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From the Trenches

A Dangerous Island


Monday, June 12, 2017

Trenches Scotland Eigg CaveTourists exploring Scotland’s Isle of Eigg recently called police when they found human bones lying in a cave, possible remnants of the area’s gruesome past. Legend holds that in 1577, nearly the entire MacDonald clan of the island was murdered by rival MacLeods from Skye as a result of a generations-long feud. The MacDonalds were hiding in the cave when they were discovered by a vengeful party of MacLeods, who, the story goes, blocked the entrance with vegetation and set it on fire. Almost 400 MacDonalds suffocated and died in what came to be known as Uamh Fharaing, or “Massacre Cave.”


Following a trend set by Sir Walter Scott, who brought a skull from the cave back to his house at Abbotsford, curious travelers to Eigg during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally carried off skeletal parts found in the cave as souvenirs, despite the fact that most of the bones were removed and buried in the island’s graveyard after the massacre, says Camille Dressler of the Eigg History Society. Recently, though, natural disturbances in the soil exposed additional remains, and the criminal investigation team alerted by the modern tourists was able to retrieve 53 bones now known to belong to a single individual around 16 years old. According to radiocarbon results, the bones date to between 1430 and 1620, perhaps tying them to the notorious massacre. Historic Environment Scotland archaeologist Kirsty Owen plans to commission more radiocarbon dating, as well as isotopic analysis and possibly DNA work, in the hopes of narrowing the date range.

While You Are Waiting


Monday, June 12, 2017

Trenches Rome Metro Floor Walls


Authorities in Rome have approved a plan to build a metro station similar to underground “museums” in the metro systems of Naples, Athens, Porto, and Vienna. The Amba Aradam stop of the metro’s new “C” line will be constructed near the Colosseum around an impressive second-century A.D. Roman barracks. The ruins, covering some 10,000 square feet, were found about 30 feet below street level as excavations for the station began. The ancient complex includes a 328-foot-long hallway with 39 rooms decorated with frescoed walls and black-and-white mosaic floors. According to Rossella Rea, scientific director of the archaeological excavation, the site was the garrison of the Praetorian Guard, an elite security force for Roman emperors. A grave containing 13 skeletons, most likely of soldiers, was also uncovered, along with a bronze coin and a bronze bracelet.


Trenches Rome Metro Barracks“The barracks were abandoned and completely forgotten in the third century A.D., when the Aurelian Walls were built to protect Rome against attacks,” says Rea. Now, after more than 1,700 years spent in oblivion, the garrison is poised to return to its original hustle and bustle—but not without precautions being taken. Project architect Paolo Desideri says, “The new line requires us to excavate to a depth of 130 feet, so the entire ancient Roman site will be moved and stored safely. Later, the barracks will be replaced at their original depth.” Passengers catching a train will be able to see the barracks through a large glass window. Desideri explains that the Aurelian Walls will also be exposed, so commuters can have the same view that people had in antiquity.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Trenches Jersey Celtic Coin Hoard


In 2012, a pair of veteran metal detectorists on Jersey in the British Channel Islands discovered a gargantuan coin hoard in a field they had been searching off and on for three decades. The hoard was the largest ever to have been found in Britain and appeared to have the potential to transform interpretations of Jersey’s history. But first it had to be moved. Just getting it out of the ground was fraught with tension. “With earth still attached, it weighed over a ton,” says Neil Mahrer, a museum conservator with Jersey Heritage. “We had no idea how strong it was, in that it was only held together by the corrosion between the coins.”


Trenches Jersey Clay MoundOnce the hoard was safely in the laboratory in the Jersey Museum in mid-2014, Mahrer and his team faced the next challenge: how to disassemble it. They also had a daunting deadline. Based on their funding, they needed to take it apart within three years. This would mean extricating almost 500 coins per week on average. Early on, their pace lagged as they learned to use a metrology arm that recorded the position of each coin to within one five-hundredth of an inch. A year into the project, though, with the help of a team of volunteers, they were removing up to 800 coins per week.


