Audio News for March 24th to March 30th, 2013.  

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from March 24th to March 30th, 2013.


Afghanistan’s financial straits both threaten, and protect, huge Buddhist-era site

Original Headline: Afghanistan hurries to uncover, document ancient Buddhist city

In our first story, a buried Buddhist city in Afghanistan is sitting atop an enormous copper deposit where a private investor has planned to dig a Chinese open-pit mine.  Archaeologists are now racing to document and preserve the treasures before they are lost forever.

The situation had the potential to be another Afghanistan Buddha disaster, recalling the Taliban’s destruction of two ancient statues that had stood in Western Afghanistan for centuries. However, thanks to delays in construction of the massive mine and an influx of cash from the World Bank, the 1.5-square-mile Mes Aynak complex is a bittersweet archaeological success.

An international team of archaeologists and more than 550 laborers are excavating what has turned out to be a unique window into Afghanistan’s role in the ancient Silk Road connecting China and India with the Mediterranean. With its ring of half a dozen monasteries and complex of workshops and mineshafts built into the mountain ridge line, the site shows the interplay of Buddhism, mining, and trade during the fifth through eighth centuries.

Mes Aynak also underscores the conflict between cultural preservation and Afghanistan’s desperate need to find a way to survive as the international community winds down its involvement in the country.  The copper may be worth 100 billion dollars, five times the estimated value of Afghanistan’s entire economy.

The massive open-pit mine, though, would destroy most or all of the ruins, which are laced with well-preserved frescoes and more than 1,000 statues, including hundreds of Buddhas. However, a small group of French and Afghan archaeologists made an informal deal with the Ministry of Mines in 2009 for time to perform a rescue excavation, recover as many artifacts as they could, and document the site to whatever degree possible, before the mining begins. The team has until June to finish work on the primary sites, while work on some of the monasteries on the edge of the mine area could continue for several years.

The archaeologists, including Philippe Marquis, the director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, are almost certain that they have until at least 2016, because so little progress has been made on the mine.  There seem to be no firm plans yet for the necessary power plant, smelter and rail line, or for the mining operation itself.

According to Marquis, without the copper mine, Mes Aynak and its artifacts very likely would have been destroyed anyway; looted by dealers in stolen antiquities, like many other Afghan archaeological sites.  But with the hopes of an economic boom, there is a strong chance the site will be documented and its artifacts preserved.

Many of the site’s statues and paintings have already been removed, and the rest will soon follow.  Also within the site are the telltale signs of copper mining going back centuries.  Blankets of fused slag, a byproduct of the old copper-smelting operations, color the mountainside black, in some places piled more than 40 feet high.  Several monasteries, each on a hill or mountain above the main city, have been excavated, and more than 1,000 sculptures have been found.  Ancient manuscripts and decorative woodwork also have been uncovered.

Researchers plan to remove all the artifacts, including the largest statues and the domed shrines called stupas. Afghan officials hope to build a museum just north of Mes Aynak.


New work at ancient Ur is first foreign excavation since the ’30s

Original Headline:   Ancient Iraq yields fresh finds for returning archaeologists

Over in Iraq, British archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown palace or temple near the ancient city of Ur as part of the first foreign excavation at the site since the 1930s.  Small teams of archaeologists working with satellite images have uncovered the corner of a monumental complex with rows of rooms around a large courtyard, believed to be about 4,000 years old.

According to Jane Moon, a University of Manchester archaeologist who heads the expedition, the size is breathtaking.  Ms. Moon says the walls of the structure are almost nine feet thick, indicating that the building was of great importance or great wealth.  The discovery is even more significant because of its location on what would then have been the banks of the Euphrates River, more than 10 miles away from Ur, making it the first major archaeological find that far from the city.

Ur, the last capital of the Sumerian empire, was destroyed by an invasion in about 2000 BC and then subsequently rebuilt.  The city was dedicated to the moon god and is famous for it's stepped temple.  Many believe that it is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, known as the father of monotheistic religion.

The last major excavation at Ur took place in the 1920s and the 1930s, led by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley.  After the 1950s revolution, which toppled Iraq’s monarchy, a nearby military air base put the area off limits to foreign archaeologists for the next half century.

According to the new project’s leader, Jane Moon, the tremendous monumental buildings found by Woolley have been hard to understand because they were restored again and again and again, leaving more-recent neo-Babylonian and 7th Century BC remains.

Finds from earlier periods include burials of at least sixteen members of royalty with elaborate gold jewelry, including a queen’s gold leaf headdress studded with lapis lazuli. Other objects included a gold and lapis lyre, one of the first known musical instruments.Moon says it is impossible to tell whether the new site might contain similar finds.  Ultimately, researchers are not looking for objects but for information.
The team, which has struggled for both funding and visas, consists of six British archaeologists, an Iraqi archaeologist, and two Iraqi trainees.  It is funded mostly by a Swiss benefactor, with participation by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.  A law passed in 1932 bars archaeologists from removing any antiquities from the country, but Moon believes that making the information available is as important as the objects themselves.

Network analysis shows prehistoric Southwest had its own kind of social networking

Original Headline: Artifacts Shed Light on Social Networks of the Past

In our next story, researchers studied thousands of ceramic and obsidian artifacts from AD 1200 to 1450 to learn about the growth, collapse and change of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic Southwest.

The initiation of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have made us all more connected, but long-distance social networks existed hundreds of years before the Internet.  An article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that social networks crisscrossed the late pre-Hispanic American Southwest, maintained by people of that period who used little more than their feet to keep up connections across surprisingly long distances.

Led by University of Arizona anthropologist Barbara Mills, the study looked at thousands of painted ceramic and obsidian artifacts uncovered from more than 700 sites in what is now Arizona and western New Mexico.  With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mills worked with collaborators at Archeology Southwest in Tucson to compile a database of more than 4.3 million ceramic artifacts and more than 4,800 obsidian artifacts, from which they drew for the study.  They then applied formal social network analysis to see what material culture could teach them about how social networks shifted and evolved during a period that saw large-scale demographic changes, including long-distance migration and coalescence of populations into large villages.

Their findings illustrate dramatic changes in social networks in the Southwest over the 250-year period between.  They found, for example, that while one social network in the southern part of the region grew very large and then collapsed, networks in the north became more fragmented but persisted over time.

Another important finding was that early social networks do not appear to have been as restricted as expected by settlements' physical distance from one another.  Researchers found that similar types of painted pottery were being created and used in villages located more than 250 kilometers apart, suggesting that people were maintaining relationships across relatively large geographic expanses.

According to Mills, they were making, using and discarding very similar kinds of assemblages, meaning that a lot of their daily practices were the same as well.  This doesn't come about by chance; it is by interaction with not just a simple exchange but where people are learning how to make and use different kinds of pottery.

The application of formal social network analysis – which focuses on the relationships among nodes, such as individuals, household or settlements – is relatively new in the field of archaeology, which has traditionally focused more on specific attributes of those nodes, such as their size or function.  The UA study shows how social network analysis can be applied to a database of material culture to illustrate changes in network structures over time.

According to Mills, archaeologists already knew about demographic changes in the region, the details of where people were living and where migration was happening.  What wasn’t known was how that changed social networks.  Archaeologists have always recorded the spatial patterns of distribution of pottery and other objects, but with network analysis we see how social relationships are created out of these distributions.

Going forward, Mills hopes to use the same types of analyses to study even older social networks.


Greco-Roman site in Turkey held famous, and deadly, ancient shrine

Original Headline: Pluto's Gate Uncovered in Turkey


Our final story is from Turkey, where a gate to hell has emerged from ruins in the southwestern region of the country. Known as Pluto's Gate, or the Ploutonion in Greek, the cave was celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition.  

Historic sources located the site in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale, and described the opening as filled with lethal mephitic vapors.  According to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, the space was full of a vapor so misty and dense that one could scarcely see the ground.  Any animal that passed inside met instant death.

The find was announced this month at a conference on Italian archaeology in Istanbul, Turkey, by a team led by Francesco D'Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento.  D'Andria has conducted extensive research at Hierapolis, which is now a World Heritage Site.

According to D'Andria, they found the Plutonium by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring.  It turns out that many of Pamukkale's springs, spilling out from the famous white travertine terraces of its hillsides, originate from this particular cave.

Hierapolis is now a vast array of abandoned broken ruins, possibly the result of earthquakes, and excavations have revealed even more ruins.  D’Andria’s team found Ionic semi columns at the cave site with an inscription of dedication to the deities of the underworld Pluto and Kore (KOH-reh) on top of them.  D'Andria also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave – which match descriptions of the site in ancient sources.

According to D’Andria, there was a sort of touristic organization at the site. Small birds were given to pilgrims to test the deadly effects of the cave, while priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto.  The ceremony included leading the animals into the cave, and dragging them out dead.  Only the eunuchs of Cybele, an ancient fertility goddess, were able to enter the hell gate without any apparent damage.

D'Andria notes the site was a famous destination for rites of incubation.  Pilgrims drank water from the pool near the temple, slept not too far from the cave and received visions and prophecies.  Indeed, the fumes coming from the depths of Hierapolis’s groundwater would have produced hallucinations.

Fully functional until the 4th century AD, and occasionally visited during the following two centuries, the site represented an important pilgrimage destination for the last pagan intellectuals of the Late Antiquity. During the 6th century AD, the Christians obliterated the Plutonium, and earthquakes may have then completed the destruction.  D'Andria and his team are now working on a digital reconstruction of the site.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!