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From the Trenches

Treasures of Rathfarnham Castle


Monday, February 09, 2015



While undertaking restoration work at Dublin’s Rathfarnham Castle, archaeologists recently discovered a “treasure trove” that offers a rare glimpse into life in seventeenth-century Ireland. The artifacts include a foldable toothbrush, clay pipes, jewelry, porcelain, coins, chamber pots, intact goblets, and early wine bottles. The items, among 1,700 other objects, had been left inside a wash pit and sealed beneath a stone floor that perfectly preserved them. Exactly how the items got there is still being established. They may have been hidden when the castle was attacked, or placed there for washing and never retrieved. In any case, archaeologists believe that the artifacts belonged to a specific household, most likely that of Adam Loftus, grandson of Archbishop Adam Loftus, who served as Queen Elizabeth’s chief envoy to Ireland and who originally built the castle. “These artifacts give us a rare and intimate insight into the lavish lifestyle of the castle’s residents at the time. What makes it all the more exciting is that most of the artifacts are high-end imported goods from as far away as China, which tells us that Ireland may have been more fashionable at the time than previously thought,” says Antoine Giacometti, one of the chief archaeologists working on the project. Rathfarnham Castle will reopen to visitors in 2015 with the artifacts planned to go on public display.

Off the Grid


Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-Off-the-Grid-SynagogueKrakow, one of Poland’s oldest cities, is well-known for its churches, but it also hosts the country’s most significant collection of Jewish monuments and buildings. At the end of the fifteenth century, the city’s Jewish population was driven out of the center and directed to settle in the district of Kazimierz. Known as the Oppidum Iudaeorum, or “Jewish City,” it grew into a religious and cultural center for the region’s Jews. By the 1930s more than 60,000 lived there, but the Nazi occupation rendered the district a virtual ghost town. Recently scholars, historians, and archaeologists have taken a new interest in the area. Dariusz Niemiec of the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University and a team of students are excavating in and around the Old Synagogue, the country’s oldest standing example, in the heart of the Oppidum Iudaeorum. It has a long and storied history that follows the fortunes of Poland, from the building’s initial construction in the Gothic style in the beginning of the fifteenth century, to its reconstruction in 1570 by the workshop of Renaissance architect and sculptor Mateo Gucci, to a visit from Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who led a Polish uprising against Russian and Prussian rule in the late eighteenth century, to the twentieth century, when it was looted by the Nazis.


Trenches-Off-the-Grid-ExcavationThe site


The Old Synagogue is a rare surviving example of what is known as a “fortress synagogue,” so called for its features borrowed from military architecture. Its windows, for example, are placed far above ground level, and its thick walls are buttressed to withstand assault. After restoration in the 1950s, the synagogue was opened as part of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. Niemiec’s archaeological work is focused on the exterior courtyard and aims to identify the oldest parts of the foundation and the cultural layers associated with them. Visitors today can see exhibits on various aspects of Jewish life in Krakow, as well as Cracovia Iudaeorum 3D, a digital reconstruction of the history of the district supplemented with archaeological finds, including ceramic vessels with Hebrew inscriptions.


While you’re there


It would take weeks to visit all of Krakow’s historical sites, but visitors should start with the city’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage SIte brimming with cafes and shops and a main square that is the largest medieval square in Europe. The Wawel Royal Castle complex, overlooking the Vistula River, once a royal residence, today contains a priceless collection of sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries. More recent history is reflected at the site of the Płaszów concentration camp and Oskar Schindler’s Factory, which houses a museum dedicated to the story behind Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Seismic Shift


Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-China-Excavation-PitSanxingdui was a Bronze Age civilization that flourished in China’s fertile Sichuan Basin for several hundred years before mysteriously disappearing around 1100 or 1200 B.C. Around the same time, a similar civilization sprang up in Jinsha, some 30 miles from Sanxingdui. Experts generally accept that the Jinsha civilization is a continuation of the Sanxingdui culture, but have been puzzled by what prompted the move. War? Floods? Now, a Chinese scientist has argued that the actual cause was a massive earthquake that led to a landslide that diverted Sanxingdui’s primary water source so that it flowed past Jinsha instead.


Much of what is known about Sanxingdui civilization comes from two pits dating to around the time of its disappearance. The pits contained hundreds of jade, bronze, and ivory objects that had been ritually broken or burned and then buried, and their discovery in 1986 shook up the world of Chinese archaeology.


Although some jade and stone artifacts had been found in the area in 1929, experts had thought that sophisticated Chinese civilization at the time was centered along the Yellow River in the distant Central Plains region. But the pits, which yielded expertly worked bronze items, including several giant masks with strangely distorted features, made clear that the Sanxingdui civilization was quite advanced as well. In 2001, the Jinsha site, discovered within the modern-day provincial capital of Chengdu, was found to contain bronze items that share a similar artistic vocabulary.


Trenches-China-MaskNiannian Fan, a scientist specializing in rivers at Sichuan University in Chengdu, says his interest in the Sanxingdui-Jinsha puzzle was first piqued when he noticed that the ravines and beds holding a number of waterways leading to and passing the Sanxingdui site were much wider than their current rate of flow would suggest. It seems they had once held much larger rivers. After the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Fan hypothesized that another massive earthquake had struck the same area more than 3,000 years ago, causing a landslide high in the mountains that changed the course of the Minjiang River.


“The earthquake would not have destroyed Sanxingdui directly,” says Fan. “But the water level in Sanxingdui would have decreased sharply just one or two days after the earthquake.”


Fan has gathered preliminary evidence to back up his hypothesis. Using Google Earth, he found that a stretch of mountainous terrain through which the old river would have flowed on its way to Sanxingdui lacks signs of glacial erosion that should be present, suggesting that this section may have been covered up by a landslide. In addition, he notes, an ancient text records that an earthquake occurred in 1099 B.C. in the capital of the Zhou Dynasty in Shaanxi Province. This is around 300 miles from what he presumes to have been the quake’s epicenter, but its magnitude would have ensured it was felt there. (Neither the Sanxingdui nor the Jinsha civilization left any written records.)


Trenches-Bronze-Gold-HeadAgnes Hsu-Tang, an archaeologist and host of the “Mysteries of China” series on History Channel Asia, believes that Fan’s hypothesis “is the most rational explanation [for the move from Sanxingdui to Jinsha] I have heard up to this point.”


Still, the earthquake and landslide hypothesis can’t explain why the broken and burnt objects were thrown into the pits at Sanxingdui around the time the site was abandoned. “These sacrificial pits might not have anything to do with the fleeing, but may have been a sacrificial ritual carried out regardless of the natural disaster,” says Hsu-Tang. “There is evidence suggesting that they did not do it in a hurry, that it was very deliberate, and that the objects were not meant to be recovered. And that’s what remains so mysterious.”