Along the way, Mahrer sought advice from the small club of fellow conservators with experience taking apart large hoards. To remove the corrosion from the coins, which were generally made with an alloy of silver and copper, experts at the British Museum recommended using a dilute solution of formic acid. To clean the gold jewelry embedded along with the coins—including up to 17 partial and complete gold torques—conservators who worked on the Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon hoard advised using thorns from the evergreen barberry shrub. “It turns out that this one particular thorn is soft enough not to scratch the gold surface, but will remove the corrosion and dirt,” says Mahrer. “It’s strange to think that the best way to clean these was a technique that could have been used as far back into the past as one goes.”


In late January 2017, months before the three-year deadline, the final pieces were detached. “We had to take this thing apart literally one coin at a time while having no idea what was inside,” says Mahrer. “Right up to the end, we were surprised all the time by finding new things.” The tally of coins now stands at around an astounding 69,000, though this includes an estimate of the number contained in a small cylindrical section set aside intact for future study.


Trenches Jersey Silver CoinThe great majority of the coins have been associated with the Coriosolites, a Celtic tribe known to have controlled a small area of mainland France close to Jersey. Originally, the hoard was thought to have been buried for safekeeping around 50 B.C., when the Romans were making their way through France, conquering Celtic tribes as they went. However, Olga Finch, head of archaeology at Jersey Heritage, notes that a smattering of the coins are thought to date to around 40 B.C., suggesting the hoard may have been buried after the conquest. Even given this later dating, it might still represent an attempt to hide wealth from the Romans. It’s also possible that the hoard—and a number of others that have been found on Jersey—was left with no intention of recovery. “Maybe it’s not about hiding your wealth,” says Finch. “Maybe it’s more about ritual and showing that you have so much wealth that you can afford to bury some of it as an offering to the gods.” To watch a time-lapse video of the team disassembling the hoard, click below.


Off the Grid

Gamla Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden


Monday, June 12, 2017

Trenches Sweden Gamla Uppsala Mounds


Legend, historical accounts, and archaeology are in agreement that Gamla Uppsala, in southeastern Sweden, was the home and burial place of the kings of the fifth- and sixth-century Ynglinga Dynasty. These monarchs reigned during the time depicted in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Until the arrival of Christianity, Gamla Uppsala was long regarded throughout Northern Europe as an important and sacred location and was ultimately graced by palaces, a great pagan temple, and a royal burial ground. John Ljungkvist of Gamla Uppsala University says, “These rulers transformed the entire landscape to showcase what they thought was their divine lineage.” He adds, “These monuments made Uppsala a central assembly place for nearly 1,000 years. It’s Beowulf, for real.” Today, of some 300 remaining funerary barrows, three mounds in particular, measuring between 29 and 32 feet in height, have special significance. Mythological sources identify them as belonging to the gods Thor, Odin, and Freyr, while legends state that the mounds held the remains of Ynglinga royalty. Excavations of one of the mounds began in 1846 at the instigation of the future king Karl XV (r. 1859–1872) in order to respond to what he saw as spurious claims that the mounds were simply natural landscape formations. Archaeologists, however, confirmed that there were funerary remains there, and in another of the three mounds, which was dug in 1874. All agree that the burials were princely.


Trenches Sweden Gamla Uppsala PendantThe site

The three royal mounds at Gamla Uppsala are termed Eastern Mound, Middle Mound, and Western Mound. The first excavation, in 1846, was begun on the Eastern Mound by Bror Emil Hildebrand. There he discovered an urn holding burned bones and charred grave offerings. The grave, surprisingly, held the remains of a woman and a boy, cremated and interred according to fifth- and sixth-century Scandinavian practice. In 1874, the Western Mound was found to contain a man—likely a warrior, since military equipage was uncovered along with high-quality weaponry. Ivory game pieces and cameos unearthed in the burial suggest strong trade ties reaching as far as the Mediterranean. While the Middle Mound has, as yet, not been fully excavated, in the course of digs beginning in 2012 researchers have focused on the area encircling the mounds where dwellings, outbuildings, and a variety of artifacts from everyday life—and from all classes of society—are being uncovered.


While you’re there

The museum at Gamla Uppsala features archaeological finds from the site. A composite model and a timeline help place Gamla Uppsala and its eventful Nordic history in context. In the summer months, you can take a guided tour, or you can follow an app on your phone. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to the Odinsborg restaurant right next to the museum.