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From the Trenches

Fit for a Prince


Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Italy Tomb War ChariotBetween the ninth and the third centuries B.C., a people known as the Picenes moved from Latium in central Italy to the area covering today’s Marche and northern Abruzzo regions. Much of what is known about the Picenes, one of pre-Roman Italy’s most important cultures, comes from a number of burials discovered over the last few decades. Recently, archaeologists from the University of Bologna unearthed a large Picene tomb dating to the seventh century B.C. in the village of Corinaldo, near the Adriatic Coast.


Trenches Italy Picene TombThe burial, which team leader Federica Boschi has dubbed the “Tomb of the Picenian Prince,” was originally covered by a mound. It is nearly 130 feet square and was surrounded by a moat. Before this discovery, says Boschi, “no other Picenian tombs had been discovered in this region, which was a strategic location for cultural exchange between different pre-Roman populations,” as evidenced by vessels found in the burial that had been imported from Etruria, home of the Etruscans. The grave’s other contents, including a bronze helmet and weapons, bronze vessels, and a war chariot with iron wheels are, says Boschi, further evidence of the deceased’s aristocratic status.

Ancient Amazonian Chocolatiers


Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Ecuador Santa Ana La Florida Block RealCacao seeds, the raw material used to make chocolate, were being consumed in southeastern Ecuador much earlier than archaeologists have thought. The evidence comes from chemical analysis of bottles found at an ancient village now called Santa Ana-La Florida. "We were surprised at how clear the evidence of cacao use is 5,300 years ago and that it continues throughout the 3,000-year history of the site," says archaeologist Michael Blake of the University of British Columbia.


Trenches Ecuador BottlesAncient Ecuadorean cacao was, in all likelihood, not made into candy bars or anything else resembling modern chocolate. The people fermented the seeds and then dried and ground them to make a beverage. Modern indigenous people in Ecuador use cacao as a medicine and a stimulant, as well as an ingredient in food and drink. Domesticated cacao, researchers suggest, was traded from South American to Meso-american cultures, such as the Maya and Aztecs, starting at least 3,900 years ago.

The Case of the Stolen Sumerian Antiquities


Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Iraq Tello Cuneiform ConeOn May 2, 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, London’s Metropolitan Police raided an antiquities dealer and seized eight artifacts they believed had been obtained through illicit channels. It’s typically impossible to trace looted antiquities back to their original context. But in this instance, through a combination of good fortune and canny sleuthing, experts were able to close the case.


The artifacts—three ceramic cones bearing cuneiform inscriptions, one marble and one chalcedony stamp seal, a gypsum mace-head, a marble amulet pendant, and an inscribed river pebble—remained in police possession until late 2017, when they were brought to the British Museum and examined by St. John Simpson, a curator in the Middle East department. They appeared to him to have come from ancient Mesopotamia, and to have been produced by various cultures between the fourth and first millennia B.C. “It was clear they were from a big, important, multi-period site,” Simpson says. “That meant we had a short list of a very small number of places in southern Iraq.”


By an extraordinary stroke of luck, the previous year the museum had launched an excavation at just such a site: the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, in modern-day Tello, in southern Iraq. Girsu was first excavated in the late nineteenth century and is among the world’s oldest known urban centers. Many inscribed artifacts from the site bear evidence of the birth of writing. Among the most important discoveries of the new excavation there, led by archaeologist Sebastien Rey, was of a temple called Eninnu, which was built around 2100 B.C. by Gudea, king of Lagash, the city-state of which Girsu was the capital. The temple was dedicated to Ningirsu, the Sumerian god of agriculture, thunder, and storms.


Trenches Iraq Tello Temple Wall ExcavationSoon after the artifacts arrived at the museum, Rey returned to London from Iraq. Simpson could hardly wait to show him the collection. “When I opened the box, I was shocked,” Rey recalls. “The first object I saw was an inscribed terracotta cone. It was identical to cones I had been retrieving in Tello a few weeks earlier.” All of the cones he had excavated bore an inscription that reads: “For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the White Thunderbird.” Says Rey, “One purpose of these objects was to say for eternity that this king had built a temple for his god.”


The London cones had the exact same inscription as those Rey had just discovered embedded in the temple’s mudbrick walls, with the text pointing up toward the sky so the god himself could read them. He was thus able to identify them as having come not just from Girsu, but from the very temple wall his team had been excavating. And as for the five other items seized from the dealer? Rey says these, too, were clearly from Tello. They are similar to other artifacts found at the site, though the amulet pendant and the marble stamp seal are older than the cones, and the chalcedony stamp seal is younger. Close to the temple, Rey and his team identified looters’ pits containing broken pieces of the very same type of inscribed ceramic cones, which had been left behind by the thieves. Rey learned from local tribal authorities that the looting had taken place just after the 2003 invasion. “All the objects went from the crime scene onto the black market within a very, very short period of time,” says Simpson. “Within about a month, they had been dug up, put in someone’s pocket, and transported to central London. It’s very rare that we can document that so accurately and establish that timeline so precisely.” With the items’ provenance convincingly established, they were returned to Iraq in August 2018 and will be housed in the country’s national museum.

Off the Grid

Ossabaw Island, Georgia


Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Georgia Ossabaw IslandDraped in Spanish moss and overrun by the wild descendants of hogs introduced in the sixteenth century, Georgia’s Ossabaw Island is both a time capsule and rural oasis. Just 20 miles south of Savannah by water, Ossabaw spans 26,000 acres. Among its hundreds of archaeological features, representing at least 4,000 years of human habitation, are shell rings and burial mounds left by the earliest inhabitants, remains of precontact Native American villages, and eighteenth-century indigo plantations. According to archaeologist Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia, Ossabaw may have been abandoned at some time before the Spanish arrived on the Georgia coast in the 1540s. Archaeologists hope to determine when and why the island’s indigenous people, the Guale, left. Ossabaw was in private hands until 1978, when its owner, the now 105-year-old Eleanor Torrey West, sold it to the state, with the stipulation that it be protected as a cultural and environmental preserve. Ossabaw is only accessible by boat, and visitation is limited. Fortunately for history buffs and nature lovers, the nonprofit Ossabaw Island Foundation offers tours and overnight stays and hosts public events throughout the year. The foundation has also restored several buildings belonging to the island’s North End Plantation, including three mid-nineteenth century tabby cabins that were originally houses for enslaved people. They are named for their unique construction style, which uses a type of concrete made of oyster shells, lime, and sand. The cabins, says foundation director Elizabeth DuBose, are important monuments to Ossabaw’s heritage. Well into the twentieth century, the buildings were occupied by descendants of slaves. Their West African cultural traditions, now known as Gullah Geechee, continue to thrive across the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry.


Trenches Georgia Ossabaw Tabby HouseThe Site

Arrange a day or overnight trip and take a safari along the oak-lined dirt road that bisects the island. Keep an eye out for whitetailed deer, armadillos, shorebirds, and alligators. While its interior is not open to the public, you can still catch a glimpse of the 1920s Spanish-style mansion where the Torrey family hosted Rockefellers and Carnegies during the Jazz Age. In addition to touring the restored tabby cabins and prehistoric sites nearby, visitors can also take part in a public participation day during the University of Georgia’s annual summer field school. You might find yourself searching for a new site using ground-penetrating radar or excavating a Late Archaic midden.


While You're There

You can’t go wrong strolling around nearby Savannah, which has one of the largest historic districts in the United States. The city is home to world-class museums and a vibrant culinary scene. Visit the 1819 Owens-Thomas House with its restored gardens and slave quarters, a monument both to Savannah’s antebellum elegance and the brutal system upon which it relied.