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Researcher Maps the Devastation of the Black Plague Using Broken Pottery

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The Black Death (~1347 to 1352) was bad. How bad was it? We don’t actually know, but a new study suggests it might have been much worse than previously thought. The findings were published in the journal Antiquity. 

Archaeologist Carenza Lewis is a professor at the UK’s University of Lincoln. “The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” she said in a press statement. “Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data for the period.” 

Rather than trying to locate actual evidence of deaths, Lewis decided to focus on evidence of life—and where it vanished. From 2005 to 2014, Lewis helped oversee a project in which volunteers in 55 rural areas in eastern England conducted miniature “test-site” digs of just one square meter. 

Image credit: Lewis, 2016

The residents and archaeologists were looking not for human remains but for broken pieces of pottery, which are a pretty good indicator that there were people around. 

“Medieval ceramic vessels were easily broken and difficult to mend,” Lewis writes in her report, “and therefore frequently discarded; sherds are taphonomically durable in most archaeological contexts, relatively easy to see during excavation and sieving, and datable without incurring prohibitive costs.” 

Nearly 2000 test pits have been excavated and their contents catalogued and dated. Volunteer excavators recovered pottery pieces from the 12th to 16th centuries. Previous studies indicated that one piece of buried pottery could be a coincidence, but two is likely proof that people lived there. So Lewis set her minimum at two pieces, and compared the number of pits that contained pre-plague pottery with those that held pottery from after the plague. 

The results were gruesome. If two pieces of pottery indicated a population, then the population of these regions took a 45 percent hit in the centuries following the Black Death.

“These are just a few examples of the devastation evident on an eye-watering scale within settlements that have previously been considered the ‘successful’ survivors,” Lewis wrote, “calculated using an index that may be producing conservative estimates.” 

While the results are certainly grim, Lewis is sanguine. As a researcher, she believes her potsherd-counting model has a lot to offer: “this new research suggests there is an almost unlimited reservoir of new evidence capable of revealing change in settlement and demography still surviving beneath today’s rural parishes, towns and villages—anyone could excavate, anywhere in the UK, Europe, or even beyond, and discover how their community fared in the aftermath of the Black Death.”

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An Ancient Sarcophagus Was Found in Egypt—And It's Never Been Opened
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In what could be the plot of the next summer blockbuster, a sealed sarcophagus has been found 16 feet underground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Science Alert reports. It’s still unknown who or what might be lying inside the nondescript black granite casket, but what’s clear is that it hasn’t been opened since it was closed more than 2000 years ago.

Ayman Ashmawy, head of the government’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, observed “a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus,” indicating it hadn't been opened, according to a Ministry of Antiquities Facebook post. Considering that many ancient tombs in Egypt have been looted over the years, an untouched sarcophagus is quite a rare find.

The sarcophagus was discovered when a site in the Sidi Gaber district, dating back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE), was inspected before construction of a building began. The casket is 104.3 inches long and 65 inches wide, making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in Alexandria. In addition, an alabaster statue of a man’s head was found in the same tomb, and some have speculated that it might depict whoever is sealed inside the sarcophagus. Live Science suggested that archaeologists may opt to inspect its contents using X-rays or computed tomography scans to prevent damage to the artifact.

Although it remains a mystery for now, Twitter has a few theories about who might be lying inside:

[h/t Science Alert]

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What Did Burr Do After Shooting Hamilton?
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Aaron Burr's first order of business was to go home and have some breakfast.

Having victoriously emerged from that deadly encounter with Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, Burr returned to his estate in lower Manhattan for a hearty meal. Some accounts claim that the V.P. was also pleasantly surprised by a visiting acquaintance (either Burr’s cousin or his broker, depending upon the source) with whom he dined, politely choosing not to mention the bloody spectacle that had just transpired. The next day, Hamilton passed away. For Burr, his opponent’s death marked the beginning of the end.

On August 2, a New York coroner’s jury found Burr guilty on two counts. In their estimation, he’d committed the misdemeanor of dueling—and the felony of murder. To make matters worse, because his duel had taken place in New Jersey, the Garden State issued its own ruling, which also pronounced him a murderer.

“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey,” he dryly noted in a letter to his daughter Theodosia. “The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President.” Facing a tempest of public outrage, Burr eventually set sail for Georgia, where plantation owner and former Senator Pierce Butler offered him sanctuary.

But, alas, the call of vice presidential duty soon rang out. As president of the Senate, Burr returned to Washington that November to oversee the impeachment of anti-Jeffersonian Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Shortly thereafter—with some help from a contingent of Republican senators—Burr’s case was dropped in New Jersey, though by then, he’d already stepped down from the vice presidency.

Burr’s saga was far from over, though. After leaving D.C., he began aggressively recruiting allies for a planned seizure of America’s western territories. Among those he managed to enlist were General James Wilkinson, who’d been named Northern Louisiana’s regional governor. Burr even went so far as to begin training his own army before he was arrested in present-day Alabama and put on trial for treason. Ultimately, however, he was acquitted. His scheme foiled and his image scarred, Burr departed for Europe and wouldn’t return to his native country until 1812.

By then, the nation was entrenched in a nasty war with Great Britain and had largely forgotten his attempted conspiracy. Towards the end of his life, Burr went back to New York (where, despite the 1804 ruling, he was never actually tried for murder), revived his law practice, and married his second wife, the notorious socialite Eliza Jumel. He died on September 14, 1836, at the age of 80.

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