Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East. History nerd, linguistic geek, and devoted news junkie.
7831 stories
·
30 followers

How to Make Sense of a Mass Grave

1 Share

In 2011, in the German province of Saxony-Anhalt, archaeologists were surveying a battlefield from a long-ago war when they detected the edge of a pit. As they probed the area further, they found that they had discovered a mass grave.

They began to excavate a pit about 11.5 feet by 15 feet in size, but from the moment news of the discovery began to spread, the archaeologists, who worked for government agencies, worried that treasure hunters would start to raid the site. They had already found evidence of illegal excavations.

Usually, a find like this might be carefully dissected in the place where it was found. But in this case, in part because of their worries about theft, the archaeologists decided to “block lift” the bones from the site—to cut the entire mass grave out of the ground and transport it somewhere safe.

There were other reasons to keep the grave intact, too, as the archaeologists write in “The Face of War,” their recent PLOS One report. “By coincidence, or perhaps intentionally, the last body placed in the grave was lying in a different position to the other individuals, in a cruciform pose on top of the other deceased. This crucial aspect of the overall impression would have been lost if the usual method of ‘dissecting’ the block had been applied," they write.

But perhaps most importantly, keeping the grave intact conserved the powerful image, seen above, of these 47 individuals who died in the war. To the archaeologists, it was “a representation of war in all its cruelty."

article-image

The people in this grave died during the Thirty Years' War, the 17th-century conflict that reshaped the Holy Roman Empire, and they died in a battle known as one of the more pivotal and grisly conflicts of the war. Thousands of soldiers—perhaps as many as 9,000—died during the Battle of Lützen. The casualties included the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, who had been fighting to extend Sweden’s territory and power.

How do archaeologists approach the analysis of a mass grave? In this case, after deciding to block-lift the grave out of the ground, they had to cut it in half, to keep pieces of the brittle block from “breaking off during recovery.” They used a wire saw to split the block in two; even then, each section weighed about 25 tons.

Once the grave was secured, the archaeologists began working in one corner of the burial feature, removing the soil until the skeletal remains emerged. In a mass grave, says Nicole Nicklisch, the lead author of the PLOS One paper, “It is important to recognize the position and orientation of the body, which may be very difficult in a mass grave; it can change from body to body.” Using small wooden tools and brushes, the archaeologist cleared the area around the bones.

article-image

Until this point, they proceeded as they would have if the bones were still in the ground. But since they'd decided to preserve the grave as a whole, they did not remove the bones, which meant they could not observe some of the features in detail. Since there were only two layers of bodies, though, they were able to turn the block over, to examine the grave from the “back” and gather more information.

In the PLOS One report, the archaeologists describe the details of what they were able to learn about the people buried in this grave. There were 47 of them, most likely all men, although because they were not able to examine all the bones individually, there were 11 cases where they could not conclusively determine the person’s sex. They also tried to document how these people died, in order to better understand the realities of warfare at the time.

“I’m an anthropologist and osteoarchaeologist, so I’m always interested in analyzing skeletal remains to get information about cause of death,” says Nicklisch. “From the scientific perspective they tell us a lot about their fatal injuries and what happened on the battlefield, or at least in one area.” The Thirty Years' War was fought in the period when guns were becoming more common on battlefields, and the evidence of it showed in the grave. “I’ve never seen so many gunshot wounds,” Nicklisch says. The team found that more than half of the men had gunshot wounds; others showed no obvious injuries and have may have died from gun wounds to their soft tissue.

Beyond the scientific reasons for excavating the grave and keeping it whole, the team also thought there was a powerful reason to preserve and display the grave, which was exhibited publicly for a period. “From an ethical point of view I have to emphasize that the exhibition of this grave was a statement against war,” says Nicklisch. “When we look at this mass grave, then we look in the face of war.”

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
1 hour ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete

America's Short-Lived 'Black Army on Wheels'

1 Share
article-image

Militaries across the globe have dabbled in the use of bicycles as part of their arsenal. Nations including Germany, Sweden, and Japan have all employed regiments of bicycle cavalry at one point or another, but most were only used for a short time. In the United States, after a single, hellish, 1,900-mile ride in 1897, the idea of a permanent bicycle infantry was more or less permanently shelved.

The U.S.’s first foray into military cycling was the brainchild of Major General Nelson A. Miles, a proponent of modernization in the armed forces during the late 1800s. In an 1894 newspaper article in The Outlook, Miles expressed his enthusiasm for military bicycles, saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that during the next great war the bicycle, with such modifications and adaptations as experience may suggest, will become a most important machine for military purposes.” In his view, the bicycle could be used for everything from simple courier work to troop and gear transport, and possibly even in combat.

