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From the Trenches

Foreign Funeral Rites


Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches England Beheaded SkeletonThe discovery of a Roman cemetery near Great Whelnetham in Suffolk, England, containing more than 50 graves of men, women, and children has revealed a peculiar burial custom practiced by some of the people living there around 1,700 years ago. At least 17 of the bodies were decapitated, and their skulls were placed at their feet or tucked between the legs of their otherwise intact skeletons. Osteological analysis indicates the heads were not chopped off with sudden, death-inducing blows, but were deliberately removed postmortem. “This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population,” says Andrew Peachey of Archaeological Solutions. “The rite may be associated with a belief system or a practice that came with the group as they moved into the area, perhaps as a labor force or even as slaves, from elsewhere in the Roman Empire.”

Mild Boars


Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Denmark Wild BoarSome 5,000 years ago, on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, wild boars were feasting on an unusual diet. Isotope analysis of their remains carried out by Rikke Maring of Aarhus University has revealed that the boars were eating fish and other marine animals. The only way the boars would have had access to such exotic foodstuffs, Maring suggests, is if humans were providing the fishy treats. Maring and her colleague Felix Riede believe that people living in the area between 5,300 and 4,300 years ago used marine resources to begin to domesticate these animals and exploit them as a source of food. “This shows a very active relationship between humans and their environment,” Riede says. It also suggests that people were managing animals before the Neolithic farming revolution, when the practice is thought to have begun. This may provide the evidence for clever, localized approaches to animal domestication that archaeologists have sought for decades.

Off the Grid

Inishark Island, County Galway, Ireland


Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Ireland Inishark ViewModern conveniences such as electricity, running water, and telephone lines that were hallmarks of post–World War II development across Ireland never arrived on the island of Inishark, which lies around five miles off the coast of Connemara in County Galway. The island’s rugged community of fishermen and farmers, which reached a peak population of about 300 in the nineteenth century, had dwindled to a handful of residents by the 1950s. Access to food, medicine, and other provisions was unpredictable. Storms could render the island completely isolated for days or even weeks, and young people moved away hoping to find work elsewhere. The last 24 inhabitants of the island departed in 1960. In addition to the abandoned main village, which was occupied between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the island features a number of sites associated with a monastery founded by the island’s patron saint, Leo of Inishark, in the seventh century. Visitors can see the remnants of several early medieval structures, including the ruins of a rectangular church, a holy well, stone altars, and a possible burial monument called a leaba. Another partially preserved structure, a beehive-shaped hut called a clochán, was traditionally believed by islanders to have been the residence of Leo himself. Historian Tommy Burke, a native of the neighboring island of Inishbofin and a member of the University of Notre Dame’s Cultural Landscapes of the Irish Coast project, says that the residents of Inishark continued to incorporate remnants of the island’s monastery landscape into their worship until they left for good. “People completed stations or ritual circuits in which they would visit the clochán and other holy sites,” he says. “They were able to inhabit two worlds at once, interacting with Inishark as a spiritual place—just as early medieval pilgrims had done—while also living very difficult secular lives on the island.”



Inishark is only accessible by boat. Visitors can take a ferry from the mainland town of Cleggan to the island of Inishbofin and then, weather permitting, hire a guide to take them on to Inishark. At just over a mile from east to west and less than a mile from north to south, the island is easily walkable for those who are sure of foot and able to navigate its hilly topography. Burke offers walking tours and recommends visiting Inishark with a guide who can point out the medieval and Bronze Age sites just a short trek from the abandoned main village.


Trenches Ireland Inishark St Leos ChapelWHILE YOU’RE THERE

A striking cathedral, a lively student culture, and an illustrious literary heritage have made nearby Galway one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland. Walk around the historic center, have a pint in one of the city’s bustling pubs, and take in some traditional Irish music, for which the Connemara region is famed.

