Audio News for February 10th to February 16th, 2013.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 10th to February 16th, 2013.


Hellenistic necropolis uncovered in Alexandria

Original Headline:  Collection of Graeco-Roman tombs uncovered in Alexandria


We begin with Egypt, where routine archaeological survey in an area known as the 27 Bridge in Al-Qabari district, one of Alexandria’s most heavily populated slum areas, turned up a necropolis of Greco-Roman tombs.

Each tomb is a two-story building with a burial chamber on its first floor.  The lower parts of the tombs are immersed in the subsurface water table but are well preserved and still bear engravings.

According to Mohamed Abdel Meguid, head of Alexandria's Antiquities Department, the tombs are part of a larger cemetery known as the Necropolis as described by Greek historian Strabo (STRAY-bow) when he visited Egypt in 30 BC.  According to Strabo, the tombs contained more than 80 inscriptions and showed what burial rituals had been like in the earlier Hellenistic period.

The newly discovered collection of tombs is a part of the western side of the cemetery that was dedicated to the general public, not to royals or nobles.  The tombs are empty, containing no funerary collections or mummies, skeletons or even pottery.  Even so, the study of their building styles, size, arrangement, and engravings will add much to the understanding of Alexandria’s history.

According to Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim, the excavations were conducted as part of archaeological inspections routinely carried out at the request of a construction company.  Under Egyptian law, all land must undergo archaeological inspection before being cleared for construction.

The area was previously surveyed archaeologically in 1998 when the local government built Al-Qabari Bridge over Abdel-Qader Hamza Street in the district.  At that time, more than 37 tombs turned up, among them a very distinguished tomb bearing a coffin in the shape of a bed, commonly known as the wedding bed.  Painted on its top were a red sheet and two pillows.


Sea birds symbolized migration of souls for vanished Newfoundland culture

Original Headline:  Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation’s religion, study says


In Canada, archeologists have shed new light on the extinct Beothuk nation of Newfoundland through a study of carved pendants unearthed from coastal burial sites.  The research reveals that the Beothuk [BAY-oh-thuk] people placed birds at the center of their complex religion, believing the winged creatures were spiritual messengers carrying the souls of the dead to an island afterlife.

The Beothuk had inhabited the region for at least 1,000 years before the devastating arrival of Europeans in the 15th century.

The revelations about the vanished culture, the 19th-century eclipse of which remains one of the central tragedies of Canadian history, are detailed in a paper published this week in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal by University of Alberta researcher Todd Kristensen and his U.S. co-author Donald Holly.

According to Kristensen, the project is particularly significant because it gives us a glimpse into Beothuk minds.  We can begin to see how the Beothuk viewed the world around them; their beliefs about death, the afterlife and the role of animals and spiritual helpers.

The study’s findings are particularly important because no modern Beothuk people are around to share their stories.  Archaeologists are just about the only people who can tell the Beothuk story.
After explorer John Cabot’s landmark voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, the indigenous Beothuk clashed with a succession of colonizers from Portugal, France and Britain in the centuries that followed.

The Beothuk may also have been the so-called skraelings who had violent encounters with Viking voyagers from Iceland and Greenland who briefly settled in northern Newfoundland and then quickly retreated around AD 1000.

Once numbering as many as 5,000 people, the Beothuk population suffered from diseases introduced by European settlers.  An artistically gifted Beothuk woman named Shanawdithit, the last known survivor of her nation, died in St. John’s in 1829.

Notably, the new study points out that historical records show that Shanawdithit once referred to a happy island afterworld that figured prominently in the Beothuk’s little-understood belief system.

Fresh analyses of objects from Beothuk burials showed that most of the patterns etched in caribou-bone pendants had an unlikely source of inspiration: the webbed feet and feathers of seabirds.

When researchers looked at those burials, they started to recognize bird shapes in their funeral goods.  Why depict seabirds when you have bears, wolves, seals and whales?  While a sea duck might not appear to be a glorious animal, these birds were powerful to the Beothuk because they moved easily from one world to the next, travelling between water and air.

Given the sheer presence of birds in the environment, their importance in Beothuk diet, and the unique role of birds in Beothuk activities, Kristensen and Holly suggest that birds provided a wealth of source material for Beothuk belief systems.

