Audio News for June 7th to June 13th

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I’m Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from June 7th to June 13th.

Infrastructure decline may have ended Angkor's empire

Our first story is from Cambodia, where an international research team is re-writing the demise of the Khmer Empire.  After resisting invaders for years, Cambodia's greatest city and civilization, the temple-studded Angkor (ANG-kor), was dealt a deathblow with its final sacking in 1431.  Or so say the history books.  The team now thinks its end was set much earlier, from environmental failure and infrastructure breakdown, that they either didn't see coming until it was too late or that they couldn't solve even when they did see it. Angkor city, the capital of several Hindu kings who ruled over large swaths of Southeast Asia, flourished from the 9th to the 14th centuries, leaving a legacy of architectural splendor in its myriad of temples, including the country's cultural icon, Angkor Wat.  Project members are working on the theory the ancients created an intricate system of reservoirs and canals for irrigation, trade and travel, that began to silt up as the population grew and perhaps saw failures that caused flooding and water shortages.  Specialists say that lessons learned from this study might provided ideas for dealing with modern urban problems.  Seeking evidence for its theories, the Greater Angkor Project team is excavating waterways and digging up pottery and pollen grains.  Radar ground-images collected by NASA and photographs taken from an ultra-light plane are being employed to map the remnants of the ancient civilization, such as rice paddies, houses, shrines and canals.  In the past, archaeologists mainly focused on studying the intricately carved stone walls of Angkor's temples, which tell stories from Hindu mythology.  The current project is looking at housing, drainage, roads, and the daily life data. The Greater Angkor Project's first goal was to determine how far out Angkor city spread before trying to determine what led to its fall.  They learned the city area extended far beyond Angkor Thom, the 700-year-old walled city that houses Angkor Wat.  Angkor was home to about 750,000 people and covered some 386 square miles.  The city's economy was based on rice, and rice paddies spread along dozens of canals, at least one up to 12 miles long.  A system of reservoirs, canals and bridges was created to move people and goods and to ensure there was enough water to grow rice.  Angkor engineers had a system of three zones: catching water in the north, storage in the center, and dispersal in the south.  The engineers also created a man-made river to join two natural ones.  As Angkor's population grew, so did the strains on its intricate water system, the scientists say.  Signs of breaches and fixes to the water system are apparent, although it's hard to tell if they happened during the Angkor era.

Volcanic soils in Hawaii said responsible for powerful chiefdoms

In Hawaii, research published in the latest issue of the journal Science is showing how volcanic enriched soil gave root to the powerful chiefdoms of the islands.  When the first Europeans arrived in the Islands in 1778, they found a thriving, complex society organized into chiefdoms whose economies were based primarily on farming.  On three of the islands, the principal crop was taro, a starchy plant grown in irrigated wetlands where the supply of water was usually abundant.  But on Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, the main staple was the sweet potato, a more labor-intensive crop sensitive to seasonal rainfall.  It is believed that, by the late 1700s, sweet potato production had reached its limit.  As a result, the chiefdoms on Maui and Hawaii began aggressively desiring the taro ponds that flourished on other islands.  According to the international research team leader Peter Vitousek of Stanford University, pressure to find new sources of food may be one reason why Kamehameha, chief of the island of Hawaii, launched an invasion in 1795 that ended in his ultimate conquest of the entire island group.  The question that has long troubled anthropologists, ecologists and historians alike is: Why was sweet potato farming confined to just a few areas?  The answer, according to the research team, may lie in the soil.  The researchers conclude that volcanic eruptions on Maui and the island of Hawaii produced a handful of sites with soil nutritionally rich enough to raise large quantities of sweet potatoes.  This fact led researchers to suspect that there was something in the soil of these young volcanic islands that made them conducive to sweet potato cultivation.  The results of the study provide strong evidence that the early inhabitants had discovered a "sweet spot" of high soil richness, which received enough precipitation to yield vast quantities of sweet potatoes.  That rare combination of rainfall and fertile soil did not exist on Kauai, Oahu and Molokai, however.  The Hawaiians had pushed agriculture to its limits and to maintain the social order they were accustomed to, the chiefs had to go into a mode of aggressive action.  By the early 1800s, just a few decades after European contact, the remarkable agricultural system that once prospered on Maui and Hawaii had collapsed.  Most historians blame its demise on the introduction of human diseases, which caused a drastic crash in the Hawaiian population.  As a result, there were no longer enough people to work the labor-intensive fields, and as the population fell, the demand for sweet potatoes also declined.

Irish city bypass hits huge Viking town

In Ireland, it may be weeks before the Minister for the Environment announces recommendations for dealing with and possibly preserving what historians are calling Ireland’s first town.  The discovery of the Viking settlement, believed to date back to the mid-9th century, was found as preliminary work got underway for a city bypass.  The site, located near to the River Suir, is 1 mile long by a third of a mile wide and so far up to 3,000 artifacts have been found over a distance of 150 yards.  Early indications suggest that the complete original town of Waterford, founded by the Vikings, remains virtually intact, with dozens of streets and dwellings just under the soil surface.  Nails, weights, jewelry, silverware, weapons and some ceramics have been found along with some ship fragments.  From evidence found at the site, a population of 4,000 and a fleet of 120 Viking ships occupied the Woodstown site about AD 812.  The settlement began as a long port and that is what archaeologists originally thought the find was until further examination.  It is a “D” shaped fortification made by the Vikings to protect themselves and their ships from attack.  It was the typical fortress from which the Vikings raided the countryside.  Nearby construction of the railway demolished a mound in a field called ‘old fortress.’  The mound was found to contain a large number of bones.  All indications now suggest that this may have been a Viking ship burial, the only one found in Ireland.

Physics student proposes ancient complex machines in China

In our final story, a Harvard physics student believes distinctive spiral patterns carved into a small jade ring show that China was using complex machines more than 2500 years ago.  The ring was among the goods found in high-ranking graves from China's Spring and Autumn Period from 771 to 475 BC.  Most archaeological attention has focused on larger and more spectacular jade and bronze artifacts.  But Peter Lu identified the patterns on the small rings as Archimedes' spirals, which he believes are the oldest evidence of compound machines.  Simple machines that move in only one direction date back 5000 years, to the potter's wheel.  It took much longer to invent compound machines, which precisely convert motion from one kind into another.  Archimedes is sometimes credited with building a compound machine to move ships in the harbor of Syracuse in the third century BC, but the earliest well-accepted descriptions were by Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD.  Challenged to prove he was right, Lu built a spiral-carving machine around an old record player.  It resembles the bow drill that Boy Scouts traditional use to start fires without matches.  He wrapped a string tightly around the spindle on the turntable and attached its ends to a rod that ran between mounts on either side of the turntable.  Holes in the mounts held the rod so it could move back and forth along its length, but not sideways.  A stylus attached to the rod rested on the turntable. Moving the rod back and forth turned the turntable, so the fixed stylus wrote a spiral on the surface.  Lu admits the evidence is circumstantial but strong.  The rings date from at least 552 BC, and while there is no evidence of earlier spiral rings, Lu says nobody has been looking for them.

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