Audio News for May 19th to May 25th, 2013

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 19th to May 25th, 2013.


Copper coins may lead to re-write of Australian history

Original Headline:  Coins key to rewriting the history of Australia


Our first story is from Australia, where copper coins and a 70-year-old map may lead to a discovery that could rewrite Australian history.

Australian scientist Ian McIntosh, Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University in the United States, plans an expedition in July to revisit a location where five coins were found in the Northern Territory in 1944 that have proven to be 1000 years old.  This find opens up the possibility that sea travelers from distant countries landed in Australia much earlier than we all thought.

In 1944 during World War II, after Japanese bombers attacked the northern Australian city of Darwin, the uninhabited Wessel Islands off Australia's north coast had become a strategic position to help protect the mainland.  Aussie soldier Maurie Isenberg, stationed on one of the islands to operate a radar station, spent his spare time fishing on the tranquil beaches.  While sitting with his fishing rod, he discovered five coins in the sand.  Not having a clue where they could have come from, he pocketed them and later placed them in a tin.  In 1979, he rediscovered his find and decided to send the coins to a museum to get them identified.  He marked an old colleague's map to remember where he had found them. They proved to be 1000 years old.

The coins raise many important questions: How did 1000-year-old coins end up on a remote island beach off the northern coast of Australia?  Did explorers from distant lands arrive on Australian shores long before James Cook declared it "terra nullius" in 1770 and claimed it for the British throne?

We do know already that Captain Cook was not the first European in Australia.  The Spaniard Luiz Vaez de Torres in 1606 discovered the strait between Papua New Guinea and Australia, later named Torres Strait in his honor.  That same year, a Dutch explorer, Willem Janszoon, reached the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, closely followed a few years later by another Dutch seafarer, Dirk Hartog.

McIntosh and his team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists, and Aboriginal rangers say that the five coins date back to the 900s to 1300s.  They are African coins from the former Kilwa sultanate, now a World Heritage ruin on an island off Tanzania.  Kilwa was once a flourishing trade port with links to India in the 13th to 16th centuries.  The copper coins were the first coins ever produced in sub-Saharan Africa and, according to McIntosh, have only twice been found outside Africa: once in Oman and Isenberg's Australian find in 1944.

Archaeologists long have suspected that early maritime trading routes once linked East Africa, Arabia, India, and the Spice Islands even 1000 years ago.  Admittedly, the coins could have washed ashore after a shipwreck.  McIntosh wants to clear up some of these mysteries during his planned expedition to the Wessel Islands in July.


Alarm over fate of Roman site in the Nile Delta

Original Headline:   The battle for Egypt’s ancient Roman site, Antinopolis


In Egypt, leading archaeologists have denounced the poor state of conservation of the Roman remains at Antinopolis, the city built by the emperor Hadrian, who ruled Rome from AD 117 to 138.  The revolution that swept through the country in 2011 and the subsequent exit of its president, Hosni Mubarak, have affected the security and conservation of many historical sites in Egypt, especially those that are far from major city centers.  Antinopolis, located near the Nile over 30 km south of the nearest large town of Minya, is a perfect target.

Until recently, the Roman hippodrome there was still intact, although now swallowed by the ever-expanding cemetery for the neighboring small town called Sheikh ‘Ibada.  Out of the four hippodromes built by the Romans in Egypt, this was the only one that survived.  Large areas of the site are slated for redevelopment and parts of the ancient necropolis on the north side already have been converted into farmland.  

Rosario Pintaudi, an Italian archaeologist from the Vitelli Papyrological Institute in Florence has raised the alarm and involved other leading archaeologists, such as Jay Heidel, from Chicago University’s Oriental Institute, to bring the issue to the attention of the Egyptian authorities.  Pintaudi claims that, thanks to American involvement, he obtained a meeting with Mohammed Ibrahim, the minister of antiquities, who only promised to address the matter when he realized that a nearby temple, built by Rameses II, is also under threat.  According to Pintaudi, it’s a battle.  Groups of children, armed with spades, dig out artifacts and sell them.  Foreign researchers are not popular there.

Raymond Johnson, the director of the archaeological mission from the University of Chicago in Luxor, is highly alarmed.  He reports that, after the meeting with the minister, the authorities increased the number of guards, but many of them are from the same families as those that pillage the site.

A vast expanse of ancient ruins, Antinopolis extends eastward from Sheikh ‘Ibada, and much of the Roman wall that encircles the ancient city still is visible.  Antinopolis has been an important source of artifacts from Egypt’s early Christian period, many of which now are housed in antiquities museums around the world.


Mexican cave paintings spark wonder and puzzlement

Original Headline:   Cave paintings in Mexico: Carvings uncovered in Burgos


Moving on to Mexico, archaeologists from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History have found 4,926 well-preserved cave paintings in the northeastern region of Burgos, in Tamaulipas state, immediately south of Texas.  The images in red, yellow, black and white depict humans, animals and insects, as well as skyscapes and abstract scenes.  The paintings are present in 11 different sites, but the walls of one cave are covered with 1,550 scenes.  The researchers presented these findings during a recent meeting on historic archaeology in Mexico’s National Museum of History.

The area where the rock art is located previously was thought not to have been inhabited by ancient cultures.  The paintings suggest that at least three groups of hunter-gatherers dwelled in the region’s San Carlos mountain range.

The researchers so far have not been able to date the paintings, but they hope to chemically analyze the paint to find out their approximate age.

