At Vindolanda this is a common occurrence, a site where the special qualities lie not only in the discovery of gold and silver or artefacts which relate to the military might of the Roman Army but also of everyday ordinary items which nearly 2000 years later become extraordinary to the modern day visitors, volunteers and archaeologists alike.
Personal letters, worn shoes, baby booties, socks, combs, jewellery, tools and textiles are just some of the items preserved in a remarkable condition that provide you with a unique window into the lives of people stationed at this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.Now archaeologists have another piece of this very personal human hoard at Vindolanda, a wooden latrine (toilet) seat, was discovered by the Director of Excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, in the deep pre-hadrianic trenches at Vindolanda.
There are many examples of stone and marble seat benches from across the Roman Empire but this is believed to be the only surviving wooden seat, almost perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen free, conditions which exist at Vindolanda. Although this wooden seat is not as grand as a marble or stone toilet bench, it would be far more comfortable to sit on in the cool climate of Britannia. The seat has clearly been well used and was decommissioned from its original purpose and discarded amongst the rubbish left behind in the final fort at the site before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.
Dr Birley commented on the find ‘there is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful….’ Andrew went on to say ‘We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat. As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found.
It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable. Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate – their drains often contain astonishing artefacts. Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy’. Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.
Archaeologists now need to find a ‘spongia’ the natural sponge on a stick which Romans used instead of toilet paper, and with over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds a discovery may just be possible.
The wooden seat will take up to 18 months to conserve and once this process is complete the artefact will be put on display at the Roman Army Museum.
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The answer is buried 150 million years in the past, but a new University of California, Berkeley, study provides a new piece of evidence – birds have an innate ability to maneuver in midair, a talent that could have helped their ancestors learn to fly rather than fall from a perch.
The study looked at how baby birds, in this case chukar partridges, pheasant-like game birds from Eurasia, react when they fall upside down.
The researchers, Dennis Evangelista, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Robert Dudley, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, found that even ungainly, day-old baby birds successfully use their flapping wings to right themselves when they fall from a nest, a skill that improves with age until they become coordinated and graceful flyers.
“From day one, post-hatching, 25 percent of these birds can basically roll in midair and land on their feet when you drop them,” said Dudley, who also is affiliated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. “This suggests that even rudimentary wings can serve a very useful aerodynamic purpose.”Flapping and rolling
The nestlings right themselves by pumping their wings asymmetrically to flip or roll. By nine days after hatching, 100 percent of the birds in the study had developed coordinated or symmetric flapping, plus body pitch control to right themselves.
“These abilities develop very quickly after hatching, and occur before other previously described uses of the wings, such as for weight support during wing-assisted incline running,” said Evangelista, who emphasized that no chukar chicks were injured in the process. “The results highlight the importance of maneuvering and control in development and evolution of flight in birds.”
The researchers’ study appeared Aug. 27 in the online journal Biology Letters, published by the Royal Society.
Dudley has argued for a decade that midair maneuverability preceded the development of flapping flight and allowed the ancestors of today’s birds to effectively use their forelimbs as rudimentary wings. The new study shows that aerial righting using uncoordinated, asymmetric wing flapping is a very early development.
Righting behavior probably evolved because “nobody wants to be upside down, and it’s particularly dangerous if you’re falling in midair,” Dudley said. “But once animals without wings have this innate aerial righting behavior, when wings came along it became easier, quicker and more efficient.”
Dudley noted that some scientists hypothesize that true powered flight originated in the theropod dinosaurs, the ancestors to birds, when they used symmetric wing flapping while running up an incline, a behavior known as wing-assisted incline running, or WAIR. WAIR proponents argue that the wings assist running by providing lift, like the spoiler on a race car, and that the ability to steer or maneuver is absent early in evolution.Falling, gliding and flying
Such activity has never been regularly observed in nature, however, and Dudley favors the scenario that flight developed in tree-dwelling animals falling and eventually evolving the ability to glide and fly. He has documented many ways that animals in the wild, from lizards and lemurs to ants, use various parts of their bodies to avoid hard landings on the ground. Practically every animal that has been tested is able to turn upright, and a great many, even ones that do not look like fliers, have some ability to steer or maneuver in the air.
Contrary to WAIR, maneuvering is very important at all stages of flight evolution and must have been present early, Evangelista said. Seeing it develop first in very young chicks indirectly supports this idea.
“Symmetric flapping while running is certainly one possible context in which rudimentary wings could have been used, but it kicks in rather late in development relative to asymmetric flapping,” Dudley added. “This experiment illustrates that there is a much broader range of aerodynamic capacity available for animals with these tiny, tiny wings than has been previously realized.”
The researchers also tested the young chicks to see if they flapped their wings while running up an incline. None did.
Three former UC Berkeley undergraduates – Sharlene Cam, Tony Huynh and Igor Krivitskiy – worked with Evangelista and Dudley through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) and are coauthors on the Biology Letters paper. Evangelista was supported by a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT #DGE-0903711) grant and by grants from the Berkeley Sigma Xi chapter and the national Sigma Xi.
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In this study published in GSA Bulletin, Katharine Huntington and colleagues employ a cutting-edge geochemical tool — “clumped” isotope thermometry — using modern and fossil snail shells to investigate the uplift history of the Zhada basin in southwestern Tibet.
Views range widely on the timing of surface uplift of the Tibetan Plateau to its current high (~4.5 km) over more than 2.5 square kilometers. Specifically, interpretations differ on whether the modern high elevations were recently developed or are largely a continuation of high elevations developed prior to Indo-Asian collision in the Eocene.
Clumped isotope temperatures of modern and fossil snail shells record changing lake water temperatures over the last nine million years. This is a reflection of changes in surface temperature as a function of climate and elevation change. A key to their Zhada Basin paleo-elevation reconstructions is that Huntington and colleagues were able to contextualize them with sampling of modern and Holocene-age tufa and shells from a range of aquatic environments.
Huntington and colleagues find that the Zhada basin was significantly colder from three to nine million years ago, implying a loss of elevation of more than one kilometer since the Pliocene. While surprising given the extreme (~4 km) elevation of the basin today, the higher paleo-elevation helps explain paleontological evidence of cold-adapted mammals living in a high-elevation climate, and is probably the local expression of east-west extension across much of the southern Tibetan Plateau at this time.
Huntington and colleagues note that future studies could improve on their own initial “calibration” work with year-round monitoring of water temperature and a focus on specific taxa and their micro-habitat preferences.
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