Audio News for September 12th to September 18th

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I’m Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 12th to September 18th.

Czech statue a hoax


Our first story is an update to the story last week about a statue of a Persian goddess uncovered near Prague. Czech archaeologists were left slightly embarrassed after they learned that a
10-centimetre-high statuette was nothing but a five-year-old fake created by a pensioner. Archaeologist David Danicek announced that he had found the ‘unique seal’ on the same spot where he had earlier uncovered an ancient burial ground while researching the great Central European migrations of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. The statue is a sitting or half-kneeling woman's figure in a long green coat with a golden hook. She also likely wears a golden necklace that is hiding her face behind a book. The lower part of the statue is decorated with an erotic motif, according to Petr Charvat, an expert in oriental cultures. Danicek and Charvat speculated that the figure must have reached Central Bohemia via trade routes or military contacts along the northern border of the Roman Empire. But 72-year-old Jiri Simunlek, a retired craftsman from the outskirts of Prague, told journalists on Tuesday that the gypsum carving was actually supposed to represent a ‘meditating nun’. It had been fashioned in 1968 using a mould that he had made from a figurine left to him by his late brother, who had worked in a ceramics factory. Simunlek had used the mould to make several statuettes for friends. Then, five years ago, his grandchildren had tried to make their own copy, but when the result proved unsatisfactory, he threw it into an area dump along with some attic junk.

Loch reveals drowned Scottish forest


In Scotland, underwater archaeologists have made the incredible discovery of a drowned forest, believed to date to the Neolithic period some 5000 years ago. Stunned divers spotted the ancient wooded area as they worked in Loch Tay. The peculiar find is sure to excite scientists of all fields as it could represent the earliest surviving remains of Scotland’s native woodland. Preliminary surveys in the 14 mile long loch, performed by the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology, have identified well various preserved fallen oak and elm trees as well as oak upright trunks embedded in layers of gravel and silt. Many of the fallen trees have survived in odd shapes, creating a spooky landscape jutting from the loch bed. Timber samples taken by the dive team produced radiocarbon dates of 3200BC and 2500BC. The forest may be under two feet of water, but that has not dampened the archaeologists’ enthusiasm. The inundated woodland is believed to represent the old natural shoreline, now some 10 to 15 meters from the current waterfront. Preliminary investigation has uncovered hazelnuts, twigs and moss mixed with other organic material. Samples of the timbers themselves can help tree-ring studies that, together with analysis of the sediments, plant remains, and pollen, can assist with climate change studies.

Student uses multidisciplinary approach on Hopi “porcelain”

In the United States at the engineering department of the University of Arizona, Caitlin O’Grady hopes to crack a mystery that has puzzled archaeologists and potters for more than 100 years. It surrounds small pieces of broken Hopi pottery. The Hopi artists created what archaeologists call Jeddito ware between about A.D. 1200 and 1650. The potsherds being studying are a subset of Jeddito called Sikyatki Polychrome. They’re named for a site that early archaeologists excavated on Northern Arizona’s Hopi reservation, where a large number of complete and broken pots were found. The mystery is how they were made. No one knows for sure, and no one has been able to consistently produce ceramics with this even, tan-yellow buff surface. O’Grady’s task is to unravel the Sikyatki technology that has been lost in time. O’Grady also is studying the paints used to decorate Sikyatki pots and sleuthing out paint recipes. She knows, for instance, that most of them were mineral paints, made from iron oxide, manganese dioxide, or various combinations of the two. She also knows the pots were fired outdoors in temporary kilns that were fueled by coal. In fact, Sikyatki Polychrome is one of a very few prehistoric ceramics that were coal-fired to especially high temperatures. Most ancient pottery was fired over wood or dung fires. But wood is scarce near the Hopi mesas and there was little dung from domestic animals until the Spanish brought sheep and horses to the area. However, there are vast coal seams and clay beds near the mesas. The clay has high quartz content and is ideal for making fine pottery. O'Grady is calling on several high-tech scientific tools to find the answers. In addition to the traditional techniques of radiography and petrography, she's using a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry, and even an electron beam microprobe in UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Some experts believe the high temperatures produced by coal firing are the secret to producing Sikyatki Polychrome because some of the clay turned to glass when it was fired. The problem is to determine the exact chemical composition of the pottery samples, how long those chemicals were fired, in what temperature range, and how these components interacted during the firing process. O’Grady will need permission from Hopi tribal officials to conduct field tests because she needs to collect clay and coal samples from the reservation. Over the years, Sikyatki Polychrome has intrigued several Hopi potters, and their interest may work in O’Grady’s favor. O'Grady's research is part of UA's Heritage Conservation Science Program. Students in this program learn to stabilize, preserve and better understand ancient artifacts and how they were created and used. The curriculum, which combines engineering, anthropology, architectural history and art history, is particularly important today because many of the material links to our past are disintegrating, while the ancient technologies that created them are disappearing.

Unearthing a Cycladic Bronze Age town


In Greece, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a large Bronze Age town dating from at least 1,900 BC on the Cycladic island of Andros. Experts found at least four ‘well-preserved’ buildings - one of them retaining its ground floor walls - in the remains of what is believed to be a square. A variety of intact ceramic objects were discovered inside the buildings, including large decorated storage jars, pots and vessels, and stone tools. Researchers also found a number of rock drawings on the edge of the town near the fortified site of Strofilas, a Neolithic settlement that dates from 4,000 BC. The drawings are of boats and other symbols such as human head
surrounded by a pair of arms with open palms and a pair of feet and a circular symbol believed to represent the sun. Archaeologists suspect these drawings correspond to a divinity worshipped by the town dwellers. The symbols are similar to sketches found at Strofilas, suggesting that the fortified community's inhabitants moved their lodgings closer to the sea at the end of the Neolithic period, around 3,300 BC. The still-unnamed coastal town, which provides a ‘strong link’ between the end of the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age in the Cyclades, is suspected to have suffered repeated damage from earthquakes.

Scot discovers long lost Egyptian ceremonial path


In our final story, a Scottish archaeologist in Egypt has discovered one of the most elusive sites buried by the desert sands over 3,000 years ago. Ian Mathieson, director of Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project, has located part of a seven-mile ceremonial burial route to the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Researchers have long tried to pinpoint the Serapeum Way, and in 1798 Napoleon sent 1,000 men to look for it. According to legend, the Greek philosopher Strabo found a partially buried golden sphinx while traveling in 24BC. In 1890, French archeologist Mariette unearthed part of the Way, along with 134 sphinxes, but his notes and the location were lost. Mr. Mathieson, a former civil engineer and surveyor from Edinburgh, said the road was the main ceremonial route lined with ornate sphinxes leading to the underground burial complex of the Serapeum in Saqqara. Mr. Mathieson and his team use geophysical radar equipment that allows them to search for relics without digging on a meager budget. He said: "The images look like an aerial photograph but they are covered with five meters of sand." In 2002, while looking for the Way, Mr. Mathieson accidentally discovered the ancient buried town of Saqqara whose first inhabitants lived in 2500BC.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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