Audio News for January 8th to January 14th, 2006.
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I m Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news January 8th to January 14th, 2006.
Donner Party dig finds no cannibalism evidence
Our first story is from the western United States, where analysis of bone fragments from the site of the Donner party camp in California's Tahoe National Forest have been inconclusive with regard to cannibalism. Julie Schablitsky, an historical archaeologist and assistant professor at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History and Kelly Dixon, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, were the team leaders. Their investigation of the Donner tragedy has continued for the past three years. In 2003 and 2004, the team found a cooking hearth and shelter at the site, located at the Alder Creek Camp, along with thousands of pieces of burned bone. They also found wagon parts, musket balls, and fragmentary teacups, plates, bottles and a writing slate. The archaeological findings revealed the size and location of the cooking shelter and activity areas within the camp. Mitochondrial DNA testing was done on the bone fragments to determine if they were human in the hope of establishing links to Donner descendants. Guy Tasa, an osteologist and senior research associate at Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and Gwen Robbins, an anthropology doctoral candidate, examined the bone fragments to determine particular animal species. They found the Donners lived off their livestock and wild game. However, no human bone was identified in the collection they tested. Shannon Novak, assistant professor of anthropology, looked for trauma and "pot polish," on the bone fragments. The presence of such indicates that bones have been boiled in water and is an indicator of starvation. Novak discovered that many bone fragments were sawed, chopped and cut as well as polished, suggesting extreme desperation and starvation among the group. At this point in the research, it can be said that residents of the camp consumed domestic and wild animals, including their dog. However, no clear evidence of cannibalism has emerged from the Alder Creek campsite. Schablitsky and Dixon, using historical and archaeological data, have concluded that if cannibalism occurred at the Donner camp, it took place during the last few weeks of their entrapment, by less than12 individuals, and that the bodies were not processed to the bone. According to Schablitsky, the use of not just archaeology but also information from psychology and physiology allows their research to humanize the very real people who were trapped in the Sierras during that ill-fated winter of 1846-47. The Donner Party story has tended to focus on the tragedy of survival cannibalism, but the archaeological remains also speak to more significant implications, such as what it was like to be human, doing whatever possible to survive in one of the snowbound camps. This research will revise the sensational accounts that have captured attention for nearly 160 years and remind us of our survival capabilities in the face of unfamiliar environments or unexpected circumstances.
Greek dig will investigate origin of mysterious marble statuettes
In Greece, a joint British and Greek team is preparing a major excavation on the tiny island of Keros (KEAR-oss) to try to explain why it produced history's largest collection of Cycladic flat-faced marble figurines. The small statuettes from this minor island made a major impact on modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. They have also attracted merciless looting. Now researchers seek insight as to the island's possible role as a major religious center of the enigmatic Cycladic (sigh-CLAD-ic) civilization some 4,500 years ago. According to Peggy Sotirakopoulou, curator of the Cycladic collection at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Keros is one of the riddles of prehistoric archaeology. More than 1,400 Cycladic figurines have survived, with only 40 percent of known origin, and most of them coming from Keros. Evidence on the rest has been destroyed by looters. Also intriguing is that most of the statuettes were intentionally broken during ancient times. Nearly all the figurines have a similar style, showing a mostly naked and somewhat abstract, elongated human form, with the arms folded across the chest. The Cycladic culture was a seafaring civilization centered around the Cyclades (SICK-la-deez) islands. It was eclipsed in the second millennium B.C. by Crete and Mycenaean Greece. The elegant artworks of the Cycladic culture are its best-known aspect. Keros was virtually pillaged during the 1950s and 1960s in the search for its marble figurines, hundreds of which were illegally exported to fill museums and private collections in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan. The archaeological context was mostly destroyed, so their meaning may never be completely understood. Evidence from excavations in the 1960s through 1980s failed to explain why the barren islet was so much more important in the 3rd millennium B.C. than its bigger, more hospitable neighbors. Experts agree that the elegant marble figurines were highly prized in the early bronze age Cyclades but still don't understand the purpose for which they were made. The new excavations will run from April through June.
