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From the Trenches

Mask Metamorphosis

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trenches Israel Pan combined 

Just as the details of a spectacular first- to third-century A.D. bronze mask have emerged after more than a year of conservation, so has the true nature of a newly excavated area of the important ancient city of Hippos-Sussita in Israel begun to take shape. The mask is almost 12 inches tall and 11 inches wide, and weighs more than 11 pounds. Because the artifact is unique—it is the only large bronze mask depicting the wild, rustic demigod Pan to have been found in Israel—conservators decided to clean half by hand, then assess it before continuing with the rest.

 

Trenches Israel Roman bastionMore recently, the Hippos-Sussita team, led by Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa, has uncovered a large basalt propylaeum, or gateway, which he can now connect with the tower in which the mask was found. “At first the mask seemed like it was almost a random find, having been discovered some 60 feet away from the complex we were digging in,” says Eisenberg, “but now I am starting to realize that it’s connected to that area and supports one of the leading assumptions we have—that we are actually excavating a sanctuary dedicated to the god Dionysus or to Pan, who was part of his retinue.”

The City That Wasn’t

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trenches Greece dolomite columnTrenches Greece dolomite pavingFormations discovered in shallow water off the coast of the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea were initially thought to be the remains of an ancient Greek city. However, there is a puzzling absence of artifacts such as ceramic sherds among what appear to be columns and paving stones to indicate that people had ever actually lived there. Now researchers have subjected these “structures” to a range of tests, and found that they are indeed extremely old, but they certainly weren’t made by the ancient Greeks.

 

“The first few photographs I saw really did look as if they might be columns and paving slabs,” says Julian Andrews, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia, “but as I saw more images, it was clear they probably weren’t.”

 

Based on carbon isotope analysis of a sample of the formations, Andrews and his colleagues determined that they were formed by microbes that use hydrocarbons seeping through the seafloor, most likely methane, as nourishment. These bacteria lived around 16 feet below the seafloor at the time, in an oxygen-free environment. Their waste helped transform the sediment around the seeps into a natural cement-like substance known as dolomite. In the years since, the sediment eroded away, exposing the formations.

 

Analysis of strontium isotopes in the sample helped the researchers determine when they were created. “We can be reasonably confident they’re no older than the Pliocene Epoch,” says Andrews, “so they’re probably no older than four million years.”

Culture Clash

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trenches France Alsace burialIn northeastern France’s Alsace region, a team from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research has discovered graphic evidence for a violent Neolithic-era clash of cultures. While digging in a fortified village dating to between 4400 and 4200 B.C., archaeologists unearthed a storage pit that held the mutilated remains of five men and one teenage boy, as well as four severed left arms. Archaeologist Philippe Lefranc suggests the limbs were battlefield trophies, and that the skeletons belonged to members of a captured enemy war party. “I think we are seeing ritualized violence against captives who were initially alive,” says Lefranc. “It probably took place in the middle of the village during a victory celebration. All the remains were eventually thrown in a ritual refuse dump.” Lefranc thinks the enemy warriors were from a new population migrating into the area from the Paris Basin to the west. Despite losing this round, they eventually triumphed. At the end of the fifth millennium, the local pottery style and burial rituals were replaced by those of the newcomers, and all the old villages in Alsace were relocated.

Lost and Found (Again)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trenches Scotland silver block

 

In 1838, a cache of silver was found at Ley Farm in Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland. While what came to be known as the Gaulcross Hoard might have originally contained more artifacts, only three pieces are known today from the original discovery. Almost 200 years later, archaeologists have gone back to the site and unearthed no less than 100 new silver artifacts from the hoard, including ingots, a crescent-shaped pendant, and a zoomorphic brooch, along with other jewelry fragments.

 

Some of the most interesting objects are what is termed hacksilver—plates, spoons, belt fittings, bracelets, and even coins that were deliberately broken, cut, or bent before being used as currency or melted down for reuse. “Our work is the first to acknowledge the existence of hacksilver extending beyond the Roman period and into the fifth and sixth centuries a.d. in Scotland,” says Alice Blackwell, who is studying the hoard as part of the National Museum of Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project. “It has long been apparent that silver was the main material used in early medieval Scotland to show wealth and power, but what we have lacked until now is any real understanding of how this most precious resource was managed.”

 

A True Viking Saga

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trenches Norway Trondheim wellA skeleton found at the bottom of an abandoned well in Trondheim, Norway, seems to confirm a tale of defeat and destruction told in an ancient Norse saga. In 1197, a faction of the Norwegian aristocracy known as the Baglers attacked Sverresborg, the castle stronghold of the Viking king Sverre. The story of the siege—including the “killing” of the castle’s well by throwing the dead body of one of the king’s men into it—is well known, but its veracity has been questioned. “Sverre’s saga has very detailed descriptions of the battles between the king and his main enemy, and it’s also rich in references to places and people,” says lead archaeologist Anna Petersén of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research. “The human remains in the well indicate that the saga is trustworthy. The proven relationship to events described in Norwegian history makes this discovery unique, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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