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From the Trenches

Tales Out of School

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trenches England Oxford Backpack StylusesOne of the largest urban excavations ever conducted in Oxford, England, has revealed artifacts relating to the lives of medieval students and clergy at the city’s famous university. Hundreds of items recovered from the site of Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary connected with Oxford, founded in 1224 and closed in 1538 during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, include writing styluses, book clasps, leather sandals, and glass vials possibly used for experiments, as well as animal bones, cutlery, beer mugs, and jugs for storing wine. According to Ben Ford of Oxford Archaeology, ample evidence of eating and drinking suggests pleasures of the table held considerable importance for the community. “We are looking in particular at the food remains,” he says. “Did they adhere to their vow of poverty, and did this change through the life of the friary? Are there any indications of higher status foodstuffs, and how did the diet of the friars compare to that of the ordinary townsfolk?”

 

Trenches England Oxford Greyfriars

Seaworthy Sumerians

By DANIEL WEISS

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trenches Iraq Sumerian HarborThe Sumerians are known for having established one of the world’s earliest agricultural civilizations, but a chance discovery in southern Iraq suggests they also traveled the seas and conducted long-range trade. In 2016, researchers from the Sapienza University of Rome were excavating at the site of Abu Tbeirah when they spied clay bricks in a foxhole. In the years since, they have found remains of brick ramparts along with docks and an artificial basin that served as the town’s port. Dating back more than 4,000 years, it is the oldest harbor ever to have been discovered in Iraq.

 

Trenches Iraq Carnelian BeadsThe researchers have also found carnelian beads from India along with alabaster vases and other objects that must have been procured overseas. The finds are surprising because the extensive records Sumerians left behind in the form of cuneiform tablets include a great deal of information about farming, but little about seafaring. “The texts speak mainly of agriculture because it required the most organization,” says excavation codirector Franco D’Agostino. Archaeology is helping to make clear how important seafaring was to them as well.

Pinpoint Precision

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trenches South Africa Cave ExcavationThe cataclysmic eruption 74,000 years ago of Sumatra’s Mount Toba caused a volcanic winter and may have nearly annihilated the earth’s human population. The search for evidence of that eruption has contributed potentially groundbreaking advances to archaeological dating. Working at two sites on the coast of South Africa, researchers have discovered a layer containing glass shards from the blast that fell over a two-week period and are invisible to the naked eye. The precise time frame provided by the shards can serve as a control to test methods for dating rock shelters and other sites occupied millennia ago. “We’ve now sampled several other cave sites in South Africa looking for evidence of the Toba eruption,” explains archaeologist and paleoanthropologist Curtis Marean. “If we can find it, we can align those chronologies to a two-week precision—which is unprecedented.” As for the people living there, shell midden and toolmaking evidence suggests they survived, and even grew more productive. Marean says, “Hunter-gatherer economies are resilient because they can switch resources when needed.”

A Final Account

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trenches USS Indianapolis Donnor LetterWhen USS Indianapolis was found last year (“Top 10 Discoveries,” January/February 2018), it laid to rest some of the questions that had always surrounded the location of her sinking. However, the exact number of people aboard Indianapolis when she went down continued to be debated. This uncertainty, too, has now been resolved, with the final correct number established at 1,195, not, as was previously believed, 1,196. While researching the discrepancy, naval historian Richard Hulver found a letter from Radio Technician 2nd Class Clarence W. Donnor’s mother, Ruth, in reply to a telegram informing her that her son had perished. She wrote that she had, in fact, spoken to Clarence since July 30, 1945, the day Indianapolis sank to the bottom of the North Pacific. The letter clarified that although RT2c Donnor had been on Indianapolis in San Francisco where she was docked, within an hour of arriving there, he received new orders to go to officer training in New York and left the day before the vessel departed on her final voyage. “I was somewhat surprised by the file,” says Hulver. “I felt relief for the Donnors that their son escaped being part of that voyage. There was also a sense of gratefulness as a historian that Mrs. Donnor submitted her letter. She finished it with the hope that it would ‘set the record straight,’ and it did—just 73 years later.” The official number of those who died in the attack has also been revised from 880 down to 879 to account for RT2c Donnor.

Late Antique TLC

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, June 08, 2018

Trenches Italy Lombard Warrior Grave HorizontalTrenches Italy Lombard Warrior TeethA sixth-century Lombard warrior buried in northern Italy appears to have worn a prosthetic weapon. A knife and buckle were discovered along with evidence that his forearm had been amputated. The stump was positioned across his chest and researchers identified a callus and bone spurs consistent with pressure from a prosthetic device. Significant wear on his teeth suggests he used them to tighten its straps. According to Ileana Micarelli of the Sapienza University of Rome, the man, possibly a combatant in the A.D. 568 Lombard invasion of Italy, was well cared for following the operation. “The strength of his relationship with the community is at the heart of the surgical intervention’s success,” she says. “And in my opinion, social relations are as important as the level of medical technology.”

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