Audio News for June 9th to June 15th, 2003

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 9th to June 15th.

Roman barge loaded with archaeological information


Our first story is from the Netherlands, where a barge that once sailed the frontier of the Roman Empire will rise again. The eighteen-hundred-year-old freight-hauler is currently being excavated from the bottom of an offshoot of the River Rhine. It was first discovered in 1997, and is beautifully preserved. The original riverbed silted up over the sunken barge 18 centuries ago, but the wooden vessel has stayed waterlogged in the wet riverine sediments. This constantly wet, oxygen-free environment has preserved the vessel from decay. The barge measures 75 feet long and 8 feet wide, and is the first to be found with a cabin, which the captain lived in. The cabin contains an entire inventory of items that have been fully preserved - from the captain's kitchen, bed and chest, down to the contents of his cupboard. Since previous excavations have revealed the existence of a number of watchtowers and fortresses in the area, archaeologists believe that this barge will provide insights into how the Romans organized their defense systems. Evidence has been found that military soldiers were on board -- from the spiked shoes that they used, to lance points and axes, the standard equipment of the Roman soldier. The archaeologists plan to lift the barge this month and transport it to the National Institute of Maritime Archaeology in Lelystad (LE-le-stad). There it will be put into a huge tank containing a chemical mixture and soaked in the solution for about two years, in order to preserve the barge for permanent display.

Acoustics provide a tape measure for underwater archaeologists


In the United States, David Mindell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is on the side of the archaeologists when it comes to non-invasive exploration. His latest invention to help them do their work more precisely is a wireless sonar system that can map the seafloor thousands of feet below the surface, where divers and global positioning system equipment cannot go. The device is operated from a laptop, and it's good to the cubic centimeter. Dr. Mindell has just returned from test of the system in the turbulent waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where the Monitor sank in 1862. He reports that the device worked well. In a month he will take the equipment to the Black Sea and then the Mediterranean to explore several sites, including a spot off the coast of Israel near Ashkelon, where two Phoenician vessels sank in 1,300 feet of water around 750 B.C. Dr. Mindell's device will be lowered to the seafloor at the shipwreck sites and will survey each site using a remotely operated underwater vehicle bristling with cameras and other equipment. The wireless sonar system will provide a precise electronic grid for locating parts of the ship and other objects, as good as, or better than, a physical grid of strings on land. The remotely operated vehicle patrols back and forth in narrowly spaced parallel lines, capturing images of the objects on the bottom and determining their location on the grid. At the site of the Phoenician shipwrecks, many ancient ceramic storage vessels, or amphorae, lie on the ocean floor, protected by the 1,300-foot depth from both scavenging divers and strong current. Previous work has suggested that more artifacts may lie beneath the sediment. Dr. Mindell’s sonar device will penetrate the sediment with a powerful pulse of ultrasound twice a second, and bounce back acoustic signals that are converted to images. The pulses can travel about six feet into the bottom, a useful distance for revealing small objects.

Chinese emperor’s tomb will remain a mystery


From China, a two-thousand-year-old mystery continues within the tomb of China's first emperor. The site of the unexplored grave lies among the farm fields east of Xian (shee-AHN), where Qin Shihuangdi (Chin Shee-hwong-dee), who united China’s warring states in the third century B.C., was buried below an enormous funeral mound. The meaning of the mound was always common knowledge, but the discovery 29 years ago of the terra cotta warriors, who stood below it guarding the emperor’s burial site, came as a complete surprise. The emperor’s terra cotta army is world famous. But to this day, the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi (Chin Shee-hwong-dee) remains untouched by the spades of archaeologists. In the past 12 years, the Shaanxi (Shawn-She) provincial government has repeatedly sought permission from China’s National Cultural Relics bureau. However, the answer has remained the same: China does not have the financial and technological resources for such a vast undertaking. The mystique of Qin Shihuangdi’s (chin shee-hwong-dee’s) tomb is closely linked to the emperor's pivotal role in history. He united the warring states of China. In 231 B.C., as the king of Qin (chin), one of the seven major states of the time, he embarked on a remarkable series of campaigns, conquering his neighbors one by one. In only 10 years, China was created. The great emperor's political skills and ruthlessness were legendary. At the time it was built, his earthen burial mound purportedly rivaled the pyramids of Egypt in scope and ambition. Construction on the mausoleum began soon after he became king at age 13. It took 36 years to build the underground complex, and involved more than 700,000 laborers. During construction of the tomb, a gigantic pit measuring about 300 square yards was excavated in terraces to a depth of more than 100 feet. A subterranean palace was built at the bottom of the pit. Its size is estimated to be about 400 feet by 525 feet, equal to 48 basketball courts. Two massive, rectangular walls encircled the tomb area, as seen by the foundations that have been uncovered. After the burial vault was finished, side chambers and passageways were built. The pit was covered with earth and topped with the terraced mound. Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s (chin shee-hwong-dee’s) tomb is not the only treasure here. Nearby are the tombs of 11 emperors of the Han dynasty and 18 emperors of the Tang dynasty, flung out across the fields around Xian (shee-AHN). Archaeologists have also found the graves of 300 artisans and laborers who worked at this city of the dead. Many scholars believe the numerous mausoleums should be excavated first, to gather experience and knowledge before going for the grand prize of the great emperor’s tomb. It is common to hear them say that Qin Shihuangdi’s (chin shee-wong-dee’s) tomb will have to wait "one or two generations" for exploration.

Britain’s first cave art found


Our final story is from Britain where archaeologists have discovered 12,000-year-old engravings in a cave in Derbyshire. The depiction of the animals, which includes a pair of birds, is the first example of prehistoric cave art in Britain. The discovery has generated considerable scientific excitement, for it fills a major gap in the country's archaeological record. Modern humans appeared in Europe 45,000 years ago and quickly replaced the continent's occupants, the Neanderthals. One of the settlers' first acts was to create works of art, something no previous human species is believed to have done. The best preserved of these works are the galloping horses and charging rhinos painted on cave walls at Lascaux (la-SCOE) and Chauvet (SHO-vay) in France and at Altamira (AL-tah-MEER-ah) in Spain. But none has been found in Britain, probably because the climate has destroyed them, even though the British Isles were linked to the continent around this time, and the country was inhabited. Creswell Crags caves, the site of the find, are known to have been occupied in Paleolithic times. In the nineteenth century, archaeologists discovered a 12,000-year-old bone needle in one of the caves. It is in the same cave that the two engravings were discovered. Both are of a style similar to the cave art of France and Spain. As to their function, most experts believe they played a key role in strengthening tribal bonds. On reaching adolescence, youngsters would have been brought into caves lined with paintings of animals and lit with flickering candles and oil lamps.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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