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From the Trenches

Conan's Storm Cellar

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, October 15, 2018

trenches texas conan compositeNational Park Service archaeologist Jeffrey Shanks recently led a team excavating a storm cellar at the house of Robert E. Howard, the author who created the pulp hero Conan the Barbarian, among others, at a desk in his bedroom. Howard’s house in Cross Plains, Texas, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the storm cellar offered the tantalizing possibility of learning something new about Howard’s life.

 

If the cellar had appeared in one of Howard’s stories, it might have been the tomb of an undead king ready to do battle to protect his treasure—but it mostly held jars of pickled green beans. Intriguingly, the team also found a tiny battle-ax-shaped object, but Shanks thinks it may be part of a hatpin, or maybe a bone from a toad’s pelvis. The jars probably postdate Howard’s time, but an apothecary bottle found in the cellar likely belonged to his father, who was a country doctor. It may not be a magic sword or chest full of gold but Shanks sees a different value in his work. “We get to look past the legend and mythology of this famous author to see a little snapshot of his life.”

Nomadic Necropolis

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Kenya Lothagam North Pillar SiteSome 5,000 years ago, nomadic herders in East Africa constructed a monumental cemetery. The site, called Lothagam North, is close to Lake Turkana in northwest Kenya and has been excavated by a team led by Elisabeth Hildebrand of Stony Brook University and Katherine Grillo of the University of Florida. It features a platform around 100 feet in diameter marked by megalithic pillars. In a large cavity at the platform’s center, the team found the remains of at least 580 people, almost all buried with ornaments, with no distinction based on gender or age. This counters assumptions that such monumental building projects were only embarked upon by settled, socially stratified farmers.

 

Burials at the site continued for hundreds of years, coinciding with a period when rainfall in the area decreased dramatically and Lake Turkana is believed to have shrunk to half its former size. The researchers think construction of the site may have been a reaction to this unstable climate. “At a time when the lake shore was shifting from year to year, establishing a landmark that would serve as a constant reference point may have been very important, socially and even psychologically,” says Hildebrand. While the herders abruptly stopped using the cemetery for unknown reasons, they expended a great deal of effort to cover the site with stones before moving on.

 

Trenches Kenya Stone Pendants Earrings

Eat More Spore

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Blighted CornThe fungus Ustilago maydis may damage the plant it grows on (and certainly looks disgusting), but it was an important part of the diet of the people who lived at Turkey Pen Ruin in Utah from 400 B.C. to A.D. 400. The fungus, better known as corn smut, infects maize plants, turning the kernels gray and misshapen. About 80 percent of the diet eaten by the Ancestral Puebloan people living at Turkey Pen Ruin was maize, which lacks certain amino acids. As a result, those who rely heavily on maize can fall prey to a potentially fatal nutritional deficiency called pellagra. Jenna Battillo, an archaeologist with Southern Methodist University, wanted to understand why these Ancestral Puebloan people didn’t suffer from this kind of malnutrition. She analyzed samples of feces from 44 individuals who lived between A.D. 1 and 200. Forty-three of the samples contained high levels of corn smut spores. These spores contain the amino acids missing from maize and may have given the people of Turkey Pen Ruin a way to stave off nutritional diseases.

Well, Well

By GURVINDER SINGH

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches India Nagara Fort RocketsMore than 1,000 unexploded rockets have been recovered from an abandoned well in the state of Karnataka in southern India. The excavators believe the corroded shells date to the eighteenth century when the Muslim warrior King Tipu Sultan ruled the region. The cache was uncovered when the well, located at Nagara Fort in the Shivamogga District, was being repaired. “The rockets, which are of several sizes, are metallic cylinders filled with some powder, possibly saltpeter or some form of explosive propellant,” says R. Shejeshwara Nayaka, assistant director of the Karnataka Department of Archaeology, Museums, and Heritage (DAMH), who led the excavation in 2018. “They have circular end caps on oneside, while on the other side there is an opening which lights like a fuse. We have also found some equipment that might have been used for assembling or making them.” G. Venkatesh, commissioner of DAMH, adds, “Records say that Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali, was the first to use metal-cased rockets. He also had an armory and factory at Nagara Fort, a strategically very important city. There is a strong possibility that this site was used as a storage point or a factory for the rockets.”

Another Form of Slavery

By LYDIA PYNE

Monday, October 15, 2018

Trenches Texas Cemetery ExcavationThe remains of 95 individuals have been discovered in an unmarked cemetery in Sugar Land, Texas, just outside Houston. In the mid-1800s, the town of Sugar Land was built on a sugar plantation that used slave labor. When slavery was abolished in 1865, the plantation, and later the Imperial Sugar company, leased convicts from state prisons as laborers until 1910, when the practice was outlawed.

 

In 1908, the state had bought 5,235 acres of land from Imperial Sugar, establishing the Imperial Farm Prison. The incarcerated were forced to provide agricultural labor for the prison farm until the state closed the prison in 2011. The Fort Bend Independent School District purchased the former prison’s land seven years ago and, in compliance with Texas’s Antiquities Code, commissioned an archaeological evaluation of the site. The skeletons were uncovered during the evaluation by Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc. Archaeologists believe that the remains can be tied to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American prisoners who were forced to work the plantation as part of the state’s post–Civil War convict-lease system. Many historians have called the convict-lease system “slavery by another name.” Researchers plan to study the bones before they are reinterred to learn more about life under those harsh conditions.

 

Trenches Texas Shackles Artifacts

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