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From the Trenches

Peeping through the Leaves


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Aerial-New-England-Combo Southern New England’s forests are beloved for the bright colors of their fall foliage, but they also hide much of the rich record of human influence on the historic landscape. Using lidar, which employs lasers to see beneath tree cover, Kate Johnson of the University of Connecticut has been able to peer into the past of the Northeast. “We have identified old stone walls, foundations, dams, mills, and abandoned roads and paths that are obscured in aerial and satellite imagery,” says Johnson. “Being able to see these features on the landscape is exciting because this type of data was never available before.”

The Goddess' Brewer


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Egypt-Luxor-Brewer-Tomb-MuralsA team of Japanese Egyptologists doing routine cleaning at a New Kingdom necropolis in Luxor accidently uncovered a previously unknown burial chamber decorated with still-vivid murals. “I was surprised to find such a beautiful tomb,” says Waseda University’s Jiro Kondo, who points out that only a handful of chambers with such well-preserved murals have been unearthed at the necropolis. Among the paintings, which date to between 1292 and 1069 B.C., is a depiction of the funeral procession of the tomb’s owner, an official named Khonsuemheb. According to inscriptions in the chamber, he was the chief beer maker of the temple of the mother goddess Mut—an important ritual position. On the ceiling, two figures of Khonsuemheb are painted next to the text of a hymn to the sun god Amun-Ra and a depiction of a solar boat, in which the dead were thought to sail for eternity.

First American Family Tree


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Clovis-Anzick-PointsThe burials of two boys—each found decades ago and thousands of miles apart, but recently subjected to genetic analysis—are helping settle the matter of where the first residents of the Americas came from.


A lab at the University of Copenhagen, led by geneticist Eske Willerslev, has sequenced the genome of a four-year-old boy whose remains were found near the Siberian village of Mal’ta in the 1920s. Dating back 24,000 years, the boy’s DNA was found to be closely related to that of modern Native Americans, suggesting that some of the Mal’ta people’s descendants migrated to the New World. Researchers were surprised that he was significantly related to Europeans, as well as South and Central Asians, but not to East Asians, who have long been known to be connected to Native Americans. The scientists believe that today’s Native Americans are a mixture of the Mal’ta and East Asians they encountered en route from Siberia to the Americas. “The genetics tell us about homelands,” says Mike Waters, a Texas A&M University archaeologist involved in the research, “but it doesn’t tell us about routes.”


Across the Bering Strait, the remains of a one- to two-year-old boy, called Anzick boy, discovered in western Montana more than 45 years ago, are the oldest known burial in the United States, dating to 12,500 years ago. The same Danish lab studied his genome and found that he is a direct ancestor of all modern Native American populations from Mexico to Chile. The boy is also closely, but less directly, related to tribes in Canada and the Arctic. However, because of distrust between the U.S. Native American community and scientists, not enough DNA of American tribes is available to determine their relation to the boy. Waters predicts that “a large chunk of Native Americans in the U.S. will show a strong direct ancestry to the Anzick boy.”


Willerslev says that sequencing more ancient genomes from around the Americas might eventually uncover more detailed migration patterns. “We all have years of work ahead of us if we would like to understand the full picture of the early peopling of the Americas,” he says.

Recreating Nordic Grog


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Juelinge-Nordic-GraveThe woman, dead at 30, was buried 1,900 years ago in an oak log near Juellinge, Denmark. Interred with her was a long-handled bronze strainer that still held residue of a fermented drink she may have been meant to enjoy in the afterlife.


Now the ingredients and even the flavor of that drink, a “grog” made from local fruits, grains, and herbs mixed with grape wine from southern Europe, are becoming clearer. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern has applied biomolecular techniques to organic residue taken from four ancient Scandinavian artifacts, including the woman’s strainer, a clay jar, and pieces of Roman bronze drinking sets, dating to between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 200.


Using a method called solid phase micro-extraction, McGovern found volatile organic compounds that are biomarkers for ingredients such as lingonberry, bog cranberry, rye, barley, juniper, birch, pine, bog myrtle, and yarrow. Tandem mass spectrometry then showed the presence of tartaric acid, the biomarker for wine.


“This work is the first to prove that wine was being traded from the south to the north at this time,” says McGovern. It has also created a detailed, consistent picture of ancient Scandinavia’s preferred beverage of distinction. McGovern is working with Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery—as he has on previous concoctions based on ancient residues—to create a modern rendition of the sour, fruity, herbaceous grog.

Hardening Brittle Bones


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Bone-Calcium-Conservation Just like the bones of living people with osteoporosis, human remains in the archaeological record can lose bone mass over time. These samples usually require treatment with plastic fillers before they can be moved and studied. 


A team of chemists at the University of Florence has devised a novel alternative that uses a chemical reaction to return lost minerals, such as calcium, to fragile old bones. The scientists treated fragments of degraded bone dating from A.D. 1000–1400 with a solution of calcium hydroxide nanoparticles in alcohol. Over several days, the nanoparticles reacted with airborne carbon dioxide and traces of collagen in the bone to form needlelike crystals of aragonite, a hard variant of calcium carbonate that forms naturally in seashells and corals. The crystals left the bones—in this case a saint’s relics from the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome—smoother, whiter, and much stronger.


The method, says study coauthor Luigi Dei, requires further investigation. Unlike the use of plastic fillers to shore up bone, this process is likely irreversible. Once perfected, however, it could be of use wherever archaeologists encounter brittle bones.