Audio News for March 3 to March 9, 2013

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


Roman British graves marked with ditches and fences  

Original Headline: Remarkable ringfenced burials from Roman Colchester


Our first story is from England, where a recently completed cemetery excavation close to Colchester’s Roman circus has revealed that some citizens marked their grave plots with ditches and wooden fences.  Researchers previously speculated that during the Roman period, those unable to afford stone monuments might have used wooden markers or mounds of earth to distinguish individual burials.  Now a four-month investigation by Colchester Archaeological Trust has unearthed clusters of burials dated by grave goods and other finds to the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  Lines of small post holes surround some of the burials.

Researchers have excavated about 400 inhumations and cremations.  They found areas of fenced burials at either end of the site, which seems to be a collection of little plots used by different groups or families.

Few skeletal remains have survived due to Colchester’s acidic soil.  However, researchers found pots and, in two cases, mirrors in some of the fenced graves.  Iron studs indicate that several bodies wore shoes at the time of burial, while one grave contained a jet medallion carved with the face of Medusa.  Narrow ditches demarcated some of the burial plots, a practice hinted at during previous excavations in Colchester.

Closer examination of the boundary ditches on the latest dig led to a poignant discovery: small, shallow grave cuts, arranged in lines end to end.  While no skeletons have survived, the size and shape of the graves have led the team to interpret them as those of children.

The site seems to contain an unusually high number of child burials.  Most of them are unaccompanied, but in some the excavators found miniature pots, which researchers have come to recognize as a diagnostic feature of children’s graves.  One particularly well furnished grave held a mirror, a pair of iron shears, and what could be a small, copper-alloy candlestick.  These graves were characteristically shallow and lacked coffins.  A few of them contained vessels that had fallen over.  This suggests the graves were simply shallow hollows in which mourners placed the bodies and any grave goods.  They then covered each of these pits with a layer of wooden boards laid side to side at ground level and mounded dirt over over the boards.


Saharan burial site used for millennia

Original Headline:  Stone-Age Skeletons Unearthed In Sahara Desert


Moving on to Libya, archaeologists have uncovered 20 skeletons in and around a rock shelter in the Sahara desert.  The skeletons date between 8,000 and 4,200 years ago, showing that people used the burial location for millennia.

According to the study's co-author Mary Anne Tafuri, archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, it must have been a place of memory.  People throughout time kept it, and they buried their people there, over and over, generation after generation.  Tafuri published her results in the March 2013 edition of the Journal of Anthropolical Archaeology.

The team found about 15 women and children buried within the rock shelter, while they found five men and juveniles interred under giant stone piles called tumuli outside the shelter.  The findings suggest the culture changed with the climate.  The males and juveniles under the stone heap burials date back 4,500 years ago, to an era when the region became more arid.  

From about 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, low lying vegetation and seasonal green patches filled this Sahara desert region, called Wadi Takarkor.  Stunning rock art depicts ancient herding animals, such as cows, which require much more water to graze than the current environment could support.  Rock art confirms the dry-up, as the cave paintings began to depict goats, which need much less water to graze than cows.

Tafuri and her colleagues began excavating the archaeological site between 2003 and 2006.  At the same site, archaeologists also uncovered huts, animal bones and pots with traces of the earliest fermented dairy products in Africa.

For dating purposes, Tafuri measured the remains for concentrations of isotopes, or molecules of the same element with different weights.  The team concluded that people buried the skeletons over four millennia, with most of the remains in the rock shelter dating between 7,300 and 5,600 years ago.

The ancient people grew up not far from their burial sites, based on a comparison of isotopes in tooth enamel, which forms early in childhood, with elements in the nearby environment.

The exclusive use of the rock shelter for female and sub-adult burials points to a persistent division based on the sex of the individual.  One possibility is that during the earlier period, women had a more critical role in the society, and families may have even traced their descent through the female line.  But once the Sahara began its inexorable expansion into the region about 5,000 years ago, the culture shifted and men's prominence may have risen as a result.

Chinese armor predates Terra Cotta Warriors by hundreds of years

Original Headline: Chinese archaeologists excavate earliest bronze armor pieces


Now we shift to China, where archaeologists in northwest Shaanxi Province say that one piece of thigh armor and two pieces of upper-body armor dating back 3,000 years may be the oldest pieces of bronze armor researchers have ever unearthed in China.

The excavation team retrieved the artifacts from the tomb of a nobleman from the West Zhou Dynasty in Shigushan Mountain of Baoji City.

According to Liu Junshe, head of the team, the discovery fills in a blank in China's early military history, as excavations of pieces of armor forged during or prior to the Qin Dynasty, 221 BC - 206 BC, have been rare.

The material of the armor on the famed Terra Cotta Warriors has long been a mystery, but forgers created the recently excavated pieces of armor hundreds of years prior to the Qin Dynasty underground army.

Liu said the cuisse [kwis], or piece of thigh armor, measures 29 centimeters in length and is tube-shaped, while the two cuirass [kwir-ASS] pieces, or upper-body armor pieces, measure 23.5 by 10 centimeters and 40 by 21 centimeters.  Both had mortises to connect to each other or with the leather parts of the armor.

Excavators also unearthed a bounty of bronze weaponry, wine vessels and other sacrificial objects, suggesting that the tomb owner had been a high-ranking aristocrat and general.

Some local farmers discovered the tomb cluster in Shigushan Mountain last year.  Archaeologists found a wine vessel in another tomb, which contained the oldest wine anyone has found in China.


Oregon site suggests ancient human occupation

Original Headline:  Excavations in Oregon Reveal Promising New Early Paleoindian Site


Our final story is from the United States, at a site called Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, near the town of Riley in southeastern Oregon, where surface surveys and excavations suggest human occupation of considerable antiquity.  The site may date perhaps as far back as 12,000 years ago and may have been used up until about 7000 years ago, based on the types of flaked stone projectile points found.

Burns District Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Scott Thomas surveyed the site initially with the help of volunteers from the Oregon Archaeological Society.  Finds at the site so far include 26 stemmed points, a Black Rock Concave Base point, a crescent fragment, Northern Side-Notched points, biface fragments, including a fluted biface, "overshot" flakes suggestive of Clovis technology, a small number of Elko Series points, and a bedrock mortar.  

According to archaeologists working at the site, the stemmed points are the dominant group of projectile points, but the fluted biface, in association with the overshot flakes, is of great significance because it suggests the possibility that the rockshelter might contain Clovis-age artifacts, which would push the site age back to about 13,000 years.  Moreover, archaeologists consider the Black Rock Concave Base point, an artifact found in other contexts that date to 10,000 - 12,000 years ago, to be very uncommon in other locations in Oregon, but comparatively more common in the area around Riley.

A crew comprising BLM and University of Oregon archaeologists, including Oregon field school director, Dr. Patrick O’Grady, dug two 2 by 2 meter and one 1 by 1 meter test units at the site to assess the potential for understanding early Holocene climate change issues.  

Additional finds at the site included hearth features and charcoal.  The archaeologists say that the hearth feature contains two charcoal lenses interbedded with fire-stained earth.  Obsidian flakes are present in the sidewall in both the charcoal lenses and the fire-stained earth.  Other finds included a mano, a hand-held stone for grinding corn or other grains on a metate, as well as a metate, a scraper, two hammerstones, and a flaked stone chopper.

Also uncovered was a packrat midden that holds the potential for producing perishable cultural material.  A windstorm exposed a pair of feathers bound with sinew on the surface just below the midden.  The find suggests that the midden could yield more artifacts.

Researchers have submitted the various artifacts for analysis, such as protein residue analysis for the lithics, radiocarbon dating for the hearth charcoal, and identification and dating for the feather bundle.  In the summer of 2013, the University of Oregon plans to run a field school at Rimrock Draw Rockshelter in conjunction with the ongoing excavations.

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