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From the Trenches

Ship Underground

By DANIEL WEISS

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Trenches Virginia Ship TimbersA large portion of an eighteenth-century ship that measured around 80 feet long was recently discovered on the site of a planned hotel near the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. The vessel appears to have been scuttled between 1775 and 1798 in what were then mud flats, where it served “as sort of a pre-built framework to hold soil that was being deposited to make new land,” says Boyd Sipe, manager of Thunderbird Archeology, the firm that conducted the survey. Based on its size and evidence that its hull timbers had contact with salt water, Sipe says the ship was most likely a two-masted oceangoing heavy cargo or military craft.

 

The timbers were particularly well preserved because, once buried, they were sealed off from oxygen and were not disturbed despite extensive construction in the area in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the site, archaeologists have also discovered the remains of Alexandria’s first public warehouse, dating to the 1750s, and three privies containing extensive artifacts including a complete kaolin pipe, jewelry, ceramics, glass bottles, and parts of leather shoes.

Caesar’s Diplomatic Breakdown

By JASON URBANUS

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Trenches Netherlands Skull FragmentDutch archaeologists have examined archaeological, historical, and geochemical data to pinpoint the site of a catastrophic battle between Julius Caesar and two Germanic tribes, the Tencteri and Usipetes. According to the Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar’s firsthand account of the campaign, the two tribes crossed the Rhine River in 55 B.C. and petitioned Caesar to allow them to settle in Gaul. After negotiations collapsed and the Germans attacked his cavalry, Caesar directed his entire army of eight legions against the German camp, killing 150,000 to 200,000 men, women, and children. The recent study analyzed a deposit of metal artifacts and human skeletal remains that was retrieved during dredging of the Meuse River near the village of Kessel in the Netherlands. The mass of first-century B.C. weaponry, including swords, spearheads, and helmets, as well as the condition and radiocarbon dates of the bones, seem to confirm the site of the slaughter. Some of the skeletal remains bear holes and other marks of violent trauma. Scholars believe that the Romans may have dumped the battlefield remnants in the river after the fight. Geochemical analysis of the dental enamel of three individuals also indicates that they were not native to the Dutch river area, confirming Caesar’s own account that the Tencteri and Usipetes had emigrated from somewhere east of the Rhine. “This research is important because it not only contributes to a better understanding of the military history of Caesar’s Germanic campaigns,” says Nico Roymans of VU University Amsterdam, “but it also informs us about the highly violent nature of the Roman conquest, including cases of genocide, and the dramatic impact it must have had on the indigenous societies in this frontier zone.”

Quarrying Stonehenge

By ERIC A. POWELL

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Trenches Wales Bluestone

 

A team of archaeologists and geologists excavating two ancient quarries in the Presili Hills of west Wales has confirmed that these sites are the sources of the 43 “bluestones” erected at Stonehenge. Weighing on average between one and two tons, these igneous and volcanic rocks were transported to Stonehenge sometime around 3000 B.C. But radiocarbon dating of charcoal discovered at quarry-related camps shows that Neolithic workers were active at the two sites some 300 to 500 years before the earliest installation of bluestones at Stonehenge. This suggests that the megaliths may have been quarried and erected in the immediate area long before they were transported to Stonehenge. “We suspect that there is a dismantled stone circle monument somewhere in the area between the quarries,” says University College London archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, who led the team. “We expect to find it and excavate it in 2016.”

A Viral Fingerprint

By DANIEL WEISS

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Trenches Finland Bone SampleResearchers have extracted and characterized viral DNA from decades-old human bones for the first time—and used it to help determine the surprising origins of several long-lost casualties of war. The bones, which belonged to 106 soldiers killed in World War II, were retrieved over the past two decades from the forests of Karelia, in present-day Russia. The researchers found DNA of parvovirus, a common childhood affliction, in the remains of nearly half the soldiers.

 

The bones included in the study are thought to have all belonged to Finns, but the type of parvovirus found in the bones of two of the soldiers has never been known to occur in northern Europe. A closer look at these soldiers’ own genetic material revealed sequences that tend to be found in parts of Asia and areas to the south, suggesting that the soldiers were part of the Soviet Red Army. “This shows that viral genetic sequences—in addition to human genetic sequences—can be used as a geographical fingerprint,” says Klaus Hedman, a clinical virologist at the University of Helsinki, “providing a means of identifying people’s origins.”

Minding the Beeswax

By ZACH ZORICH

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Trenches BeeRecent results from a long-term study of pottery residues has revealed that farmers in the Middle East and Europe had been using beeswax for almost as long as they had made pots—but perhaps just not extensively. The discovery was made possible because of advances in techniques for distinguishing different types of lipids, naturally occurring molecules such as fats and waxes, from each other. Of thousands of sherds studied, about 80 were found to contain beeswax, indicating that it may have been a relatively scarce material in the Neolithic period, the time when people were starting to farm and make pottery.

 

What Neolithic people were doing with the beeswax is a matter of speculation. According to Melanie Roffet-Salque, a biochemist at the University of Bristol and leader of the research group, it may have been used to waterproof the inside of pots, or may have been deposited as wax combs were melted to extract valuable honey—one of the few sweeteners available at the time. The earliest pottery sherds containing beeswax date to the seventh millennium B.C., and were found at several sites in what is now Turkey. One of these, Cayönü Tepesi, is also where the research team previously found a pottery sherd that contains the earliest evidence of milk use.

 

Roffet-Salque also cautions that the presence of beeswax residue on pots does not necessarily mean that early farmers were beekeepers. They may have been harvesting wild honey and wax. The first solid evidence of beekeeping appears in an Egyptian painting from 2400 B.C., but bee products clearly have a much longer history. A lump of beeswax found among other artifacts in South Africa’s Border Cave is at least 24,000 years old.

 

Studying pottery using this process has produced important findings about what products Neolithic people used or valued, but it has at least one drawback. “It’s very time-consuming,” says Roffet-Salque. “It’s taken us 20 years for 6,000 sherds.”

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