According to archaeologist Gustavo Ramirez from the National Institute, the research team has not found any ancient artifacts linked to the pictographs.  Because the paintings are on ravine walls, and in the rainy season the finer sediments  wash away, all that is left behind is gravel.

In one of the caves, the field team found depictions of the atlatl, a prehistoric hunting weapon that had not yet been seen in other rock arte in Tamaulipas.

According to Ramirez, the paintings are considered highly important because they document the presence of pre-Hispanic peoples in a region where many believed no people lived.  Another archaeologist involved in the study, Martha Garcia Sanchez, noted that very little is known about the prehistoric cultures that dwelled in Tamaulipas.  She commented that Native hunting and gathering people here escaped the Spanish rule for 200 years because they fled to the San Carlos mountains, where they had water and could subsist on plants and animals available in that area.


New emphasis on ancient civilization in Bahrain

Original Headline:  Bahrain digs unveil one of oldest civilizations


Our final story is from the small island country of Bahrain, where excavations at an archaeological site are shedding light on one of the oldest trading civilizations.  

Despite its antiquity, comparatively little is known about the advanced culture represented at Saar.  The site, thought to represent the mysterious Dilmun civilization, was the topic of discussion at a conference in Manama, the Gulf nation's capital, organized by the UN's educational, scientific and cultural body, known as UNESCO.  The meeting was devoted to wide-ranging debate on heritage tourism; Bahrain is a UNESCO regional headquarters and one of its key attractions is an abundance of ancient sites.

At Saar, named after the closest modern village, a Bahraini archaeologist patiently explained to a group of workers how to stabilize a low wall in a state of near collapse.  This meticulous maintenance of the archaeological settlement marks a turning point in the way Bahraini specialists are dealing with the vast store of historical remains on the island.  According to Salman al-Mahari, the Bahraini archaeologist in charge, the Saar settlement divides into two: a residential zone and, at a small distance, the cemetery where the inhabitants buried their dead.  
He explains that this site has provided a lot of information about daily life.  It has enabled scientist us to compare finds made here with objects unearthed at other locations on the island.  The data show that this city and graveyard date back to the early Dilmun period in the third millennium BC.  

Dilmun, one of most important ancient civilisations of the region, was a hub on a major trading route between Mesopotamia - possibly the world's oldest civilisation - and the contemporary Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia.  Researchers believe that Dilmun had commercial ties with other ancient sites as well, including Elam in Oman, Alba in Syria and Haittan in Turkey.  

The team at Saar now is preserving what has been found to ensure that the historical findings are made publically accessible.  Al-Mahari notes that for 4,000 years, this site was underground, so it was sheltered.  Now, after excavation, it is exposed to the elements.  Researchers have no immediate plans to carry out further excavations.  Instead, they want to protect the site and to interpret what they have unearthed.

The Saar site is far from being the most significant representative of the Dilmun era..  On the northern tip of the island, archaeological expeditions have uncovered seven successive levels of settlements at the fort of Bahrain. Under the oldest and most extensive part of the fort, excavators have unearthed three consecutive Dilmun cities as well as a Greek city dating back to 200 BC.  The site is impressive: the outer walls enclose an area of several hundred square metres.  At its centre lie massive carved stones marking the entrance and walls of a chamber containing an altar once flanked by copper-faced pillars.  Next to it is another structure where the presence of blackened animal bones and charred earth suggest a chamber for sacrifices to the gods.  On the other side of the central altar, a flight of carved steps leads down to a pool: a deep, stonewalled well built over one of the numerous underground springs where one of three principal Sumerian deities - Enki, the water-dwelling god of wisdom - supposedly lived.

The abundance of sweet water flowing from springs, which still supply the island with much of its drinking water, was one of the cornerstones of Dilmun.  The island was an oasis of fertility in ancient times in a mainly desolate region. This could have given rise to a legend that Bahrain was the biblical Garden of Eden.  But as Abdullah Hassan Yehia, the keeper of the Fort of Bahrain, explains, although Dilmun was famed for its vegetable production, the fertile nature of the island encouraged more than just agriculture.  Strong evidence points to religious practices and beliefs that can be compared with those in other advanced societies of the time, such as Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.  Belief in the after-life seems clear, as the dead often are found with possessions such as tools, food, drinking vessels, weapons, and gold.   According toYehia , the Dilmun merchants had a monopoly of trade in copper, a precious commodity shipped from the mines of Oman to the cities of Mesopotamia.  However, he debunks the theory that prehistoric inhabitants of the Arabian mainland used Bahrain as a cemetery.  The island has approximately 170,000 burial mounds covering an area of 30 square kilometers or 5% of the main island area.
The majority of the burial grounds date back to the second and third centuries BC, but some are as recent as 2,000 years old.  The oldest and largest burial mounds, referred to as the Royal Tombs, measure up to 15 meters in height and 45 meters in diameter.

Archaeologist Al-Mahari agrees that a number of large population centers existed on the island and calculates that a significant number of deaths of both adults and children would have required burial here.  

This sort of debate is exactly what Khalifa Ahmed Al Khalifa, assistant director of programs at the Arab regional Centre for World Heritage, is keen to encourage.  In his view, this is time to make the extraordinary artifacts from long ago available to the public.  A great deal of academic work has taken place over the past decades, creating a mass of collections and information that needs to be simplifid and interpreted so that local people and international visitors can grasp the importance of Bahrain’s heritage.  While academic research continues about life 4,000 years ago in Dilmun, with an emphasis on trade, diet, gods, pottery and other industries as well as local burial customs, the official focus now is to make this work and its results interesting to the layperson.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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This is Rick Pettigrew and we’ll see you next week!