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From the Trenches Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005

Did the Romans pull off a tall tree tale? Ancient chroniclers lay the blame for Roman inability to conquer Scotland not on the troops but on the "impenetrable forest" that covered the region and provided refuge to the Caledonii tribesmen who lived there. New analysis of ancient pollen, however, shows that what is known as the great Caledonian forest reached it apex 3,000 years before the Romans arrived. Not that the Romans were tree-shy--DNA research suggests that all British elms are descended from a single tree brought over by the Romans. The findings, reported in the journal Nature, show that the English elm is genetically identical to the Italian Atinian elm, commonly used by the Romans to train grapevines. Atinian elms reproduce by creating clones of themselves.

Now that the Olympics are over, archaeologists in Greece are back to business. They've found the world's oldest clay hearths. According to a report in Antiquity, the more than 70 clay hearths, ranging from 34,000 to 23,000 years old, were identified in a single cave in the northwestern Peloponnese. Remarkably, they've also uncovered four well-preserved 2,500-year-old pomegranates, found inside a sealed bronze vessel during a salvage excavation near ancient Corinth. The oxidation of the bronze prevented microorganisms from growing and destroying the fruit, says the archaeologist who made the find. Scientists are eager to study the remarkable specimens, which are now stored in a special refrigerator. Meanwhile, fishermen off the coast of the island of Kythnos in the Cyclades recently netted quite a catch when they hauled up an ancient life-size bronze statue of a youth while trawling in 1,500 feet of water. The statue has been turned over to authorities and is now being conserved.

Some recent research is showing us that our ancestors were better looking than we thought. Chemists who analyzed a jar of Roman face cream found in a second-century A.D. London temple precinct found that the sophisticated mix of animal fat, starch, and tin oxide would have given its owner a desirable fair complexion. The researchers concede in Nature that what the ancients slathered on their faces "doesn't differ so much from some of the cosmetic technologies in use today." Meanwhile, osteoarchaeologist Trevor Anderson has pored through twelfth-to-fourteenth-century documents to discover that a full set of fresh, white teeth was a prized asset in medieval Britain. Dentures were fashioned from cow bones, teeth were whitened with a paste of sage and salt, and fresh breath could be achieved by "rubbing the gums with a strong linen cloth until they bleed."

Archaeologists are reviewing the impact of Florida's fierce hurricane season. While sites were damaged in several counties, new sites were also revealed, including one on Hutchison Island belonging to the Ais Indians, who were wiped out around 1750. Two-thousand-year-old burials were found at the site along with a stone ax fashioned with basalt rock from the Appalachian Mountains. Trees were blown down, and shell- and burial mounds took a beating at south Florida's Pineland, a Calusa complex. Archaeologists at the site, however, noted that the removal of trees has restored the landscape to its Precolumbian state, offering the same view a Calusa chief would have had from the mounds to the Gulf of Mexico.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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