Audio News for April 28 to May 4, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 28th to May 4th, 2013.


Hundreds of little yellow balls are newest puzzle at Teotihuacan

Original Headline: Hundreds of mysterious yellow orbs discovered under Mexico’s Temple of the Feathered Serpent


Our first story is from Mexico, where archaeologists excavating beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent have discovered hundreds of mysterious yellow spheres.

They originate in the tunnels near the third largest pyramid in the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan, which have been the focus of archaeological study ever since their discovery in 2003.  The yellow spheres were uncovered when a remote-controlled robot carrying camera equipment deployed to explore a series of winding and largely inaccessible chambers within the ruins of the ancient pyramid named for its statues of strange serpent-like creatures.

According to Jorge Zavala, an archaeologist at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the meaning of the yellow spheres is unknown and nothing like them has come to light before.

The little yellow balls measure between 1.5 and 5 inches in diameter and are covered in a yellow material called jarosite, a glittering type of pyrite, over a core of clay.

The remote-controlled robot Tlaloc II-TC sent to explore the tunnels is named after the ancient Aztec god of rain.  It carries an infrared camera and a laser scanner that generates 3-D visualization of the spaces beneath the temple, allowing it to access unexcavated parts of the ruin.

According to archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez, director of the Tlalocan Project, a few months ago they found two side chambers at 72 and 74 meters from the entrance.  They named them North Chamber and South Chamber.  The robot was able to enter the part of the tunnel not yet excavated and found three chambers.  Researchers believe that high-ranking people, priests or even rulers, went down to the tunnel to perform rituals.

According to George Cowgill (COH-gul), professor emeritus at Arizona State University, the Teotihuacanos (tay-oh-tee-wah-CAH-nos) and other ancient Mesoamerican societies used pyrite for decoration, including the jarosite version, which is distinctive for its yellow gleam.  Originally, the spheres would have shone brilliantly.

The walls of the tunnels themselves are also decorated with a mineral powder coating, this one made up of magnetite, pyrite and hematite.  The feathered serpent pyramid above is part of the larger city of pyramids, a World Heritage Site located just 30 miles from Mexico City, which was established around 100 BC and inhabited by around 100,000 people at its peak before being mysteriously abandoned around AD 700.

According to Gomez, the reason the Teotihuacanos sealed the tunnel and blocked off access nearly two millennia ago was in order to protect something very important in the central chamber.  He believes the tunnels might contain the remains of those who ruled Teotihuacan and that the site is possibly one of the most significant archaeological finds in the region.

Excavators race to salvage giant communal stone tombs in UAR

Original Headline: Archaeologists make last ditch attempt to rescue remains of pre-historic tombs in RAK


In the United Arab Emirates, hundreds of vehicles will rattle down the new Ras Al Khaimah road expected to open next year, but the drivers will have no clue that they are thundering over the remains of 4,000-year-old tombs.

Archaeologists are in the final days of a three-month rescue excavation of the Qarn Al Harf tombs built by prehistoric farmers.

Archaeologists from the University of Durham in the UK and the Ras Al Khaimah Antiquities Department are working to recover information from four communal megalithic tombs of the Wadi Suq period, 2000 to 1600 BC.  The 32-kilometre Ring Road that will bypass the city to connect the quarries and factories of the north coast with a motorway will destroy three of the tombs, which contain bone fragments along with offerings of carnelian beads, seashell rings and stone vessels.  One single-chambered tomb is the largest of its type at 24 meters long.  These ancient structures were built of boulders that weighed up to a ton, carved from the mountain with bronze tools.  On the present-day plains, the ancient tombs appear as mounds, covered by less than a meter of powdery soil. The fertile plains around the tombs contain at least 60 tombs, all told, along with the remains of houses from the period, and their agricultural field systems.  These traces of early farmers in the region were first discovered in 1988.
People have inhabited the area continuously for 4,000 years.  The tombs were reused and plundered over millennia, so that the story of their builders remains a mystery.  According to Christian Velde, a resident archaeologist at the Ras Al Khaimah Antiquities Department, generations of people have destroyed most of the prehistoric prehistoric evidence.  For this reason, archaeologists are struggling to understand the burial process, how many people were buried in each tomb and their religious beliefs.

The fact that they were communal tombs, however, with everyone in the community buried together, shows that their society believed in equality.  Families were together in death, as in life.  A typical 12 to 14-metre tomb would hold 30 to 50 people.  Stillborn babies, small children up to very old people, and male and female were buried in such a tomb.  Life was tough and short.  Women had an average life expectancy of 25 years.  Men lived, on average, to age 35.

When the archaeologists return to the UK with the tombs’ finds, they will take about 18 months to analyze the collection of stone beads, shell rings, metal earrings, pottery shards and stone vessels.

It appears that every person was buried with at least one piece of pottery, and some were given beautiful stone vessels, decorated with lines and dotted circles typical of the Wadi Suq period.
In Qarn Al Harf, archaeologists found a full arm with beads around the forearm and an earring next to a skull, evidence that people were buried wearing their ornaments.

Few metal objects remain, apart from the copper that made the region famous in the third millennium BC.  Most metal objects appear to have been plundered in later periods.  Each tomb rose atop a foundation of stones with walls of huge limestone blocks covered by slabs more than a meter in length placed at an oblique angle.  Two are one-chamber tombs, while the other two have three chambers, the first of their kind to be discovered.  One of these three-chamber tombs lies outside the direct impact of the road being built, and will be conserved.