Bikes seemed like a great alternative to the traditional horse, needing no food, water, or handlers, as well as being quieter and easier to conceal. But the bicycle was still an untested piece of military equipment. It had been employed by some U.S. militia groups, but still needed to be vetted in an official capacity. So in 1896, Second Lieutenant James A. Moss, an avid cyclist and fellow proponent of adding bikes to the military arsenal, was given the go-ahead to create the nation’s first bicycle corps.

Moss, having graduated dead last in his class from West Point, had been given what was seen as an undesirable post at the time, joining the all black "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 25th Infantry Regiment at Montana’s Fort Missoula. The 25th in Montana was mostly tasked with keeping the peace and building up the fort.

article-image

With the support of General Miles, Moss acquired a fleet of bicycles from the A.G. Spalding Company (precursor to Spalding sporting goods) as a donation to the Army. Moss worked with the company to modify the vehicles for military service. The bikes were outfitted with a canvas tent, sleeping bag, and blanket that rolled up and attached to the handlebars, and a hard shell case that fit into the space in the middle of the frame, for further storage. Fully equipped, the bikes weighed around 59 pounds, according to the account from the Fort Missoula Museum. Armed with 50 rounds each, the soldiers would carry their guns on their backs.

During the summer of 1896, Moss and members of the 25th Infantry began embarking on relatively short trips in the area, testing the bikes in rugged, rocky terrain. In August, Moss and a group of riders rode some 800 miles to Yellowstone National Park and back. In total, the trip took 23 days, and despite rotted tires and poor weather, Moss considered the trip a successful demonstration of the bicycle’s usefulness as a military vehicle.

Emboldened by these preliminary expeditions, Moss decided it was time for an even harder test, one that would solidify the usefulness of a bicycle corps. His grand plan was to take a group of riders almost 2,000 miles, from Fort Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri. As detailed in an excellent collection of articles and first-hand accounts of the trip on Mike Higgins' blog about the 25th Bicycle Corps, Moss told the Daily Missoulian why he chose St. Louis as a destination, saying:

As the object of the trip is to test most thoroughly the bicycles as a means of transportation for troops, the route should be long and the geography of the country of such a nature as to afford all possible conditions. By selecting St. Louis as our objective, we have a long route with high and low altitudes; stoney roads of mountains; the hummock earth roads of South Dakota; the sandy roads of Nebraska and the clay roads of Missouri.

The terrain would be hard, and the trip would test the limits of the men’s will, but Moss figured that if the bicycle was going to be used in the field, it would need to hold up to anything they could put it through.

article-image

Thus on June 14, 1897, Moss and company set out for St. Louis. Moss was accompanied by 20 men from the 25th Infantry who had volunteered for the expedition; a surgeon who acted as his second-in-command; a reporter from the Daily Missoulian; and Sargent Mingo Sanders, the oldest in the group and the senior enlisted man who handled much of the day-to-day work during the expedition. After receiving a cheering farewell as they pedaled out of Missoula, things seemed to be off to a fine start, before almost immediately taking a turn.

The hardships began on the very first day as rain turned their route to mud, forcing the men to walk their bikes for much of the way through the “gumbo.” They were soaked, muddy, and tired. According to Moss’s report on the day, they averaged a total of 5.4 miles per hour. Despite the fact that much of the trip ended up being uphill, in general, things went downhill from there.

Over the next 40 days, Moss and the members of the 25th encountered flooded roads, snow, hail, sand, rocks that caused riders to crash, extreme heat and cold, and just about every other type of calamity Mother Nature could devise to throw at them. Walking and carrying their bikes was often as common as riding them. They also often had to resort to traveling over rail tracks that shook the men numb.

If slow progress wasn’t dispiriting enough, food and water was often scarce. The group was expected to cover 50-60 miles a day and only carried enough rations to cover the expected distance. Supplies were sent ahead to various points across the route, roughly 100 miles apart, but the slow going made it difficult to reach each of them on time, often leaving the group hungry.

During the back leg of the journey, temperatures sometimes reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit going through South Dakota and Nebraska. The only available water was often found in railroad tanks, which would grow stagnant. Thus a number of expedition members became sick from the rotten water, delaying their trip even further.

Then there was the reaction of the people they passed. The sight of 20 black men riding bicycles through areas where neither was a common sight often caused bystanders to stare in bewilderment at best, and react with hostility at worst. Some of the farms they would pass through inquired whether the men were Union soldiers, telling them to get off their land.

Despite all of their hardships, Moss, Sanders, and the rest of the Bicycle Corps arrived in St. Louis on July 24, 1897, having lost just one man, whom Moss had sent back to Ft. Missoula due to his negative effect on morale. The group was greeted by a large crowd who came out to see them perform bicycle drills to commemorate their arrival.

Moss remained upbeat, noting that they ended up traveling much faster than they would have on horse, that many of the men actually got stronger from the work out, and that the trip had personally cost him just $43. But during their journey, any enthusiasm the Army had had waned. Moss wanted to continue on to St. Paul, Minnesota. His request was denied.

