Audio News for November 17th to November 23rd

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 17th to November 23rd.

Fate of Possible Columbus Ship Emerging from Stormy Waters

On the Caribbean coast of Panama, disputing parties soon may reach agreement on archaeological exploration of a shipwreck that might have been abandoned there by Christopher Columbus on his last voyage in 1503.  According to Carlos Fitzgerald, National Director of Cultural Heritage of the Panamanian National Institute of Culture, a cooperative agreement for further research is expected between the Institute of Nautical Archaeology from Texas A&M University and Marine Investigations of the Isthmus, a for-profit group that recovered the first artifacts from the wreck in 2001.  This agreement will clear the way toward initiation of a research program to investigate one of the earliest shipwrecks yet found in the Western Hemisphere from the period of European exploration.

This shipwreck has been the subject of a dispute between Marine Investigations, which contends it has a legal permit to conduct further archaeological work on the wreck, and the National Institute, which says that Marine Investigations has permission only to make a video documentary.  Because Marine Investigations has close connections within the Panamanian government, this dispute has the potential to create a national scandal in advance of nationwide elections to be held next year.  The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, with financially backing from German media corporation, Der Spiegel, has offered to lead an archaeological excavation of the ship in cooperation with Marine Investigations, which has no in-house archaeological expertise.  Such an agreement would have the blessing of the Panamanian National Institute and avert a head-to-head confrontation.  Archaeological exploration of the site may or may not confirm its connection to Columbus, but it would reveal priceless new information on ship-building technology in the earliest period of the Age of Exploration, according to Dr. Filipe Castro of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Underwater footage on the ship is included in a video about the site now posted on The Archaeology Channel home page.

Biblical clue found on ancient shrine

Our first story is from Jerusalem where scholars have uncovered an ancient inscription from the Bible carved in a fourth century monument. A barely legible clue - the name "Simon" carved in Greek letters - led to the discovery of the New Testament verse Luke 2:25. Archeological finds confirming biblical narrative or referring to figures from the Bible are rare, and this is believed to be the first discovery of a New Testament verse carved onto an ancient Holy Land shrine. A few Old Testament phrases have been found on monuments such as a passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans is laid into a floor mosaic into the ancient Roman city of Caesarea. The inscription declares the 60-foot-high monument is the tomb of Simon; a devout Jew who the Bible says cradled the infant Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah. But it's unlikely Simon is buried there. However, the inscription does back up what until now were scant references to a Byzantine-era belief that three biblical figures; Simon, Zachariah and James, the brother of Jesus, shared the same tomb. Although there is no evidence they were actually buried together. The six lines in the Simon inscription run vertically. The letters run together, are of different height, a little crooked and relatively shallow. The inscription says the monument is the tomb of "Simeon who was a very just man and a very devoted old (person) and waiting for the consolation of the people." Simeon is a Greek version of Simon. The passage is identical to the Gospel verse Luke 2:25, as it appears in a 4th-century version of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which was later revised extensively.

Easter Island's Decaying Statues Await Facelift

Off the coast of Chile at Easter Island, tourism and the environment are threatening the Moai (mo-AYE), the mysterious monolithic statues of the island. The enormous long faces of these best-preserved examples look down on their eroded brothers at outposts along the coast of Rapa Nui (RA-pe NOO-e), as the island is known in the native language. The statues that were never moved from the quarry were protected from destructive environmental and human sources that have destroyed other Moai (mo-AYE) and threaten to ruin the island's unique archeological treasure and tourism attraction. The impassive charm of the Moai (mo-AYE) and the double mystery over the origin of the carvers and the engineering methods they used to move the statues draws 20,000 tourists a year to this tiny triangle in the South Pacific, the most remote inhabited island in the world. There are many theories but no facts about how the people who carved these statues 400 to 1,300 years ago moved monoliths up to 18 feet tall and weighing up to 82 tons down the steep slopes to huge platforms near the shore, using only primitive tools. Caretakers of the cracked and crumbling Moai (mo-AYE) fear that a piece of history is deteriorating before their eyes. Good news came in early November when UNESCO awarded a German company a multi-million contract to treat the statues with chemicals starting in 2005. The chemicals are meant to prevent moisture passing through the porous volcanic tuff and to stop the widening of large cracks that are now forming rapidly. The German project comes in addition to an ongoing $600,000 Japanese program to weatherproof some statues. But some experts are taking a wait and see attitude on the German project, remembering broken promises of funds from other sources in the past. The ancient Rapa Nui (RA-pe NOO-e) people take the first blame in the history of damage to the statues, as they tore them down in tribal wars. Wind, rain, earthquakes and tidal waves did further damage. Europeans, who arrived on the island in the 1800s, hastened the deterioration, bringing sheep, horses and cows who stepped on and rubbed up against fallen statues and who still do so despite the fact that the figures are in a national park that protects most of the island.

