Audio News for April 21 to April 27, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 21st to April 27th, 2013.


Veracruz petroglyphs include priest figure

Original Headline:  Shaman petroglyph recorded in Veracruz

Our first story is from the Mexican state of Veracruz, where archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History are closely examining a newly found petroglyph of a priest or wise man.  One of a set of rock carvings, they are thought to be about 500 years old and were discovered in January of this year by local farmers.

The priest or shamanic figure measures 140 centimeters meters high by 50 centimeters wide, or about 5 by 2 feet.  He appears in profile, with his eye closed and his mouth open.  He is fully dressed, in a helmet depicting animal characteristics, a cape and underskirt decorated with triangles, a girdle and ankle bracelets, and an earplug.  Around him are symbols related to divination and astronomical elements.  Near the top of the stone are two concentric circles that could have held a green stone of the type known in the region’s Huastec (HWAHS-tec) culture as the “Heart of the Earth."

On a higher slab is a much cruder carving of an anthropomorphic figure, this time with mouth and eye open.  Also wearing an earplug, the figure seems to be dancing as his máxtlatl (MOSHT-lot-l) or loincloth lifts up at the front, as if with his motion.  Unlike the shaman, this figure is more schematically drawn.  No hands are represented, but the feet seem to be wearing shoes.  Archaeologists studying the panels suggest that based on similarities to drawings that have survived from the culture of this region, the figure may represent a constellation, rather than a human being.

One of the final elements on the panels is a spiral whose terminal is intersected by a rough horizontal line, which in turn is cut by a vertical line that splits into two lines ending in what has been suggested to represent a flower or leaf.

Although the style of the petroglyphs is not known in the Huasteca region, the symbols appear to be reinterpretations of known elements used by agricultural cultures, such as the helmet character, which has similarities to sculptures found at archaeological sites in the region.  According to archaeologist Maria Eugenia Maldonado, the location and function of all possible petroglyphs are significant in understanding the past culture, because they may represent a means of marking events in the agricultural year.  The study of petroglyphs in the region is still in its infancy, but becoming more important for understanding the cosmology and beliefs of the societies that inhabited this area.  Such findings contribute to increasing knowledge of the cultural development of the Huasteca Veracruzana (hwas-TECK-a VAIR-a-cru-ZAHN-a).

Ancient burial in Britain was wealthy woman from the Copper Age

Original Headline: Four-thousand year old gold-adorned skeleton found near Windsor


In Britain, Windsor may have been popular with royalty rather earlier than previously thought.  Archaeologists discovered the 4400-year-old gold-adorned skeleton of an upper class woman who was almost certainly a member of the local ruling elite.  Aged around 40, she was buried wearing a necklace of folded sheet gold, amber and lignite beads.  Even the buttons used to secure the upper part of her now long-vanished burial garment were made of amber.  She also appears to have worn a bracelet of lignite beads.

According to archaeologist Gareth Chaffey of Wessex Archaeology, in charge of the excavation, she may have been a person of power, perhaps even the prehistoric equivalent of a princess or queen.  

It’s known that in southern Britain, some high status men of this time, the Copper Age, had gold possessions, but this is the first time archaeologists have found a woman of that period being accorded the same sort of material status.  The gold used to make the jewelry probably came originally from hundreds of miles to the west and the amber from Britain’s North Sea coast.  The lignite, a form of coal, is also from Britain.

The funeral rite for the potential prehistoric royal may have involved her family arranging her body so that, in death, she clasped a beautiful pottery-drinking vessel in her hands.  The 25-centimeter tall ceramic beaker is decorated with geometric patterns.

Of considerable significance, she lies with her head pointing towards the south.

Men and women from the Stonehenge era often were interred in opposite directions, with all men’s heads pointing north and women’s pointing south.  Archaeological and anthropological research all across Europe over recent years suggests that women may have been associated with the warm and sunny south, while mere men may have seen themselves as embodying the qualities of the colder, harder north.

The research team found the burial 18 months ago but kept it under wraps until now, with the completion of initial analyses of the woman’s bones and metallurgical analysis of the gold.

The discovery is part of an ongoing excavation that started a decade ago.  The elite gold-and-amber-adorned Copper Age woman is the most spectacular of dozens of discoveries made at the site, including four early Neolithic houses, forty Bronze Age burials, three Bronze Age farm complexes and several Iron Age settlements.


Romanian tomb yields medieval lovers, hands still clasped in death

Original Headline: Romanian archeologists uncover Romeo & Juliet: medieval couple buried together with hands clasped


Moving on to Romania, archaeologists investigating the site of a former Dominican monastery in Cluj [kloozh], have uncovered a remarkable tale of love, preserved in the bones of a medieval grave.  Two skeletons, of a young man and a woman, were found clearly buried together with their hands clasped for eternity.  The research team comprises archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Art History of the Romanian Academy and the Cluj National History Museum.

