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From the Trenches

The Lead Standard

By DANIEL WEISS

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Trenches Greenland Ice Rig REVISEDGiven that lead is a by-product of silver mining and smelting, historical levels of lead pollution can serve as a proxy for tracking economic growth and decline across the ages. A team of researchers recently studied lead levels dating back to A.D. 500 in 13 Arctic ice cores—12 in Greenland and one in the Russian Arctic. Their results reveal periods during which pollution levels increased or decreased, corresponding to historical records of new mining activity, technological development, or population growth, or outbreaks of disease, war, or famine.

 

For instance, lead levels shot up in the late eighth century, coinciding with the operation of a mine and mint at Melle in western France under Charlemagne (r. A.D. 768–814), founder of the Carolingian Empire, which controlled much of western and central Europe. During his reign, for the first time, lead levels in the ice cores exceeded those recorded at the height of the Roman Empire—some 600 to 800 years earlier—though they dropped after his death in A.D. 814. Later, in the mid-fourteenth century, pollution levels plummeted with the arrival of the Black Death and remained low in some of the cores for a full century. “That’s a very longterm impact,” says Joe McConnell of the Desert Research Institute, “but if you kill off a third of the population of Europe, you can imagine that it would take a few generations to get back to the same level of demand and workforce.”

Worlds Apart

By MARLEY BROWN

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Trenches Scotland CrannogsArtificial islets called crannogs, which dot the cold loch waters of Scotland and Ireland, were once thought to have been used as defensive fortifications from the Iron Age through the seventeenth century. But both the constructions’ purpose and when they were first built are being questioned. After former Royal Navy diver Chris Murray discovered Neolithic ceramics while exploring crannogs in bodies of water on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, archaeologists Duncan Garrow of the University of Reading and Fraser Sturt of the University of Southampton conducted underwater surveys at four crannog sites. They found that the crannogs were occupied starting sometime in the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.

 

Garrow thinks that other crannogs across Scotland and Ireland may also turn out to be older than previously believed. “We had thought that the Neolithic period was marked by settlements with houses and hearths and then tombs, and subsequently stone monuments,” he says. “In a way, these artificial islets are something in between.” Garrow suggests that while some of the crannogs were likely inhabited, others were too small to have accommodated dwellings. These may have been used as ritual spaces intended to exist apart from the everyday world.

Provincial Pen Pal

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Trenches England Roman StylusLong before pressed pennies and postcards, a resident of Londinium (Roman London) received a witty souvenir from the empire’s capital. An iron stylus—a writing implement used to press letters into wax or clay tablets—dating to about A.D. 70, unearthed from a trash dump along a lost tributary of the Thames, bears a personal message in Latin etched along its sides:

 

I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift 

with a sharp point that you may remember me. 

I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give) 

as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty. 

 

In the decades following the conquest of Britain, Londinium experienced an influx of Roman soldiers and merchants, who brought with them goods from all across the Roman world. “This stylus is a clear demonstration of a personal connection between someone in Londinium, which lay close to the edge of the empire, and someone who had been to Rome, which lay at its heart,” says Museum of London Archaeology senior finds specialist Michael Marshall. “The gift’s recipient, or a friend or family member, may have been the owner of this stylus.”

Megalithic Mystery

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Trenches France Cairn BurialTrenches France Menhirs CairnRoadwork at Veyre-Monton in central France has revealed the first known megalithic site in the region. There, archaeologists from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have uncovered evidence of cult activity spanning thousands of years, from the Neolithic period through the Bronze Age. They identified 30 menhirs, or monoliths, arranged from largest to smallest in a 500-foot-long line oriented precisely north to south. Most of the menhirs are made of local basalt and undecorated, but a single limestone example was sculpted to resemble a person, with two small breasts and an engraved chevron that might depict forearms.

 

At some point all the menhirs were intentionally buried, as was an adjacent four-sided stone cairn, measuring 46 feet long and 21 feet wide, that surrounded the tomb of a tall man. Despite the site’s long use, the motivations behind the monuments’ removal from the landscape are unknown. “It’s very tempting to interpret this as the result of a change in beliefs,” says INRAP archaeologist Ivy Thomson, “but it may also be linked to the disgrace of the community in control of the site, or even something more trivial.”

Melting Season

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Trenches Norway Hoof Box Arrowhead CompositeHumans and animals have traversed the icy landscape of Norway’s Jotunheimen Mountains for thousands of years. Now, melting ice patches at a site in northern Oppland County are exposing evidence of these often-treacherous crossings. A team of archaeologists led by Espen Finstad of the Secrets of the Ice Project has recovered hundreds of well-preserved artifacts scattered across the high mountain pass, including a Viking-period arrowhead, a horse’s snowshoe, and a wooden tinderbox with leather straps containing a stick and fragments of resin-filled wood. “We believe we are seeing a long series of losses and discards,” says project codirector Lars Pilø, who remarks that none of the finds seem to be associated with any of the others, despite the fact that most appear to date to the Viking Age and medieval period. Not everyone who ventured into the mountains survived the harsh conditions, however. The team found a packhorse—its ribcage and shod hooves still partially intact—that met its chilly end centuries ago.

 

Trenches Norway Snowshoe Tinderbox Composite

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