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Recreating a Renaissance Song

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

After archaeologists in France unearthed a schist plaque inscribed with a sixteenth-century musical score, they turned to soprano Dominique Fontaine to decode the notes. Fontaine, a member of the musical ensemble Ad Lib, which specializes in sacred music, recorded her interpretation of the brief chant.


To read more about the discovery, go to “Renaissance Melody.”


The Dawn of Digital Music


Friday, February 10, 2017

In 1951, the BBC recorded three melodies—“God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood"—generated by mathematician Alan Turing's pioneering Mark II computer. It is the earliest known recording of computer music​. Researchers recently analyzed and processed the recording, which includes the voices of people in the room, to restore the original sound of this founding artifact of the age of digital music.


To read in-depth about the recording, go to "Digging up Digital Music."


Plain of Jars

The explosive implications of archaeology at Laos’ most puzzling site


Monday, December 12, 2016

plain of jars archive site1

Editor's Note: Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue


I’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.


Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze—and to archaeologists.


The jars are huge, up to nine feet tall, the largest weighing 14 tons. Most are carved of sandstone, others of granite, conglomerate, or calcified coral. Some are round, others angular, and a few have disks that appear to be lids. Tools and human remains found inside and around the jars suggest their use and manufacture spanned centuries. The bulk of material dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800, and additional carbon dates are expected this summer.


Archaeologists are certain the Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites—but it is one with more questions than answers.


French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang in the 1930s. She found jars with cremated human remains and a nearby cave with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars were mortuary vessels, and the fields were ancient cemeteries. Today, more than 2,000 jars have been identified across the province.


These archaeological treasures sit in one of the world’s poorest regions. That’s why Van Den Bergh, a UNESCO consultant from the Hong Kong–based Archaeological Assessments, is here. She hopes to turn the Plain of Jars into a UNESCO World Heritage site. The UNESCO-Lao Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars aims not only to protect the vessels but to rehabilitate this remote province by clearing bombs, restoring agricultural lands, and promoting tourism.


A specialist in geoarchaeology with a decade of experience in Asia, Van Den Bergh has worked in Laos on six-week stints for four years now. In conjunction with the Lao government and a geographer from Bangkok, the project includes training Laotians to recover, record, and store archaeological material; create a precise map of the jar fields; and identify key areas for preservation and tourism development. The project also enlists local villagers to help with these tasks and involves the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization hired to remove explosives from the most popular jar sites.


Some dub the Plain of Jars “the world’s most dangerous archaeological site,” and Van Den Bergh readily agrees. While archaeologists occasionally encounter UXO in war-torn countries and military testing grounds around the world, perhaps no archaeological site is as contaminated as the Plain of Jars. Two archaeologists conducted limited excavations in the 1990s without incident, “but that’s just luck,” Van Den Bergh says. “I’ve come home from surveying and thought, I’m happy to be getting into the car and coming home.”



A Community's Roots

With Frederick Douglass’s help, the past and present come together on a Maryland


Thursday, February 02, 2017

Wye House Douglass

Originally published in the November/December 2006 issue


In Talbot County, Eastern Shore, State of Maryland, near Easton, the county town, there is a small district of country, thinly populated, and remarkable for nothing that I know of more than for the worn-out, sandy, desert-like appearance of its soil, the general dilapidation of its farms and fences, the indigent and spiritless character of its inhabitants, and the prevalence of ague and fever. It was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district or neighborhood, bordered by the Choptank river, among the laziest and muddiest of streams surrounded by a white population of the lowest order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves who, in point of ignorance and indolence, were fully in accord with their surroundings, that I, without any fault of my own, was born, and spent the first years of my childhood. —FREDERICK DOUGLASS, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)




Under the boughs of a huge tulip poplar, buried among clumps of roots and piles of oyster shells, is the brick foundation of a building, a remnant of a once-thriving slave community. For 18 months in the early nineteenth century, it was home to a young Frederick Douglass, the future African-American statesman, diplomat, orator, and author. Here, at the age of seven or eight, a shoeless, pantless, precocious Douglass first saw whippings and petty cruelties. Here, he first realized he was a slave. “A lot of the horror that comes through his autobiographies is grounded in those months that he was there,” says James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York who is working on a book about Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln. The modest excavation at Wye House Farm, a 350-year-old estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has yielded sherds, buttons, pipe stems, beads, and precious knowledge about everyday slave life, and is allowing the descendants of that slave community, many of whom live in the nearby rural African-American town of Unionville, to reclaim a lost cultural hertiage.


