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From the Trenches

India's Temple Island

By JOSHUA RAPP LEARN

Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches India Srirangam SculptureSrirangam Island, at the confluence of the Kaveri and Kollidam Rivers in southeastern India’s state of Tamil Nadu, is home to a 2,000-year-old temple complex, major parts of which are still in use today. However, much of the complex is hidden or damaged. Many older sections are buried under sediment as a result of centuries of flooding, and the complex was ransacked in the fourteenth century by the Muslim general Ulugh Khan. Recent excavations at the site, guided by geologists with knowledge of flood sediment layers, have begun to reveal what was presumed to have been lost. Researchers including geologist Mu Ramkumar of Periyar University have uncovered parts of the temple destroyed by Ulugh Khan and unearthed artifacts such as pendant lamps and statues of the deity Gopalakrishnan with his consorts. Using geophysical surveying techniques, they have also identified what they believe to be the tomb of religious scholar and teacher Sri Manavala Mamunigal, who restored the temple complex in the fifteenth century. The tomb has been left unexcavated for religious reasons.

A Ride to Valhalla

By DANIEL WEISS

Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Iceland Horses TrimmedWhen the Vikings who colonized Iceland more than 1,000 years ago interred their dead, they often included a perhaps surprising grave good—horses. Now, researchers have analyzed the scant amounts of DNA retrievable from 19 of these horses’ remains and determined that all but one was male. Why the Vikings were buried with male horses is unclear, although it may have had to do with an association between stallions and virility, according to zooarchaeologist Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir of the University of Oslo. However, she notes, horse burials were not reserved for men. In fact, around a third of those buried with horses were women.

Ahead of His Time

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Colorado Glen Eyrie TrashTrenches Colorado Glen EyrieWilliam Jackson Palmer was a Civil War hero, railroad magnate, and founder of Colorado Springs. He was also a connoisseur of the cutting-edge technology of his day, evidence of which has been found during an excavation of a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dumping ground on land that once belonged to his Colorado Springs estate, Glen Eyrie. Among the artifacts recovered from the site, on a creek bed roughly half a mile from Glen Eyrie’s castle, are fragments of early dry-cell batteries that Palmer used to power electric gates on the estate. “Palmer was on the forefront of technological advancement as well as self-sustainability,” says Sara Millward of Alpine Archaeological Consultants. Her colleague Mike Prouty adds that Palmer also ran a power plant on the property, designed reservoirs to supply running water to the house, and would likely have taken care to dispose of waste in a manner that would neither spoil the physical beauty of the estate nor interfere with his many engineering projects. Other objects found in the dump reveal Palmer’s taste for high living, including fine English ceramics, imported shellfish, and liquor bottles, whose contents the teetotaler Palmer presumably used to entertain his guests.

Celtic Trophy Heads

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches France Celtic Trophy SkullAccording to ancient Greco-Roman sources, Celtic warriors living in France more than 2,000 years ago practiced a gruesome ritual. They would remove the heads of their fallen enemies and proudly carry them home as trophies to be put on public display. Archaeological evidence of this practice has come in the form of human skulls discovered at several Celtic sites. An intriguing new study now confirms the sources’ assertion that the decapitated heads were embalmed. Chemical analysis of third-century B.C. skull fragments from the Celtic site of Le Cailar in southern France has detected the presence of conifer resins. Experts believe the pleasant-smelling resins may have been heated and mixed with plant oil before being applied to the heads as an embalming agent. “We don’t know the precise process, but this is the first time that we have scientific proof of embalming,” says archaeologist Réjane Roure of Paul Valéry University. The embalming mixture would have acted as an aromatic agent, and its antibacterial properties would have prevented decay and preserved the individual’s appearance, making the vanquished enemy recognizable for a long time.

Honoring the Ancestors

By ERIC A. POWELL

Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Indonesia Papua StatueOn the island of New Guinea, archaeologists have discovered several ornately decorated stone statues at a cemetery that may be more than 3,000 years old. Erlin Novita of the Papua Archaeological Center led a team that found the statues at Mount Srobu on the island’s north coast, in Indonesia’s Papua province. Here burials were hewn into limestone bedrock and covered with shell mounds by people of the megalithic cultures who likely made the statues. Most megalithic human depictions are simple, but the three-foot-tall statues unearthed by Novita’s team are complex. The bodies are posed in a crouching position, similar to statues known from Polynesia. Novita believes the statues represented important ancestors and were objects of worship. She notes that they are visually similar to the smoked mummies of Papuan chiefs that are traditionally preserved in a crouched position and that continue to be venerated in some parts of New Guinea to this day.

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