Audio News for May 12th to May 18th, 2003

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.

Rare Mexican codex rediscovered


Our first story is from the United States, where a rare 16th century Mexican codex (CO-dex) or manuscript has emerged from a safety deposit box after 20 years. Experts are equating this surprising rediscovery with "finding the Dead Sea Scrolls in a rural town." The codex has a long and shadowy history. Painted on hand-crafted paper during the Aztec period, it recounts the details of a community’s history through pictorial depictions. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors (con-KEY-sta-doors) burned most of the Aztecs’ sacred books, records, poetry and history - including many similar codices. Only four ethnographic codices (CO-di-sees) remain, of which "this is the best and the most important," according to David Espinosa, project coordinator. This codex is one of a family of documents from the same town, called Cuauhtinchan (KWA-oo-tin-CHAWN). Of the four surviving Aztecan (az-TECK-an) codices (CO-di-sees), this is the largest, the most heavily illustrated and one of the most complex. In 1963, it was declared a national treasure of Mexico, but sometime after that, it disappeared from the public eye. The story of how it turned up where it did has yet to be told. Scholars from Harvard will join Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology to study, restore and publish their findings about the rare codex, and what it reveals about Mexican culture before the Spaniards' purge. Researchers plan to return the codex after study to Cuauhtinchan (KWA-oo-tin-CHAWN), the place where it was originally made.

Holland unearths Roman ship from Rhine River mud


From the Netherlands, archaeologists have revealed a surprisingly well preserved Roman military transport that sank on the banks of the Rhine over 18 centuries ago. Built around A.D. 180, the last year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the flat bottom barge is a rare find north of the Alps. The ship's 75-foot-long exterior is intact, as well as a masthead and iron nails. Empty of cargo when it sank, the ship is nevertheless a valuable find for its rare details of construction, and other remains. These include a decorated chest complete with lock and key, perhaps suggesting use by a paymaster who visited the many military camps and bases along the Rhine. The ship was built with an open bow for loading supplies, or possibly men. Near the stern, a roof covered a kitchen and the cabin, containing the carved chest and a small cabinet. The ship, along with its wooden mooring, was found in De Meern (de-meern) near what was once the site of a Roman military camp. The Romans first arrived in the region at the time of Julius Caesar, after 53 B.C., and the Rhine later became one of the Empire’s most important, and dangerous, frontiers. After Roman times, when the river changed course, the entire complex around De Meern (de-meern) was buried under a deep layer of mud, clay and sand, which has kept the ship from rotting over these past 1800 years.

Pre-Mayan city discovered in Honduras


In Honduras, ruins of a pre-Columbian city built before the rise of the Maya civilization have been discovered in a remote eastern region of the country. Named The City of Encounters, it lies in the mountainous Botaderos (BO-ta-DARE-os) region. Situated where two rivers meet and covering at least 12 acres, it appears to have been built in the pre-Classical or early Classical period between 300 B.C. and A.D. 300. The region was inhabited by Tawhakas (TAW-ha-kas) Indians, whose descendants still live in Honduras, although it is unknown which culture inhabited the site. The city’s remains include well-defined architecture, with remnants of three rectangular plazas, various mounds and small stone-encrusted pillars. Said Victor Heredia of Honduras’ Institute of Anthropology and History, "the society that lived there had a political hierarchy with a diversification of jobs. We are talking about a complex fiefdom or an incipient state." Eastern Honduras is home to the Mayan ruins at Copan, part of a civilization that extended from Mexico through Central America between A.D. 250 and 1000.


Italian catacomb illuminates life of Roman Jews


Our final story is from Italy, where 200 miles southeast of Rome, evidence of a past Jewish life is emerging from a catacomb. Workers at the site have cleared the site’s entrance and a labyrinth of newly exposed passageways that lead into an ancient underground maze. A seven-branched candelabra, the original symbol of the Jews, is carved into a slab found at a burial niche. The carving is as sharp and clean as if it were completed yesterday. The catacomb is only one of dozens of Jewish sites, artifacts, documents, rare books and manuscripts being discovered, analyzed and restored in southern Italy and Sicily. Historians associated with the excavation believe the catacomb may be the largest ever found in Western Europe. Hundreds of niches have already been cleared, although no bones remain in them -- either looted in past times, or reburied according to ritual law. What is striking is that the inscriptions on the burial slabs found thus far are almost all in Greek. There is little or no Hebrew. Where Hebrew is used, the characters mostly spell out Greek or Latin words. This gives a clue to the age of the catacomb’s use: up till the seventh century, both Greek and Latin were commonly used in this part of Italy. Assimilation to Greek and Roman culture is also suggested for the Jews who lived here. Documents indicate that Emperor Titus brought 5,000 captives to the region after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But hundreds more are thought to have settled here before and after that, simply because it was a prosperous crossroads of maritime trade. The excavation at the catacomb, along with other work by scholars and government authorities, is beginning to flesh out the largely unknown story of vibrant but long-lost communities of Jews that inhabited the region from Roman times to the end of the Middle Ages. Jews were expelled from southern Italy, known then as the Kingdom of Naples, in the 16th century.

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