Subscribe to Archaeology

From the Trenches

Medici Mystery


Thursday, February 28, 2013

medici-giovanni-dalle-bande-nere-An investigation into the tomb of the Medici warrior known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (“of the Black Bands”), born Lodovico de Medici in 1498, has raised new questions about the famous mercenary’s death. Giovanni earned a fierce reputation early on in life; he was reportedly exiled from Florence at the age of 12 for committing murder. However, his warlike character allowed him to excel as a prominent military captain under the early-sixteenth-century Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII. He acquired the nickname “dalle Bande Nere” after adding black stripes to his insignia to mourn the death of Pope Leo X in 1521.


Contemporary Italian accounts of Giovanni’s death indicate that he was struck by a cannonball in 1526. These sources state that his wounds required the amputation of his right leg above the knee, and that he died shortly thereafter, possibly from gangrene resulting from surgery. The Renaissance   warrior’s remains have recently been exhumed from the Medici Chapels in Florence. Surprisingly, the bones show that the traditional accounts of his death may not be entirely accurate. Only the lower leg and foot were removed, and the femur was intact. Currently the skeleton is being studied by a team at the University of Pisa led by paleopathologist Gino Fornaciari. “We have already learned that he was a very vigorous man, about 5 foot 8 inches tall, and with evidence on his bones that since adolescence, he carried extremely heavy armor and was often mounted on a horse,” says Fornaciari. “With further study we hope to clarify how Giovanni was wounded and the type of surgical intervention that took place, as well as reconstruct more details about the lives of the Medicis.”

Europe's First Carpenters


Thursday, February 28, 2013

neolithic-altscherbitz-wellResearchers in Germany have discovered four wells more than 7,000 years old. The wells, all underground constructions of hewn oak, are evidence that Neolithic inhabitants of central Europe were accomplished carpenters, capable of felling and working trees three feet thick into planks, then carefully fitting them together. One of the wells, found near the town of Altscherbitz, was removed from water-logged soil in a single 70-ton block and transported to Dresden, where archaeologists “excavated” it in a lab.


There, analysis revealed that the ancient well-builders constructed tusk mortise and tenon joints, a technique that uses a fitted wedge to lock the pieces in place, in the base frame, with the rest constructed in “log cabin” style. “We know the Romans could do it, but that they were in use 5,000 years earlier really came as a surprise,” says Rengert Elburg, an archaeologist at the Saxon Archaeological Heritage Office in Dresden.


The 151 pieces of wood recovered from the wells are also an invaluable source of data for dendrochronologists, who compare tree rings to date artifacts and learn more about past climate conditions. Tree rings suggest the Altscherbitz well was in use for less than a decade before it was deliberately filled with 26 intact pots, thousands of pot fragments, and organic materials including early grains such as emmer and einkorn, strawberries, hazelnuts, and black henbane, a powerful hallucinogen. According to Elburg, the discovery of the pots was particularly surprising. “We don’t normally find intact pots from the Neolithic,” says Elburg. “If you find 26 complete ones, you know it was a ritual deposition. Perhaps it was a well for ritual water or special drinking.”

Off the Grid


Thursday, February 28, 2013

valongo-wharf-rio-brazilEven as the flame cauldron from the London 2012 Olympic Games cools, excitement is building for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Much as in London (“London 2012,” July/August 2012), construction and beautification projects around Rio are revealing the city’s past. Experts were aware of the historical significance of the run-down port near the center of town, so when redevelopment of the site began, so did an archaeological project. Excavations uncovered Empress Wharf (Cais da Imperatriz), so named to commemorate the arrival of Princess Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies to marry Emperor Dom Pedro II in 1843. Beneath it was another site, Valongo Wharf (Cais do Valongo). Built in 1811, it was the disembark-ation point for at least 500,000 enslaved Africans after their journey across the Middle Passage. In total, some four million Africans were shipped to Brazil between 1550 and 1888. Head archaeologist Tania Andrade Lima, of the Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, says that Valongo represents a crucial part of the city’s history that had long been erased or concealed.