Dubbed Romeo and Juliet by the archaeological team, the couple are thought to have lived between 1450 and 1550, as the grave’s position and proximity to the monastery are typical of this period.

According to lead archaeologist Adrian Rusu, several graves from the period, including the one holding the couple, had been found in what was the courtyard of the monastery.  The remains of the man and woman show they both were around 30 years of age and were buried facing each other and holding hands.  The man appears to have died in an accident, as his sternum was broken by a blow from a blunt object.  No cause of the woman’s death is apparent from her skeletal remains, leading excavators to compare them romantically to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers who could not live without each other.

The skeleton of a child and a fourth incomplete skeleton also came to light during the fieldwork.  The dig is part of a restoration project being carried out at the medieval monastery.


Egyptian animal bones show what workers on the pyramids were fed

Original Headline: Giza Secret Revealed: How 10,000 Pyramid Builders Got Fed


In our final story, scientists in Egypt have discovered at a workers' town site where builders of the Giza pyramids feasted on food from a massive catering-type operation.  The workers' town is located about 400 meters south of the Sphinx, and used to house workers building the pyramid of pharaoh Menkaure, the third and last pyramid on the Giza Plateau.

So far, researchers have discovered a nearby cemetery with bodies of pyramid builders; a corral with possible slaughter areas on the southern edge of the workers' town; and piles of animal bones.  Based on animal bone findings, nutritional data, and other discoveries at this workers' town site, the archaeologists estimate that more than 4,000 pounds of meat, from cattle, sheep and goats, were slaughtered every day, on average, to feed the pyramid builders.

This meat-rich diet, along with the availability of medical care, as the skeletons of some workers show healed bones, would have been an additional reason drawing ancient Egyptians to jobs on the pyramid crews.

According to Richard Redding, chief research officer at Ancient Egypt Research Associates, a group that has been excavating and studying the workers' town site for about 25 years, people were taken care of, probably enjoying a much better diet than they got in their home villages.

At the workers' town, likely occupied for 35 years, researchers have discovered an overabundance of animal bones.  Although the researchers are still unsure of the exact number of bones, Redding estimates he has identified about 25,000 sheep and goat, 8,000 cattle and 1,000 pig bones.

About 10,000 workers helped build the Menkaure pyramid, comprising a smaller work force present year-round to cut stones and complete preparation and survey work, then a larger crew for a few months starting around July of each year.  For up to five months a year, this larger work force would do nothing but move blocks.  According to Redding, who is also a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan, the workers would need at least 45 to 50 grams of protein a day for this protracted and strenuous labor.  Half of this protein would likely have come from fish, beans, lentils and other non-meat sources, while the other half was from sheep, goat and cattle.  

Combining these requirements and other protein sources with the ratio of the bones and the amount of meat and protein provided by an animal, Redding determined that about 11 cattle and 37 sheep or goats were consumed each day.

 This would be in addition to supplying workers with grain, beer and other products.  In order to maintain this level of slaughter, the ancient Egyptians would have needed a herd of 21,900 cattle and 54,750 sheep and goats just to keep up regular delivery to the Giza workers.  The animals alone would need about 40 square kilometers of territory to graze.  Add in fallow land, wasteland, settlements and agricultural land for the herders, and this number triples to about 1,205 square kilometers of land; an area about the size of modern-day Los Angeles.  Even so, this area would take up just about 5 percent of the present-day Nile Delta.

These animals also needed herders, one herder for every six cattle and one herder for every 50 sheep or goats, based on ethnographic observations.  This brings the total number of herders to 3,650 overall and, once their families are included, 18,980, just under 2 percent of Egypt's estimated population at the time.

These herds would have been spread out in villages across the Nile Delta, and then brought to the workers' town at Giza to be slaughtered and cooked.  At the end of their lives, the animals were likely kept in the southern part of the town, in a recently unearthed structure that researchers have dubbed the OK Corral, with OK standing for Old Kingdom.  

The research revealed interesting details about life in the workers' town.  For instance, the overseers, who lived in a structure the archaeologists call the north street gatehouse, got to eat the most cattle, and those living in an area called the galleries, where the everyday workers lived, ate mainly sheep and goats.

Redding said it was not surprising that the overseers preferred to dine on beef, considering it was the most valued meat in ancient Egypt.  

The settlement located adjacent to the workers' town, dubbed “Eastern Town,” doesn’t show the rigid layout of a workers' town and its residents were eating a considerable number of pigs, the researchers found.  Evidence also suggests that the people in Eastern Town were trading with people in Workers' Town for hippo tusk fragments.  These finds suggest that the residents of Eastern Town were not as directly involved in pyramid building and had a special relationship with the pyramid workers.

Future studies will look for the remains of the workers' towns of Khufu and Khafre, the two other pharaohs who built pyramids at Giza.  A dump area investigated in the 1950s may be where they lie, as seal impressions have been found at the dump bearing those rulers' names.

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