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From the Trenches

A Lost Sock's Secrets

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Egypt SockStill vibrant after 1,700 years, a child’s striped left sock is providing evidence of just how subtly dyers plied their craft in Roman-era Egypt. Unearthed in 1913 in a trash heap at the site of Antinopolis, a city founded by the emperor Hadrian, the woolen sock is one of four ancient Egyptian textiles recently studied by a team led by British Museum chemist Joanne Dyer. She and her colleagues examined the artifacts, which also included fragments of decorated wool tapestries, with an array of imaging techniques that exposed the textiles to different wavelengths of light. These techniques have previously been used to analyze painted surfaces. The different light sources allowed the team to determine the chemistry of the dyes used to color the textiles without having to remove samples that might damage the artifacts. They found that just three natural colorants—indigo, the herb madder, and the weld plant—created the sock’s exuberant stripes. “What’s surprising is that while the textiles are highly colored and very varied, the ancient Egyptians used only a few natural dyes to create this extensive palette,” says Dyer. Despite scant resources, a skillful dyer was able to make a stripy sock that wouldn’t look out of place on a playground today.

Raise a Toast to the Aurochs

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Medieval Drinking HornThe last aurochs, the wild ancestor of domesticated cattle and a favorite game animal up to the medieval period in Europe, died at a game preserve in Poland in 1627. Now a group of Scandinavian researchers are searching for the long-lost bovine’s genetic signature in medieval drinking horns. For the better part of the Middle Ages, well-heeled noblemen preferred to quaff their beverages from the horns of bulls—and the bigger the horn the better. In fact, this may have been a contributing factor to the aurochs’ extinction. The researchers examined mitochondrial DNA that they had recovered from five medieval drinking horns. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited from the mother’s side. They also looked at the horn of the last bull aurochs. Three of the drinking horns contained aurochs mtDNA, but two drinking horns and the horn of the last bull aurochs showed mtDNA from domestic cattle as well. This may be evidence of interbreeding between the two species. Future work will focus on recovering the rest of the aurochs genome.

Funny Business

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Turkey MosaicA public latrine used by ancient patrons of a large bathhouse and government officials who worked nearby is the setting for a recently discovered, somewhat bawdy mosaic. A team from the University of Nebraska had been excavating the site of the city of Antiochia ad Cragum on the south coast of Turkey for more than a decade when they uncovered the second-century A.D. mosaic, which features humorous takes on famous Greek myths. One panel portrays Narcissus, the boy who fell in love with his own reflected image. Here he is infatuated with a rather more intimate part of his anatomy. Another panel shows Ganymede, cupbearer to the gods, offering up the ancient version of toilet paper. Project leader Michael Hoff explains that Romans weren’t squeamish about depicting bodily functions and sexuality. “One only has to visit the houses of Pompeii to see that images of sex and nudity were commonplace and visible to all, regardless of gender or status in society,” he says. Hoff adds that while the majority of Antiochia ad Cragum’s residents were not of Greek or Latin heritage, the mosaic demonstrates that Greek myths were almost universally understood in the far-reaching Mediterranean world.

Double Vision

By GURVINDER SINGH

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches India Pallavaram SarcophagusA team of archaeologists in southern India has unearthed an approximately 2,300-year-old terracotta sarcophagus in Pallavaram, located 15 miles from the city of Chennai. “The nearly intact, handmade, oblong coffin is an important discovery,” says A.M.V. Subramanyam, superintending archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Chennai. An almost identical sarcophagus was found 130 years ago in the same area. The 1888 find was the first artifact to establish the existence of a distinctive Iron Age culture in this region. Researchers from the ASI will soon perform thermoluminescence dating to determine the sarcophagus’ exact age.

When Things Got Cheesy

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, December 10, 2018

Trenches Croatia Milk VesselSome of the earliest evidence of cheese making has been identified on pottery found on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. A multinational team of archaeologists and chemists analyzed fatty-acid residues dating to the Middle Neolithic period, about 7,200 years ago. Evidence of cheese making dating to roughly the same period has also been found in Poland. At that time, milk production was already an established practice, but fermenting raw milk into cheese may have provided an additional survival advantage. Children who have been weaned from their mother’s milk are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. As they age, they gradually lose the ability to digest the milk sugar lactose. Fermenting milk into cheese reduces its lactose content, while still providing a rich source of calories. The team also found that specific pottery shapes were associated with cheese production, including sieves and a type of footed pot with an opening on its side.

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