Audio News for May 5 to May 11, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 5th to May 11th, 2013.


New system of lines in Peru spells out sacred astronomical alignments

Original Headline:  Stunning Astronomical Alignment Found at Peru Pyramid


Our first story is from southern Peru, where researchers have found an ancient astronomical alignment set up by a pyramid and two stone lines.  During the winter solstice, hundreds of years ago, the lines would frame the setting sun while at the same time, the sun would frame the pyramid in light.

The two stone lines, called geoglyphs, are located 2 kilometers, or about one and a half miles, east-southeast from the pyramid.  They run for 500 meters, about a quarter mile, across the remote landscape.  Researchers believe the positioning of the lines was intentional, so that they frame the pyramid as one descends into the valley from the highlands.

According to the research team in a presentation recently at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, astronomical software and 3D modeling helped them determine that during the time of the winter solstice, as viewed in 3D models, these lines appear to converge at a point beyond the horizon and frame not only the site of Cerro del Gentil (sarro del hen-TEEL), where the pyramid is, but also the setting sun during the time of the winter solstice.

Thus, someone viewing the sunset from these lines during the winter solstice would have seen the sun setting directly behind, or sinking into, the adobe pyramid.  The pyramid and the linear geoglyph constitute part of a single architectural complex, with potential cosmological significance that ritualized the entire landscape.

The flat-topped pyramid is 5 meters high, or nearly 20 feet.  It was built sometime between 600 BC and 50 BC and used at least sporadically until somewhere between AD 200 and 400.  Finds near the pyramid include textiles, shells and ceramics.  The stone lines were constructed at some point between 500 BC and AD 400.

However, this discovery is just the beginning.  Researchers have found about 50 of these stone lines so far in a flat, dry area near the pyramid.  The longest of the lines runs for about 1,500 meters.  These lines are straight and built up out of rocks, unlike the Nazca Lines in southern Peru.  The Nazca lines were etched into the earth by removing the topsoil, and also differ by including many curvilinear depictions of animals and plants.

At Cerro del Gentil, researchers have found more than 200 cairns or rock piles interspersed with the rock lines.  The biggest of these cairns is about 15 meters in diameter, as much as 50 feet across.  The stone lines and cairns appear connected with nearby settlements and their pyramids.  Close to them are four ancient settlements, two of which have large pyramids and one with a mound.  The settlements would have supported populations of many hundreds and possibly over 1,000 people.

According to Charles Stanish, a professor at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, many of the lines do lead to the pyramids; most lead to the vicinity of the pyramids.  Statistical analysis of the direction of the lines showed that this pattern is statistically significant.  It could not have been by random chance that the lines cluster on these settlements.

According to Stanish, the discovery of ancient lines leading to pyramids and pyramid complexes is important in how different it is from the well-known line drawings in the big Nazca plain and in the Palpa plain.  At those two areas, the lines etched in earth were constructed to depict a variety of motifs, including animals and plants.  Clearly, not just the construction technique but also the meaning is very different at Cerro del Gentil.
The team has completed only one field season at the site and will be heading back this summer to continue their work.  They plan to excavate at the Cerro del Gentil pyramid and search for more stone lines.  They will also carry out a systematic survey of a wide area to find all the other lines and all the other settlements and features.


New translations suggest the famous hanging garden of Babylon was really in Nineveh

Original Headline:  Babylon's hanging garden: ancient scripts give clue to missing wonder


New evidence provides clues to one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Garden of Babylon.  The inability of archaeologists to find traces of it among Babylon's ancient remains has long been a mystery, leading some even to doubt its existence.

Now a British scholar has amassed a wealth of textual evidence to show that the garden was created at Nineveh, 300 miles from Babylon, in the early 7th century BC.

After 18 years of study, Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University has concluded that the garden was built by the Assyrians in the north of Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq, rather than by their great enemies, the Babylonians, in the south.

She believes her research shows that the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, rather than the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, achieved this feat of engineering and artistry.

The evidence presented by Dalley, a professional in ancient Middle Eastern languages, emerged from deciphering Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform scripts and reinterpreting later Greek and Roman texts.  They included a 7th-century BC Assyrian inscription that she discovered was mistranslated in the 1920s, reducing passages to absolute nonsense.

Correctly translating it at last, she found Sennacherib's own description of an unrivalled palace and a wonder for all peoples.  He describes the awesome sight of a water-raising screw made using a new method of casting bronze, and preceding the invention of Archimedes' screw by some four centuries.

According to Dalley, this was part of a complex system of canals, dams and aqueducts to bring mountain water from streams 50 miles away to the citadel of Nineveh and the hanging garden.  The script records water being drawn up all day.

Recent excavations have found traces of aqueducts.  One near Nineveh was so vast that its remains looked like a stretch of motorway from the air, and it bore a crucial inscription:  “Sennacherib, king of the world … Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh.”

Having first broached her theory in 1992, Dalley is now presenting a mass of evidence in a book, “The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon.”  She expects to divide academic opinion, but the evidence convinces her that Sennacherib's garden fulfils the criteria for a wonder of the world; magnificent in conception, spectacular in engineering, and brilliant in artistry.

According to Dalley, it may seem outrageous to challenge the longtime belief that the Hanging Gardens were in Babylon and were built by Nebuchadnezzar the Great.  However, Assyriology is a relatively recent discipline and facts that once seemed secure are becoming suspect under the light of physical and textual evidence.