They conclude that the Beothuk believed their souls required help from animals that can move through those worlds of water and air to reach their culture’s idea of heaven.


New computer program can reconstruct early languages

Original Headline: Ancient languages reconstructed by computer program


Now we learn that a new tool has been developed that can reconstruct long-dead languages.
This new tool, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is a computer software system that uses thousands of tiny word and sound shifts to rebuild protolanguages, the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.

To test the system, the research team took 637 languages currently spoken in Asia and the Pacific and recreated the early language from which they descended.

Currently, linguists carry out language reconstructions; however, the process is slow and labor-intensive.  According to senior researcher Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, it's very time-consuming for humans to look at all the data. Thousands of languages exist in the world, with thousands of words each, not to mention all of those languages' ancestors.   It would take hundreds of lifetimes to pore over all those languages, cross-referencing all the different changes that happened across such an expanse of space - and of time.  But this is where computers shine.

Over thousands of years, tiny variations in the way that we produce sounds have resulted in early languages morphing into many different descendents.  Klein’s computer program takes advantage of the patterns of these sound changes, which usually follow regular shifts, with similar words changing in similar ways.

The twist is to identify these patterns of change in reverse, evolving words backwards in time.
The scientists demonstrated their system by looking at a group of Austronesian languages that are currently spoken in Southeast Asia, parts of continental Asia and the Pacific.  From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language from which these modern tongues derived, which scientists believe was spoken about 7,000 years ago.  They then compared the computer's findings to those of linguists, finding that 85% of the early words that the software presented were within one character or sound of the words that the language experts had identified.

Nevertheless, while the computerized method was much faster, the scientists said it would not put the experts out of a job.  The software can churn through large amounts of data quickly, but it does not yield the same degree of accuracy as a linguist's expertise.

At a much deeper level, the system doesn't explain why or how certain changes happened, only that they probably did happen.

While researchers are able to reconstruct languages that date back thousands of years, there is still a question mark over whether it would ever be possible to go even further back to recreate the very first protolanguage from which all others evolved, or whether such a language even existed.


Fire-god shrine found on top of the Pyramid of the Sun

Original Headline: Mexico finds fire-god figure at top of Pyramid of the Sun


Our final story is from Mexico, where archaeologists announced that a figure of the fire god Huehueteotl (WAY-way-tay-OH-tl) was found in a covered pit at the apex of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan (TAY-oh-tee-wah-KAHN), the prehistoric city north of Mexico City.  According to a statement issued by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, the ongoing excavations suggest that the purpose of a long-disappeared temple at the top of the pyramid was to perform ritual offerings to the fire god.

Huehueteotl was worshipped by several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Olmecs and the Aztecs, as well as the Aztecs' predecessors in the Valley of Mexico, the Teotihuacanos (TAY-oh-tee-wah-KAHN-ohs).  Huehueteotl is associated with wisdom and rulership and commonly represented as a viejo (vee-AY-ho), or old man, sitting in a cross-legged position, often with a beard and a beaked nose, and with a hearth-like source of fire balanced on his head.  
The Huehueteotl on the Pyramid of the Sun weighs 418 pounds and is made of a gray volcanic stone.  

Archaeologists found the Huehueteotl, along with two stone pillars, in a covered pit about 15 feet deep, at a height of about 214 feet above the ground.  The pit is below the remnants of a platform at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun that probably served as the foundation for a temple.

The people of Teotihuacan finished building the pyramid around AD 100 and destroyed its apex temple themselves around the end of the 5th century or the beginning of the 6th century.
Archaeologists did not know that a pit existed at the top of the stepped pyramid, one of the largest in the Americas.  The suspicion is that Leopoldo Batres, the pioneering archaeologist who restored the pyramid to the basic form seen today, covered the platform a century ago without properly excavating it.  According to INAH archaeologist Nelly Nuñez, while recording details of the platform they were puzzled when they couldn’t find its bottom, and upon further digging they realized they had come upon a pit.

In 2011, INAH archaeologists announced they had found a 400-foot-long tunnel at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun that is still under study.  Funded by the Mexican government, focused excavations of the structure began in 2005.  To date, archaeologists have studied only a fraction of Teotihuacan in detail after about 100 years of research.

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