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From the Trenches

Cause of Death


Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Veronese Prince PoisonedOn July 18, 1329, Cangrande della Scala, the ruler of Verona, triumphantly marched through Treviso after conquering the rival city. Four days later he was dead, purportedly having drunk from a polluted spring. But the true cause of his death has been a nearly 700-year-long mystery, replete with rumors and accusations of poisoning. Since 2004, when Cangrande’s body was exhumed from its tomb in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Verona, Italian researchers have been conducting a multidisciplinary examination of the remains, including archaeological, palaeopathological, toxicological, and palynological analysis. Their recent findings suggest that the Veronese prince was a victim of foul play.


Pollen samples taken from Cangrande’s digestive system, as well as samples from his liver and hair, unexpectedly revealed the presence of digitalis, commonly known as foxglove. Foxglove leaves are fatal when consumed in certain quantities, and Cangrande’s remains exhibited lethal doses of its toxins. Historical sources indicate that in the days prior to his death, Cangrande suffered from fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which are consistent with foxglove poisoning. Although researchers can’t count out the possibility that Cangrande accidentally consumed the plant, they believe the demise of such a healthy and relatively young man was the result of deliberate poisoning. In addition to the foxglove, the palynological tests also indicated traces of chamomile and black mulberry, suggesting that Cangrande was served a decoction of various plants to mask the poison. The perpetrators of the crime remain unknown, though some suggest responsibility lies with rival Italian rulers, his own heirs, or even his personal physician, who is rumored to have been executed shortly after Cangrande’s death.

Medicine on the High Seas


Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Blackbeards Surgeons

A urethral syringe, clyster pump, mortar and pestle, needle, and scissors found at the wreck site of Queen Anne’s Revenge off the North Carolina coast hint that medical care was commonplace on Blackbeard’s flagship, and that crew members likely suffered from a variety of unsavory conditions. Linda Carnes-McNaughton, archaeologist and long-time volunteer with the excavation project, presented the medical finds at the annual Society of Historical Archaeology meeting in January 2015. She associated artifacts from the shipwreck with period treatments for illnesses such as dysentery (or “bloody flux”), scurvy, and syphilis. Her discoveries are not for the squeamish. For syphilis, or the “great pox,” mercury was injected into the urethra. Dysentery, constipation, or fever called for an enema, or clyster, of chamomile, cork ash, tobacco, brandy, wine, or vinegar. The blend depended on the symptoms. The treatments would have been state of the art in Blackbeard’s heyday in 1717 and 1718.


For Sarah Watkins-Kenney, lab director and chief conservator for the Queen Anne’s Revenge project, Carnes-McNaughton’s research provides an additional dimension to the ship’s significance to researchers. “It demonstrates what can be learned from this assemblage of artifacts,” she says. “It will tell us more about seafaring life in the early eighteenth century.”

Telecom History Deep Beneath the Pacific


Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Telecom ShipsA significant piece of global telecommunications history has been found 2,000 feet below the waves near Oahu. Using the manned submersible Pisces V, Terry Kerby of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory and researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered the wreck of Dickenson, a commercial vessel that repaired and serviced the undersea cables that made global communications possible in the early twentieth century. The ship was launched in 1923 and served remote Pacific communications stations until 1941, when it was chartered by a British telecommunications company to evacuate employees from Fanning Island. Dickenson arrived in Honolulu Harbor with the evacuees on December 7, 1941, just hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, the ship was chartered by the U.S. Navy, dubbed USS Kailua, and set to work maintaining cable and submarine nets. The recent mission found the vessel upright and intact, raising doubts about the report that it had been sunk by a torpedo when it was retired from service in 1946. “It looks to me like the USS Kailua was scuttled and settled peacefully on the bottom,” says Kerby, “and looks like she is sailing off into the dark like a ghost ship.”

How Grass Became Maize


Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Maize Mexico Evolution


By about 6,000 years ago, people in Mexico had domesticated a tropical grass called teosinte, beginning a process that would radically alter the plant, turning it into maize, responsible for feeding people across the world today. A team of archaeologists and biochemists recently documented the genetic changes the plant underwent in the southwestern United States. Their results show that the earliest maize in the region was a drought-resistant variety that came from the highlands of Mexico about 4,000 years ago. Sometime between 2,000 and 750 years ago, that highland maize was either accidentally cross-pollinated or intentionally bred with a starchier coastal maize variety, which likely improved its nutritional value. According to Rute da Fonseca, a biochemist at the University of Copenhagen, understanding maize evolution can help us understand how the cultures that consumed maize changed along with it. Cultivated maize can be stored and eaten year-round and requires less work to farm than most other crops. “It frees you, it gives you more free time for other things,” says Fonseca. “Maize allowed for the development of more complex societies.”

Viking Trading or Raiding?


Monday, April 06, 2015

Trenches Viking SwordLast year, the discovery of an ax head on a mountaintop overlooking Norway’s Trondheim Fjord led archaeologists to a tenth-century Viking grave. Though they found no remains, the team recovered a sword and a shield boss. The discovery seemed routine, until the boss was X-rayed. “We could see there was stuff in there,” says archaeologist Ingrid Ystgaard of the Norwegian University Science and Technology’s Museum of Natural History and Archaeology. It turned out to contain a leather purse holding Islamic silver coins that were minted in what is now Iraq, along with agates and a small lead weight. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Ystgaard. “It’s extremely rare to find coins in Viking burials, and so far as I know, none have ever been found in a shield boss.”  


Ystgaard points out that Vikings were known to travel as far as Constantinople, and the agates and coins could have been obtained through either trading or raiding. Extensive marks on the sword and shield boss show that they had been used in combat, but the lead weight secreted inside suggests the warrior may have at least occasionally played the role of merchant. “It’s a good reminder that they were not just raiders,” says Ystgaard. “This man was likely a classic trader-warrior of the Viking Age.”

Trenches Viking Shield Boss