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Metal heavy with meaning

T

hey could have been the “Harley-Davidson biker chicks” of the Iron Age—sans motorcycles. That’s the way archaeologist Bettina Arnold likes to think of the remains she and her team unearthed in two 2,600-year-old Celtic burial mounds in southwest Germany. “We found fabulous leather belts in some of the graves of the high-status women, with thousands of tiny bronze staples attached to the leather that would have taken hours to make,” she says of the project, originally funded by the National Geographic Society. Five hundred years before the Roman Conquest, people in Central Europe had no writing system, so archaeologists must coax information about clothing and appearance from the metal jewelry, weapons and textiles found in burial sites. Because of the acidic soil, no bones remain, Arnold says. But where metal is present, textiles made of linen and wool may be preserved.

To safeguard the fragile hairpins, earrings and clothing fasteners, Arnold and her colleagues encased blocks of earth containing the metal objects in plaster, then put the sealed bundles through a computerized tomography, or CT, scanner. Images show such fine detail, the archaeologists theorize that some of the items were not just for fashion. The pins that secured a veil to a woman’s head, for example, appear to also symbolize marital status and perhaps motherhood. Other adornment was genderspecific—bracelets worn on the left arm were found in men’s graves, but bracelets worn on both arms were found only in graves of women. The Central European Celts were trading with people from around the Mediterranean during this time— something the researchers have been able to determine based on imported grave goods.

The highlight of all of this work for Arnold? “It’s being able to put clothes on these people and bring them back to life through costume reconstruction.”

Powerful Ideas. Proven R esults.

Bettina Arnold, professor of anthropology

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UWM Research Report 2012  

UWM faculty, staff and students are following many paths to creating new knowledge in diverse fields.