Audio News for December 18th to December 24th, 2005.

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

New discovery provides insights into the military exploits of the Sabaen kings


Our first story is from Yemen where a German expedition led by Dr. Iris Gerlach, Director of the Sana’a-based German Archeological Institute, discovered a colossal stone inscription at Almaqah Temple, 24 miles west of the city of Marib.  The inscription dates to the time of the ancient pre-Islamic state of Sabaen. Information from this 2,300-year old artifact reveals new clues into the era of the King of Sheba.  The colossal rock tells of the military exploits of Sabaen kings.  The record reveals details of battles, victories and various military raids.  The inscription specifies attacked areas such as Qataban, Radman, Dahsam and certain regions in Al-Jawf.  Measuring 22 feet in length, 3 ½ feet in height and 2 ½ feet in thickness, the 7-ton stone is believed to come from quarries 3 miles away.  According to archeologists, the writings are probably a glorification of a Sabaen king’s exploits in the first half of the first millennium BC.  The newly discovered engraving contains seven lines, the first describing lands and territories conquered by King Yasa’ Amar Watar, son of Yakrub Malik.  The second part mentions lands reclaimed and cultivated by this same son.  Certain places mentioned in the inscription still exist, although with different names.  This inscription is considered the second most important in Yemen after the Victory inscription discovered in the 19th century by an Austrian archeologist, which also revealed many facts about the Sabaen civilization.  The Sirwah discoveries are not limited to this large stone record, however. Current activities have revealed one end of a vast graveyard near Almaqah Temple.  The German team’s activities, which span more than 25 years, are now focused on clearing the temple’s yard and highlighting the varied artifacts found in it.

Same sex embrace on Egyptian wall art inspires debate


In 1964, a newfound tomb near the famous Step Pyramid in the necropolis of Saqqara yielded no royal mummies or dazzling jewels.  But archaeologists were stopped in their tracks when they saw the wall art in the most sacred chamber.  Carved in the stone, were the images of two men embracing.  Their names were inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.  Though not nobility, they were highly respected in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime during the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom.  Grooming the king was considered an honored occupation.  It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of seemingly equal standing.  And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace.  Over the years, the tomb's wall art has encouraged considerable conjecture.  One interpretation is that the two men were brothers, probably identical twins, and this may be the earliest known depiction of twins.  Another is a more recent explanation that the men had a homosexual relationship.  Egyptologist David O’Connor at New York University has recently stepped into the debate with a third interpretation.  He has assembled circumstantial evidence that the two men might have been conjoined twins.  It was this physical oddity that prompted the many portrayals of them hand-holding or embracing in their tomb-chapel. Opposition to his proposal promises to be spirited.  Most Egyptologists accept the normal-twins interpretation advanced most prominently by John Baines, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford in England.  The gay-couple hypothesis had become the popular idea in the last decade. A leading supporter is Greg Reeder, an independent scholar in San Francisco and a contributing editor of the magazine entitled KMT.  Because the embraces of heterosexual couples in the tomb art convey an implicit erotic and sexual relationship, and perhaps the belief of its continuation in the afterlife, Reeder and his supporters contend that similar scenes involving the two men have the same significance, that they presumably are gay partners.  As for the sexual implications of the embracing poses, Baines has suggested that they could signify the socially and emotionally linked roles of two men who probably were twins.  If O'Connor is correct, the tomb holds a rare example that far back in history of documented conjoined twins, he said, and thus an insight into ancient Egyptian attitudes toward disabilities.  He cited other records, and art of the dwarf Seneb, who in a somewhat later court was "overseer of dwarfs in charge of dressing" the king and a tutor of the royal sons, both positions of elite status.  Egyptians appear to have viewed such people as auspicious figures.  Their names, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep suggest another clue, O'Connor said.  Both names refer to the god Khnum, the deity who fashions the form of a child in the womb.  Though not an uncommon part of Egyptian names, in this case it might be a play on words to signify their paired lives.

Construction in Portugal reveals 16th century secret synagogue


A 16th century secret synagogue has been revealed in Portugal.  The medieval alleys of the city of Porto on the Atlantic coast once provided cover for a persecuted minority at risk of being burnt at the stake.  The mystery began unraveling when Father Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Catholic priest, bought the four-story house for use as a senior’s home for his parish.  When construction workers said they had come across a false wall, he told them to pull it down.  He knew the city's Jewish history and that his parish had been in a Jewish quarter in the 15th and 16th centuries.  He also knew that, after they were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496, many Jews privately kept their faith and worshiped in secret.  Beyond the wall was a room with a medieval holy ark, a nook in the wall of a synagogue where Torah scrolls are kept.  Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal.  After corroboration by historians, the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated the house last month as the site of a secret synagogue.  Immanuel Aboab, a 16th-century Jewish scholar, had written that as a child he had visited a synagogue in the third house along the street counting from the 14th-century Our Lady of Victory church.  But he didn't specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs had turned up nothing.  Then came confirmation of the accuracy of Aboab's text: the house Father Moreira bought was the third house down on the street the Jewish scholar had described. Historians had been thrown off by the fact that Aboab never described the synagogue as clandestine.  His childhood experiences took place five decades after the forced conversion - at a time when secret Jewish worshippers would be tortured and burnt at the stake if caught - so there was no chance a synagogue could function in the open.

22,000 year old footprints allow modern Australians to walk with the ancients


Our final story is from Australia where hundreds of human footprints dating back to 20,000 BC have been discovered in Mungo National Park.  Children, adolescents and adults at the height of the last ice age left the tracks as they ran and walked across a moist clay area near the Willandra Lakes.  Some people appear to have been hunting, with one very tall man sprinting at about 12 miles per hour.  Mary Pappin Junior, of the Mutthi Mutthi people, spotted the first footprint two years ago.  In addition, 450 more have been uncovered by a team led by Steve Webb of Bond University.  Professor Webb said the find provided a unique glimpse into the lives of those who lived in the arid inland.  About 20,000 years ago, the now dry lakes would have contained fish, mussels and crayfish.  The team estimated the height of the people from their foot size, and their speed from the distance between paces.  Professor Webb has also recently excavated two 17,000-year-old skeletal remains found about 4 miles away.  According to Webb, the people were athletic and very strong and fit.  Dave Johnston, chairman of the elder’s corporation, said the site was closed to the public to preserve it, and the elders were developing a management, conservation and tourism plan.  Ms Pappin, a Mutthi Mutthi elder, said walking alongside the footprints was like "walking with a family group today. They're the same people."

That wraps up the news for this week!

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