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From the Trenches

Drones Enter the Archaeologist's Toolkit

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Drone-Peru-Moche

 

Peruvian archaeologists are using small, remote-controlled aircraft to transform their understanding of sites. Luis Jaime Castillo of Lima’s Catholic University works with Harvard researchers at Cerro Chepén, a mountaintop site inhabited more than 1,200 years ago by the Moche people. The complex site has multiple components arrayed across difficult terrain, with a fortress at the summit and residences on the slopes—a serious challenge to any archaeological mapping effort.

 

Drone Moche Site MapCastillo’s team used a small multicopter to take 700,000 low-altitude aerial photos of the site in just 10 minutes, nearly 50 times more than his team had captured with traditional ground-based photography in four dig seasons. Castillo then stitched the images together to create detailed 3-D models. “You can see every wrinkle of the site,” he says. “You can model every single stone.”

Who Was First to the Faroes?

By ERIC A. POWELL

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands were long thought to be so remote that even the wide-ranging Vikings didn’t settle there until the ninth century a.d., once improved navigational technology allowed them to make long-distance sea voyages. New evidence unearthed by a team led by Durham University archaeologist Michael Church and National Museum of the Faroe Islands curator Símun V. Arge shows that another group actually settled the archipelago some 500 years before the Vikings arrived. 

 

Faroe Islands SettlersExcavating beneath the remains of a Viking longhouse, the team found two layers of burnt peat ash containing barley grains—unambiguous evidence of human presence. Radiocarbon dating of the ash layers shows that one was burned sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D., and the other between the sixth and eighth centuries. The ash was probably taken from domestic hearths and then spread onto the sandy surface to control erosion, a common practice in the North Atlantic at the time. 

 

But just who the early arrivals were remains a mystery. “All we know is that they cut peat and grew barley,” says Church. “They lived in sporadic, small-scale settlements, and the Viking invasion in the ninth century would have destroyed most of the evidence for them.” The settlers could have come from Scandinavia, Scotland, the Shetland Islands, or even Ireland, all places where early medieval people grew barley and used peat for fuel. Church notes that sixth-century Irish monks left accounts that mention islands that could be the Faroes, which lie some 600 miles to the north of Ireland. “Monks of that era were known to make long journeys in search of solitude to get nearer to God,” says Church. “The Faroes would certainly have offered them that.” 

 

The Neolithic Palate

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Neolithic Mustard PotsherdEurope’s historical hunger for tasty food—spices, specifically—helped drive the Age of Exploration. When did flavorful food become so important that it would eventually change the course of human history? It is difficult to say because plant remains rarely last, and it can be a fool’s errand to speculate how they were used thousands of years ago. Now, however, in 6,000-year-old pottery from Denmark and Germany, a team of researchers has found phytoliths, small bits of silica that form in the tissues of some plants, from garlic mustard seeds, which carry strong, peppery flavor but little nutritional value.

 

Neolithic Mustard SeedsBecause they were found alongside residues of meat and fish, the seed remnants represent the earliest known direct evidence of spicing in European cuisine. According to researcher Hayley Saul of the University of York, “It certainly contributes important information about the prehistoric roots of this practice, which eventually culminated in globally significant processes and events.”

Secrets of Life in the Soil

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Denmark Medieval MercuryChemists are analyzing the soil around burials at a medieval cemetery in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, 200 miles west of Copenhagen. They’re picking their spots carefully, hoping to illuminate previously unknowable details about the last days of the deceased.

 

Kaare Lund Rasmussen of the University of Southern Denmark examined the skeletal remains of a 10- to 13-year-old child, and specifically the soil that had once been in contact with the child’s lungs, kidneys, and liver. It has been determined that, as those organs decay, they release chemical compounds that can offer clues to an individuals’ final days or even months. In this case, Rasmussen found high concentrations of mercury. Mercury came to Denmark with Christian monks in the Middle Ages, according to historical sources. The highly toxic element was once thought to have broad curative properties, so its presence suggests that the child was undergoing treatment for a debilitating illness. 

 

Also, the organs that the mercury was associated with suggest something about how and when treatment was administered. Rasmussen found mercury in the soil that had been in contact with the child’s lungs. The element is excreted from the lungs within two days, so the discovery implies that treatment had been given shortly before death. However, the ground near the child’s liver was also enriched, which suggests a much longer course of treatment. Mercury remains in liver tissue for about two months. “I have no doubts the results from our work will affect how soil samples will be taken in future excavations,” says Rasmussen. “It will have a global impact.”

Byzantine Riches

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Temple Mount Byzantine Gold

 

In the ruins of a seventh-century A.D. building at the foot of the Temple Mount, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Eilat Mazar has discovered a stunning collection of artifacts. The 36 coins, dating from between the middle of the fourth to the early seventh century A.D., along with gold and silver jewels and a remarkable gold medallion, were once wrapped inside two small fabric bundles, small remnants of which Mazar also found. The medallion depicts a menorah, Torah scroll, and a shofar, a musical instrument usually made of a ram’s horn that is used in Jewish rituals. Found in a hole in the floor, the medallion once hung from a gold chain and was uncovered with a smaller gold medallion, two pendants, a gold coil, and a silver clasp, all of which may have been ornamentations for a Torah scroll. 

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