Audio News for November 10th to November 16th

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 10th to November 16th.

Honduras find shows expanded Olmec presence

Our first story is from southeastern Honduras, where human remains believed to date from the ancient Olmec civilization have been found in the southeastern region. Authorities say this suggests the influential culture extended farther than previously thought. An expert at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History said it appears to be the first time Olmec remains have been found outside the Mesoamerican corridor that reaches from Mexico to central Honduras. Four skulls, various bones and 10 artifacts dating back to 1500 BC were found on a mountain near the border with Nicaragua. This is the first time bones have been found in Honduras with the Olmec’s characteristic skull deformation, which they considered a sign of beauty. Olmec culture originated in Mexico and extended to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Honduras. Many cultural and religious elements of Mesoamerican civilizations have Olmec roots, including the Aztecs and the Mayans. Olmec pottery has been discovered in northern Honduras, but not human remains. Southeastern Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are considered part of an intermediate area influenced by the culture of the Andes. Conclusions so far are preliminary, as carbon and DNA tests are yet to be conducted.

Ancient Egyptian drought may have ended the Old Kingdom

A group of scientist believes they have confirmed that climate was the reason the world's first great civilization crumbled and plunged into a dark age that lasted more than 1,000 years. Research into ancient geology and sediment sequences has produced data that links the demise of the Egyptian Old Kingdom with decades of drought. The research team focused on the layers of sediment at the source of the Blue Nile, in Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia. Some of the theories for the collapse of the world's first great dynasties have included political conflict and an invasion from Asia. But most historians believe significant drops in the level of the Nile prompted the initial breakdown, over the course of two or three decades. The annual floods of the Nile were crucial for irrigating crops. Texts from the period say that the famine was brought about by the failure of the floods, but there has been little scientific proof of this. Other scientific studies have shown a short-lived but pronounced decline in rainfall and reduced water-flow around 2150 BC over an area that extended from Tibet to Italy. After drilling 36-foot bore holes in the lake bed, the team discovered that lake sediments had given way to drier soils 14 feet down, showing that the lake, usually around 42 feet deep, was at best shallow and at worst completely dried out. Given that sediment is estimated to fill lakes at an average of 1mm a year, the drought evidence correlates with the end of the Old Kingdom era, approximately 4500 years ago. The Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza are among the only remaining legacies of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from 2575 to 2150 BC. The destruction of the pharaohs' power and the collapse of central government had followed 1000 years of cultural advancement, with its characteristic architecture, literature, and art. The famine that followed the drought was so severe that there is evidence people violated the royal dead. The science team hopes their data will establish whether the same could happen today, and help governments to prepare for future extreme weather conditions. The team is now preparing to radiocarbon date the samples at a laboratory in Florida for final confirmation of their age, and planning follow-up seismic studies next year.

South Africa will shed new light on old shipwrecks

In South Africa, a major archaeological study is about to start on the 1,800 miles of coastline following the launch of the country's first long-term underwater heritage survey. From centuries-old shipwrecks to ancient Stone Age middens and fish traps, South Africa's rugged and dangerous coastline is a treasure-trove of historical and archaeological potential. Yet little scientific information is available on the exact location and condition of these valuable heritage sites, and the information they contain on the economics, politics and daily life of the country's maritime past. The survey team is comprised of four archaeologists, three of whom specialize in maritime archaeology. One of the unit's main tasks will be to produce an inventory of South Africa's underwater heritage resources, including details of the more than 2,700 historical shipwrecks scattered along the country's coastline. The survey will be examining a number of very important shipwrecks along the South African coast, including the wreck of the troopship HMS Birkenhead, which struck a rock off Danger Point on the Cape coast in 1852. The disaster, in which 445 died, gave rise to the famous maritime tradition of "women and children first". Another is the oldest-known wreck in South African waters, called the Soares wreck by archaeologists, after the Portuguese admiral who commanded the fleet of which the vessel was part. The ship sank in 1504 off Mossel Bay, and little is known about it. There are also thousands of Stone Age coastal middens, essentially piles of discarded shells and bones, left by earlier hunter-gatherer inhabitants. The middens are of great archaeological importance; some have yielded evidence of modern human activity from nearly 100,000 years ago. Besides scouring archival sources for information, the team also plans to tap the oral history of people in various parts of the country. This approach, they say, could yield useful information on sites and material.

Ancient Greek play resurrected from the dead -- literally

In our final story, an ancient play is to be staged for the first time in more than 2,050 years after fragments of the text were found stuffed in an Egyptian mummy. Cyprus's national theater company plans a modern-day world premiere of Achilles, a play by Aeschylus (ES-ke-les) on the Trojan War. The play will be performed in Cyprus next summer, then in Greece. Scholars had believed the work to be lost forever when the Library of Alexandria burned to ashes in 48 BC. In the last decades archaeologists found mummies in Egypt that were stuffed with papyrus, containing excerpts of the original plays of Aeschylus (ES-ke-les). Drawing on references to his Achilles trilogy by other ancient playwrights and the recently discovered papyrus texts, the Theater Company and researchers believe they have the closest possible adaptation of Aeschylus's masterpiece. The play revolves around Achilles, the apparently invincible Trojan warrior who was killed by Paris with a poisoned arrow at his only weak spot, the heel. The story recounts the warrior's many brushes with death and his slaying of Hector, son of Priam (PRI-am), the King of Troy. People working on ancient texts knew that the play existed because it was mentioned in Aristophanes (AR-e-STOF-e-nez) and other writers of ancient Greece. Aeschylus (ES-ke-les), known as the Father of Tragedy, is said to have written some 90 plays, but only a handful of carefully preserved scrolls came down from ancient times. Filling mummies with discarded scrolls, or creating a paper mache mixture from them to encase a corpse, was a common practice in ancient Egypt, dating from at least the third century BC. To reconstruct the play, a Greek author and scholar worked on the project for a decade, using the ancient texts, excerpts of Homer's Iliad and references to the original play found in other plays by the Greek tragedians.

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