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From the Trenches

A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet


Monday, December 12, 2016

Trenches Egypt Abydos Boats


Over the past three years, archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have been excavating an ancient Egyptian boat burial in Abydos. Although very little of the actual vessel survives, it was originally interred in a vaulted subterranean mudbrick building. The site dates to around 1850 B.C., and is believed to have been part of the elaborate funerary complex of the 12th Dynasty king Senusret III. “Boats were used during funerary ceremonies and took on a magical significance,” says lead archaeologist Josef Wegner. “The boats used in this way were ritually buried as a means of emphasizing this symbolic connection with the deceased.”


The team recently uncovered a decorative tableau that was incised into the white plaster walls along the interior of the boat building. The surviving scene extends for over 80 feet and depicts more than 120 ancient Egyptian watercraft, along with animals and floral motifs. The renditions of the boats range in size and complexity, with the largest measuring five feet long, with finely detailed masts, sails, rigging, and deckhouses. Researchers are still unsure who made these etchings, as the images do not compose a single unified scene, but appear to have been created by several different hands of varying talent. It is likely that the carvings were left by individuals who were involved in the funerary ceremonies and participated in depositing the boat.

Off the Grid

Rogers Island, New York


Monday, December 12, 2016

Trenches Fort Edward Map


Rogers Island, in the middle of New York’s Hudson River about an hour north of Albany, is part of a large eighteenth-century fort and supply base built by the British in 1755 and used throughout the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During that time, expansion of the fort—to accommodate at least 16,000 soldiers—made the island and the riverbank village of Fort Edward the largest city in colonial North America, after New York and Philadelphia. Many consider the fort to be the spiritual home of the U.S. Army Rangers, as that was where Major Robert Rogers wrote his 28 “Rules of Ranging” in 1757 to dictate principles of reconnaissance and guerilla forest warfare. (Number 21: “If the enemy pursue your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks, and there form an ambush to receive them, and give them the first fire.”) The tactics proved very effective and still appear in the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook. David Starbuck of Plymouth State University says, “Archaeology is now helping to develop trails and outdoor exhibits that will highlight daily life on the early American frontier. Unlike so many forts and battlefields, Rogers Island will tell the very human story of soldiers’ lives as they camped, drilled, and prepared to fight.”


Trenches Rogers IslandTHE SITE

Rich prehistoric sites have been found on the island and east bank of the river, where Native Americans hunted and fished from about 4000 B.C. until Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century. The fort and base spanned both the island and the village on the bank. Some portions were built over—homeowners in Fort Edward have found military artifacts and bricks in their basements—but the southern half of Rogers Island was spared modern settlement and is one of the most intact sites from the French and Indian War. Excavations began in 1991 and continue, having investigated huts and barracks, the oldest smallpox hospital excavated in North America, and a merchant’s house. The visitors’ center on the island displays many of the artifacts that have been uncovered.



The Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward is a complex of buildings with historical artifacts and reconstructions dating from the 1770s to the 1940s. Fort William Henry, 13 miles away in Lake George, was, along with Fort Edward, a setting for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and features both a museum and living history exhibits. The lake is host to a variety of other recreational activities, including hot-air ballooning.

Proteins Solve a Hominin Puzzle


Monday, December 12, 2016

Trenches Neanderthal body ornaments


Around 40,000 years ago, modern humans made their way into Europe, sweeping through the continent and, eventually, driving to extinction our close relatives, the Neanderthals. Exactly how that process took place is still up for debate. Tangled up in that conversation are questions about the sophistication of Neanderthals, including whether they were capable of artistic expression, or made jewelry or complex stone tools.


Archaeologists agree that hand axes and scrapers were definitely part of the Neanderthal toolkit, and modern humans are credited with developing points made of bone and antler, as well as flint blades. But in between these two types of technology, chronologically, are the so-called Châtelperronian tools, characterized by sawtooth edges and knives with convex backs. Researchers are still unsure which hominin was responsible for them.


Trenches France Grotte du RenneScientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, applied a relatively new technique—probing ancient bones for the remains of proteins—to solve the riddle at the Grotte du Renne, a cave located 150 miles southeast of Paris. Châtelperronian tools were discovered there, mostly in the 1950s, in association with ornaments such as bead necklaces and pendants, as well as hominin remains. The jewelry implies the deposit was made by modern humans, but the bones appear to be those of Neanderthals.


Proteins are more robust than DNA, so they persist longer in bone, especially in warmer climates. The human and Neanderthal genomes—and, in turn, proteins—are nearly the same, so the team was on the hunt for small differences. “If you have a choice between DNA and proteins—with DNA around, you would want DNA,” says Matthew Collins, a professor of proteomics at the University of York and a collaborator in the new work. “If you want to push things further back in time, then no one’s really been looking at proteins.”


The research team analyzed 28 bone fragments found close to the Châtelperronian tools and screened them for preserved proteins. They recovered about 70. After eliminating several as stemming from possible contamination during handling, they analyzed the remainder. “There were a number that are only active in bone during the first one or two years of life,” says Frido Welker, a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute, who helped lead the research. Based on the presence of those proteins, Welker explains, and the size of the bones, the scientists concluded the remains were from the skull of a breast-feeding infant.


To figure out if it was a Neanderthal or human baby, they isolated sequences of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and compared them to sequences found in modern humans. They specifically looked for snippets that are either found in low frequencies in humans or show slight differences from typical human versions. If any of these were present, the bones were likely Neanderthal. They hit on one that tends only to be found in human populations in Oceania—where modern humans carry more genetic material conserved from earlier hominin populations.


As another data point, analysis of mitochondrial DNA later confirmed what the protein analysis suggested: The infant was Neanderthal. Radiocarbon dating of a section of skull put its age at roughly 42,000 years old. Thomas Higham, who runs a radiocarbon lab at the University of Oxford, and who had previously concluded that the finds at Grotte du Renne were jumbled together from two different time periods, called the new study “hugely exciting.”


“It looks as though the Châtelperronian is a Neanderthal industry,” he says. “I think it is quite possible that Neanderthals were capable of making and using personal ornaments.”