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From the Trenches

Cursing the Competition

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trenches Greece curseIn a fourth-century B.C. cemetery near Athens, a team led by archaeologist Maria Petritaki recently discovered a cache of five lead tablets pierced with iron nails in a grave holding a woman’s cremated remains. Four of the tablets were inscribed with text that Yale classicist Jessica Lamont recently translated. She found they contain nearly identical ritual curses that beseech the gods Hecate, Artemis, and Hermes to punish several sets of husband-and-wife business owners, probably tavern keepers. According to Lamont, it is difficult to know exactly why the person who commissioned the tablets targeted the couples, but they were likely involved in some kind of commercial rivalry. “It is possible that this cache was commissioned in connection with a court case,” she says. Lamont also notes that the style of the curse texts, which were well-written in clean, beautiful script, complete with a phrase from Homer, suggests that some sort of professional scribe or “magician,” well versed in the supernatural, was paid a considerable amount to write them. “This was an elaborate, if not desperate, ritual undertaking,” says Lamont. The tablets were likely interred with the woman’s remains because graves were seen as conduits to the gods.

Off with Their Heads

By ANDREW CURRY

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trenches England skeletonsDNA testing on the skeletons of men buried in a graveyard in York—once one of the largest settlements in Roman Britain—suggests that even the far-flung fringes of the Roman Empire were diverse places. While most of the skeletons had genetic signatures resembling people living in modern-day Wales, one of the men came from thousands of miles away. His genes match those of modern-day Syrians, and chemical analysis of his teeth shows he grew up in a desert climate. “It’s confirmation of the idea that there was a lot of migration inside the Roman Empire,” says Dan Bradley, a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin who led the work.

 

But what happened to their heads? All the men in the cemetery had been decapitated, and many were buried with their detached skulls nearby. Bradley suggests they may have been Roman soldiers or gladiators, but University of St. Andrews archaeologist Jon Coulston calls the idea that they had been gladiators “wishful thinking.” Beheading wasn’t common for gladiators—or criminals, for that matter. Coulston says, “I see no clear connection between decapitation and gladiatorial displays.” The mystery remains.

Etruscan Code Uncracked

By ROSSELLA LORENZI

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trenches Italy stelaAn inscribed stone slab unearthed at an Etruscan site in Tuscany is proving to contain one of the most difficult texts to decipher. It was believed that the sixth-century B.C. stela would shed light on the still-mysterious Etruscan language, but so far it remains a puzzle. “To be honest, I’m not yet sure what type of text was incised on the stela,” says Rex Wallace, professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts. Inscribed with vertical dots and at least 70 legible letters, the four-foot-tall and two-foot-wide slab had been buried for more than 2,500 years in the foundations of a monumental temple at Poggio Colla, some 22 miles northeast of Florence in the Mugello Valley. Archaeologists speculate that the text, written right to left, may refer to a goddess who was worshiped at the site, but so far no name of any god or goddess has been found. “The inscription is divided into words by means of three vertically aligned dots, so it’s possible to identify some of the word forms in the text,” Wallace says. “Unfortunately, most of the words that have been identified, apart from the numeral ki, ‘three,’ appear to be new additions to the Etruscan lexicon and we can’t yet pinpoint the meanings,” he adds.

 

One of antiquity’s great enigmas, the Etruscans began to flourish around 900 B.C., and dominated much of Italy for five centuries. By around 300 to 100 B.C., they were absorbed into the Roman Empire. Their non-Indo-European language eventually died out, and much of what we know comes from short funerary inscriptions. “Now we are adding another example to the inventory of texts that aren’t short and formulaic,” Wallace explains. “However, this means it will be very difficult to interpret, for that very reason.”

Naval Mystery Solved

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trenches Conestoga battery compositeThe disappearance of USS Conestoga, a seagoing U.S. Navy tugboat traveling from San Francisco Bay to American Samoa, gripped the nation in the summer of 1921. The ship and the 56 officers and sailors on board departed on March 25 but missed a planned stop in Hawaii on April 5. A thorough sea and air search found nothing, and the fate of the ship was unknown until last year, when researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a wreck in 189 feet of water near Southeast Farallon Island, just 20 miles from the Golden Gate. Video from a remotely operated vehicle has now confirmed the identity of the wreck, and based on its location and orientation, researchers concluded that the crew attempted to reach a cove on the island as shelter from rough seas.

Fact-Checking Lawrence of Arabia

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trenches Jordan bullet ambush siteSome scholars have accused British military officer T.E. Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, of exaggerating his experience fighting with Bedouin guerillas during the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Now archaeologists working in the Arabian Desert in Jordan can place him at the scene of one of the most dramatic moments described in his autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the account, Lawrence records that he led an ambush on a Turkish military train. While surveying the site of that attack, the team found a spent bullet that was fired from a Colt 1911 automatic pistol, a weapon that would have been extremely rare in the Middle East at the time—and that Lawrence is known to have carried. “You can never be 100 percent sure,” says University of Bristol archaeologist Nick Saunders, “but we are confident this bullet was fired from Lawrence’s gun.”

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