A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
From the Trenches
By JASON URBANUS
Thursday, October 10, 2019
A thriving Bronze Age settlement at the site of Zincirli in southeastern Turkey was suddenly and catastrophically destroyed more than 3,500 years ago, archaeologists have discovered. A joint team from the Universities of Chicago and Tubingen uncovered two buildings that burned down, forcing their inhabitants to flee and leave behind their personal belongings. However, the layer of charred debris that covered the site preserved the buildings’ contents, including an array of bowls, drinking cups, cooking pots, storage jars, and other domestic objects. “It’s not that unusual for ancient settlements to have been burned and abandoned,” says project codirector Virginia Herrmann of the University of Tubingen, “but we were definitely surprised to find such good preservation.”
The project leaders believe that they know who was responsible for the swath of destruction: Hattusili I (r. ca. 1650–1620 B.C.), one of the first kings of the Hittite Empire, which was expanding its territory from central Anatolia during the second millennium B.C. and likely sacked the city. Says Herrmann, “The ability to connect this destruction to a known king provides a more precise historical context for our archaeological evidence.”
By MARLEY BROWN
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Rathcroghan, in western Ireland, covers more than three square miles and contains at least 240 archaeological sites spanning the time period from the Neolithic to the late medieval era. Its inhabitants began to raise animals and farm around 3,500 years ago, and went on to build stone structures and earthworks, remnants of which can still be seen. Rathcroghan is known not only from these monuments, but also from its pride of place in Ireland’s rich literary canon. The site is recorded in medieval accounts to have been a primary location for the ancient óenach, a ceremonial assembly featuring gatherings of legal scholars, boisterous feasts, and competitions of strength. It is also described as a burial place for Gaelic nobles and as the royal seat of the Connachta, who ruled western Ireland in the early Middle Ages.
Rathcroghan features prominently in a collection of tales known as the Ulster Cycle, providing the setting for the beginning and the end of Ireland’s national epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Rathcroghan’s most notable landmark—Rathcroghan Mound—perches at the summit of a glacial ridge and measures nearly 300 feet across and 20 feet tall. Geophysical surveys of the mound suggest it may have been built up gradually over generations, possibly starting from a monument first constructed during the Bronze Age, and that an impressive building may have once stood at its top. “The mound is the center of the entire landscape, around which many of Rathcroghan’s barrows, ringforts, and standing stones are arranged,” says archaeologist and Rathcroghan site manager Daniel Curley.
The full Rathcroghan experience begins at Rathcroghan Visitor Centre in the village of Tulsk. There, audiovisual presentations provide an overview of the area’s history, and display cases present artifacts uncovered nearby. From the visitor center, a minibus tour departs for the top of Rathcroghan Mound, where visitors can appreciate the landscape’s full panorama before stopping at specific sites. These include Oweynagat, or the Cave of the Cats, a cavern referenced in Ireland’s epics as a possible entrance to the otherworld, and a likely place of origin for the festival that eventually became Halloween.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
History buffs who also appreciate a bit of nature can easily get lost amid the ruins of Rindoon, an abandoned medieval town about 30 minutes south of Rathcroghan by car. The fortified settlement, once home to more than 1,000 people, sits on a peninsula in Lough Ree, one of Ireland’s largest lakes. Well-signposted walks pass by buildings and fortifications dating to the thirteenth century, when the area was beset by brutal wars fought between native Irish nobles and Norman barons.
By MARLEY BROWN
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Nothing lives forever—except maybe yeast, which can go dormant and hibernate, perhaps indefinitely. An archaeologist, a biologist, and a baking enthusiast have recently embarked on a collaborative project to revive and reuse millennia-old yeast. They believe they have succeeded in identifying, isolating, and even baking bread with strains of yeast that may have been used by Middle Kingdom Egyptians to make bread—and brew beer—more than 4,000 years ago.
Archaeologist Serena Love of the University of Queensland is interested in brewing beer using Egyptian recipes, which scholars have attempted to piece together by studying tomb paintings and analyzing the microstructure of starch preserved in the archaeological record. Love, along with tech inventor and dedicated baker Seamus Blackley, set out to acquire ancient yeast strains that have secure archaeological provenance. They contacted museums across the United States and beyond, requesting to access their collections and extract yeast from Egyptian ceramics, stressing that the vessels would not be damaged. Eventually, they were given permission to work with artifacts housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
To help devise a noninvasive method of collecting the yeast while minimizing contamination, the team recruited University of Iowa biologist Richard Bowman. He, too, is interested in re-creating ancient beers and has developed a yeast-extraction method—still being refined—that aims to preserve the condition of antiquities while avoiding surface contaminants. Foremost among these threats is airborne wild yeast, which, like all manner of fungi and bacteria, is all around us. Bowman’s method involves using a needle-less syringe filled with liquid containing yeast extract, dextrose, and amino acids to moisten a cotton ball that has been placed on the surface of the artifact. “We continue soaking that particular area of the vessel until it is completely saturated and the cotton ball stops drying out,” Bowman explains. After waiting five to 10 minutes for the liquid to penetrate the pores of the ceramic and “wake up” the yeast, the process is reversed. The syringe sucks the liquid back up through the same cotton ball and, finally, any harvested yeast is isolated and incubated.
Bowman says that it may never be possible to completely eliminate the risk of contamination, and admits that the strains the team has thus far worked with may belong to ambient yeast floating around the museums. He was heartened to discover, however, that while the ostensibly ancient yeast did not take well to being grown in a modern lab, it responded immediately to conditions under which it would have grown in antiquity. “When Seamus put the yeast in emmer flour, which is what they would have been eating in ancient Egypt,” Bowman says, “it immediately proliferated.”
Love is now attempting to gain access to a broader range of artifacts from various periods and regions of ancient Egypt. She hopes to investigate differences in yeast used to brew the dozen or so varieties of beer that ancient Egyptians are thought to have produced. The team also plans to send out strains of yeast for genome sequencing. “We can determine the yeast’s subspecies,” explains Bowman, “and by consulting a database of genetic information collected on yeast, we can then compare the strain to its descendants.” This should allow the team to create a model of gene transformation over time that will help estimate how old the extracted yeast is. For his part, Blackley says the bread made from the (most likely) ancient yeast was like nothing he’s ever tried. “I was a little concerned about its texture,” he says. “But when it came out of the oven, I could smell that it was going to be fantastic.”
Island hopping to Australia, Dead Sea Scroll survival, Roman social security, and the village Canada forgot
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