Audio News for April 7th to April 13th, 2003

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew

and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 7th to April 13th.

Archaeologists mourn looting of the Cradle of Civilization


Our first story is from Mesopotamia, known since 1919 as Iraq, where looters plundered the treasures of the National Museum in Baghdad in two frenzied days, with only an hours’ interruption by American troops currently working to cement their control of the country’s capital. Among the more than 17,000 world heritage treasures that have vanished, perhaps forever, are a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, the sculptured head of a woman from the Sumerian city of Uruk, a Ram in the Thicket statue from Ur, stone carvings, gold jewelry, tapestry fragments, ivory figurines of goddesses, friezes of soldiers, ceramic jars, and urns. The museum holdings, spanning 7,000 years of civilization, included tablets with Hammurabi's Code, one of the world's earliest legal documents, early texts describing the epic of Gilgamesh, and mathematical treatises that reveal a knowledge of Pythagorean geometry 1,500 years before Pythagoras. Assyrian reliefs from the ancient palace of Khorsabad, and the 4,500-year-old gold leaf earrings once buried with Sumerian princesses are among the missing art. Some of the valuable items might have been removed from the museum before the war for safekeeping, but there is no indication of where they could be. It is hoped that some may have been taken by Saddam Hussein for display in his private residences and survive there.

Iraq’s patrimony included many of the earliest records and most famous sites of the western world’s origins. From over 10,000 sites, including the resonant names of Babylon, Nineveh, Nimrod, and Ur, artifacts and records have documented the foundations of agriculture and art, city-building, law-giving, and literature. Estimates are that over 150,000 artifacts were stolen in the 48-hour rampage. The fate of the meticulous computer data files for the huge museum is as yet unknown. The computers were smashed, perhaps to hinder efforts to recover looted works, sources say, but the condition of backup disks is as yet unknown. Experts say the treasures will most likely be smuggled out for illegal sale to unethical collectors in the West, which is the world’s biggest market for looted antiquities. British authorities interviewed by the UK’s Independent said, "In terms of pure volume of illicit traffic, the smaller, often unpublished items such as coins, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, pottery, figurines, flint tools and bronze weapons are likely to dominate sectors of the antiquities market. They will probably end up at the art markets of Paris, New York, London and Tokyo." Archaeologists are hoping that the looted treasures will in time be recognized and recovered, but are fearful that many of them are so distinctive and precious they will be melted down, destroyed, or defaced to avoid detection.

American archaeologists, as well as the World Archaeological Conference, have urged the US military to take stronger steps to protect Iraqi's cultural treasures and to restore control of them to the local Department of Antiquities. Before the war, archaeologists and other scholars had alerted military planners to the risks, particularly looting, that the war could bring. After the Persian Gulf war of 1991, nine of Iraq's 13 regional museums were plundered. Of 4,000 pieces lost, British Museum experts report three or four have been recovered. The Baghdad museum was spared then because the end of war had left the government still in power and policing the city. The Archaeological Institute of America has long urged the US to honor the requirements of international art agreements, especially the1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property, in the Event of Armed Conflict. The US signed but did not ratify this treaty. American archaeologists and the British Museum are among scholars worldwide who have vowed to help Iraqi colleagues to try to recover in whatever way they can.

In comments last Friday on the looting in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "Stuff happens." A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Washington, D.C., reporters that no plans had been made to protect antiquities from looters. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that the US "will be working with a number of individuals and organizations to not only secure the facility, but to recover that which has been taken, and also to participate in restoring that which has been broken."
In breaking news, flames engulfed Baghdad’s National Library Monday, destroying an estimated thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts.

Physicist tracks natural causes of Exodus to new Mount Sinai location


In Britain, a Cambridge University physicist, Collin Humphreys, claims scientific evidence shows that the biblical Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the ten commandments, is located in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Taking a literal reading of the account in Exodus 19:18, Humphreys proposes that since the holy mount shook and emitted fire and smoke, it must have been an active volcano. His examination of ancient and modern records leads him to identify that biblical mount as present-day Mount Bedr (be-DUR) in northwestern Saudi Arabia, because there were no ancient volcanoes in the Sinai Peninsula. In a further redrawing of the conventional Exodus map, Humphreys suggests the Israelites left Egypt along a main ancient trade route, straight across the Sinai Peninsula to the northern tip of the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba (AK-a-ba). He endorses many of the natural explanations that have been suggested as causes for phenomenal events of the exodus story. The Nile’s turning to blood, for instance, means that toxic red algae killed fish; the dead fish forced a plague of frogs ashore; gnats and flies were drawn to the dead fish and frogs; the insects transmitted a virus that killed livestock. The plausibility of natural explanations, Humphreys concludes, bolsters the probability that the Exodus account is true.

