's people to build pyramids shows the influence of Egyptian funerary architecture.

At Sedeinga, pyramid building continued for centuries.  Because the practice lasted for hundreds of years, the builders constructed more and more pyramids and after centuries, they started to fill all the spaces that were still available in the necropolis.  The building continued until, eventually, they ran out of room to build pyramids.  They reached a point at which they had to reuse the oldest one.

The biggest pyramids are about 7 meters wide at their base, with the smallest example, likely constructed for the burial of a child, only 75 centimeters in length.  The builders would have decorated the tops, which are missing, with a capstone depicting either a bird or a lotus flower on top of a solar orb.

Among the discoveries were several pyramids designed with an inner cupola connected to the pyramid corners through cross-braces.  Researchers have discovered only one pyramid outside of Sedeinga constructed this way, and it's a mystery why the people of Sedeinga were fond of the design.  According to the researchers, It did not add either to the solidity or to the external appearance of the monument.

A discovery made in 2012 may provide a clue.  The team found the grave of a child, covered by only a kind of circle, almost complete and made of brick.  It is possible that when pyramid building came into fashion at Sedeinga, builders combined the new style with a local circle-building tradition called tumulus construction, resulting in pyramids with circles within them.

Although robbers had plundered the graves beside the pyramids, possibly in antiquity, archaeologists did find skeletal remains and, in some cases, artifacts.  One of the most interesting new finds was an offering table near the remains of a pyramid.  It appears to depict the goddess Isis and the jackal-headed god Anubis and includes an inscription, written in the Meroitic language of the kingdom of Kush, dedicated to a woman named "Aba-la," which may be a nickname for "grandmother.”  The offering table with inscription was a final send-off for a woman, possibly a grandmother, buried nearly 2,000 years ago.

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