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Worlds Within Us

Pulled from an unlikely source, ancient microbial DNA represents a new frontier in the study of the past—and modern health


Monday, September 26, 2016

The largest ancient DNA laboratory in the United States sits behind a heavy steel door in a plain service hallway at the University of Oklahoma. Inside, researchers find, extract, isolate, and amplify DNA molecules and proteins, producing voluminous mounds of data that can address grand, complex questions about migration, diet, and human health—in the deep past and today. They’re probing the limits of new methodologies. They’re encountering the advantages and pitfalls of interdisciplinary science. And they’re writing the first drafts of a new chapter in archaeological research. But before they can do any of this, they have to ensure that the lab is scrupulously clean.


Next to the door, a red button, when pressed, produces a satisfying thump and turns off powerful UV lights inside. A series of pressure gauges climbs next to it. The lab’s six rooms are kept under positive pressure, double-sealed, and have their own air supply, filtered free of anything larger than 1,000 daltons—the mass of just 1,000 hydrogen atoms. People who enter must take off their shoes, change into scrubs, and, by the time they reach the two innermost rooms, don Tyvek suits, surgical masks, hairnets, and face shields. Those chambers are free of anything extraneous: Only sample vials and scientific equipment are visible. The DNA and proteins that the researchers work with there come from ancient microbes, and keeping the lab free of contamination is a tall order in a world that is positively swimming with their modern counterparts.


Microbiome DNA Calculus


“Usually, ancient DNA work is performed in dungeon-like labs located in windowless basements,” says Christina Warinner, anthropologist and codirector of the Laboratories of Molecular Anthropology and Microbiome Research (LMAMR). This lab, however, is fitted with picture windows that face the atrium of the university’s Stephenson Research and Technology Center, so visitors can watch the scientists and students inside process microscopic genetic samples that can be centuries or even millennia old.


The microbes that are the focus of the LMAMR—from both ancient and modern sources, with separate lab facilities for each—come from what is known as the human microbiome, the myriad communities of bacteria (as well as eukaryotes, viruses, and archaea) that reside in and on our bodies. In only the last few years researchers have begun to understand that studying how the microbiome has shifted over thousands of years, particularly at moments of great change in human history, has the potential to reveal some of the ways in which how we eat, live, and move around the world have affected human biology. Any number of questions—medical, archaeological, demographic, evolutionary—that were unframeable just five years ago can now be asked and ultimately answered on scales ranging from molecular to continental.

Romans on the Bay of Naples

A spectacular villa under Positano sees the light


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Positano Villa Fresco Cupid


Once we reach the spot, you won’t believe your eyes,” says archaeologist Luciana Jacobelli of the University of Molise as she opens a small door to the crypt of the church of Santa Maria Assunta in the center of town. It’s very dim inside, and she has to use a flashlight as we make our way. We slowly climb down a series of ladders through a forest of iron scaffolding toward what seems to be the only well-lit area, nearly 30 feet under the church. Jacobelli then leads me into a room and, as promised, frescoes in dazzling green, yellow, red, and blue seem to illuminate the space on their own. We have arrived at the extraordinarily well-preserved remains of a lavish villa marittima, or seaside villa, once a luxurious retreat for the rich of ancient Rome to escape the summer heat and the hustle and bustle of city life in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.


Positano Villa Fresco Fragment VibrantSwiss architect and engineer Karl Weber, the first scholar to supervise excavations of the areas destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, appears to have seen the villa on April 16, 1758, during his explorations. In his field report he writes that he had begun to dig near the “church with bell tower, not far from the beach that is at the base of Mount Santa Maria a Castelli and Mount Sant’Angelo; at a depth of 30 spans we found a famous ancient building whose first mosaic is made of white and fine marble.”


It was only during restoration work on the crypt in 2003 that archaeologists had a chance to enter the villa’s stunning triclinium, or dining room, for the first time. But after only three years of digging, they were forced to stop when funding ran out, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that excavations resumed. For the rest of the year, before funding for the project ran out again, Jacobelli led a rescue excavation under the supervision of the local archaeological superintendent, Adele Campanelli, and archaeological supervisor Maria Antonietta Iannelli. A team of archaeologists and conservators worked to remove mud and lapilli (small stones ejected by a volcanic eruption) and to expose and clean the stunning wall paintings emerging from the debris.

 Positano Villa Triclinium Molding







Roman Holiday

A New View of the Birthplace of the Olympics

Taking an innovative approach to one of ancient architecture’s most intriguing questions


Monday, August 15, 2016

Olympia Hera Temple


For a variety of field projects over the last decade, archaeologist Phil Sapirstein has lugged more than 20 pounds of high-tech laser imaging equipment around the Mediterranean gathering data to create 3-D models of ancient monuments. “I have been working on architectural history for quite a while,” says Sapirstein, who teaches at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “and one of my main focuses has been the general problem of the origin of architectural styles, especially the Doric style, in the Archaic period [ca. 700–480 B.C.].”


More often than not, little remains of Archaic buildings. The mid-seventh-century B.C. Old Temple at Corinth, dedicated to the god Apollo, burned down and was replaced, obliterating most evidence of the original building. Other structures from the period were flawed due to the lack of experience with engineering and construction techniques needed for monumental stone architecture. The early temple of Hera on the island of Samos, for instance, which Sapirstein characterizes as an “experimental building,” didn’t survive because it subsided into the marshy land on which it was built. Further complicating the effort to identify these early buildings, the stone was often reused, obscuring its original context.


What does frequently survive, however, are the temples’ ceramic roof tiles. Sapirstein realized that these tiles, which are relatively abundant, were an underutilized source of information, especially when examined using 3-D imagery. “I started working with 3-D modeling software early on because you often have to reconstruct the roofing system from very tiny fragments,” explains Sapirstein. “With this software, I could see what the roofs actually would have looked like and how they functioned. It worked great.” But Sapirstein knew the technology was impractical, if not impossible, for most archaeologists to use. “You have to acquire a scanner, which takes some doing, and it’s really expensive,” he says. “You then have to know how to use it and how to process the models. It’s a huge investment.” Sapirstein wanted to find an alternative method—and for this he returned to one of the temples that started it all.


The temple of Hera at Olympia, or the Heraion, dates to around 600 B.C. and is one of the oldest surviving Greek stone Doric temples. In his Description of Greece, the second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias describes legendary events that, along with actual stylistic attributes of the Heraion, led Wilhelm Dörpfeld—a German archaeologist working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the scholar most closely associated with the structure—to date the original building to 1096 B.C. However, while there is evidence of ritual activity at Olympia dating back to the eleventh century B.C., there were no permanent large structures at this early date. And even when the Olympics first took place, probably well after the traditional date of 776 B.C., there were likely no sizeable buildings at the site.


Located in the north part of the Altis, Olympia’s sacred precinct, the Heraion is probably the site’s first monumental stone building. Dörpfeld dug trenches under the temple and found two structures he interpreted as predecessors. But scholars today no longer believe there were in fact any previous buildings on this spot, and that what Dörpfeld had actually uncovered was the Heraion’s foundation. “The Heraion is actually very well preserved,” says Sapirstein, “and doesn’t appear to have been significantly altered or renovated after its construction, despite its thousand-year history of use. It’s one of the very few of these early buildings we can date from stratigraphic and not just stylistic evidence.” The temple is also the first well-preserved peripteral Doric temple—that is, having columns completely surrounding it. “This is an important moment in Greek architecture,” says Sapirstein. “The fact that the Heraion’s columns are made of stone, which is expensive and labor intensive, signifies a major expansion of the investment the Greeks put into building a monumental structure.”


Olympia Slideshow