Descriptions testify that the palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh was magnificent, with steps of semi-precious stone and an entrance guarded by colossal copper lions.  Dalley pieced together ancient texts to reveal a garden that recreated a mountain landscape, boasting terraces, pillared walkways, exotic plants and trees, and rippling streams.

The Seven Wonders appear in classical texts written centuries after the garden was created, but the First Century historian Josephus was the only author to name Nebuchadnezzar as creator of the Hanging Garden, Dalley commented.  She found extensive confusion over names and places in ancient texts, including the Book of Judith, muddling the two kings.

Little of Nineveh, near present-day Mosul, has been explored, because it has been judged too dangerous until now to conduct excavations.


New technology helps map underwater medieval town

Original Headline: Secret Streets of Britain's “Atlantis” Are Revealed

Moving on to Britain, a University of Southampton professor has carried out the most detailed analysis ever of the archaeological remains of the lost medieval town of Dunwich [DUNN-itch], dubbed 'Britain's Atlantis.'

Funded and supported by English Heritage, and using advanced underwater imaging techniques, the project, led by Professor David Sear of Southampton’s Department of Geography and Environment, has produced the most accurate map to date of the town's streets, boundaries and major buildings, and revealed new ruins on the seabed.

According to Sear, visibility under the water at Dunwich is very poor due to the muddy water. This has limited the exploration of the site.

Researchers now have examined the seabed ruins using a trademarked high-resolution acoustic imaging system, called DIDSON, in the first use of this technology for marine archaeology outside of shipwrecks.  As Sear describes it, DIDSON technology is rather like shining a torch onto the seabed, only using sound instead of light.  The acoustic data produced helps not only to see the ruins, but also understand more about how they interact with the tidal currents and seabed.

According to Peter Murphy, English Heritage's coastal survey professional, who is currently completing a national assessment of coastal heritage assets in England, the loss of most of the medieval town of Dunwich over the last few hundred years is part of a long process likely to result in more losses in the future.  However, everyone was surprised by how much of the eroded town still survives under the sea and is identifiable.

Present-day Dunwich is a village 14 miles south of Lowestoft in Suffolk, but it was once a thriving port comparable in size to 14th Century London.  Extreme storms brought coastal erosion and flooding that almost completely wiped out this once prosperous town over the past seven centuries.  This process began in 1286, when a huge storm swept much of the settlement into the sea and silted up the Dunwich River.  This storm was followed by a succession of others that silted up the harbor and squeezed the economic life out of the town, leading to its eventual demise as a major international port in the 15th Century.  It now lies collapsed and in ruins in a watery grave, three to 10 meters below the surface of the sea, just off the present coastline.

The project to survey the underwater ruins of Dunwich, the world's largest medieval underwater town site, began in 2008.  Six additional ruins on the seabed and 74 potential archaeological sites on the seafloor have since been found.  Combining all known archaeological data from the site, together with old charts and navigation guides to the coast, has led also to the production of the most accurate and detailed map of the street layout and position of buildings, including the town's eight churches.

Commenting on the significance of Dunwich, Professor Sear called it a sobering example of the relentless force of nature on coastlines, starkly demonstrating how rapidly the coast can change, even when protected by its inhabitants.


Late Roman burials in Germany show DNA evidence of death from plague

Original Headline: Plague Helped Bring Down Roman Empire


In our final story, researchers now reveal that plague may have helped finish off the Roman Empire.

Plague is a fatal disease so infamous that it has become synonymous with any dangerous, widespread contagion.  The bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis (yer-SIN-ee-a PEST-is), is known to have caused two of the most devastating pandemics in recorded history.  One was the Great Plague, which lasted from the 14th to 17th centuries, and includes the infamous outbreak known as the Black Death, which may have killed nearly two-thirds of Europeans in the mid-1300s.  More recently, the Modern Plague struck around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning in China in the mid-1800s and spreading to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe and other parts of Asia.

Although past studies confirmed that Y. pestis caused both of these catastrophes, much controversy existed as to whether it also caused a massive earlier plague in the sixth to eighth centuries.  This pandemic, called the Justinianic Plague after the Byzantine emperor Justinian the First, killed more than 100 million people.  Coming near the end of the Roman Empire, when drought attacked many formerly fertile provinces, some historians have suggested that the devastating plague under Justinian was the last straw, causing the Roman Empire to finally collapse in the West, and to wither into the weaker, smaller empire in the East that was then easily attacked when the new power of Islam arose.

Now scientists have helped solve this mystery, with investigations of ancient DNA taken from skeletons of people who died during the time of Justinian in Rome’s northern provinces, now in Germany.  The DNA was extracted from the teeth of 19 different sixth-century skeletons from a medieval graveyard in Bavaria, southern Germany. These 19 people apparently succumbed to the Justinianic Plague, because their teeth revealed the presence of the plague bacterium Y. pestis.
According to researcher Barbara Bramanti, an archaeogeneticist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, it is always very exciting to find out the actual cause of the pestilences of the past.  The newest molecular methods allow just this precision, however, even after 1,500 years in the ground.

The findings confirm that the Justinianic Plague crossed the Alps, killing people in what is now Bavaria.  Analysis of the DNA suggests that much like the later two pandemics of plague, this first pandemic originated in Asia, even if historical records say that it arrived first in Africa before spreading to the Mediterranean basin and to Europe.

The researchers now hope to reconstruct the whole genomic sequence of the plague strain in these ancient teeth to learn more about the disease.  The scientists detailed their findings online in the recent issue of the publicly available journal “PLOS Pathogens.”

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