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From the Trenches

Do No Harm

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trenches Smithsonian Civil War BonesFor three days in August of 1862, a small stream called Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, became the site of one of the most decisive contests of the second year of the Civil War. Just 13 months before, the Battle of First Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run, had been fought in this same location—but the second engagement was to prove far more deadly. Some 125,000 men were engaged in battle, with 3,021 killed, 15,263 wounded, and an unknown number captured or missing on both sides.

 

Trenches Manassas Bone With Bullet HorizDuring utility work on the battlefield, archaeologists made a stunning discovery less than a foot below the surface—a surgeon’s burial pit filled with 11 amputated limbs and two nearly complete skeletons, the first such pit ever to be excavated and scientifically studied. Isotopic analysis combined with evidence of uniform buttons and Enfield bullets has revealed that the men were Union soldiers from the Northeast, and that they likely died on the final day of the Battle of Second Manassas (or the Second Battle of Bull Run). Further examination of the bones, and in particular the cuts on the amputated limbs, is enabling scientists at the Smithsonian Institution to appreciate the extraordinary skill of the surgeon involved in making and executing potentially lifesaving decisions during the chaos of battle.

Making an Entrance

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trenches Spain Mengibar Roman ArchRemains of an imposing arch, believed to have been around 25 feet tall and more than 50 feet wide, that marked the starting point of a road in Roman Iberia, have been uncovered near southern Spain’s city of Mengíbar. According to archaeologist Juan Pedro Bellón of the University of Jaén, the arch of Janus Augustus signaled the beginning of the Hispania Baetica section of the Via Augusta, a nearly 1,000-mile-long road that stretched from the Atlantic through the Pyrenees and connected with routes to Rome. Hispania Baetica, the southernmost Roman province of the Iberian Peninsula, roughly corresponds to Spain’s autonomous community of Andalusia. “We believe that both the Via Augusta and the Janus Augustus arch were part of a transformation of the frontier ordered by the emperor Augustus between 13 and 7 B.C.,” Bellón explains. He says that the discovery of the arch will help reconstruct local territorial boundaries that would have been encountered by invading Romans and will provide important new insight into strategic decisions they made when building infrastructure and monumental symbols of Rome’s power in the region.

A Very Long Way to Eat Rhino

By ZACH ZORICH

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trenches Philippines Rhinoceros BoneTrenches Philippines Middle Pleistocene Stone Tool HorizA new discovery on the island of Luzon pushes back the arrival of humans in the Philippines from 67,000 years ago to more than 700,000 years ago. An international team of researchers studied 57 stone tools found at the site of Kalinga alongside rhinoceros bones that show evidence of cut marks made while butchering them. Some of the bones had also been smashed open, suggesting that people were after the nutrient-rich marrow.

 

This discovery supports the suggestion that hominins during the Middle Pleistocene (781,000–126,000 years ago) were able to build watercraft capable of ocean crossings and could navigate the South China Sea to reach Luzon from mainland Asia. At the moment, the researchers are hesitant to pin down which human ancestor may have made the journey, suggesting that it may have been either Homo erectus or early members of the recently identified Denisovans who undertook the journey.

Hold Your Horses

By DANIEL WEISS

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trenches Antioch Lead Curse TabletA thin lead curse tablet dating to the fifth century A.D. that was folded and nailed shut to intensify its power has recently been opened, some 80 years after it was discovered beneath the hippodrome in Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. Curse tablets from the period are generally in Greek or Latin, but this one, although difficult to make out with the naked eye, turns out to have been written in a Jewish dialect of Aramaic using Hebrew lettering. “This means it was written by a Jewish scribe,” says Rivka Elitzur-Leiman of Tel Aviv University, “if not a Jewish magician.”

 

Working around holes in the text where the nail punched through, Elitzur-Leiman and Margaretha Folmer of Leiden University are now deciphering the tablet’s message with photos taken using reflectance transformation imaging. The tablet’s curse seems to have been aimed at disabling opposing horses in a chariot race. It calls on God and his angels to drown the opponents and on a particular angel, who stood in front of Balaam’s donkey in the Book of Numbers, to block the opponents’ way.

Breaking the Mold

By MARLEY BROWN

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Trenches Crete Eleutherna Ceramicist RemainsResearchers at Eleutherna, a fortified city-state in Crete that reached its apogee around 800 B.C., have concluded that a woman whose remains were discovered at the site in 2009 spent her life crafting ceramics. Using a range of technology, including medical imaging and anatomical models, the team, led by anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis of Adelphi University, found patterns of skeletal wear consistent with years spent seated and working clay on a kick-wheel-operated turntable, making the woman the only known female master ceramicist in the ancient Greek world. Significantly, Eleutherna has an association with women in positions of importance and power. Four women related to one another and thought to have been priestesses were discovered in ornately furnished burials nearby. “While this is a rare discovery in Greek archaeology,” Agelarakis says, “in some ways it is unsurprising given the importance and privileged social position of the Eleuthernian matriline.”

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