Audio News for May 12 to May 18, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 12th to May 18th, 2013.


2300-year-old Maya pyramid now road rubble

Original Headline:  Ancient Mayan pyramid destroyed for road fill


In our first story, from Belize, another tragedy in the archaeology world: a Maya pyramid that has stood for 2,300 years is now rubble for road fill.  Backhoes and bulldozers have largely torn down the temple at Noh Mul in the northern part of the country.

According to John Morris, archaeologist with the National Institute of Culture and History in Belize, this is one of the worst disasters he has seen in his 25 years of archaeology.  Even though trees and brush grew over the pyramid, Morris believes no one could mistake what it was.

The pyramid was the center of a settlement of about 40,000 people and 81 buildings over 12 square miles.  It stood about 65 feet tall.  The Maya built it around 250 BC with hand-cut limestone bricks.  The limestone is quality material used to upgrade local roads, and prized by contractors.

Similar to a huge palace or building or a huge temple, the structure would have had many multilayered rooms, including space for the living and tombs for the dead.

Archaeologists will try to go through the rubble for artifacts, but preservation of the building is impossible.  The mound sits on private land and archaeologists said they would ask police to take action against both the landowner and the contractor.


Byzantine mosaic uncovered in Israel
Original Headline:  Magnificent Mosaic from Byzantine Period Unearthed in Israel

In Israel, a team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority has discovered a spectacular and large 1,500-year-old mosaic at an archaeological site in Kibbutz Bet Qama, dating to the Byzantine period between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.

In addition to the mosaic, the site has yielded a main building comprising a large hall about 12 meters long by 8.5 meters wide.

According to a statement by the Israel Antiquities Authority, roof tiles apparently covered its ceiling while the mosaic was on the floor.  The hall’s impressive opening and the breathtaking mosaic suggest that the structure was a public building.

Geometric patterns decorate the well preserved floor, and amphorae--jars used to transport wine-- a pair of peacocks, and a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril enhance its corners.  These are common designs known from this period.  However, what makes this mosaic unique is the large number of motifs incorporated in the one design.

In front of the building, the archaeologists also have unearthed pools and a system of channels and pipes used to convey water.  In addition, they found steps in one of the pools and frescoes on its walls.  The team is still trying to determine the purpose of the impressive public building and the pools, whose construction required considerable expenditure.

The site seems to have been a large estate that included a church, residential buildings and storerooms, a large cistern, a public building, and pools, surrounded by farmland.  Presumably, one of the structures served as an inn for travelers who visited the place, since an ancient road that ran north from Be’er Sheva is near the site.

During the Byzantine period, Jewish and Christian settlements in the region were located next to each other.  Two of the nearby Jewish settlements are Horbat Rimon, where a synagogue and ritual bath were exposed, and Nahal Shoval, where excavators uncovered ritual baths.  


First colonists in New Zealand identified by bones and teeth

Original Headline: Light cast on lifestyle and diet of first New Zealanders


Around the world in New Zealand, a multidisciplinary team of scientists has shed new light on the diet, lifestyles, and movements of the first New Zealanders by analyzing isotopes from their bones and teeth.

The team was able to identify what is likely to be the first group of people to colonize Marlborough’s Wairau Bar possibly from Polynesia around 700 years ago.  The team also found evidence suggesting that individuals from two other groups buried at Wairua Bar had likely lived in different regions of New Zealand before their survivors buried them at the site.

The researchers undertook isotopic analyses of samples recovered from the human remains prior to their reburial at Wairau Bar in 2009.

According to Dr. Rebecca Kinaston, who conducted the isotope analyses on the bones and teeth, by examining ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen, researchers were able to estimate individuals’ broad dietary makeup over a 10 to 20 year period prior to death.  The analysis of strontium isotopes in the teeth allowed researchers to distinguish between people growing up in geologically different landscapes.

Ancient New Zealanders originally buried the ancestors in three separate groups in a large village at the Wairau site.  First excavated over 70 years ago, this ancient settlement is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and its range of east Polynesian type artifacts.

Previous research found that one of the burial groups displayed distinct cultural differences from the two other burial groups at the site.  These included the positions in which the bodies were interred and the presence of more numerous and rich grave offerings, including whale bone ornaments and moa eggs generally not found with the other two groups.

