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Digs & Discoveries

Off the Grid

Saint Helena

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs OTG Jamestown ST HelenaDigs OTG MapSaint Helena, a tiny volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean, roughly midway between southern Africa and Brazil, is a time capsule of the bygone Age of Sail. This British way station, which served as an entrepôt offering fuel, food, and mischief to mariners rounding the Cape of Good Hope, now relies on tourism to sustain its economy. Until an airport opened in 2016, most visitors traveled to the island from Cape Town by boat, a voyage that takes six days. Those who still come to Saint Helena by sea arrive in Jamestown Harbor, where they are greeted by the town’s original eighteenth-century architectural facades and the last surviving East India Company wharf in the world. First discovered by Portuguese navigators in 1502, Saint Helena became a possession of the East India Company in 1659. The island remains a British Overseas Territory, governed together with the equally remote islands of Ascension, some 800 miles to the northwest, and Tristan da Cunha, 1,500 miles southwest.

 

Saint Helena is perhaps best known as the place where the deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled from 1815 until his death in 1821. Longwood House, where the emperor lived—and died two centuries ago this year—is open to the public. Saint Helena is also the final resting place for nearly 10,000 Africans, who were among more than 25,000 captives liberated by the British Navy between the 1840s and 1860s from vessels sailing from Africa to slaveholding territories in the Americas. In grave health as a result of the conditions of the Middle Passage, those buried on Saint Helena perished before they could be resettled to British possessions in the Caribbean. Archaeologist Andrew Pearson, working on behalf of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, directed excavations during which human remains discovered on land slated for airport construction were removed and conserved. In addition to skeletal remains, Pearson and his team discovered thousands of glass beads, together with personal adornments such as cowrie shells and bracelets. “These individuals were maybe three or four weeks out of a homeland they’d been cruelly dragged away from,” Pearson says. “These objects show that even supposedly powerless people managed to exercise some agency in their own lives and over their belongings.”

 

Digs OTG JonathanTHE SITE

A number of cruise lines occasionally offer stops in Saint Helena, but the simplest way to reach the island is via direct flights from Johannesburg. Jamestown, the island’s capital and only town, is easily walkable and offers a number of hotels and inns, restaurants, and bars, as well as a museum devoted to the island’s history. Local tour operators can arrange excursions to sites of interest around the island, including Longwood House and Plantation House, the official residence of the governor of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. The governor shares the grounds of Plantation House with Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise hatched in 1832 who is thought to be the world’s oldest living terrestrial animal.

 

WHILE YOU'RE THERE 

Those who are not afraid of heights should be sure to climb Jacob’s Ladder, 699 steps made from the remains of an early nineteenth-century cable railway. The experience offers an elevated heart rate and sweeping views of the island.

A Twin Burial

By JOSHUA RAPP LEARN

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Austria Twin BurialUsing new DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, researchers have determined that a pair of baby boys unearthed at the site of Krems-Wachtberg in northeastern Austria are the earliest known identical twins. The Upper Paleolithic remains were buried for about 31,000 years, until 2005, when archaeologists removed them from the site in a block for further study.

 

The twins’ bodies were coated in red ochre, a common feature of burials in the area at the time, and placed under the shoulder blade of a mammoth, which helped preserve them. Maria Teschler-Nicola, an anthropologist with the Natural History Museum Vienna, and her colleagues determined that one of the twin boys likely died right after birth and was quickly buried under the mammoth bone. The other boy survived for about six weeks, at which time the grave appears to have been reopened so he could be buried along with his brother. It’s unclear how the twins died, but Teschler-Nicola speculates it might have been the result of nutritional deficiencies.

A Welsh Ancestor

By ZACH ZORICH

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Wales Waun Mawn Excavation 3Digs Wales Pit REVISEDThe arc of standing stones in western Wales known as Waun Mawn is fairly run-down, which is to be expected of a monument that is more than 5,000 years old. Weather and time, however, are not entirely to blame, according to Mike Parker Pearson of University College London. He believes that the builders of Stonehenge helped themselves to Waun Mawn’s bluestones as building materials for their own monument on England’s Salisbury Plain, some 180 miles to the southeast. (See “Quarrying Stonehenge.”) Excavations by Parker Pearson’s team have demonstrated that Waun Mawn was once a complete circle of stones. The excavators found a pit at the site that still bore the imprint of a missing stone’s pentagonal base. Its dimensions matched those of one of Stonehenge’s bluestones. Parker Pearson suggests that two of Waun Mawn’s largest stones formed an entryway that would have framed the sunrise during the weeks before and after the summer solstice. This important event was also marked at Stonehenge.

 

Archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles of the University of Leicester points out that the stones at Waun Mawn may have also been aligned with celestial objects other than the sun or even with points on the landscape. Those relationships, however, are difficult to detect because the land and the position of stars in the sky have both changed over the millennia. Ruggles suggests that the stones marking the solstice at both Waun Mawn and Stonehenge probably indicated roughly when specific ceremonies were supposed to take place, but acknowledges that the belief systems of the stone circle builders have been lost to time. Says Ruggles, “There’s astronomy in there, but it’s part of a much more complex cosmology.”

Artemis, Apollo, and Friends

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Turkey FigurinesWhile investigating the remains of Greek-era buildings beneath the Roman theater in the ancient city of Myra in the region of Lycia, on Turkey’s southwestern coast, archaeologists unearthed 40 intact terracotta statuettes, along with fragments of perhaps 50 more. The sculptures, which date to the second and first centuries B.C., depict Greek deities, animals, and men, women, and children performing daily activities such as riding horses and carrying water. Among the discoveries are rare statuettes of Leto and her divine children: Artemis, patron goddess of Myra, and Apollo, who was Lycia’s patron deity. Many of the sculptures still have traces of pink, blue, and red paint. “It was the biggest surprise to find such a rich and diverse collection of figurines,” says archaeologist Nevzat Çevik of Akdeniz University. He notes that the figurines, some of which appear to have been crafted locally, were probably votive objects.

Swan Songs

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Slovakia SwansFrom 1881 to 1890, in locations including modern Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, a number of very similar bronze bird figurines dating to the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages (ca. 1300–500 B.C.) were unearthed. For more than a century, it remained unclear how these artifacts were used, but their similarity was seen as evidence of shared cultural practices and beliefs across a large swath of Europe at this time. Now, a team studying a recently discovered bronze waterbird, perhaps a swan, from the site of Liptovský Hrádok in northern Slovakia, has determined that the artifact, and likely the other similar examples as well, was originally attached to a small chariot, filled with animal fat or vegetable oil and used as a lamp during burial rituals and ceremonial activities. These objects had not only a practical use but also great symbolic value, says archaeologist Filip Ondrkál of Charles University. This is especially the case in light of the emphasis members of these cultures placed on birds—particularly waterfowl—as conduits between water, soil, and air, making them central to prehistoric cosmology.

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