Thursday, 29 March 2012

Of mice and men

This weekly blog will be on a more frivolous topic before the all serious blog entry next week when I will look at the new planning guidance, out this week, and assess the response and any discussions. English Heritage was allegedly not been allowed to read the finalized text but the first impressions are more encouraging than expected. Well, a conservative party that would have seemed not to be conserving would really have been a target of Boris sighing o tempora o mores!

The latest archaeology news worldwide have brought us the scientific discovery, published in the BMC Evolutionary Biology, that the Vikings did not only terrorize Britain and settle Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the west, not to mention their dominance in some areas what is now Russia in the east, but also contributed to the successful spread of mice. The researcher Eleanor Jones, a population biologist at the Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out the research as a PhD student with the Department of Biology at York, based her research on an earlier observation that a DNA variant in house mice, found only in mice in Norway, one of the Viking homelands, and northern Britain, which Vikings colonized, suggesting that the Viking settlers brought this subspecies to Britain. In order to study the Viking influence in the spread of house mice at a wider scale Jones and her colleagues first took DNA samples from wild house mice in nine sites in Iceland, one in Greenland, and four near the Viking archaeological site of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Then the team compared this DNA with ancient samples from mouse bones found at four archaeological sites in Iceland and a few in Greenland.

L'Anse aux Meadows, photo by Parks Canada

In order to study the relationships between different mice populations the researchers at York researchers compared a small fragment of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), passed down by females to their offspring. By comparing this mtDNA fragment from both modern wild mice and ancient bones, the scientists concluded that the mice travelled with the Viking ships and their settlers and their cargo to the long-term Viking colonies in Iceland and Greenland but failed to reach Newfoundland. This suggests that the site of L'Anse aux Meadows was short-lived without many ships with supplies travelling there. These results reveal the extent of human-mouse dependence and the parallel history in human-animal relations.

L’Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest European settlement in the Americas. Naturally, the native Indian settlements outdate it by tens of thousands of years and even at the site there are signs of occupancy from c. 6000 BP. The norsemen arrived c. 1000 AD. The Viking site was found by a Norwegian explorer and writer Helge Ingstad in 1960. Together with his archaeologist wife Anne Stine Ingstad they directed international excavations at the site. This multinational project resulted with the discovery of the foundations of eight long houses from the 11th century AD. Even if the site has not been considered long-lived, the finds included spindle whorls and knitting needles together with a small whetstone, used to sharpen needles and small scissors and found near the spindle whorls. There was also a great deal of slag from smelting and working of iron. These finds show a full range of household activities and hint the presence of families. The settlement was not long-lived enough for any possible house mice to affect the mtDNA make-up of local mice populations. The mtDNA team interprets the lack of mice to suggest there were no women or families at this site that would have been only a fleeting blip in the landscape history of the area.

Ringed bronze pin (©Parks Canada /G. Vandervloogt)

Logically, the settlement was not long-lived enough to be the origin of the carvers of the alleged Kensington runestone in Minnesota in the 14th century AD either. But that unlikely find is another story altogether.

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