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From The Trenches

Bannockburn Booty

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, June 09, 2014

Bannockburn-Silver-CoinAs the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn approaches, an archaeological campaign is providing new details about the famous clash, considered one of the most important events in Scotland’s history. In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated the forces of the English monarch Edward II, leading to Scottish independence. Over the past three years, researchers have reconnoitered the battlefield using geophysical survey, metal detectors, and archaeological excavation. Among the thousands of artifacts retrieved in the area is a silver coin discovered at nearby Cambuskenneth Abbey. It is known that Bruce used the abbey as a storage depot and returned there with his spoils immediately after victory. Archaeologists believe the valuable coin, minted in London in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, may be part of the war booty captured by the Scottish hero.

Diminutive Gatekeeper

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, June 09, 2014

Colima-Shaman-Grave 

Inside a 1,500-year-old shaft tomb, archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History discovered a ceramic figurine of a shaman holding what may have been a weapon, according to archaeologist Marcos Zavaleta. The shaman was placed at the opening of the tomb as if he were guarding the undisturbed burial, which contained the body of one or possibly two high-status people and six pots that might have held food for the afterlife. The burial complex is located in the state of Colima on Mexico’s west coast. According to Zavaleta, this rare intact burial could reveal much about religion and funeral practices in ancient Colima.

A Bold Civil War Steamer

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 09, 2014

Planter-Hero-SteamerOff the South Carolina coast, archaeologists believe they have identified the remains of Planter, a steamer that was associated with one of the most daring actions of the Civil War. Chartered by the Confederacy as a transport vessel soon after the war began, Planter’s second-in-command was Robert Smalls, an enslaved black man. On a spring night in 1862, while the ship’s white crew attended a ball in Charleston, Smalls and the other black crewmen commandeered the steamer. After taking on his family, Smalls steered Planter past several Confederate forts and delivered the vessel to a Union warship. Smalls was eventually appointed Planter’s captain—the first African American to serve as ship’s master in the history of the United States military.

 

After the war, Planter hauled passengers and cotton along the South Carolina coast, and was abandoned after running aground during a severe storm in 1876. Archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) carried out a remote-sensing survey where Planter was thought to have been lost. They detected a series of magnetic anomalies that are likely concentrations of iron from the ship’s boiler. “The site is in 10 feet of water and 15 feet of sand, so excavating will be nearly impossible,” says NOAA archaeologist Bruce Terrell. “But because of its historical significance, we’ll monitor the site to ensure it isn’t threatened.”

Inheritance of Tears

By MARION P. BLACKBURN

Monday, June 09, 2014

Tennessee-Trail-of-TearsFor the Native Americans who were relocated along the Trail of Tears, disease, hunger, and stress were constant companions. The Indian Removal Act resulted in the forced march in 1838 of 17,000 Cherokee from their homes in the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains to a reservation in Oklahoma. Along the way, whooping cough, yellow fever, diarrhea, and exhaustion claimed many lives. According to a new study, those who survived, and their descendants, also bore the marks of the trial.

 

Ann H. Ross, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University, examined data on the skull size of Cherokee from the period following their removal—both among those who were relocated and some who had remained hidden in the Eastern mountains. Using records of Cherokee adult head size made in the early 1900s, she found that both the relocated Western Band and the hidden Eastern Band displayed reduced cranial length and breadth. Cranial size is determined in infancy and childhood, and smaller size is associated with poor nutrition and environmental conditions during this key developmental period. “We were surprised that there were changes in both bands,” Ross says. “The Eastern Band, hiding in the Smoky Mountains, also suffered environmental stress.”

 

The study has implications for understanding the effects of humanitarian crises, large population movements, industrial development, and contact with outsiders, Ross says. She is also using this type of research to examine the impact of European arrival on Native American populations.

Byzantine Secret Ingredient

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 09, 2014

Byzantine-Mural-AsbestosEight hundred years ago, Byzantine monks painting the walls of a monastery in Cyprus made the aesthetic choice to use asbestos—heat-resistant mineral fibers now known to be highly carcinogenic—to give their work an extra sheen. University of California, Los Angeles, archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli made the discovery while analyzing the chemical makeup of a painting depicting Jesus, beneath which she found a plaster finish containing chrysotile, one of the minerals in the asbestos group. “We were not expecting to find chrysotile in twelfth-century paintings,” says Kakoulli. “It has never been reported and we have never found it on any other Byzantine paintings.”

 


The heat-resistant properties of asbestos were known as early as 2000 B.C., when it was used to make pottery in Finland, and Roman artisans included it in fabrics used in funeral pyres to keep the ashes of the dead discrete. But scholars had believed asbestos was not used to make materials such as plasters until the Industrial Revolution. Kakoulli thinks the monks knew or discovered that the mineral made their plaster easy to smooth and able to be polished to a mirror-like surface upon which to paint. She plans to return to the monastery and examine other wall paintings to determine how widespread the innovation was.  

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