Ghost fleet 'shows Pisa was an ancient Venice'

In Italy, the discovery of a Roman "ghost fleet" buried in mud just outside Pisa has led experts to conclude that the city was much like an early Venice. Archaeologists believe that traces of a community dating back to a pre-Roman era, may lie beneath the ships. The find first came to light five years ago when a bulldozer involved in work to build railway offices came across an ancient wooden ship 30ft below ground. A large archaeological dig was started that later found four ships dating from various Roman periods. The number of vessels, totaling 21, including what experts believes may be a Roman warship. They date from 200BC-AD500. The extraordinary finds have produced new data about Roman shipbuilding techniques, cargoes, classical trade and naval life. Various archaeological teams are analyzing material found, including navigational instruments, human remains, wicker baskets, clothing, oil lamps and scraps of leather. But equally important, the experts say, the discovery has caused the entire geography of the area, and its relationship with the rest of the Mediterranean, to be redefined. The archeological superintendent for Tuscany said the digs had not brought to light the existence of a mere port separated from the sea. Rather, they showed there had been a network of river and maritime landing places. The extraordinary state of preservation of the ships was due to a "traumatic sequence" of floods over the centuries after the 5th century AD. Depositing sand in such a way that the wood did not have time to oxidize. Once the ships were discovered, experts were able to establish that there had been a lagoon system, thanks to investigative work of the terrain earlier to protect the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The ships will soon be housed in a new museum in Pisa's old shipyards.

The First Vintage-A molecular archaeologist traces the prehistory of our most celebrated beverage

In final story, long before grapes grew in California, Bordeaux and Bourgogne, a sophisticated wine industry arose along the banks of the Nile. A molecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum believes these ancient wines can be made again. Patrick McGovern is tracing the long history of wine. From tombs, temples and palaces that date as far back as 5,000 years ago, archaeologists have uncovered clay amphorae stamped with seals that name not only the contents but also the region in which the grapes were grown, the year of production, often some indication of quality. Ancient Egyptians were actually relative newcomers to the wine industry. The earliest pharaohs imported wine from the southern Levant, and before the occupants of that region became winemakers, about 6,000 years ago, they no doubt imported wine from their neighbors. McGovern suggests, viniculture spread from uplands of eastern Turkey or northwestern Iran, crossing the Mediterranean to the ancient Greeks. How and when this happened is still a mystery. McGovern wields modern chemistry in his search of ancient vintage. In 1996, for example, his lab created a stir by finding dried traces of wine in 7,500-year-old jugs that hailed from the Zagros Mountains of present-day Iran. A few years later his lab identified some of the key constituents in a funerary feast held in about 700 BC. Now he is hoping to solve the biggest mystery of all, which is where and when the Eurasian grapevine - the species from which 99% of the world's wine is derived - was first taken under cultivation. The wild Eurasian grapevine grows across a broad geographic range. What will eventually help resolve the question, McGovern says, are ancient snippets of DNA from wine residues and shriveled raisins that have been excavated from archaeological sites throughout the Middle East. It wasn't until about 10,000 years ago, when people began settling into permanent agricultural communities, that winemaking could turn into an extensive enterprise. Through trial and error, experts speculate, the world's first vintners would have learned to manipulate both the yeast that turns grape juice into wine and the bacteria that turn wine into vinegar. Among the key ingredients in the fight against the latter were aromatic compounds found in certain tree resins. In the 7,500-year-old wine residues McGovern's lab identified in 1996, for example, was the clear chemical signature of resin from the terebinth tree, a type of pistachio that grows throughout the Middle East. Today only the Greeks still drink resinated wine, but the practice could become more widespread if McGovern's interest in re-creating ancient beverages catches on.

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