New skeletal evidence confirms starving Jamestown colonists ate their own

Original Headline: Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism


Moving to the United States, new archaeological evidence and forensic analysis at Jamestown reveals that a 14-year-old girl was cannibalized in desperation.

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable.  A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the Starving Time.  However, a few other newly discovered bones in particular tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.

Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, confirmed that the bones showed very specific evidence of cannibalism.

Much still is unknown about the circumstances of this macabre meal: Who exactly was the girl that researchers are calling Jane, whether she was murdered or died of natural causes, whether multiple people participated in the butchering or it was a solo act.  But according to Owsley, speaking with lead archaeologist William Kelso at a press conference at the National Museum of Natural History, we now have the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas.  According to Owsley, historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there.  Given that these bones appeared in a trash pit, and their manner of cutting and chopping up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.

It’s long been speculated that the harsh conditions faced by the colonists of Jamestown might have made them desperate enough to eat other humans and perhaps even commit murder to do so.  One hundred and four settlers founded the colony in 1607 but only 38 survived the first nine months of life in Jamestown, with most succumbing to starvation and disease.  They not only had difficulties growing crops in the new land, they arrived in the midst of one of the worst regional droughts in centuries.  Furthermore, many of the settlers were unused to hard agricultural labor.  As a result, the colony remained dependent on supplies brought by each arriving mission, as well as trade with the Native Americans who lived nearby.

By the winter of 1609, the drought continued, relations with the local Powhatan Confederacy had turned more hostile, and a supply ship was lost at sea.  These calamities brought the colonists to a truly desperate position.  Sixteen years later, in 1625, George Percy, who had been president of Jamestown during the Starving Time, wrote a letter describing the colonists’ diet during that terrible winter.  He commented that after exhausting the horses, dogs, cats and mice, the famine began and they resorted to digging up the dead to survive.

Despite this and other textual references to cannibalism, though, hard physical evidence did not exist that it had occurred, until now.  Kelso’s team discovered the girl’s remains during the summer of 2012, in a deposit of refuse that also contained butchered horse and dog bones.  All of these would have been eaten only in times of extreme hunger.  Human teeth and then a partial human skull alerted the team to the explosive new evidence.  

Owsley carried out a series of forensic tests, including microscopic and isotope analysis.  They CT-scanned the bones, then replicated them as virtual 3D models and put them together, piece by piece, assembling the skull.  Digitally mirroring the fragments to fill in the missing gaps allowed the team to make a 3D facial reconstruction despite having just 66 percent of the skull.

The researchers used this reconstruction, along with the other data, to determine the specimen was a female, roughly 14 years old and of British ancestry.  Owsley says the cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, are telltale signs of cannibalism.

He’s probably one of the researchers best qualified to make this judgment.  As one of the country’s most prominent physical anthropologists, he has analyzed many cannibalized skeletons from ancient history, as well as working with the FBI on modern forensic cases.

Owsley speculates that this particular Jamestown body belonged to a child who likely arrived in the colony during 1609 on one of the resupply ships.  She would have been either a maidservant or the child of a gentleman, and due to the high-protein diet indicated by his team’s isotope analysis of her bones, he suspects the latter.  The identity of whoever consumed her is entirely unknown, and Owsley guesses there might have been multiple cannibals involved, because the cut marks on her shin indicate a more skilled butcher than whoever dismembered her head.

Kelso’s team of archaeologists will continue to excavate the fort, searching for other bodies that might help us learn about the conditions faced by some of the country’s first European colonists. This might be the first specimen that provides evidence for cannibalism, but Owsley is sure there are more to come.  Percy’s letter also describes how, as President of the colony, he tortured and burned alive a man who had confessed to killing, salting and eating his pregnant wife, so the remains of that woman, along with other victims of cannibalism, may still be waiting to be found underground.

Swedish rune stone rediscovered after 300-year disappearance

Original Headline: Rune stone rediscovered after 300 years


In our final story, a nearly 1,000 year-old rune stone was rediscovered at Bogesunds Brygga west of Vaxholm in Sweden.

The rune stone turned up during an outing that was part of a course in landscape archaeology at Stockholm University.  The stone had been known historically, but had been missing since the 17th Century.

The runic script was carved into the stone sometime between AD 1050 and 1080.

An early antiquarian named Peringskiöld wrote down the characters in the 17th Century, which means that virtually the entire text is already known.  According to local lore, the stone rested somewhere around Bogesunds Brygga.  Historian Richard Dybeck searched for it in the 1870s without success.

The text on the stone reads as follows:
Gunne and Åsa had this stone and arch erected for Önd, their son.  He died on Ekerö.  He is buried in the graveyard.  Fastulv inscribed the runes.  Gunne erected this stone slab.

The place name “Ekerö” refers to an island in Lake Mälären just west of Stockholm.

According to Torun Zachrisson, archaeologist and researcher at Stockholm University, during the last stop of the day on the excursion with the students, the sun was shining in the right direction and suddenly it was there at the edge of the burial ground, the rune stone U 170 from Bogesunds Brygga, which had been missing for 300 years.

The inscription on the rune stone is the oldest evidence for the place name Ekerö and indicates the possible presence of an early church.

Only half of the stone remains.  The other half may have been taken away for building use.

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