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From the Trenches

The Buddha of the Lake


Monday, April 10, 2017

Trenches China Fuzhou Buddha Statue wide


When a hydropower construction project lowered the water level of the Hongmen Reservoir in the southeastern Chinese city of Fuzhou, an unexpected visitor appeared—the head and shoulders of a 12-foot-tall Buddha statue carved into what had been a riverside cliff before the area was flooded by a dam in the 1950s. Underwater archaeologists found evidence of a temple below. According to locals, tricky currents made river navigation perilous, so the temple may have been where people prayed for safe passage. Researchers are documenting the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) finds before they are submerged once again by spring rains.

The Third Reich’s Arctic Outpost


Monday, April 10, 2017

Trenches Arctic German WWII Base Block


In 1943, the German navy constructed a secret base on the island of Alexandra Land in the Arctic Ocean. Codenamed “Treasure Hunter,” the station was staffed by meteorologists who provided weather forecasts to German cruisers and submarines in the Arctic. After the war, Soviet officials ordered the base destroyed. “We had only a very vague understanding of where the station was and how much had been preserved,” says Russian Arctic National Park archaeologist Evgeni Ermolov, who led a team that recently rediscovered the site. They found evidence of residences, warehouses, and a network of defensive structures, along with artifacts such as cartridges, batteries, and even pieces of raincoats. “We were surprised to find some artifacts still bearing German military insignia,” says Ermolov.


After the station’s destruction, rumors circulated that it had also been a submarine base and was outfitted with fortified bunkers. The team found no evidence to support that theory, but they did discover the remains of a temporary airfield. It was built in July 1944 for a long-range reconnaissance aircraft that set down on the island to evacuate the station. The base’s entire crew had contracted trichinosis after eating undercooked polar bear meat, and had to be flown to Norway for treatment, leaving the station abandoned for the remainder of the war.

The Vikings’ Wide Reach


Monday, April 10, 2017

Trenches Scotland Viking Ax HeadTrenches Scotland Viking Boat BurialRecent analysis of the only intact Viking boat burial ever discovered on the British mainland has revealed new information about the identity, culture, and origins of the interred individual. The tenth-century grave, which belonged to a high-status warrior, was first discovered in 2011 in western Scotland. Isotope analysis of two teeth indicates that the occupant of the grave was likely born in Scandinavia. The grave assemblage included several weapons, typical of Viking warrior burials, and other items related more to daily life such as food preparation and farming. The artifacts came from a wide range of sources, including Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia, underscoring the broad geographical connections of the well-traveled warrior. Says University of Leicester archaeologist Oliver Harris, “This burial helps us learn about how Viking people were interacting and eventually settling in this part of Scotland at the time.”

Close Quarters


Monday, April 10, 2017

Trenches Virginia Monticello Excavation


In February 2017, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Jefferson’s home, Monticello, uncovered and began reconstructing what they believe were the personal quarters of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman and longtime companion to the founding father. The work is part of the Mountaintop Project, a multiyear effort to peel back early twentieth-century modernization at Monticello and reveal the experience of enslaved people who lived and worked there.


Excavating in the mansion’s south pavilion, archaeologists have found rooms that housed enslaved domestic servants, including Hemings, who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, and, almost certainly, mother to several of his children. Ambitious even for a man of Jefferson’s stature, Monticello’s original kitchen included French-style stew stoves, which allowed cooks, including Hemings’ brother James, who was trained in Paris during Jefferson’s time as minister to France, to prepare continental haute cuisine.


“How this is all going to be interpreted is a work in progress,” says Fraser Neiman, director of archaeology at Monticello. “We are trying to get folks to think about Sally and James Hemings as people with full lives, rather than just ciphers to Thomas Jefferson.”

Standing Still in Beringia?


Monday, April 10, 2017

Trenches Canada Horse Mandible


The Bluefish Caves, which sit along a Canadian riverbank just over the Alaska border, in northwestern Yukon Territory, were first excavated 40 years ago. The digs lasted a decade and yielded a small collection of stone tools, thousands of bone fragments, and the controversial assertion that humans inhabited the site as early as 24,800 years ago, far earlier than most other evidence suggested.


While debate over the caves has faded, University of Montreal PhD candidate Lauriane Bourgeon took a second look at 36,000 bone fragments from the excavations. After two years of analysis, she isolated 15 samples that seem to bear marks of human modification: cuts from stone tools that are deeper and thinner than if the bones had been trampled on. In cross-section, the cuts appear to be V-shaped, as opposed to the characteristic U-shape made by carnivores’ teeth. Bone samples were dated to between 12,000 and 24,000 years old, with the oldest being the jawbone of a horse that scientists believe was extinct in the region by 14,000 years ago—around the same time that humans are widely accepted to have entered North America.


The controversial new finding not only pushes the occupation of North America back by 10,000 years, it also lends credence to the Beringian standstill hypothesis, which posits that humans, while migrating from Siberia to the Americas, paused in Beringia—the ancient, now largely submerged land that included Kamchatka and Alaska—during the Last Glacial Maximum. They waited there, the theory states, until conditions improved about 17,000 years ago.


Lee Lyman, a bone-analysis expert at the University of Missouri, calls Bourgeon’s assessment that humans made the bone markings “pretty convincing.” But Ben Potter at the University of Alaska Fairbanks remains unconvinced that humans were in the region so long ago, even though he called the new work “as good as cut-mark analysis could get.” Without cultural features, such as organic residue or hearths, that can be dated and tied directly to the tools and bones, he says, the date appears to be an outlier.


“We’re lacking archaeological evidence in Beringia,” Bourgeon says in response to her critics. “We need to find more evidence. It would help people to be less skeptical of this study.”