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From the Trenches

Henry VIII’s Favorite Palace

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trenches England Greenwich Palace

 

Of all the estates and houses available to King Henry VIII, Greenwich Palace in southeast London was known to be his favorite. The king spent more than 4,000 nights there (that’s almost 11 years in total), and he added a number of structures to it, including an armory staffed by metalsmiths from abroad. The palace was largely razed by the end of the seventeenth century, and little sign of it remains aboveground. Recently, however, two of its rooms were unearthed during construction of a visitor center at the Old Royal Naval College, which sits on the palace’s former grounds. “We knew it was quite likely we might find the odd bit of historical Greenwich,” says William Palin, director of conservation at the Old Royal Naval College, “but nothing quite prepared us for the discoveries that were made.” One of the rooms had lead-glazed tiles, and researchers believe it may have been a part of Henry VIII’s armory. The other featured a number of niches thought to have been used as “bee boles,” where hive baskets were kept warm during the winter months.

The Glass Economy

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trenches Nigeria Glass Beads BlockResearchers working in southwestern Nigeria have uncovered thousands of glass beads, fragments of crucibles, and other evidence of glass production at the site of Igbo Olokun in the ancient Yoruba city of Ile-Ife. Excavators have discovered examples of a type of soda-lime glass that was likely brought to the area by Islamic traders, as well as a much greater number of locally produced glass beads. According to Abidemi Babalola of Harvard University, who led the research, these beads, which the community valued for rituals, healing, and trade, could have been the product of a unique local glass production formula that turned Ile-Ife into a major manufacturing center between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. “The geology of Ile-Ife certainly supports glass production, which could have inspired local exploration and experimentation,” Babalola explains. “The question is whether dwindling local production necessitated importation, or contact with imported glass inspired the experimentation.”

Putting on a New Face

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trenches Italy Herculaneum FrescoWhile the streets, houses, and shops of ancient Herculaneum were preserved to a remarkable degree by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, its vibrant frescoes have suffered a tremendous toll in the years since they were first exposed. By using a new portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) device called Elio, chemist Eleonora Del Federico of the Pratt Institute has been able to see behind the damage to the surface of a painting excavated in the House of the Mosaic Atrium 70 years ago. “Using this device we can see a complex and sophisticated painting technique with details not visible to the naked eye today,” says Del Federico. But it was the “iron map”—XRF shows researchers the elemental composition of artifacts and how the elements are distributed within the object—that Del Federico says “blew her mind.” She says, “The iron map shows not only a beautiful woman, with detail, but also reveals her thoughtful expression and, for me, her humanity. Looking at the iron map, to me, is like looking into this woman’s soul.”

Fit for a Saint

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trenches Scotland Iona AbbeyAnalysis of charcoal from Scotland’s monastery island of Iona has concluded that a wooden hut often associated with Saint Columba indeed dates to his lifetime in the late sixth century. Columba, an Irish abbot and missionary, was a dominant force in the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland. He founded the monastery on Iona, which stood as a bastion of literacy and scholarship for centuries and attracted legions of pilgrims until Catholic Mass was made illegal during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Originally uncovered in the 1950s by archaeologists Charles Thomas, Peter Fowler, and Elizabeth Fowler, the charcoal comes from an ash layer of Tórr an Abba, or “Mound of the Abbot,” on the monastery’s grounds. While the three scholars believed they had found evidence of Columba’s cell, which appears to have been turned into a monument not long after his death in 597, they were never able to prove it.

 

Trenches Scotland Iona Abbey CharcoalAfter storing the Iona samples for years in his own garage, Thomas bequeathed them to Historic Environment Scotland, which teamed up with archaeologists from the University of Glasgow to radiocarbon date the material and revisit the site. “What they excavated in the 1950s was a hut that didn’t look like it had many stages, perhaps one or two constructions,” says lead archaeologist Adrián Maldonado. “At some point it burned down and that’s the charcoal we were able to date.” The latest possible date for the charcoal is A.D. 650, making it likely that Columba, and perhaps later abbots too, used the cell.

Living Evidence

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, October 16, 2017

In recent years, scientists have determined that early humans interbred with other hominin species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, by comparing the genomes of present-day humans with DNA taken from hominin fossils. Now, however, evidence of interbreeding has been found based on analysis of human genomes drawn from people currently living around the world. Specifically, researchers have focused on a gene called MUC7, which codes for a protein found in saliva.

 

A team led by Omer Gokcumen and Stefan Ruhl of the State University of New York at Buffalo studied how MUC7 varied in 2,500 present-day human genomes. To their surprise, it took a dramatically different form in around 5 percent of people from sub-Saharan Africa. The most likely explanation, the researchers concluded, was that some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, a group of humans in Africa interbred with an unknown hominin species, whose version of MUC7 has been passed down to people living there today.

 

Although this interbreeding took place before humans left Africa, the mystery hominin’s genes appear not to have been carried by those who left the continent. Based on known rates of genetic mutation, the hominin appears to have diverged from modern humans around one to two million years ago, and the researchers believe it was probably similar to other hominin species of the era, such as Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, in terms of brainpower and technological skill.

 

As genomic techniques grow more refined, Gokcumen believes we will detect more and more instances in which early humans interbred with other hominin species. “We are seeing that there were multiple humanlike groups that modern humans absorbed rather than replaced,” he says. “We are only seeing them now because we are able to look at entire genomes.”

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