Reburial in Luxor


Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Egypt Luxor SarcophagusOne of the largest known underground mausoleums in Luxor, Egypt, was not built for a king or other member of the nobility, but for a priest named Padiamenope, who lived in the seventh century B.C. and is known to have assembled a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary texts. The mausoleum was investigated as far back as the eighteenth century, but a new excavation led by Frédéric Colin of the University of Strasbourg has turned up a pair of previously unknown sarcophagi dating to long before the tomb was constructed.


Hieroglyphs on the coffin and lid of one of the sarcophagi identify its occupant as a woman named Pouyou. According to Colin, the style of the coffin suggests it dates to the early 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550–1295 B.C.), while that of the other sarcophagus suggests it dates to the 17th Dynasty (ca. 1635–1550 B.C.). “The most interesting result of the excavation is that the sarcophagi were buried for a second time after their initial burial,” says Colin. Why this was done remains a mystery.

Fairfield's Rebirth in 3-D


Friday, February 08, 2019

Trenches Virginia Fairfield Manor HouseAt the time it was completed in 1694, southeastern Virginia’s Fairfield Plantation was one of the largest and most architecturally innovative houses in the American colonies. Its distinctive features, including triple diamond-stack chimneys, hipped roof, and large, rectangular sash windows, made Fairfield “the most sophisticated classical house built in British North America to that date,” according to historian Cary Carson of the College of William and Mary. The 15,000-square-foot manor house would be home to generations of the Burwell family, one of eighteenth-century Virginia’s principal landowners. Two Burwells became members of the Governor’s Council, the upper house of the Colonial General Assembly, and one was an acting governor. Fairfield was also home to hundreds of enslaved people who planted and harvested the tobacco that supported the region’s economy. From 1787 to 1816, the property was owned by Col. Robert Thruston, a member of a prominent Virginia merchant-planter family, and thereafter it was occupied by several generations of African-American tenant farmers.


In 1897, a massive fire gutted the main house, which, at the time, belonged to an African- American woman whose name is unknown. After the fire, the house was torn down and the brick was sold or used to build nearby homes. Much of the cellar filled up with brick rubble and organic debris, sealing inside the burned wood and other artifacts that had fallen in at the time of the house’s destruction. A further century of neglect—interrupted only by an excavation in the 1960s—left what remained of Fairfield in ruins, with little hope for scholars to ever understand its story.


Trenches Virginia Fairfield 3D Printed ModelNow, thanks to an innovative 3-D printing project, archaeologists have the chance to learn more. The Fairfield Foundation was established in 2000 to support archaeological research at the plantation and in the surrounding region. Over the course of the last two decades, foundation archaeologists Dave Brown and Thane Harpole have excavated the manor house and unearthed artifacts including fragments of wine bottles and 30 seals that identify more than a century of Fairfield’s owners, as well as structural remains of at least 14 courses of its foundations and evidence of a cellar entrance that suggests the location of the original kitchen.


Building on these discoveries, foundation digital curator Ashley McCuistion is now leading a project to create a 3-D printed model that will accelerate the process of recording archaeological data and archive every surface of Fairfield, revealing details that have not been seen for centuries. To make the model, a camera mounted on a drone takes thousands of images of the excavation area. As each layer of soil is removed, the drone captures another set of images. These images are used to generate digital models of individual excavated layers, which are then printed in 3-D. The result is a plastic replica that easily fits atop a dining room table. “The part of the 3-D printing project that really captured my interest is that we’re doing it with a level of accuracy that no one has before. That’s something we’ve struggled with for a long time,” Harpole says. “Archaeology is destructive, so how do we get a perfect image of what we’ve dug?”


As the excavation proceeds, each new layer is incorporated as a removable piece of the model, which can then be built up and taken apart like Lego pieces. “The model has allowed us to represent the space in three dimensions and manipulate the layers in a hand-son way,” Brown says. This is crucial to learning how the house was built, how it was used, and how it changed over time. Brown explains that researchers can now also see how quickly the building is deteriorating. “We can now effectively identify changes such as cracks in the foundation, measure the rate of change, and focus our limited resources on selective stabilization where it matters most.”