Audio News for April 25th to May 1st

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I’m Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 18th to April 24th, 2005.

The return of the Axum obelisk brings more discoveries


Our first story is from Ethiopia, where scientists have discovered a major network of underground tombs and arches near the original site of an ancient obelisk.  The discovery was made in the past week during a surveying mission in preparation for the return of the final piece of the 1,700-year-old Axum obelisk from Italy.  Teams from the Paris-based UNESCO found the chambers using high-technology imaging equipment.  According to Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO's director-general, it is likely that some of the tombs identified through underground imaging are intact.  The Axum site was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.  The obelisk - a symbol of
African civilization - was stolen in 1937 under orders from Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.  UNESCO reports that the vast chambers, part of a royal necropolis predating the Christian era, are located underneath a parking lot built on the site in 1963.  Italian researchers are examining images and working to create three-dimensional models of the royal tombs.

Rediscovering ancient metalworking


The evidence for ancient metalworking in Britain is sparse, and now historians who recreated Bronze Age smelting techniques know why.  Their findings explain why, despite the discovery of 10 British mines dating from 2050 to 1500 BC, very few remains of actual metalworking sites have been excavated around the world.  For the study, students at the University of London's Birkbeck College conducted a number of smelting experiments, including the construction of crude furnaces, at Butser Ancient Farm Project in Hampshire.  According to Simon Timberlake, excavations director, one of the reasons for making these furnaces and for monitoring how they work after abandonment is to show how little archaeological record they might leave.  Such short-lived, once-only furnaces, particularly if they were dug out after use, might be difficult to detect archaeologically and even harder to interpret as such if found.  Timberlake's team constructed three types of possible early furnaces.  The first was a clay-lined hearth with air intake provided by homemade leather bellows and pipes, called tuyeres, made out of clay, straw, crushed flint grit, and sheep dung collected from a farm.  The second unit was similar, only it was not lined with clay, and was dug into the side of an enclosure bank.  The third and final furnace was the crudest of all.  Researchers simply put a rough clay dish at the bottom of a narrow hole with a tuyere inserted into one side.  As with the other furnaces, air intake was controlled by a homemade bellows, which this time was stuck into a tuyere.  They smelted both high-grade malachite and tin ore successfully in this furnace, preheating the hole with charcoal to dry it out and warm it, then adding the crushed cassiterite or malachite onto the top and finally piling fresh charcoal over the top.  The speed of combustion and the sealing of furnace gases were expedited by the addition of a "black hat" pile of unburnt charcoal or a piece of cut turf.  Timberlake and his colleagues found that malachite smelted at 800° Celsius, but copper and tin required temperatures higher than 1,000° C for the metal to pool.  No slag was produced at those low temperatures.  The clay and bellows would have eroded over time.  Any tiny bits of leftover metal would have mixed into the soil.  In short, the metalworkers' evidence naturally disappears.  John Prag, professor of archaeological studies at the University of Manchester and keeper of archaeology at the Manchester Museum, agrees with the team's findings.  Little, if any, of these processes were described by ancient authors, and therefore experimental archaeology of this kind when carried out in collaboration with research scientists is really our only way of discovering how early smelting was carried out.

Ancient seals tell of a Pharaonic mission to secure precious cargo


Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a number of rare Pharaonic seals of soldiers sent out on desert missions in search of red paint to decorate the pyramids.  According to Zahi Hawwas, Secretary-General of the Higher Council of Antiquities, the 26 matchbox-sized seals belonged to Pharaoh Cheops, who ruled from 2551 to 2528 BC and constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza, and show Pharaonic soldiers' ranks.  Over 50 pottery fragments bearing imprints from the clay and stone seals were found nearby in the region of the Giza pyramids.  Artisans at the time needed ferric oxide to decorate the pyramids as well as other funerary installations of the 4th dynasty, to which Cheops belonged.  The seals proved the official nature of the missions sent to desert regions.  According to inscriptions on the pottery pieces, the mission was made up of 400 men and a group of people whose job it was to cook during the journey.  Archaeologists also found a number of leather bags containing ferric oxide brought back by the mission.

Gardener discovers huge haul of Bronze Age artifacts


Our final story is from England, where a large haul of Bronze Age artifacts has been uncovered by a local gardener.  The 145 items, dating from about 800 BC, were found by Simon Francis as he landscaped the grounds of a house in Cringleford, near Norwich.  Norfolk County Council archaeologists say the haul is one of the largest and most significant they have known.  According to Curator of Archaeology Alan West, the items are in good condition and the more items we find the better knowledge we can develop of the era.  Since the first 135 items were found on Friday, archaeologists have revisited the site and found more, including a Viking brooch.  West reported that is very unusual to find items from two completely different eras all on one site.  The haul included axe heads, spearheads, sword parts, tools, and ingots.  Mr. West said the coroner would now decide if the find qualifies as treasure.  It is hoped the artifacts will  eventually go on public display.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I’m Laura Kelley and I’ll see you next week!