The Bicycle Corps returned to Ft. Missoula by rail, and was officially disbanded, the bikes sent back to the Spalding Company. Still, Moss, tried to get another expedition off the ground, this time to San Francisco, but no one was having it. The dream of the U.S. Bicycle Corps was dead.

With the ever-evolving nature of military technology, it's unlikely that the Army will revisit a bicycle corp any time soon, but thanks to the epic journey of the 25th Infantry, at least we can say they tried.

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
1 hour ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete

Why Should We Believe that Trump is Telling the Truth About Tapes This Time?

1 Share

Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. It’s sad that such a statement is necessary to make about a president of the United States, but there’s no escaping the fact.

I say this not to be insulting, but because the fact of Trump’s basic dishonesty must be established when evaluating any news story about him. Nothing he says can ever be taken at face value. If he contradicts himself by saying one thing one day and then the opposite later, it’s just as likely that either statement is false–or that both statements may be false.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to the subject of Trump’s taping former FBI Director James Comey–or not. Those who follow the news closely already know what happened: after it became clear to Trump that Comey would likely expose what took place in their private conversation during which Trump allegedly demanded his loyalty and pressured him to drop the Russia investigation, Trump threatened Comey with a tweet saying that Comey should hope their were no “tapes.” In Trump’s usual odd fashion, “tapes” was put in quotation marks, nor was there any satisfactory clarification during the subsequent White House press briefings (which were still allowed to be televised at the time) about what exactly those quotation marks meant, or whether there were tapes at all.

The possibility that there might be recordings of the conversation that the president might selectively leak, created a strong incentive for Comey to testify to Congress in order to get his side of the story out quickly. In the folksy manner of another Norman Rockwell bygone era, Comey prefaced his hope that tapes would be produced with a “Lordy” prefacing it for emphasis.

Weeks went by with no “tapes” produced. Then yesterday Trump supposedly admitted in an interview that there really weren’t any tapes at all, but that he pretended there were in order to influence Comey to be truthful.

Many pixels have been spilled decrying the president for using such tactics, suggesting that they strengthen the allegations against Trump for obstructing justice, and pointing out that despite Trump’s (and the interviewer’s) suggestion that the deception was a smart move, it seems to have backfired.

But almost universally the press seems to have accepted as true the latest assertion that Trump did not tape his conversations with Comey. But there’s no more reason to believe Trump yesterday than there was to believe him in the weeks before.

Trump has a long history of making secret recordings of people with whom he does business. It’s entirely plausible that he recorded the conversation with Comey, then threatened to use those recordings against Comey without even realizing that they would incriminate him while exonerating the former FBI chief. That seems just as likely as the notion that he made up the story about taping entirely.

With Trump there is no way to know, because he has absolutely no shame about lying, and the Trump Razor applies: the stupidest explanation for Trump’s behavior is likely the correct one. It’s just hard to say which would be stupider: that Trump claimed to have recordings of conversations he didn’t, or that he recorded the conversations but failed to realize who would be more damaged by releasing them.

Either way, there’s no reason to believe Trump is telling the truth this time any more than last time.

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
3 hours ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete

Nahuatl in LA.

1 Share

Peggy McInerny writes about a Nahuatl program for the Latin American Institute:

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat], is alive and well today in Los Angeles. Beginning and intermediate classes in modern Nahuatl are offered at UCLA, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles due north at the Getty Museum, historians and art experts are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the general public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a U.S. television show was shot in Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had ever been heard on an American broadcast. This coming September, a charter school in Lynwood will offer Nahuatl classes to its middle school students, courtesy of a UCLA graduate student. And that’s not to mention a dedicated native speaker who has been teaching Nahuatl classes for 26 years in a local church in Santa Ana (see KPCC story).

Standing at the confluence of most of these linguistic streams is UCLA historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute. A genial professor with a dry sense of humor, Terraciano was instrumental in making Nahuatl available at UCLA, beginning in fall 2015. It was Terraciano who translated English dialogue into Nahuatl for an American Crime episode during the show’s current season. (He later coached the actors, who had to learn their parts phonetically, at the actual shoot.)

There’s some interesting stuff there about the history of the language (“Nahuatl was still the majority-spoken language in the Valley of Mexico at the end of the colonial period […] Despite the fact that 90 percent of the population died over a 100-year period as a result of one epidemic after another, indigenous peoples were still the majority of the population of Mexico by the end of that period”). Thanks, Trevor!

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
3 hours ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete

It’s all relative.

1 Share


It’s all relative.

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
4 hours ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete

Nice business plan.

1 Share

garbage

Read the whole story
hannahdraper
5 hours ago
reply
Washington, DC
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories