Audio News for March 17 to March 23, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 17th to March 23rd, 2013.


Pre-Viking wool tunic just one of many artifacts revealed by melting glaciers

Original Headline:  Pre-Viking tunic found by glacier as warming aids archaeology

In our first story, from Norway, a pre-Viking wool tunic shows how global warming is proving something of a boon for archaeology.

The discovery is a greenish-brown, loose-fitting article of outer clothing, suitable for a person up to about 176 centimeters, or 5 feet 9 inches, tall, from the melting Lendbreen glacier approximately 2,000 meters above sea level.  The evidence demonstrates that the glacier has not been so small since AD 300, because carbon dating places the tunic around that date.

Archaeologists have made 1,600 similar finds in Norway's southern mountains since thaws accelerated in 2006, including a Viking mitten dating from AD 800, an ornate walking stick, a Bronze Age leather shoe, ancient bows, and arrowheads that people long ago used to hunt reindeer.  One ancient wooden arrow had a tiny shard from a seashell as a sharp tip in an intricate bit of artisanship.

Lamb's wool with a diamond pattern that has darkened with time comprises the fabric of the tunic.  Only a handful of similar tunics have survived so long in Europe.  The researchers in Oslo said one puzzle was why anyone would take off a warm tunic by a glacier.  One possibility was that the owner was suffering from cold in a snowstorm and grew confused with hypothermia, which sometimes makes sufferers take off clothing because they wrongly feel warm.  The owner used the tunic well and repaired it several times, according to Marianne Vedeler, a conservation expert at Norway's Museum of Cultural History.

In recent years, archaeologists from Alaska to the Andes have made other ice-freed finds, because glaciers are receding.  Scientists blame the shrinkage on climate change, stoked by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.  The 1991 discovery of Ötzi, a man who roamed the Alps 5,300 years ago between Austria and Italy, is the best-known glacier find.  


Hopes high that Native American burial mounds will go on National Register

Original Headline:  Archaeological dig aims to save Native American burial mounds


In the United States, Toye Heape, vice president of the Native History Association, recently stood on the slope of an ancient Native American burial mound in Tennessee, confident in the significance of what was beneath his feet.

Historians long have been familiar with the 1,800-year-old site.  However, Heape was still excited to see state archaeologists begin excavations.

The purpose of the dig never was to prove specifically what rests within the two small hills.  The Tennessee Division of Archaeology is working with several organizations to have the ancient burial sites formally recognized by having the National Register acknowledge them.  The small-scale excavations, conducted with the help of archaeology students from Middle Tennessee State University, are looking for evidence that the burial sites are still intact.  For the Native American community, whether the site gets on the National Register of Historic Places or not, it’s still a sacred place.

Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist for the state, pointed out visible layering of soil as strong evidence the mound is intact.  To be eligible for the National Register, according to Deter-Wolf, a site has to have research potential, meaning scientists could dig into the mound and answer questions about how and why Native Americans created them.  It is illegal, however, to disturb a grave.  Scientists also understand that once they’ve rooted through a historically significant site, they’ve destroyed at least part of it.

The larger of the two mounds stands some 20 feet tall.  The other, smaller, mound is a few hundred yards to the north.  Williamson County and middle Tennessee are home to a number of burial mounds, but these are among the oldest, according to the state.  Archaeologists and historians have dated the mounds to about AD 200, during the Woodland period of Tennessee’s prehistory.  Phosphate mining, farming and a series of crude excavations in the mid- to late 1800s have threatened the integrity of the sites.

Previous excavations uncovered various items including some probably brought to the area by Native Americans from the Ohio Valley, such as a copper pan-flute casing and a metal ax.

Baltic monuments point to importance of Bronze Age maritime network

Original Headline:  Stone Ships Show Signs of Maritime Network in Baltic Sea Region 3,000 Years Ago


Next, we travel to the Baltic Sea region where, in the middle of the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, the amount of metal objects increased dramatically.  At about the same time, a new type of stone monument, arranged in the form of ships, started to appear along the coasts.  New research described in a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that maritime groups built the stone ships.

These sea-faring people were part of a network that extended across large parts of northern Europe.  According to the new interpretation, they maintained the network largely because of their strong dependence on bronze.

