Audio News for May 26th to June 1st, 2013



Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 26th to June 1st, 2013.


South African site was center for shamans seeking rain

Original Headline: Shaman 'Rainmaking' Center Discovered in South Africa


In our first story, South Africa has discovered a towering rain control site, where shamans asked the gods centuries ago to open up the skies.

Located in a semiarid area of the country, near Botswana and Zimbabwe, the site of Ratho Kroonkop sits on a hill that contains two naturally formed deep pits in the underlying sandstone of the hill. The pits or sinkholes were created when water weakened and eroded the rock. When the scientists excavated the soil now filling one of these pits, they found the remains of over 30,000 animals, including the remains of rhinoceros, zebra and even giraffe.

According to researcher Simone Brunton, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town, what makes this site special is that every piece of faunal material found is in some way linked to rain control. The shamans, or religious leaders, would have ascended to the top of Ratho Kroonkop through natural tunnels in the rock. When they reached the top of the hill, they lit a fire to burn the animal remains as part of their rainmaking rituals.

The people who conducted these rituals were from the San, an indigenous group in southern Africa who lived as hunter-gatherers. According to Brunton, they were San rain controllers employed by the farmers to control the rain. The farmers, in turn, depended on their chief to make sure this arrangement went smoothly and that they did get rain.

Access to the rain-control site would have been strictly controlled. The shaman or ritual specialist was usually the only one directly involved with the actual doing of the rituals, and it was strictly forbidden for normal folks to go near the site. Located away from society, the site was seen as very dangerous and any interference would cause the gods to be angry.

Brunton’s team reported their findings in the journal Azania. Ethnographic research established the link between different animals found at Ratho Kroonkop and their role in rainmaking.
For example, rhinoceros remains the team found were mainly from the animal's lower extremities. People were taking the lower parts of the rhinoceros, in the region of the leg and thighs. These parts of the animal contain a lot of fat and meat, linked to potency and power. Other animals were sacrificed for their fat. Many San believed the fat contained a high concentration of supernatural potency. Fatty creatures found at the site include the rock hyrax, a bushpig and what might be the remains of an eland. In San cosmology, the eland was the most potent animal; according to Brunton, killing one would give the shaman immense power to ask the ancestors for rain.

Maria Schoeman, Brunton's supervisor and co-author of the study, originally surveyed the area as part of her doctoral work. Researchers originally were interested in the site because they found rock art at the bottom of the hill and decided to investigate it further.

Dating the excavated rock tank has proven difficult, as it contains a termite mound, and the insects may have moved some of the smaller objects. It's also possible that Ratho Kroonkop was used as a rain-control site before the rock tank was in use. 

Brunton said the history of the region, and the rock art at the site, may provide clues as to exactly how long the site was in use.

Hunter-gatherers possibly used the site for many years, as there is San rock art at the bottom of the hill. By AD 1000, farmers had entered the area. According to Brunton, they knew that the site was sacred, and would hire the San shamans to control the rain, but also left their own marks on the site by painting their own sacred animals over the San art.

New excavations hope to unravel the complexity of Cahokia

Original Headline: Archaeologists unearth more clues from ancient Cahokia civilization


In the United States, at its peak, the Cahokia Mounds was the epicenter of ancient Mississippian culture. In AD 1250, Cahokia had a population of 20,000, making it larger than London at that time. Cahokia had every marking of a large city, such as population density and surplus capital: everything but writing. Now, a group of archaeologists from the University of Bologna in Italy is unearthing the mounds, trying to learn more about how civilizations develop such complexity.

Davide Domenici, professor at the University of Bologna, has been visiting and studying these mounds for the past three years. According to him, usually archaeologists think that ancient North American societies were fairly simple, but Cahokia is actually an example of some kind of political complexity.

Archaeologists are careful about how they talk about Cahokia’s social context. Few indications at the site today allow researchers to classify the city’s political and social structure with any degree of certainty.

Can we call it a state; can we call it chiefdom? According to Domenici, we don’t know what to call it and we don’t know what it was. However, by studying this complexity, he hopes to help understand paths to political complexities that were quite different from those in other parts of the world.

Cahokia has the largest examples of earthworks north of Mexico, where Domenici has previously done much of his research. At its base, the 100-foot-high Monks Mound takes up over 14 acres; more than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

In 2012, the Italian archaeologists found what they believed were public buildings in the plaza west of Monk’s Mound. This year, the plaster and postholes they found during their most recent trip proves them right.

According to Domenici, a single posthole seems nothing, but when you put all together on a map, you start understanding them. His team of students have picked up at a site where researchers left off in the 1960s. The posts they uncovered are evidence of a western wall that enclosed a palisaded compound. Each identified structure is another element to help archaeologists map and decrypt Mississippian civilization.