valongo-beadsThe site

Valongo was a slave mercantile complex that included, in addition to the wharf, warehouses, markets, a quarantine station, and a cemetery. The excavation focused on pavements and two portions of the site where waste from both the upper classes and slaves accumulated: a natural rainwater drainage area adjacent to the wharf and the once-submerged area in front of the wharf. Tens of thousands of objects were unearthed, many of which were either taken from slaves, or lost or hidden by them. The finds include delicate bracelets, rings woven from vegetable fiber, charms, lumps of amethyst and stones used in African worship, and cowrie shells, then common currency in Africa. In 1843, Valongo and its brutal history were paved over for the arrival of the princess. Now, the city plans to restore that history. A new square displays the exposed remains of the Valongo Wharf and the Empress Wharf as an open-air museum dedicated to an examination of slavery and the African diaspora. The objective of this urban archaeology was to rescue the wharf from oblivion, says Lima, and to celebrate the ways that Africans have enriched Brazilian culture.



While you’re there

Visitors to Rio are sure to find beautiful beaches and wonderful food. A cable car ride up Sugar Loaf Mountain provides panoramic views of the city. The statue of Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado is one of the wonders of the world, and the city is full of historic churches and museums.

Mussel Mass in Lake Ontario


Thursday, February 28, 2013

hamilton-scourge-war-1812For the last 25 years, invaders have staked an ever-more-alarming claim to the Great Lakes. Zebra and quagga mussels, small molluscs native to eastern Europe, are a serious problem in bodies of freshwater throughout the Midwest. They have colonized and blocked water pipes, and can lead to the breakdown of dock pilings and even steel and concrete. The ongoing invasion has underwater archaeologists concerned about the fate of the lakes’ many historic wrecks. This concern led Parks Canada and the city of Hamilton, Ontario, to begin a new effort to examine the wrecks of Hamilton and Scourge, two merchant ships that were pressed into military service in the War of 1812 and sank in a sudden squall in 1813. Recent surveys using sonar and remotely operated vehicles have revealed significant infestation of the well-preserved wrecks. The quagga mussels present a long-term preservation concern, and they also conceal the wrecks (even though, ironically, they tend to make the water clearer), making the sites increasingly difficult to study and assess.

Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog


Thursday, February 28, 2013



Digital activism carried out by a group of local archaeologists in Northern Ireland has led to the excavation of a significant site that would otherwise have been overlooked. In addition, the campaign has spurred an investigation into cultural heritage management practices and archaeological protocols in the region.


One of the best-preserved rural medieval settlements in the British Isles, the site, in Drumclay, was uncovered by archaeologists excavating a bog in the path of road construction. Working for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, archaeologist Nora Bermingham and her team have shown that from the eighth to sixteenth centuries, the bog was a lake where generations of a noble Gaelic clan maintained an artificial island that measured some 260 feet across. Known as crannogs, such man-made islands were constructed by medieval elites throughout Scotland and Ireland for both defensive purposes and to broadcast a family’s high status. Few have been excavated since the 1930s, and none on the massive scale of the Drumclay site. 


Previously excavated crannogs held up to five dwellings each, but so far Bermingham’s team has discovered the remains of more than 30 wooden buildings that span the site’s 800-year history. The family associated with it probably maintained five structures on Drumclay crannog at any one time, give or take, and about 30 people would have lived there. Though the crannog was marked on nineteenth-century maps and archaeologists scouting the proposed road route noted its presence, little was done to study or preserve it until last summer, when a limited six-week dig was organized by the Northern Ireland Roads Service. Concerned that authorities were preparing to shut down excavation of a major site before it had been properly studied, archaeologists on the project leaked information and photos from the dig to former medieval archaeologist Robert Chappelle, who posted them to his blog. Local archaeologists then launched a robust social media campaign to encourage the government to allocate more time and resources to the excavations. In July, Minister of the Environment Alex Attwood visited the dig and declared a “no go” zone around the crannog, limiting construction activity at the site. He later extended the excavation’s deadline until December, and then again until March 2013, giving Bermingham and her team time to explore the settlement fully.