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Digs & Discoveries

The Means of Production

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs Mexico Smelting CompositeAfter they invaded Mexico in the early sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadores took advantage of indigenous copper-smelting technology to produce weapons that helped them solidify their dominion over Mesoamerica. Smelting technology had arrived in Mesoamerica from the Andes and northern coastal South America beginning around A.D. 700. Historical records show that the Spanish wanted to construct cannons out of bronze—an alloy of copper and tin. However, the invaders did not know how to smelt copper ore and were forced to negotiate with indigenous specialists to obtain it. New research at the site of El Manchon in the Mexican state of Guerrero suggests that members of a community there smelted copper both before and after the Spanish invasion. Archaeological evidence includes the remains of furnaces, mounds of copper slag, and copper ore. “The community likely used traditional blowpipe furnaces to begin producing copper ingots, which may then have been fashioned into prestige or ritual items,” says archaeologist Dorothy Hosler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While the Spanish exploited the community’s smelting resources, they also appear to have introduced European-style bellows, which led to a new hybrid furnace design that was used to produce the great quantities of copper required to make weapons and artillery.

Commander's Orders

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs England Masclus TabletAmong fragments of ink-on-wood writing tablets discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England (“Tablet Time,” November/December 2017) are newly translated documents from the personal correspondence of Julius Verecundus, the fort’s first known commanding officer. The tablets are thought to date to between the fort’s construction in A.D. 85 and a subsequent rebuild in A.D. 90. In one curious dispatch, a decurion, or cavalry officer, named Masclus requests leave for five men from the Raetian tribe of the Alps. He also reports on the status of plant cuttings and asks for the return of a certain knife. “Verecundus commanded the First Cohort of Tungrians, an infantry-only unit from what is now Belgium,” says archaeologist Andrew Birley, director of excavations for the Vindolanda Trust. “Why is a decurion making this request, particularly on behalf of men described as non-Tungrians?” To compound the intrigue, Masclus also appears in other, previously translated, tablets from Vindolanda dating to a later period, when a different cohort and commander were garrisoned there. “Masclus’ role was likely more complex than his title would suggest,” says Birley, “just as ethnic auxiliary cohorts were probably quite diverse.” 

 

Digs England Infrared Tablet

A Rare Egg

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs Egg Perfume CaseFor wealthy Bronze or Iron Age southern Europeans, nothing beat an ostrich eggshell cup. It is known that these coveted luxury items were imported from the Levant and Egypt, but until recently, little has been understood about the ancient ostrich egg trade. A team lead by University of Bristol archaeologist Tamar Hodos has compared ancient ostrich eggshell artifacts to modern ostrich eggs to learn how these precious objects were acquired. A ninth-century B.C. inscription at the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrud in modern Iraq suggests that royals may have held ostriches captive for hunting, but Hodos and her team ruled out the idea that the big birds were kept to harvest their eggs. Instead, they found that ancient eggshells resembled modern wild ostrich eggs more than they did those from farmed ostriches. “That means somebody had to track the ostriches to their nests to steal their eggs,” says Hodos. “It would have been dangerous. They can kill you with one kick.” The team also studied the chemical composition of the eggshells and found they could distinguish between eggs from cool, dry climates and those from warmer, wetter ones. Curiously, ancient ostrich eggshells from one climate zone have been excavated at sites in the other zone, suggesting the ostrich egg business was unexpectedly complex.

Mouse in the House

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs Serbia Mouse CompositeMice may have begun infesting European homes at least 2,500 years earlier than previously known. Zooarchaeologist David Orton of the University of York identified charred remains of mice recovered from beneath the rubble of a house that burned down around 4500 B.C. in Vinča-Belo Brdo, a Neolithic village in Serbia. To refine his identification of the mice, Orton turned to Thomas Cucchi and Katerina Papayiannis of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. They lead an international study of the spread of house mice throughout southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. Using a technique that maps distinguishing traits of various subspecies of house mice by comparing the contours of their molars, the researchers were able to identify Orton’s specimens as those of Mus musculus musculus, the eastern European subspecies of house mouse.

 

Orton says that it remains unclear exactly how the eastern house mouse came to inhabit Vinča-Belo Brdo at a time when farming and domestic food storage had already existed there for 1,500 years. Based on available evidence, the researchers propose a scenario in which the mice spread naturally across the Eurasian steppe after the Last Glacial Maximum, some 21,500 years ago, and eventually encountered large, densely packed settlements that had begun to develop around 7,000 years ago in southeastern Europe. The rodents then continued their march westward.

Closing in on a Pharaoh's Tomb

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs Egypt Deir El Bahari CompositeArchaeologists excavating in the Egyptian royal necropolis of Deir el-Bahari, on the west bank of the Nile, believe they have found the long-sought location of the tomb of the early 18th Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose II (r. ca. 1492–1479 B.C.). Near a chapel dedicated to the pharaoh that was part of the temple of his son and successor, Thutmose III (r. ca. 1479–1425 B.C.), the researchers uncovered a range of items that may have been part of a foundation deposit commemorating the tomb’s construction.

 

Beneath some 10 feet of rubble and slate dust, the team, led by Andrzej Niwiński of the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Archaeology, discovered a stone chest containing the remains of a goose, a goose egg, and an ibis egg—each wrapped separately in linen. They also uncovered a small temple-shaped faience chest that held a scarab wrapped in linen. The sema-tawy symbol representing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is carved on the chest’s lid, and Thutmose II’s cartouche is carved on its front. “All the elements of the deposit allude to the last two titles and names of Thutmose II,” Niwiński says. One of these titles, he explains, was “Son of Ra,” and the hieroglyph used to represent the word “son” is in the shape of a goose egg, while the word “goose” in ancient Egyptian sounds similar to the word for “Ra,” the sun deity. The pharaoh’s throne name, Thutmose, which appears in his cartouche, translates to “Thoth is born,” and Thoth, the god of writing, magic, and wisdom, is represented by an ibis in hieroglyphic script. Niwiński speculates that the pharaoh’s tomb is beneath a large accumulation of rubble that lies between the foundation deposit and the chapel dedicated to Thutmose II that is part of the temple of Thutmose III.

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