Early Egyptians valued iron meteorites for religious reasons

Original Headline: Ancient Egyptians accessorized with meteorites


Researchers at Britain’s Open University and The University of Manchester have found conclusive proof that Ancient Egyptians used meteorites to make symbolic accessories.

The evidence comes from strings of iron beads excavated in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery, a burial site approximately 70 kilometers, or about 50 miles, south of Cairo. Dating from 3350 to 3600 BC, thousands of years before Egypt's Iron Age, one of the beads originally was assumed to be from a meteorite, based on its composition of nickel-rich iron. However, this hypothesis was challenged in the 1980s, when academics proposed that much of the early worldwide examples of iron use originally thought to be of meteorite origin were actually early smelting attempts.
Subsequently, the Gerzeh bead, still the earliest discovered use of iron by the Egyptians, was loaned by the Manchester Museum to the Open University and the University of Manchester's School of Materials for further testing. Researchers used a combination of the Open University's electron microscope and Manchester's X-Ray CT scanner to confirm that the nickel-rich chemical composition of the bead originated in a meteorite.

According to Project Officer Diane Johnson, who led the study, this research highlights the application of modern technology to ancient materials not only to understand meteorites better, but also to help us understand what ancient cultures considered these materials to be and the importance they placed upon them.

Meteorite iron had profound implications for the Ancient Egyptians, both in their perception of the iron in the context of its celestial origin and in early metallurgy attempts.

According to co-author Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at The University of Manchester, while we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal, the ancient Egyptians revered it as a rare and beautiful material that fell from the sky, holding some magical and religious properties. They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.

Meteorites have a unique microstructural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they travelled through space. This reseach is reported in a paper published in the journal, Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Georgia excavators dig into Civil War prison camp

Original Headline: Georgia Civil War camp turns up hundreds of artifacts


For our last story, we travel back to the United States. In three years of fieldwork, researchers have turned up more than 600 artifacts, from suspender buckles to railroad spikes, at the site of a Civil War prison camp in southeast Georgia that remained virtually undisturbed after it was abandoned in 1864.

Students and faculty from Georgia Southern University will dig deeper this summer at Camp Lawton, a sprawling prison where the Confederate army once held more than 10,000 captured Union troops. But first they're using cell phone chargers and a veterinarian's X-ray machine to help with the painstaking work of cleaning and preserving items already uncovered.

According to Lance Greene, an anthropology professor at the Statesboro campus who's overseeing the students working on the project, the huge amount of material they've recovered so far just scratches the surface. Opened in October 1864 near Millen, 50 miles south of Augusta, Camp Lawton was built to replace Andersonville, the infamously hellish and overcrowded Confederate prison camp. The new camp sprawled over 42 acres, roughly 1/4 mile on each side, yet it became a largely forgotten footnote in Civil War history, because Camp Lawton lasted just six weeks before its Confederate officers emptied the prison and fled to avoid the advancing army of Union Gen. William T. Sherman.

In 2010, a Georgia Southern graduate student stunned the researchers when he found remnants of Camp Lawton's stockade wall. Almost immediately, the site began yielding artifacts that help tell the stories of the soldiers stationed at the camp and their prisoners: a bronze buckle used to fasten tourniquets during amputations, a tobacco pipe with tooth marks in the stem, a cardboard picture frame folded and kept after the daguerreotype photo it held was lost.

Greene estimates that excavators have unearthed between 600 and 700 items at the site during periodic surveys in the three years since its discovery. Many of those treasures are metal items, such as small buttons, a large hammerhead, spoons and forks. All are covered in rust that needs careful removal so the artifacts are not lost to corrosion.

In a lab on campus, archaeology students are giving artifacts a bath in four plastic tubs filled with water, baking soda and a weak electric current from a cell phone charger to get rid of the rust. So much needs cleaning that Greene is running a fifth electrolysis bath at his home.

Meanwhile, a local veterinarian's office is donating use of its X-ray machine for looking inside rust-covered items to see how much of the original metal remains. If some small objects are almost entirely rust, a cleaning would destroy them. According to Matt Newberry, a graduate student in archaeology and anthropology who's working on the project, a technician at the vet's office helped the students tinker with the X-ray to find the best settings for examining suspender buckles and other small items. The veterinarians can change the settings to x-ray different-sized animals, such as a dog, cat, or bird. For archaeological artifacts, it turns out the best setting is the one for birds.

The Georgia Southern crew will begin five weeks of summer fieldwork at Camp Lawton in late June. According to Greene, teams will start digging deeper for the first time in areas where Union prisoners lived in crude huts and are believed to have abandoned most of their belongings when the Confederacy evacuated the camp. They also plan to search for Camp Lawton's barracks, officer's quarters, hospitals and other buildings that would have been built outside the prison camp's stockade walls.

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