Archaeologists long have assumed that bronze imported to Scandinavia came from the south, and recent analyses have been able to confirm this theory.  Researchers frequently discuss the distribution of bronze objects, with most analyses focusing on the links in the networks. However, scientists only rarely have considered the people behind the networks or their meeting places.

One reason researchers rarely discuss the meeting sites is because they have not been able to find their locations.  This is in strong contrast to the trading places of the Viking Age, which have been easy to locate as they left behind such rich archaeological material.

Joakim Wehlin from the University of Gothenburg and Gotland University has analyzed the archaeological material from the Bronze Age stone ships and their placement in the landscape.  The entire Baltic Sea region and especially the larger islands, such as the Swedish island of Gotland, are home to many stone ships.  Investigators think that the ships may have served as graves for one or several individuals, and often have have viewed them as death ships intended to take the deceased to the afterlife.

Wehlin's study shows a different picture.  Some stone ships don’t have graves in them.  Instead, they sometimes show remains of other types of activities.  So in the absence of the dead, the traces of the sites’ users are becoming the focus of attention.

One of Wehlin’s conclusions is that the stone ships and the activities that took place point to people strongly focused on maritime practices.  Details in the ships indicate that the creators built them to represent real ships.  Wehlin notes that the stone ships give clues about the shipbuilding techniques of the time and therefore about the ships that sailed on the Baltic Sea during the Bronze Age.

By studying the landscape, Wehlin has managed to locate a number of meeting places, or early ports dating to the Bronze Age.  These are areas that resemble hill forts and are located near easily accessible points in the landscape, such as well-known waterways leading inland.

Scuttled ships and trading weights found in sunken Egyptian city

Original Headline: Maritime trade thrived in Egypt, even before Alexandria


In our final story, new research into Thonis-Heracleion, a sunken port city that served as the gateway to Egypt in the first millennium BC, is the topic of examination at an international conference at the University of Oxford.  The port city, situated 6.5 kilometers off today’s coastline, was one of the biggest commercial hubs in the Mediterranean before the founding of Alexandria.

This necessary port of entry, known as Thonis by the Egyptians and Heracleion by the Greeks, was where archaeologists think seagoing ships unloaded their cargoes for temple officials to assess them and extract taxes before transferring them to Egyptian ships that went upriver.  
In the city’s port area, divers and researchers currently are examining 64 Egyptian ships, dating between the eighth and second centuries BC.  Researchers say the ships are exceptionally preserved.  With 700 examples of different types of ancient anchors, the researchers believe this represents the largest nautical collection from the ancient world.  

According to Dr. Damian Robinson, Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, the survey revealed an enormous submerged landscape with the remains of at least two major ancient settlements.  In ancient times, natural and artificial waterways crisscrossed this part of the Nile delta.  

One of the key questions for researchers is why the Egyptians created several ship graveyards about one mile from the mouth of the River Nile and why they seem to have deliberately sunk boats sunk close to the port.  Dr. Robinson, who is overseeing the excavation of one of the submerged ships known as Ship 43, says it appears to be part of a large cluster of at least ten other vessels in a large ship graveyard.  This might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port city, explained Dr. Robinson.  Tempting as this interpretation is, however, researchers must also consider whether the Egyptians sank these boats simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.

The port and its harbor basins also contain a collection of customs decrees, trading weights, and evidence of coin production.  Thonis-Heracleion played an important role in the network of long-distance trade in the eastern Mediterranean, since foreign merchants would have used the city as their first stop at the Egyptian border.  Excavations in the harbor basins yielded an interesting group of lead weights, likely used by both temple officials and merchants in the payment of taxes and the purchasing of goods; among these is an important group of Athenian weights.  They are a significant archaeological find because it is the first time that researchers have identified weights like these during excavations in Egypt.

Another Oxford researcher is analyzing more than 300 statuettes and amulets from the Late Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Periods, including Egyptian and Greek subjects.  The majority depict Egyptian deities such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus.  The Egyptians of these periods mass-produced the figures on a scale unmatched in previous periods.  The artisans made them primarily for Egyptians; however, evidence suggests that some foreigners also bought them and dedicated them in temples abroad.

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