Audio News for October 16th to October 23rd, 2005

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I’m Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from October 16th to October 23rd, 2005.

Scottish monastery may be legendary saint's second site


Our first story is from Scotland, where archaeologists have discovered a second monastery that they believe was also founded by St. Columba at the same time as the monastery on Iona in AD 563. St Columba landed in Scotland in the Dark Ages, and he set about creating a place of pilgrimage for saints and kings. The monastery at Iona is believed to have produced the Book of Kells, one of the world's most renowned religious manuscripts. Evidence at the new site at Portmahomack indicates the monastery produced elaborate books and documents comparable to the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. It is likely the Vikings ransacked the monastery in the ninth century, destroying any manuscripts and their methods of production. According to Professor Martin Carver, of York University, and Cecilly Spall, of Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd., the monastery is surrounded by a C-shaped ditch, like that at Iona, and defined by more than 200 pieces of carved stone showing strong links to Iona and Northumbria. Artifacts found at the site are believed to have been used in the preparation of vellum, used in books and manuscripts at the time. The intact floor of a workshop was found littered with tools, waste and raw materials, indicating a highly specialised craft area. A number of whetstones, burnishers, and small pebbles around a hearth indicated that a number of craftsmen would have worked around the main source of heat and light. Evidence suggested the building was abandoned in a hurry and layers of burning over the workshop added to the idea of an invasion. St Columba spent his youth in Ireland but in AD 563 he gathered 12 followers and headed for Scotland. Once at Iona, the monks built individual beehive-shaped cells and put a ditch around their dwellings. Columba was reputed to be able to perform miracles, and his supernatural powers supposedly helped convert the Picts to Christianity. Historic Scotland funded the research by Professor Carver and excavations are still continuing at the site.

Chinese tomb may hold coin trove


In China, a magnetic scan of the unopened tomb of China's first emperor has detected a large number of coins, suggesting Emperor Qin was buried with his state treasury. Qin, who ruled in 221-210 B.C., already is renowned for the thousands of terra cotta statues of soldiers found buried around his immense tomb outside the former imperial capital of Xi'an. The latest finding was announced by Chinese and German archaeologists at a conference in Xi'an, where the tomb was discovered in the 1970s. Qin, also known "First Emperor Qin," founded China's first imperial dynasty and is believed to have spent decades building his tomb with his terracotta army, of 190,000 statutes arranged in battle formation. Archaeologists have refrained from opening it until they decide how to preserve the treasures believed contained inside. According to Michael Petzet, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the magnetic scan revealed new details of the tomb's structure and a remarkable amount of coins. Coins of that era likely were made of bronze, with some perhaps made of silver. Qin was legendary for his cruelty. He reputedly press-ganged some 700,000 workers into building his mausoleum and had dissident scholars buried alive. Qin's son was overthrown three years after his death by founders of the Han dynasty, which lasted four centuries and is considered one of the pinnacles of classical Chinese civilization. The ancient tomb, which scientists prefer to preserve rather than excavate due to its unstable structure, became famous three decades ago when villagers found thousands of terracotta warrior figures accidentally. The subsequent years of air and light exposure have had a deleterious effect.

Map image archive is newest tool for Middle Eastern archaeology


At the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, "CAMEL" (SEE aye EM ee ELL), or CAMEL, a new computer project, can traverse vast distances of ancient and modern space without pausing to digging in the soil. CAMEL stands for the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes. It is a leading edge tool that does not excavate but aims to survey ancient sites and disturb them as little as possible. It organizes maps, aerial photography, satellite images and other data into one place, allowing archaeologists to see how ancient trade routes developed and to prepare simulations of how people may have interacted, given the limitations of their space, the availability of resources and the organization of their cities. CAMEL includes photographic collections spanning from the early days of aerial photography out the windows of small planes, through aerial surveillance photograph taken for defense purposes during the Cold War, to modern day satellite images. Sites that showed up as mounds in the older photographs may today be leveled and hard to recognize. Some of the ancient material they contain, however, is still buried deep below the surface. When the Oriental Institute launched an excavation in the 1930s at Persepolis in Iran, the art of aerial photography allowed stunning pictures of the ancient Persian capital's layout, which helped demonstrate the scope of the city in a way nothing else could. Some of those photographs are on the walls of the Persian Gallery of the Museum of the Oriental Institute, and others are part of the CAMEL database. Oriental Institute scholars also used balloons rigged with cameras to catch overall shots of excavation sites. In addition to the aerial photographs, the collection also includes shots taken by NASA, Digital Globe and other organizations from satellites.

South Carolina dig traces Harriet Tubman's greatest raid of liberation


Our final story is from the United States, where archeologists have unearthed artifacts they believe pinpoint the location of a Combahee River ferry crossing used in a Civil War raid led by legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The 1863 Union army raid freed more than 700 slaves from plantations in South Carolina, and is thought to have been the first in U.S. history to be led by a woman. It cemented Tubman’s legend as a daring and courageous emancipator, and bolstered Union forces in the state. The archeologists were hired by the state in advance of highway widening. The artifacts unearthed appear to have come from a house or tavern near the ferry crossing where Tubman and black Union soldiers surprised local plantation owners. Research in 1989 had revealed Confederate earthworks and an old African-American cemetery in the low-lying, undeveloped area. But no follow-up surveys were taken. The Department of Transportation believes it now knows where the ferry crossing was located. It also may have found a submerged vessel that could date from the 19th century and the remains of buildings that could have been associated with the ferry. Other old maps show that slave huts were strung along the Colleton County side of the Combahee, though researchers have not yet found any structural evidence of the buildings. Tubman is best known for escaping slavery and helping others to do the same along the famed Underground Railroad, made up of safe houses and secret passages. But no single act in Tubman’s life freed more people than the Combahee raid. And yet, even in the state where it took place, its details are not widely known. By June 1863, Tubman was already a mythical and mysterious figure. She had escaped slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she had survived brutal treatment. Fourteen years after she ran for her own freedom in 1849, Tubman was on the steam-powered gunboat John Adams for this risky raid deep into enemy territory. She ushered slaves on board the Union boats and sang to them during their flight. Union reports put the number of freed slaves at 725; Tubman said the raid liberated 756 people. With archeological and historical finds pointing in the same direction, researchers may come up with answers to their many questions about life in this major slave-holding area, and the raid that so disturbed it.

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