The new isotopic analysis suggests that members of this first group shared similar diets and childhood origins, while individuals in Groups 2 and 3 displayed highly variable diets and spent their childhood in geologically areas different from those of Group 1.

Group 1 individuals showed a dietary trend similar to that identified in prehistoric individuals from a site in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, with both sets of people sharing a low diversity in protein sources.

In contrast, dietary patterns in groups 2 and 3 were in line with individuals who spent most of their lives eating from a wide range of protein sources, such as would be available through New Zealand’s then bountiful seal, moa, and other bird populations.

The large range found in Group 2 and Group 3’s strontium isotope ratios could reflect that they grew up in regions outside of Wairau Bar, but not where Group 1 did, and also that they were hunting and gathering across a wide geographical range.

This is consistent with other archaeological evidence that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile. The Group 2 and 3 burials at Wairau suggests that this village may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function.  If this is the case, this may represent the roots of the tangihanga ritual, in which Maori bury their dead in their ancestral lands.


Ancient Egyptians liked hot times in the oasis

Original Headline:  Cemetery Reveals Baby-Making Season in Ancient Egypt


Now we come to our final story, in which we learn that the peak period for baby-making sex in ancient Egypt was in July and August, when the weather was at its hottest.  These results come from a team led by Lana Williams of the University of Central Florida, who reported them in April at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, which took place in Honolulu.

Researchers made this discovery at a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt, whose burials date back around 1,800 years.  The oasis is located about 720 kilometers southwest of Cairo.  The people lived in the ancient town of Kellis, which had a population of several thousand.  They lived at a time when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt and when Christianity was spreading, but also when traditional Egyptian religious beliefs were still strong.

So far, researchers have uncovered 765 graves, including the remains of 124 individuals that date to between 18 weeks and 45 weeks after conception.  The excellent preservation let researchers to date the age of the remains at death.  The researchers could also pinpoint the month of death, as the graves faced the rising sun.

The results, combined with other information, suggest that the peak period for births at the site was in March and April, giving the peak period for conceptions in July and August, when temperatures can easily reach more than 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

The peak period for the death of women of childbearing age was also in March and April, exactly mirroring the births, indicating that a substantial number of women died in childbirth.

In the past, researchers have tried to use census records to piece together ancient Egyptian birth patterns, but this is the first time that they have looked at burials to determine the patterns.
Conception didn't peak in summer months for other ancient Mediterranean cultures, because investigators believe the hot weather lowered sexual libido and possibly sperm count.  In ancient Egypt, however, the new findings indicate that at Kellis conceptions increased by more than 20 percent above the site's annual average.

A summer baby-making boom in ancient Egypt may have been due to traditional beliefs regarding fertility and the Nile flood.  The people who lived at the Dakhleh Oasis in ancient times believed that the Nile River was the source of their water and that the flooding of the Nile, which takes place in the summer, was key to the fertility of their land.

Even though this was a Christian community, the people there still may have retained the belief that fertility peaked in the months of July and August.  The annual flood of the Nile River was a pivotal event throughout Egyptian history.  These patterns of conceptions and births likely would have had their roots further back in ancient times and occurred at other Egyptian sites as well.  
While the summer was prime time for ancient Egyptian baby-making, the period around January seems to have been a low point, when conception fell to 20 percent below the site's annual average.  The baby dip likely was due to Christianity, which in ancient times called for prohibitions on sex during certain periods.  Ancient texts indicate that early Egyptian Christians were supposed to avoid intercourse on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, and in the 40 days of Lent and before the other feasts at which they might take the Eucharist, according to Peter Brown, a professor of classics at Princeton University.

The people of Kellis may not have been as strict as these texts recommend, but conception did fall to a low point around January, a time close to both Advent and Lent.

When the team compared their research results with Roman census records, they found that the records were a bit off, indicating May and June as the time of maximum births.  As the Romans tied census records to taxation, the people living in Roman-controlled Egypt may have delayed recording them.

The pattern of birth also suggests the Egyptians used some form of ancient contraceptives.  This degree of tightly patterned conception strongly indicates some form of contraception, researchers commented, noting that ancient Egyptian medical texts tell of several methods that they believed acted to prevent pregnancy.

For example, contraceptive recipes from the Kahun Medical Papyrus, dating back 3,800 years, included crocodile dung and honey in their ingredients.  It isn’t clear from the surviving papyrus exactly how women used the contraceptive.  

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