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From the Trenches

Viking Finery


Monday, February 10, 2014

Viking Oseberg Persian SilkThough they have a popular reputation for being coarse, some Vikings had a taste for fine fabrics. Pieces of silk have been found at a number of Viking sites, and appear to have come directly from silk-production sites to the east, such as Byzantium and Persia, suggesting wide-ranging trade networks.


For example, the famous Oseberg ship, which had been buried with the remains of two women in a mound in Norway and was excavated more than 100 years ago, contained dozens of thin strips of silk (for decorating clothing) from 15 different textiles. Marianne Vedeler of the University of Oslo has examined these and other Viking silks to understand how the Vikings regarded these materials and the patterns they contain. One pattern found in the silks from the ship features a bird with a pearl tiara in its beak. This motif, called the “kingbird” in Old Persian, represents the heavenly blessing of a new king in Zoroastrian mythology. “It is difficult to say whether the meaning of these symbols transformed [for the Vikings], or if they simply continued to be used as meaningless decorative patterns,” says Vedeler.

Off the Grid


Monday, February 10, 2014

South Carolina Colonial DorchesterThe remains of Dorchester in Summerville, South Carolina, contain one of the most complete archaeological records of colonial America anywhere. Dorchester was founded in 1697 by a group of New England Puritans representing the Congregational Church of Dorchester, Massachusetts. For nearly a century, the village was inhabited by traders, planters, artisans, and wealthy owners of local plantations, and prospered as an inland trade center on the north side of the Ashley River. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Dorchester became a fortified American post, briefly commanded by Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox. The British claimed the post near the war’s end, only to turn it over to the Americans again. Shortly thereafter, the village was abandoned and left in a ruinous state until archaeological excavations began in the 1940s and then continued more formally in the 1970s. South Carolina state archaeologist Jon Leader says that Colonial Dorchester “has everything.” The site hosts public archaeology excavations in the spring and fall that visitors can observe and even participate in, and there is an indoor lab that can be visited in winter and summer. It’s also a great site for a picnic.


The site

Dorchester is unique because it was an interior trade town, unlike Charleston, which is on the coast. Trails and signs guide visitors through the intact remains of the old town, including the brick bell tower of St. George’s Anglican Church, a fort made of oyster-shell concrete called tabby, and part of a log wharf that’s visible at low tide. Excavations have unearthed undisturbed evidence of eighteenth-century village life just below the surface—pipe stems, bowl fragments, historic bottle and window glass, metal buttons, ammunition for hunting, and a variety of European and slave-made pottery sherds. Revolutionary War artifacts have also been identified, such as a British military insignia of shiny brass. Many of these artifacts were found and sorted by volunteers, who sifted through thousands of pounds of brick and mortar rubble. For all that has been discovered, much more remains underground—of 119 quarter-acre lots on the site, fewer than 10 have been investigated, according to site archaeologist Larry James. Just one of these lots recently yielded 6,500 artifacts.


While you’re there

Colonial Dorchester is just minutes from downtown Summerville, which offers education, culture, and more at places such as the Summerville Dorchester Museum and numerous antique shops. Guerin’s Pharmacy, the oldest in South Carolina, is a great place for refreshments. (Summerville is famed for its sweet tea.) Also, the gardens, waterfront, historic buildings, and museums of Charleston are just 25 miles away.

Our Tangled Ancestry


Monday, February 10, 2014

Homo heidelbergensis skeletonWhen scientists attempt to draw the evolutionary family tree of the human race, they would like to be able to use straight lines to show the relationships between hominin groups: one species leads to another, and so on. But this isn’t always possible. Three recent studies of ancient DNA have uncovered unique genetic markers in unexpected places, showing that our ancestors got around and interbred more than anyone had previously thought. The result is a convoluted set of relationships among early humans where once there was a simpler family tree.


The story of this new work begins in northern Spain. There, a group of Spanish researchers at the site of Sima de los Huesos teamed up with geneticists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to examine the oldest known hominin DNA sample, which comes from a 400,000-year-old Homo heidelbergensis thigh bone. They sequenced the bone’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed from mother to child. “What we were expecting to see was Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA,” says Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute, as Neanderthals would later occupy that part of Europe and might be expected to carry genetic material from the previous inhabitants. Surprisingly, the mtDNA is instead more closely related to that of a hominin who lived more than 50,000 years ago in Siberia’s Denisova Cave than it is to that of Neanderthals. The Denisovans were related to, but genetically distinct from, Neanderthals.


According to Meyer, the Sima de los Huesos sample is old enough that it could represent an ancestor to both Denisovans and Neanderthals. However, it is also possible that H. heidelbergensis is not ancestral to either group, but later interbred with the Denisovan lineage. Studies of nuclear DNA, which contains genetic information from both parents, will be needed to clarify the relationship, Meyer believes.


Max Planck Institute scientists also recently sequenced the genome of a second individual who lived at Denisova more than 50,000 years ago. They discovered that the individual was actually a Neanderthal, not a Denisovan. It is the most complete Neanderthal genome yet recovered, and it has given geneticists a novel point of comparison among various human lineages. The new analysis shows that occasional interbreeding between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens probably took place in more than one time and place, and that the Denisovans also interbred with an unknown archaic hominin group—possibly H. heidelbergensis.