German Stone Age dagger is preserved intact


A Neolithic dagger was recovered from the mud of a southern German lake where it was dropped five thousand years ago. The dagger is 6.5 inches long overall, with a stone blade 3 inches in length topped by a shaft fitted into a handle made from elder wood. The two parts are held in place with pitch. "It's the first time a complete dagger of this type has been discovered," said archaeologists. Analysis shows the finely worked flint knife was made in northern Italy. The handle did not rot because no oxygen penetrates the lake mud. Archaeologists said previous daggers had been found without any shaft. This weapon was finer-made and two times longer than a knife of similar age found with Oetzi (ET-zee), the mummified body of a Stone Age hunter found in the Oetztal (ET-stal) Alps in 1991.


Forensics may solve early American murder mystery


In the United States, an archaeological team exhumed skeletal remains from the grave of an 18th-century woman whose death during the Revolutionary War turned her into an early American icon. The 5-foot-tall marker says Jane McCrea was 17 when she was killed by Indians on the side of the British in 1777, but nearly everything about her including her age, appearance and cause of death, are open to historical debate. There's also speculation that she may be buried elsewhere. The top of a skull, small pieces of bone, coffin nails and shredded wood were uncovered. It was too soon to determine just whose skull they had unearthed, stated the team leader. An all-star forensics team taking part in the project includes a hair and fiber expert who helped identify the remains of the Romanov family. The forensics team will use DNA technology to try and confirm that McCrea’s identity, will work to estimate her age, height and cause of death, and use photographs of her skull to create a computerized reconstruction of her face. Some historians contend that news of her slaying in summer 1777 enraged the faltering American army, rallying them to victory over the British and their German allies at Saratoga. After the war, McCrea's image evolved from a young but nondescript frontier woman to a statuesque beauty with flowing, blondish hair. Artwork depicting her demise at the hands of two tomahawk-wielding Indians was popular in the 19th-century as the nation expanded westward and fought with various Native American tribes.

Ancient fortification found in southeast Arabia


In the United Arab Emirates, archaeologists in Ras Al Khaimah (raz-al-KA-mah) have discovered that a long wall known locally as "Wadi Sur," which was thought to be a flood barrier, is actually a medieval fortification wall, built up as a gravel berm with a mud brick-wall on top. The wall clearly shows the remains of about 50 round towers that were built along its top every 450 feet. The four-mile long, six foot-high barricade ran from Al Nakheel (al-NAK-heel) to the so-called "Queen of Sheba's Palace". A six-foot ditch in front of the wall added to its height and would have hindered attacks. No other defensive structures of the sort are known in southeast Arabia. It is thought that the wall protected the fertile palm gardens of Shamal (SHA-mal) and Nakheel (NAK-heel), which served the famous trading town of Julphar (jul-FAR) between the 13th and 16th centuries A.D. Excavations are planned to determine the age of the wall.

UC Berkeley's portrait of Plato is ancient artifact, not a fake, professor says


In our final story, a portrait of the Greek philosopher Plato is emerging from a century of obscurity to assume its rightful place in ancient history, thanks to a classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Stephen Miller has announced that his research and tests show the sculpture given to Berkeley’s anthropology museum in 1902 is not a fake. The herm, or marble bust of Plato on a pedestal, is a rare depiction of Plato not as a famous philosopher, but as a just and virtuous citizen, said Miller, who studies Greek and Roman archaeology and art. The story of the Berkeley Plato begins a hundred years ago in Rome, where a classics scholar purchased it for Phoebe Hearst - benefactress of the UC Berkeley museum - from a well-known antiquities dealer. Museum records from the time note that the herm's authenticity was doubtful. The major blow came in 1966, when a UC Berkeley graduate student studying Latin inscriptions inspected the writing on the statue’s base and declared it a fake. Miller now says the piece dates to approximately 125 A.D., and is a well-made replica of a Greek original from about 360 B.C. Miller’s curiosity began because the Berkeley Plato has a ribbon draping his head and shoulders, in a manner typical of the earliest Olympic awards, before crowns were given. Tests on the bust and pedestal by a laboratory in Athens prove that both are Parian (PAR-ee-an) marble, the stone of choice for ancient sculptors. The Parian quarry was exhausted in the late Roman period, and there are no examples of any later sculptures, copies or otherwise, made of marble from the island of Paros (PARR-os).

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