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From the Trenches

Switzerland Everlasting

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trenches Switzerland Morgarten ArtifactsWhile neutrality has long been a hallmark of Swiss identity, that wasn’t always the case. In 1315, Duke Leopold of Hapsburg set out to consolidate his power within the Holy Roman Empire and marched into areas controlled by the Swiss Confederacy—then a local alliance. According to historical sources, the more experienced, better-equipped Hapsburg knights were ambushed by Swiss soldiers on the shores of Lake Aegeri. “At Morgarten, as the location is called, the foreign forces were stopped and, as the lore goes, badly decimated,” says Stefan Hochuli, an archaeologist with the Swiss Department of the Interior. Hochuli and officials from the cantons of Zug and Schwyz have found evidence, including knives, arrows, and a spur, that may pinpoint the location of the Battle of Morgarten. The decisive, brutal victory is considered a foundational moment for Switzerland, as it strengthened the Everlasting League, the nucleus of the confederacy.

Premature Aging

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trenches Coal Power PlantThe use of radiocarbon dating, which allows archaeologists to estimate the age of human, plant, and animal remains, may soon be complicated by fossil fuel emissions. The technique works because carbon, a key component of living things, exists in radioactive and nonradioactive forms. Radioactive carbon decays at a known rate, so researchers can estimate a specimen’s age based on the portion of its carbon that is still radioactive. Fossil fuels are millions of years old and contain no radioactive carbon, so the more of them burn, the lower the proportion of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere and, in turn, in contemporary organic materials. Nuclear weapons testing increased the amount of radioactive carbon in circulation, but fossil fuel emissions have almost completely countered this effect.

 

Heather Graven, a climate physicist at Imperial College London, has modeled the potential impact. “In the business-as-usual scenario where fossil fuel emissions are increasing strongly over the century,” she says, “by 2050, the atmosphere could have the same radiocarbon date as a sample that’s about a thousand years old.” In other words, to future archaeologists, a brand-new garment made in 2050 would have the same proportion of radioactive carbon—and therefore the same radiocarbon date—as one worn by a combatant in the Battle of Hastings, in 1066.

The Magnetism of the Iron Age

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trenches Earth Magnetic FieldThe Earth’s magnetic field helps protect the planet’s surface from the solar wind and cosmic rays. It’s not a static barrier, but rather a complex system generated by iron flowing in the Earth’s outer core. Every few hundred thousand years, the north and south magnetic poles “flip” position, and for the last 160 years, the magnetic field has been weakening. The causes of the reversals and weakening are unknown, but scientists are finding clues in the charred remains of Iron Age houses in southern Africa.

 

During the Iron Age, people there would, perhaps because of a bad harvest, ritually “cleanse” their villages by burning them down. The fires burned hot enough to melt magnetic materials in the clay. When those materials cooled and solidified, they were remagnetized by the magnetic field, recording its intensity and direction at that moment.

 

Southern Africa lies within the South Atlantic Anomaly, a particularly weak patch in the magnetic field, larger than the United States. If it grows large enough, according to University of Rochester geophysicist John Tarduno, it could trigger a reversal of the poles. Understanding how the magnetic field, especially in southern Africa, has changed over time might help scientists better comprehend these processes, since there has not been much good historical data on the southern magnetic field. Because of Iron Age superstition, Tarduno and his colleagues now have a record of the anomaly for between 1,600 and 1,000 years ago.

 

The findings show that during the Iron Age, the magnetic field was as it is today: weakening, with a big southern dent. The field has recovered to a degree since then, but is now weakening again. This suggests that there is some recurring disruption in the flow of the outer core that, like an eddy in a stream, comes and goes. If that eddy grows large enough, Tarduno says, a reversal might be imminent. Such a reversal could take thousands of years to be completed, and while the Earth would have some magnetic protection during this time, satellite communications, the ozone layer, and our power infrastructure would all be at some risk.

Rituals of Maya Kingship

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trenches Guatemala HieroglyphicsTwo hieroglyphic panels found at the ancient Maya city of La Corona in Guatemala are providing new details about the history of the site’s rulers. One panel shows a dancing king from the city of Calakmul, who ruled in the late ninth century A.D. and probably served as overlord of La Corona. A second panel of hieroglyphic writing tells the story of a king of La Corona named “Red Turkey,” the permissions he had to receive, and the rituals he had to perform to earn his crown. Project director Marcello Canuto of Tulane University says, “It’s a luxury of detail regarding the accession to the throne.”

Game of Diplomacy

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trenches Utah Cane DiceIn the thirteenth century A.D., people living in a cave near Utah’s Great Salt Lake spent their free time playing games. Excavations there, led by University of Alberta archaeologist John Ives, have unearthed some 1,300 gaming and gambling pieces, including dice made from split cane. Ives believes the avid gamers were Apache and Navajo ancestors who spent one or two generations in the cave during a long migration to the American Southwest from subarctic Canada. It was a turbulent time, with environmental and social changes roiling the continent, and games may have been helpful in dealing with unfamiliar and potentially hostile neighbors. “Playing games can be a way of negotiating new relationships,” says Ives, “particularly between people who may not have spoken the same language.”

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