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From the Trenches

Open House

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Trenches Villa of the MysteriesAfter being closed for the past two years, all 70 rooms of Pompeii’s most famous house, the Villa of the Mysteries, have reopened, revealing to the public for the first time the astonishing results of an extensive restoration and conservation project (“Saving the Villa of the Mysteries,” March/April 2014). Much of the most recent work, begun in 2013, focused on removing the layer of wax that had been used to protect the frescoes in the 1930s. However, it was discovered that the wax had damaged and faded the paintings’ once-vibrant colors. With the wax eradicated and the frescoes cleaned using chemical solutions and lasers, it is now possible to see, for the first time since they were buried by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, just how remarkable the paintings are. In addition to conserving the frescoes, the researchers also cleaned, repaired, and consolidated the luxurious villa’s walls and floors, both to restore their appearance and to improve the stability of the building from top to bottom.

Slime Molds and Roman Roads

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Trenches Slime Mold ModelsCan an acellular slime mold mimic the Roman road network in the Balkans? It’s not a riddle, but the subject of a new study by researchers in Greece and the United Kingdom.

 

That slime mold, called Physarum polycephalum, consists of a single large membrane around many cell nuclei, and has drawn the attention of a wide range of scientists because of its uncanny ability to solve almost impossibly complex computational problems.

 

Through rhythmic contractions of its membrane, called shuttle streaming, the slime mold grows out in search of food. If you put a P. polycephalum into a maze with two food sources in it, over a few days the organism will grow toward the food sources and retract from everywhere else except the shortest path between them. Mathematicians and network analysts call this the “shortest path problem.” When presented with additional food sources, the slime mold forms ever more complex and efficient networks. These “Physarum machines,” as they are known, may help in the understanding of communication, road, and transport networks, which also, over time, come to balance complexity and efficiency.

 

The new study applied the power of a Physarum machine (and a computer program that simulates its behavior) to landscape-scale archaeology, specifically Roman roads in the Balkans. Researchers placed a P. polycephalum in a petri dish containing 17 little bits of food representing 17 urban centers in the Balkans from the Roman imperial period. The slime mold “imitated rather spectacularly the two main military roads of the area, the Via Egnatia [across Macedonia] and the Via Diagonalis [from central Europe to Constantinople],” says archaeologist Vasilis Evangelidis of the Hellenic Ministry of Education. This was a test case, but future experiments with P. polycephalum might reveal previously unobserved patterns in complex networks of human settlement, trade, and migration.

Finding Lost African Homelands

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Trenches St Martin SlaveDuring the height of the transatlantic slave trade, from 1500 to 1850, some 12 million people were enslaved, most from West and West Central Africa. Diverse cultures, languages, traditions, and religions were found in these regions, but the ethnic and geographic origins of most of these individuals are lost to history. This is no longer the case for three slaves who were buried on the Caribbean island of St. Martin in the seventeenth century.

 

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Stanford University School of Medicine have employed a new technique for studying fragmented DNA to learn more about where these individuals came from. DNA does not last long in the tropics, but the researchers found small bits of it in tooth roots, which they then subjected to a technique called whole-genome capture. This allowed them to isolate and identify enough DNA to compare with modern samples from West Africa. One of the slaves belonged to a Bantu-speaking population in northern Cameroon, while the other two came from non-Bantu-speaking groups in Nigeria and Ghana. Though they were buried together, these three people may not have had a language in common.

 

“The findings demonstrate that genomic data can be used to trace the genetic ancestry of long-dead and poorly preserved individuals,” says lead researcher Hannes Schroeder of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, “a finding with important implications for archeology, especially in cases where historical information is missing.”

Neanderthal Necklace

By ZACH ZORICH

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Trenches Neanderthal NecklaceMore than 100 years ago, eight eagle talons were excavated from a famous Neanderthal site called Krapina, and subsequently left in a drawer at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb. Davorka Radovčic recently took over as curator, and she discovered the talons while reexamining the museum’s collections. She noticed several deep cut marks and evidence that the talons had been strung together as a necklace. The talons have been dated to about 130,000 years ago, predating the arrival of Homo sapiens in the area by about 50,000 years. The talon necklace is now thought to be the earliest known symbolic Neanderthal artifact.

A Parisian Plague

By DANIEL WEISS

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Trenches Parisian Mass GraveSeveral mass graves—one of which includes the remains of at least 150 bodies—have been discovered beneath a Paris supermarket located just a mile from Notre Dame Cathedral. The French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) unearthed the graves in advance of an expansion of the supermarket’s basement.

 

Based on the largest grave’s placement among other underground features, archaeologists believe it dates to between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The people in the grave, men and women of all ages as well as children, appear to have been the victims of a fierce epidemic, most likely plague. The bodies were buried snugly, with children nestled into spaces between adults, says Mark Guillon, a physical anthropologist with INRAP Paris and the French National Center for Scientific Research in Bordeaux. A hospital cemetery consisting largely of individual burials was located nearby, though it is unclear whether there is any connection between the two sets of burials.

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