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From the Trenches

Surely You Joust?


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trenches Knight BurialThe remains of an injured medieval knight who may have had a serious appetite for jousting have been identified among some 2,500 skeletons unearthed at England’s Hereford Cathedral. The knight immediately stood out because of unusual fractures on the right side of the body. “We were aware of this individual even before he was removed from the ground,” says Headland Archaeology’s Andy Boucher, who supervised the project’s post-excavation analysis. Osteological examination shows that the injuries, including many broken ribs and a shattered shoulder, were the result of blunt force trauma. “In a jousting tourney the knights used blunt weapons,” says Boucher. “If these had been battle wounds, some sharp trauma would be expected.”  


The identity of the knight remains a mystery, though isotopic analysis of his teeth shows that he was probably born in Normandy and moved to Hereford as an adult. He was about 45 when he died, and not fully recovered from the injuries, suggesting he was still jousting at a relatively advanced age. Once the remains are carbon dated, it may be possible to identify him in contemporary tournament records.

As American as Sliced Bacon in a Can


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trenches WII American Supplies


There’s more to the Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge. Throughout the twentieth century it was utilized as a military training ground, including during World War II, when U.S. forces used the plain as a staging ground for European operations. Over the last few years, archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology have found and excavated the remains of American camps and barracks, and have recently announced some of the finds, including cans of sliced bacon from Chicago (empty, fortunately) and a cache of 16 small cans of New Jersey–made “U.S. Cream Sunburn Preventive” (still creamy).

A Place to Hide the Bodies


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trenches Homo heidelbergensis SkullIn northern Spain about 430,000 years ago, the bodies of at least 28 early humans—evolutionary precursors of Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis—found their way to the bottom of a 43-foot-deep shaft in the bedrock that archaeologists call Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of the Bones.” How the bodies got there is a mystery that Nohemi Sala, a paleoanthropologist at the Joint Center for Evolution and Human Behavior at the Institute of Health Carlos III in Madrid, has been trying to solve since 2007. Several explanations have been proposed: Carnivores might have dragged them there, or perhaps 28 separate hapless hominins accidentally fell down the shaft. In one particular case, the pit appears to have been used to dispose of the earliest known murder victim.


Sala discovered the evidence of murder while studying breakage patterns of the bones—6,700 in total. Most breaks had occurred over the millennia that the bones sat in the ground, but one skull had some very distinctive damage. Two breaks in the forehead appear to have occurred while the individual was alive. With no signs of healing, they indicate the individual did not survive long after being struck. The wounds had been made by a blunt object, and each blow was probably deadly on its own, which rules out the possibility of a hunting accident or unusual suicide attempt.


Sala’s analysis was also important for what it did not reveal. The pit bones did not show much evidence of carnivore damage, or the type of breaks that might occur had people merely fallen in. Sala believes, instead, that Sima de los Huesos was purposefully used to dispose of the deceased, and that it may reflect the capacity of H. heidelbergensis for both violence and compassion. “They cared for the dead,” says Sala, “and this is a very human behavior.”

“T” Marks the Spot


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trenches Egypt Temple Remains

The remains of a temple at Gebel el-Silsila in southern Egypt were last described in 1934, but were subsequently lost. A map from the early twentieth century, however, marked its general location with a “T.” This spring, using that map, a team led by Maria Nilsson of Sweden’s Lund University uncovered the lost temple’s foundation, which dates back to the fifteenth century B.C. The temple was located at a quarry that provided the building blocks for many of ancient Egypt’s major temples, including Luxor and Karnak. Unexpectedly, and despite the ample supply of sandstone at the quarry, the oldest part of the temple turns out to have been made of limestone. Later construction phases, including those associated with the pharaohs Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, used the local sandstone. 

What’s in a Name?


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trenches Roman GravestoneWhat seemed at first to be a simple ancient Roman burial has become an interesting case of how quickly archaeological interpretations can change. In February 2015, archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology, working on the site of a new parking lot under construction in Cirencester in western England, found a tombstone. Because the site was known to have been a cemetery, the discovery was not especially surprising. But once they had completely excavated it, they found the artifact to be quite unusual. Unlike the other small tombstone fragments found at the site, it was intact, and when they turned it over, they saw that it contained an inscription. Fewer than 300 inscribed tombstones from the period have been found in England.


The inscription reads, “In memory of Bodicacia, devoted wife, lived 27 years,” and includes a carved image of the head of a god identified as Oceanus. The discovery got even more exciting when excavators found a skeleton underneath the stone, perhaps an opportunity to identify the buried person, another rarity for the Roman period in England. Upon further examination, however, they found that the skeleton belongs to a man, and that the stone, which dates to between A.D. 125 and 175, was reused perhaps a full two centuries later.




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