Dental decoration may link Vikings to North American Indians
In Sweden, a scientist has suggested that deep grooves carved into the teeth of 1,000-year-old Viking skeletons may have been learned from indigenous tribes during ancient Norse voyages to North America. The finding would represent an unparalleled case of transatlantic, cross-cultural exchange during the age of Leif Ericsson. The unusual marks are believed to be decorations meant to enhance a man's appearance, or badges of honor. They are the first historical examples of ceremonial dental modification ever found in Europe, although similar customs were practiced in Asia and Africa over the centuries. Swedish anthropologist Caroline Arcini is exploring the possibility that trips to the New World a millennium ago introduced the Norsemen to tooth-carving styles being carried out at that time in the Americas. The cases from the North American continent are from the same period as the Swedish ones, both dating from AD 800 to 1050. In a recent paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Ms. Arcini details the horizontal etchings across the front teeth of about 25 young men whose remains were found at several Viking Age burial sites in Sweden and Denmark. The reason for the furrows is obscure. The study notes a similarity in style between the Scandinavian specimens and dental markings common about 1,000 years ago in parts of North America, including Mexico and the present-day United States as far north as Illinois. The Viking connection might be related to the 1,000-year-old Norse encampment that was found in the 1960s at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The
settlement, called L'Anse aux Meadows, yielded conclusive evidence of contact by Norse explorers such as Leif Ericsson, who crossed from Greenland and Iceland some 500 years before Christopher Columbus reached the New World. The Newfoundland colonizers are believed to have made several such voyages before repeated clashes with natives forced the newcomers to abandon their settlement.
New dam in Sudan will drown the sites of Africa's earliest kingdom
Our final story is from the Sudan in Africa, where the race is on to save evidence of ancient kingdoms from the floodwaters of a new dam. Ever since their demise at the hands of a pharaoh, the civilizations of ancient Sudan were overshadowed by their Egyptian neighbors to the north. Now, excavations are being launched to document these first great kingdoms of black Africa before they are submerged. In a highly controversial move, the Sudanese government is planning to flood a vast stretch of the southern Nile valley as part of plans for a big hydroelectric dam at Merowe, near what was once the ancient city of Napata. Environmental groups have criticized the project. The Sudanese government insists, however, that the project is essential to pull the country into the developed world. With a completion date in 2008, archaeologists are in a race against time to survey what will eventually become a 100-mile-long lake. The affected area lies in what is known as the Nile's fourth cataract, one of the six stretches of river divided from each other by sets of rapids impassable by boat. Already more than 700 sites of potential interest have been discovered in just one small part of the area to be flooded. These sites show the need not only for an urgent program to rescue the most important artifacts, but also for a reappraisal of Sudan's archaeological importance. Among the surprises uncovered during the digs is the influence of the ancient empire of Kerma. It flourished as a southern rival to Egypt's pharaohs but was previously not known to have extended into the fourth cataract area. Kerma's kings, who ruled between 2500 BC and 1500 BC, have been discovered with up to 400 human sacrifices buried alongside them, indicating that they were important potentates. As the meeting point between the cultures of Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, Kerma grew hugely prosperous, its merchants supplying the markets of the north with everything from gold and hardwoods to exotic animals and slaves. Nevertheless, just as in modern-day Sudan, ethnic tensions constantly simmered between the north and the predominantly black south. After a brutal 220-year war, among the longest in history, the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis I, a leader whose aggression rivaled that of Genghis Khan, finally vanquished Kerma. The fourth cataract area also contains Paleolithic remains dating back 200,000 years, including prehistoric cave etchings of animals and "rock gongs," primitive stone-age xylophones in which rocks produce different sounds when hit. The archaeologists' biggest prize, however, still eludes them. That is the key to the ancient language of Meroitic, which first appeared on temples and artifacts during the 4th century BC, but remains one of the world's few undeciphered scripts. No "Rosetta Stone" for Meroitic has yet been found translating it into better-known ancient languages. As the largest project of its kind to be built in Africa since the Aswan dam, 300 miles down-river in Egypt in the 1960s, the proposed dam has aroused strong opposition from people who will be displaced. Archaeologists have come under pressure to stop work from campaigners against the dam, who claim that their activity lends the project legitimacy.
That wraps up the news for this week! For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at www.archaeologica.org, where all the news is history!
I’m Laura Kelley and I’ll see you next week!