Audio News for August 4th to August 10th, 2003

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from July 28th to August 3rd.

Ruins show Caligula really was mad


In Rome’s ancient Forum, British and American archaeologists said yesterday they have uncovered evidence to suggest that the emperor Caligula (ca-LIG-you-la) really was a megalomaniac who believed he was a god. Some modern scholars have tried to recast him as a misunderstood, eccentric ruler. Now the downtown dig in the heart of ancient Rome has verified an element of the traditional account.

Modern scholars have suggested the ancient hostility toward Caligula could have been politically biased. For many years, they have taken a skeptical view of a claim by Suetonius (sway-TOE-nee-us) that he turned one of Rome's temples into his own palace vestibule and posed there as a god. Writing about 70 years after Caligula's assassination, the historian Suetonius (sway-TOE-nee-us) said the mad emperor extended part of his palace to make the temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, and often sat between the images of the divine brethren to be worshipped there with them. This was so outrageous an act for any Roman, historians have had great difficulty believing it, said the leader of the joint team from Oxford and Stanford universities. Earlier digs in the area of Caligula’s palace showed that a street had run between it and the temple in question, in both the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, either side of Caligula's reign. The theory, then, was that the emperor had merely built a bridge or covered walkway between the buildings. However, another ancient source suggested that the original street was rebuilt when Caligula's successor, Claudius, destroyed his blasphemous palace extension. Now it appears that Caligula’s detractors are right. The archaeologists have found no bridge, but rather evidence of walls, sewer lines, and a floor within Caligula's palace area that runs straight into the temple of Castor and Pollux. This suggests strongly that the ancient sources were right. Caligula did expand his ego, and his palace, into the temple of two important gods, in the effort to make himself divine.

Caligula was Rome's third emperor, child to a favored heir and a famous general. His outrages included notorious relationships with one or both of his sisters, and proclaiming his horse a Consul (CON-sel). At the age of 28, the blond, young, would-be god, Caligula, was assassinated by his Praetorian Guards. His uncle Claudius succeeded him and restored many things, including the street past Castor and Pollux’s temple.

Death of ancient alphabets tells a story

From Utah’s Brigham Young University, a trio of scholars proposes that as civilizations grow old and die, so do their forms of writing. The research is some of the first in which top scholars of ancient cultures examined the obsolescence and extinction of writing systems. Their research also showed that ancient writing systems are connected to the ruling classes and religions of the societies they are used to depict.

The cross-cultural comparison by these leading scholars of early civilizations shows patterns that could apply to all civilizations. Writing systems, the researchers report, require a good deal of investment by societies to survive. There has to be a strong commitment to training young scribes, usually relating this to multiple functions like government or religious values. When those functions begin to fail, another script tended to come along that was more general in use.
Many scripts also 'die' when a powerful, centrally organized entity, like the Roman or Spanish empire, finds whatever the script is recording to be obnoxious and worthy of suppression, said the scholars. Bad associations bring them down. Competitor scripts come along. One of the worst fates for a script is to be linked to a hated aristocracy. But it may be so strongly associated with an overthrown elite, that after they are gone, their script is just ignored. In early Christian times in Egypt, the new regime felt compelled to mutilate pictorial decorations in temples, but left alone the writing, presumably because literacy in that writing system had been extinguished with the previous ruling elite. Mayan glyphs were also generally spared in temples, but a Spanish bishop, Diego de Landa, famously burned most Mayan texts in the 1500s.

The modern-day alphabet does not appear doomed to the fate of the ancient scripts, the study found. In addition to being nearly ubiquitous, it is protected by its myriad uses by all classes of people and therefore is likely to be more successful than ancient writing systems linked to elites and specific religions.

Lost Inca stronghold a royal retreat

Working with new evidence and a trove of re-examined relics, many of them recovered from the basement of a museum in Connecticut, archaeologists have revised their thinking about the significance of Macchu Picchu, the most famous ``lost city'' of the Inca. The new interpretation comes more than 90 years after the explorer Hiram Bingham III bushwhacked his way to a high ridge in the Andes of Peru and beheld a fabulous dreamscape of the pre-Columbian past. Finding Macchu Picchu was easier than determining who had lived there. Bingham, a historian at Yale University, advanced three hypotheses -- all of them dead wrong.

