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From the Trenches

Mongol Fashion Statement

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Mongolian Hat

The Golden Horde, a group of Mongols who conquered much of Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, was famously tolerant of foreign religions. Recently, however, archaeologist Zvezdana Dode of the Southern Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences completed a study of rare textiles that suggests the Mongol attitude to Christianity was sometimes more complex than simple indifference. She examined pieces of fabrics found in Mongol burials that represent Christian subjects but had been repurposed as clothing, such as a hat that depicts an upside-down Jesus flanked by two archangels. She suggests that these fabrics, likely seized from Russian churches, were not merely the spoils of war. “The Mongols were able to observe employment of icons and banners with Christian symbols by the Russian military,” says Dode. “It’s possible they interpreted these symbols as devices for supernatural warfare.” By wearing an inverted Christian motif into battle, a Mongol warrior may have thought he was neutralizing that threat.

A Shipwreck in Drydock

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Friday, April 03, 2015

Trenches China Nanhai Shipwreck

 

One of the most spectacular shipwreck projects in Chinese underwater archaeology was the 2007 raising—intact, with the surrounding sediment—of Nanhai Number One, the wreck of a Song Dynasty merchant vessel (see the September/October 2011 feature “Pirates of the Marine Silk Road”). A 3,000-ton steel cage brought the wreck to a custom saltwater tank in a newly built museum on Hailing Island in Guangdong. The museum was completed in 2009, and full-scale excavations began in late 2013. Recently archaeologists have reached the interior of the ship, and have so far found more than 600 pieces of porcelain, 100 gold artifacts, and 5,000 bronze coins, among other items—with countless more to come. Nanhai Number One dates to between A.D. 1127 and 1279, a time when China’s ocean-based trade and exploration flourished, before the fleet was dismantled a few centuries later.

The Price of a Warship

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Yenikape Byzantine GalleyA salvage excavation occasioned by the construction of a rail project crossing the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, turned up a bonanza of shipwrecks from the Byzantine era: In all, 37 have been found since 2004. Now a team of researchers has scrutinized each timber in eight of the wrecks, dating from the seventh to tenth centuries A.D., and has gained new insight into the markedly different materials used to build merchant ships and warships of the time.

 

The team studied six merchant round ships, powered primarily by sail, and two galley warships, powered by oar. “The merchant ships were massive and would have bludgeoned through the waves,” says Cemal Pulak of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in College Station, Texas, “whereas the galleys are long and flexible and their timber is quite light—and they selected different types of material for that.”

 

Trenches Yenikapi ByzantineAnalysis of the ships’ timbers found a number of indications that the warships were built at greater expense. For example, the galleys’ planking consisted of European black pine, which would have been imported from afar, while readily available Turkey oak was used in the round ships. It is unclear whether merchant galleys of the time were built with the same high-quality materials as galley warships, as no merchant galleys from the Byzantine era have yet been found.

Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur

By KATE RAVILIOUS

Friday, April 03, 2015

Trenches Medieval Vellum Goat HornsAt a site soon to be a multistory parking garage in the English city of Norwich, recent excavations have uncovered an upmarket thirteenth-century tannery. In December 2014, trial trenches at this low-lying city-center location revealed temporary platforms and freshwater pits, typical of a tannery. Archaeologists also found vast numbers of goat horn-cores—the inner part of the horn—suggesting that it was mostly goatskin being processed there. “Goatskin was used to make very high-quality leather and it is possible they were making vellum, the parchment used for scrolls and books,” says lead archaeologist David Adams. The site’s location, between two monasteries, and the period it was in operation, from the 1200s to the 1500s, fit with this idea. Meanwhile, a handful of worked cat bones show that cat fur was also being produced there, perhaps for trim on hats or gloves—a common use for it in medieval Britain.

A Slice of Parasitic Life

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Iron Age Fluke EggsIt’s hardly surprising that an Iron Age settlement in which livestock lived alongside people and open pits served as latrines would be overrun with intestinal parasites. As expected, researchers studying sediments from some of these pits at a settlement in present-day Basel, Switzerland, dating to around 100 B.C., found roundworm, whipworm, and liver fluke eggs.

 

What makes their findings notable is the method they used. Archaeologists typically detect parasite eggs through “wet sieving,” in which soil is moistened and then strained, which allows a large volume of fill to be searched, but provides no information on where the eggs were originally located. Instead, at Basel, scientists have produced very thin slices of sediment that can be studied under a microscope, which preserves the location of the parasite eggs in their original setting. “You would expect the parasite eggs to be close to where the feces were,” says Sandra Pichler of the University of Basel, “but we found that the eggs get washed out by water and spread around. Even sediments without any fecal indicators still had parasite eggs.”

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