A team of archaeologists and students started digging here in 2005 after archaeologist Lisa Kraus proposed the dig, on the basis of Douglass’s descriptions of the site, to Mark Leone, director of the urban archaeology field school at the University of Maryland. Before beginning the excavation, Leone approached St. Stephen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, the social and religious center of Unionville, to ask what the people of the community wanted to learn from the archaeology. “You should ask the people who think it’s their heritage what they want to know about it,” Leone says. “The answers automatically dissolve the difference between then and now.” This, he adds, is the heart of social archaeology, working with descendant communities and understanding that the past and present inform one another. The people of Unionville wanted to know about slave spirituality, what remained of African life, how the owner of the slaves did or did not support freedom, and how slaves found the strength to survive. They are questions a single dig is unlikely to answer, but they have opened an avenue of dialogue between the archaeologists and the people to whom their work matters most.


A sharp, fetid smell wafts off the nearby cove, where swarms of insects form a halo over still water. Leone, a tall, fair anthropologist who has spent his career studying class and race in the historical landscape of Annapolis, speaks slowly and deliberately. “What we have discovered is there’s archaeology everywhere,” he says, as a team of students profile and photograph the site under the tulip poplar behind him. “We’ve only scratched the surface.” Waving his hand across the rolling landscape bordered by the cove on one side and a farm road on the other, he explains that it was once all part of a slave community buzzing with activity.


Leone and Kraus, a graduate student at the University of Texas, have for the last two field seasons led this dig, which is on the grounds of a grand plantation that has been, and still is, privately owned by one family—the Lloyds, one of the founding families of Maryland. The team so far has uncovered three structures packed with domestic and commercial artifacts of slave life, and they expect to find more next season.


Mary Tilghman, the Lloyd family matriarch and eleventh-generation descendant of Edward Lloyd, who settled the property in the 1660s, receives guests in the well-appointed, hunting-themed south parlor of the estate’s late Georgian mansion, just a hundred yards or so from the dig site. Tilghman, a proper yet lively woman of 87, dressed in a long khaki skirt and collared blouse, has piercing blue eyes and pale skin like creased parchment. She taps her aluminum cane on the hardwood floor as she speaks. “I think it’s fascinating and I think seeing something, rather than assuming something was there, that’s intriguing, This is probably a very foreign culture to a great many people.”


December 7, 1941

The underwater archaeology of the attack on Pearl Harbor


Thursday, December 01, 2016

Pearl Harbor Arizona


The two hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, might be the most heavily documented and studied in history. There are eight official investigations, from a Naval Court of Inquiry to a Joint Congressional Committee, reams of records, and enough books, oral histories, documentaries, and feature films to fill a library. Yet there are still things that can be learned about the morning when 350 Japanese warplanes killed 2,403 Americans, wounded another 1,104, and sank or severely damaged 21 ships in a coordinated attack on military sites around Oahu, Hawaii.


A number of factors have obscured details—big and small—from that day. For example, the surprise of the attack complicated eyewitness accounts. Secrecy shrouded the active war effort on both sides. And, in the aftermath, the United States rushed to rebuild its naval power in the Pacific with the greatest maritime salvage project in history, which returned all but three of the damaged ships to service. This effort begins to explain why there are few archaeological sites directly tied to December 7.


In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed the first database of submerged cultural resources in the main Hawaiian Islands. Of 2,114 entries, just five come from the attack: two battleships in the harbor, two Japanese submarines in deep water, and a lone American seaplane. All were spared salvage—and in some cases discovery—for decades by some combination of depth, damage, and respect for the dead.


Pearl Harbor AerialFor the United States, Pearl Harbor stands alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and other iconic battlefields as a crucible of American identity. But it is different in both its freshness in memory and its inaccessibility, since most of the surviving remnants lie underwater, within active military installations, or both. It was 40 years before the underwater sites became the subject of archaeological inquiry. “We’re gaining a much more detailed understanding of the battlefield and all of its nuances,” says James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, who has been directly involved in several of the archaeological projects at Pearl Harbor. “Seventy-five years on, the view is far more comprehensive and three-dimensional, not just in terms of the major events, but also individual experiences.”


Today there are very few survivors of the attack, and fewer each year. The sites discussed here will soon be the only primary sources about an event that changed the course of the twentieth century. They are being studied not out of historical curiosity, but to ensure their stewardship for the future.






From the Trenches