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From the Trenches

Not by Bread Alone

By ROSSELLA LORENZI

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trenches Rome Catacombs of Domitilla

 

Deep in the heart of Rome’s largest catacombs, laser beams have unveiled stunning 1,600-year-old early Christian frescoes. Mixing pagan symbols with Christian images, the paintings adorn the ceilings and walls of two burial chambers in the Catacombs of Domitilla, a labyrinth of tunnels and tombs stretching over 10 miles beneath Rome near the ancient Appian Way. The crypts, carved out of volcanic tufa, were created for wealthy merchants involved in the imperial grain trade and the production of bread. They were painted around A.D. 360, a few decades after the emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal. “The chambers have long been known, but laser cleaning has removed centuries of grime, algae, and chalk, revealing elaborate scenes and new findings,” says Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent in charge of catacombs for the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.

 

Led by Barbara Mazzei, restorers have been able to remove not just the black patina but also graffiti covering the frescoes. Old pagan symbols of the afterlife such as peacocks, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and depictions of the grain trade have emerged for the first time. Such a mixture of symbols reveals the difficult shift suffered by wealthy Romans as they slowly abandoned their pagan beliefs to embrace the new Christian religion in the fourth century A.D. Says pontifical commission head Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, “These tombs represent the roots of Rome and of Christianity.”

Capital Gains

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trenches Mexico City Temple

 

Archaeologists working in downtown Mexico City have uncovered sections of a large circular temple dedicated to the Aztec god of wind, Ehecatl, and part of a ritual ball court, that date to just before the Spanish conquest in the late fifteenth century. The team also encountered a chilling collection of 32 male neck vertebrae that researchers believe was an offering associated with the ball game. Future excavations could reveal more ritual and governmental spaces believed to have been built during the 1486–1502 reign of Aztec emperor Ahuizotl, the predecessor of Moctezuma, and will prove integral in confirming surviving Spanish descriptions of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.

Fast Food

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, August 14, 2017

An interdisciplinary study has determined that modern chickens only developed several of their most prized domestic traits within the last 1,000 years. A British team made up of archaeologists, geneticists, statisticians, and historians made the discovery by sequencing ancient DNA from chicken bone samples collected at archaeological sites across Europe, whose dates range from Roman times through the postmedieval period, and creating a model that pinpoints when specific chicken genes began to change. Though humans first domesticated jungle fowl in Asia around 6,000 years ago, it was only in the High Middle Ages that chickens began to consistently display both a lack of aggression and the capacity to lay eggs more regularly. According to Liisa Loog of the University of Oxford, a lead author of the study, one individual genetic variant may be responsible. “This particular mutation we’re looking at has been shown in modern chickens to both make them friendlier and enable them to lay eggs earlier on in the breeding season,” she says.

 

Humans, of course, favored these cooperative chickens and, unwittingly, exerted selective pressure that perpetuated their genes. To understand why chickens evolved so rapidly, Loog and her colleagues point to the spread of Christianity throughout Europe a thousand years ago, when dogmatic prohibitions on the consumption of four-legged animals and fasting rituals may have increased the demand for poultry. “Every time we see a transformation like this we just assume that it must have taken a very long time to happen,” says Loog. Instead, it seems that a widespread and rapid shift in the dietary behavior of large populations accelerated the kind of evolutionary change in chickens that is often imagined to occur over millennia. Loog explains, “It kind of shows you don’t really need to know much about genetics to make genetically modified organisms.”

Andean Copper Age

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trenches Argentina Copper Mask

 

New radiocarbon dates show that a mask discovered in a valley in northwest Argentina is the oldest worked copper artifact ever found in the Andes. The 3,000-year-old mask, which depicts a stylized human face, was discovered in the grave of a man who lived at a time when Andean peoples were first beginning to practice agriculture. Scholars had generally believed metallurgy in the New World was first developed in Peru and then spread to the rest of South America. But the mask challenges that assumption, says University of Buenos Aires archaeologist Leticia Inés Cortés, who led the team that studied the artifact. “Since complex societies later emerged in what is now Peru, there is a tendency to assume that all technological innovations did too,” says Cortés. “The mask shows that there was not one place for innovation in metalworking, but many, including this region of the southern Andes.”

A Princely Update

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trenches France Lavau Celtic Prince GraveIn 2015, French officials announced the discovery of an exceptional Celtic burial located in Lavau, Champagne. The fifth-century B.C. tomb contained a wealthy individual—likely a prince—surrounded by a luxurious assemblage of personal items and drinking vessels (“Top 10 Discoveries: Tomb of a Highborn Celt,” January/February 2016). Now, two years later, laboratory analysis of those artifacts has begun to reveal just how truly extraordinary the burial is. Scientists from the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France recently examined objects from the grave using a host of modern techniques, including X-ray tomography and radiography, 3-D imaging, and chemical analysis—a rare opportunity to employ the newest technologies on objects taken recently from the ground, as opposed to those that have been deteriorating in storerooms for decades, or those that have already undergone conservation procedures. Radiography showed that the prince’s belt was embroidered with fine silver threads that formed a continuous frieze of Celtic motifs, the only one of its kind ever discovered. His knife sheath was decorated with bronze thread. Closer examination of the metal vessels revealed their remarkable quality and the skill of the ancient metallurgists, who had mastered the smelting and engraving process. High-resolution 3-D scanning was even able to identify signs of subtle wear on a gold torc caused by its contact with human skin or clothing.

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