Audio News for July 18th to July 24th

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

Peruvian record-keeping system is much older than thought


Our first story is from Peru, where a refined arrangement of knots and strings, found on the site of the oldest city in the Americas, indicates that ancient Peruvians developed their unique record keeping system much earlier than once thought. Archaeologists say the string collection, known as a quipu (KEE-poo), indicates ancient Americans were expert communicators thousands of years earlier. Until now, the oldest known quipus, often associated with the Incas, dated from about AD 650. Dr Ruth Shady, an archaeologist leading investigations into the Peruvian coastal city of Caral (cah-RALL), says quipus were among a remarkable group of articles discovered at the site, which is about 5000 years old. The quipu, well-preserved brown cotton strings wound around thin sticks, was found with a series of offerings including mysterious fiber balls of different sizes wrapped in nets and reed baskets. According to Dr. Shady, it dates from the period of Caral and was found in a public building. It was an offering placed on a stairway of the building when they decided to bury it with a new floor, in order to build another structure on top. Pyramid-shaped public buildings were being built at Caral at the same time that the Saqqara pyramid was going up in Egypt. Shady says no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which deciphered the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, have yet been found to fully unlock the language of the quipus. But she says their existence points to a sophisticated, organized society where information like production, taxes and debts were recorded. They came up with their own system because, unlike cities in the Old World, which had contact with each other and exchanged knowledge and experiences, this city in Peru was isolated in the Americas, and advanced alone. Caral's arid location at an altitude of 3500 meters has helped to preserve its treasures, like piles of raw cotton, still uncombed and containing seeds, though turned a dirty brown by the ages, and a ball of cotton thread.

Christian catacombs in Rome arose from Jewish tradition


In Rome, the catacombs are intricate labyrinths of burial chambers that were built roughly between the third and fifth century AD. They are considered among the most important relics of early Christianity. But a recent study of a Jewish catacomb in Rome finds that it was started a century before the oldest known Christian versions. In addition to the 60 Christian catacombs that have survived in Rome, there are two Jewish catacombs, which are distinguishable by the decorative artwork and inscriptions that were used. According to Leonard Rutgers of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Jews were buried only with Jews and Christians only with Christians. But the fact that the catacombs are all constructed with similar layouts and architecture suggests a common origin. Rutgers and his colleagues have used radiocarbon dating to show that the Jewish Villa Torlonia catacomb was begun in the second century AD, perhaps even earlier, making it the oldest known of the Roman catacombs. According to Rutgers, the Roman pagans largely practiced cremation up until the second century, then, for some unknown reason, they started burying their dead in family tombs, not catacombs. The Roman Jewish community, which dates back to the first century BC, would have likely chosen to bury rather than cremate their dead. The same would have been true for the early Christians. Perhaps because of a scarcity of land, these groups may have begun excavating the soft volcanic rock outside the city walls. Some of the catacombs extend for hundreds of yards and have multiple levels. Bodies were placed in niches, called "loculi" (LOCK-you-lee) in Latin, which were carved out of the walls. Rows of these loculi extend from floor to ceiling. Although an exact number is not known, thousands upon thousands of tombs line the hundreds of miles that make up Rome's underground cemeteries. Rutgers' team carefully extracted pieces of charcoal from the layer of lime used to seal tombs in Villa Torlonia. The charcoal, which was burned to convert limestone into lime, is essentially the only organic material that remains in the catacombs. The dating of charcoal from several tombs shows a range of ages, with the earliest near the catacomb entrance, becoming progressively later as one goes deeper down the long, dark corridors. Regardless of catacomb age, Rutgers said that the larger point is that Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully for centuries and clearly influenced each other's cultures.

Child sacrifice found in Aztec temple


Our next story is from Mexico, where archaeologists digging at an Aztec temple say they've found a rare child sacrifice to a war god, a deity normally honored with the hearts or skulls of adult warriors. The sacrifice was found at Mexico City's Templo Mayor ruins dating some time around 1450, in a grim cornerstone ceremony to dedicate a new layer of the building, according to archaeologist Ximena Chavez of the National Institute of History and Anthropology. Chavez said there was no reference to child sacrifices to the war god Huitzilopochtli (WHE-tzee-low-POHtch-tlee) in accounts written by the Spaniards after the 1521 Conquest, showing the need for more digs to discover more about the long-controversial subject. Some researchers say the Spaniards exaggerated accounts of human sacrifices by the Aztecs to justify their own vicious occupation; but archeologists now say they need hard physical evidence to decide the truth. According to Chavez, they are finding things that writers of the earliest accounts did not mention, possibly because they were writing about things they didn't personally witness. The child is unique because it is the first child dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. The discovery was also unusual because the child's body was found whole, and accompanied by whistles, collars, ankle bracelets of shells and copper bells - details normally reserved for honorific burials. Researchers are still working to determine with certainty the sex, age and cause of death of the child whose skeletal remains were found in the test trench. Chavez said the child's killing had to be understood in the context of Aztec beliefs. In recent years, archaeologists have found mounting physical evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts of human sacrifices in substance, but which indicates that some Spanish accounts exaggerated the number of victims.

New find from Pompeii is 20-piece "place setting"


Our final story is from Pompeii, where decorated cups and fine silver platters were once again polished and on display today as archaeologists unveiled an ancient Roman dining set that lay hidden for two millennia in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. According to Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, head of Pompeii's archaeological office, archaeologists found a wicker basket containing the silverware five years ago, in the ruins of a thermal bath near the remains of the Roman city. The basket was filled with the volcanic ash that buried the city when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. When experts X-rayed it, they saw the objects preserved in the ash, which killed thousands of people but kept the town almost perfectly preserved, providing precious information on domestic life in the ancient world. Conservators have spent the last five years extracting and restoring the 20 pieces of silver that were left behind by their owners as they fled the eruption. During the following months, researchers will study the set and hope to learn more about the city's economic status at the time of its destruction. The pieces will then go on display in 2006 at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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