The high-altitude site was not, as Bingham thought, the traditional birthplace of the Inca people, nor their final fortress in the struggle against the 16th century Spanish invaders. Nor was it a sacred spiritual center occupied by chosen women, the ``virgins of the sun,'' and presided over by priests who worshiped the sun god. Instead, Macchu Picchu increasingly appears to have been one of many private estates of the emperor, a favored high country retreat for summer stays. It was, archaeologists say, the Inca equivalent of Camp David, albeit on a much grander scale. The new interpretation, generally supported by other experts, is based largely on a study of 16th-century Spanish legal documents and a more detailed analysis of pottery, copper and bronze jewelry, tools, dwellings, skeletal remains and other material found in the ruins. Many of the artifacts were themselves a forgotten treasure. Shipped back to the states by Bingham, they were stashed in the basement of the Peabody (PEEB-uh-dee) Museum of Natural History at Yale, where they remained in their original boxes until researchers recently began exploring in their own museum. Now Bingham’s neglected artifacts have helped destroy his theories.

From the recovered pottery and Spanish documents, scholars estimate that the site was largely abandoned after only 80 years, late in Inca history. So much for the ancestral homeland. Documents previously studied even record a family’s suit to get its country estate back during the time of the Spaniards. So it wasn’t a sanctuary for virgins and priests, either. Now scholars who are re-examining both pottery and paper trail have theorized that the famous mountain town was one hundred percent country palace. Macchu Picchu’s layout suggests this: the largest residence is across from the temple, the dwellings and workshops are spread out around a great plaza. As early as the 1960s, an ethno-historian in Lima (LEE-muh) showed that Inca rulers had a chain of royal estates through the region. They served sometimes as royal residences, but mainly as administrative centers. Many of the estates were destroyed by Spanish soldiers searching for gold, and some were built over and modified beyond recognition. But remote Macchu Picchu, at an elevation of 6,750 feet, survived unscathed. Though called a ``lost city,'' Macchu Picchu was not a true city. Probably no more than 750 people ever lived there at any given time. The mix of sexes was about fifty-fifty, putting an end to Bingham’s most colorful theory, that Macchu Picchu was a city of virgins sacred to the sun. The sun was worshiped in Macchu Picchu, but apparently by ordinary Incans, who just managed by extraordinary engineering skills to build this small town so far away the Spaniards could not destroy it.

Update on German Stonehenge

In Germany, experts have hailed Europe’s oldest astronomical observatory, discovered in Saxony-Anhalt last year, as a milestone in archaeological research after the details of the sensational find were made public. The site, in the eastern part of Germany, is believed to be a monument of ancient cult worship, and has provided the first insights into the spiritual and religious world of Europe’s earliest farmers. It is estimated to date to as far back as 7,000 years ago, and certainly was in use during 5000 to 4800 B.C. If that is the case, it would make the Goseck (GO-seck) site the oldest-dated astronomical observatory in Europe.

It’s not just age that makes the Goseck (GO-seck) site unusual. Compared to the approximately 200 other similar prehistoric mound sites strewn throughout Europe, the Goseck (GO-seck) site has striking deviations. Instead of the usual four gates leading into the circular compounds, the Goseck (GO-seck) monument has just three. The walled compound also has an unusual formation of concentric rings of head-high wooden palisades. The rings and the gates into the inner circles become narrower as one progresses to the center, indicating perhaps that only a few people could enter the innermost ring. Researchers on ancient astronomy believe the site's southern gates marked the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstice and enabled the early Europeans to determine with accuracy the course of the sun as it moved across the heavens. The site’s construction would have allowed observations of celestial cycles, important for the timely sowing and harvesting of crops. Goseck (GO-seck) was also clearly the site of sacred cult practices as well. Human bones that have been found with telltale cut marks on them that indicate human sacrifice was practiced at the site. The Goseck site, erected by the earliest farming communities between the Stone and Bronze Age, came 3,000 years before the last construction phase of the megaliths of Stonehenge in Great Britain. Experts are also drawing parallels between the Goseck mounds and another equally spectacular discovery made in the region. The 3,600-year-old bronze Nebra disc was discovered just 25 kilometers away, and is considered to be the oldest concrete representation of the cosmos. The 32-centimeter disc is decorated with gold leaf symbols that clearly represent the sun, moon and starts. A cluster of seven dots has been interpreted as the Pleiades constellation as it appeared 3,600 years ago. Archeologists theorize that both the Goseck (GO-seck) observatory and the Nebra disc indicate that astronomical knowledge was tied to a mythological-cosmological world view right from the beginning. Archaeologists first took note of the location of the Goseck (GO-seck) site after aerial images taken in 1991 showed geometrically arranged earth mounds. But it wasn’t until last year that excavation actually got underway. Because the site is being used as learning material for students, it is only open for excavation for a limited number of weeks in the year. Next year a group of students from the University of California at Berkley will have a chance to dig in the site.

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