Audio News for June 16th to June 22nd, 2003

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 16th to June 22nd.

Chinese tomb holds centuries-old wine

Our first story is from western China, where archaeologists found five jars of 2,000-year-old rice wine in an ancient tomb. The slightly bluish-tinged clear liquor is still strong enough to give off its distinctive aroma. Over a gallon of liquid remains in the jars, allowing researchers their best opportunity ever to study ancient distilling techniques. Liquor made from rice or sorghum grains was a major part of ceremonies and ritual sacrifices in ancient China, and elaborate cast-bronze cups and decanters were made specifically for holding and serving wine. Along with the jars of rice wine, the recently opened tomb yielded several drinking vessels, along with bronze bells, more than 100 jade pieces and part of a human skull. The tomb probably belonged to a member of the nobility. It dates from the early Western Han dynasty, which held control over much of Mainland China between 206 BC and AD 25.

Rare iron coffin yields Civil War era information

In the United States, researchers at the Smithsonian had the unusual opportunity to study a rare iron coffin, one of six from a cemetery in Tennessee that was recently displaced by industrial development. The coffin’s occupant was thought to be Isaac Newtown Mason, a Confederate cavalryman who died in 1862. His headstone had long since disappeared, but his family’s descendants readily agreed to study by a team of physical anthropologists and forensic pathologists to help confirm the identity of the man within. Cast-iron coffins were used occasionally during the Civil War to prevent infection and odor during the slow transport of a dead person back to their family’s cemetery. Their cost, however -- around fifty dollars -- made them quite rare in a time when an ordinary wood coffin sold for only a few dollars. The iron coffin was shaped like a sarcophagus, with tapered ends, and was originally sealed shut. The researchers hoped that its airtight and watertight environment might have preserved the body inside. But they immediately found that at some point, the glass viewing plate in the face of the coffin had broken, letting water and soil seep in. Upon opening the coffin and removing the mud, the investigation disclosed the cavalryman’s remains, still clad in the tatters of a wool suit, a heavy coat, and his expensive leather riding boots. Osteological examination of the pelvic bones place his age at death between 35 and 39. Ridges on the bones, where muscles once attached, confirm that Isaac Newtown Mason spent much time on horseback, but did little other heavy physical labor. By the time of his death, he had only 21 teeth remaining of his original 32. Such early tooth decay was common among the well-to-do of the era, because they could afford sugar in their diet. Arthritis was beginning to mark one elbow and his spine. Despite the breaching of the coffin’s seal, enough tissues remained that samples could be taken, to determine if Mason smoked, used morphine, or was exposed to contaminants like arsenic, which was common at the time. His remains, however, in its resealed coffin, were shipped back to Tennessee, for reburial alongside his Civil War era relatives.

Tomb of Akhenaton's scribe tells about Egypt's rebel king

In Egypt, an Amarna period tomb has been discovered that could shed new light on a fascinating episode in Egyptian history, when the pharaoh Akhenaton (ak-NAHT-en) brought about a religious revolution by adopting one god above all others. The beautifully decorated tomb is located in Sakkara (sa-KAHR-ah). A cliff in this area was used for tombs by members of the Egyptian nobility during the New Kingdom, from the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries BC. These tombs had been reused centuries later as receptacles for mummified cats, and until now, archaeologists had assumed the area was of no other archaeological interest. Now, one has been identified as the tomb of a scribe who worked in the temples of Aton (AHT-en), both in Memphis and in Akhenaton’s (ak-NAHT-en’s) breakaway city of Amarna. The scribe, it turns out, had two names. The implication of the double name is that when Akhenaton (ak-NAHT-en) came to the throne, the scribe embraced the new religion and changed his name, but kept the old one as well, which referred to the traditional gods. His tomb can be dated to the second half of Akhenaton's (ak-NAHT-en) reign based on the form of the name of Aton (AHT-en) found in the inscription. In the tomb’s reliefs, the scribe's face is depicted in the same extreme fashion as that of Akhenaton (ak-NAHT-en) in his royal tomb. However, the traditional decoration style of the pre-Amarnian period has also been maintained, instead of showing scenes from everyday life like other Amarna officials. Another mark of the scribe’s dual allegiance is that several divinities besides Aton (AT-n) are portrayed, unusual for the period when the tomb was made. It may mean that the old forms of worship did not disappear under the rule of the one new god.

James Ossuary and Jehoash inscription are fakes

Our final story is an update from Israel, with disappointing news for scholars of New Testament times. Officials from the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced that an ancient stone box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," is a fake. The words of interest are an ancient forgery, added several centuries after the stone burial box, known as an ossuary, was actually made and used. An ossuary is a box, smaller than a coffin, in which a dead person’s bones were collected for final burial. The so-called James ossuary, decorated with relief carvings and inscriptions, attracted international attention several years ago, when its message was announced by the collector who owned it. The inscription was thought to be one of the oldest archaeological links to the historical figures of Jesus and his disciples. However, doubts as to its authenticity arose soon after the announcement. Experts have now determined that the inscription linking the ossuary to James, who was Jesus’s brother and one of his disciples, was actually added at a later time than the original parts of the decoration. The surface of the limestone ossuary has a patina, the natural varnish that develops after the stone is first carved. The James inscription was cut through this varnish, and its "patina" was actually created using a solution of hot water and chalk. Along with experts on scripts and writing systems, the investigating commission included scientists who analyzed the stone box itself. Their geochemical and microscopic studies concluded that while the limestone burial box is a genuine first-century artifact, the part of the inscription that refers to Jesus is a fraudulent later addition, probably carried out around the third or fourth centuries. In the same announcement, the antiquities authority also reported the final findings on a second fraud. Several kinds of evidence show that the "Jehoash (ji-HOSH) inscription," a stone tablet with fifteen lines of ancient Hebrew detailing improvements at the Temple, is a forgery. The "Jehoash (ji-HOSH) Inscription" purported to be around 2,800 years old, but contains numerous mistakes in grammar and used non-typical letter forms. It was also made of a metamorphic stone found in western Cyprus, not local sandstone as it appears. A single antiquities collector owned both the ossuary and the stone tablet. He has been under investigation for attempting to sell antiquities that belong legally to the State of Israel.

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