Pack rats, aka woodrats, build their nests, called middens, from plant debris, rocks, animal parts, paper, and almost any other bits of detritus nearby. Frequently, they urinate on their middens. The urine crystalizes and encases the nest material, preserving it for as long as 50,000 years by some estimates. For paleobotanists, middens are a great source of information about how flora has changed over time. Zoologists study the animal remains and poop. And climatologists analyze the material for insight into past climates, even the most recent ice age that ended more than 11,000 years ago. In Smithsonian
, Sadie Witkowski digs into the topic, including a story about what historians learned excavating rats' nests in the walls of the 1808 Charleston, South Carolina home
of slave trader Nathaniel Russel:
Among the mass of organic matter, they found sewing pins, buttons, marbles, part of a uniform waistcoat, and even fragments of printed paper that could be dated to November 1833. The paper was darkened and curled but still legible once it was gently opened.
“It was protected from rain and moisture, and even though it’s sooty, it didn’t burn,” (University of Delaware art conservator Susan) Buck says. “So we just have all these fragile materials that normally wouldn’t survive.” Among the material, the team recovered scraps of an early writing primer, suggesting some of the enslaved workers living in the kitchen house has been learning to read and write.
To move beyond the written record, historians and conservators have looked for new clues in unlikely places. Common rats that surely plagued the occupants of the kitchen house on Nathaniel Russell’s estate have left behind an invaluable cache of items that reveal new details about the lives of people who are too frequently absent in the historical record.
“When you open up a rat’s nest, it’s completely unexpected. You just can’t be prepared for it,” (architectural preservation researcher Rucha) Kamath says. “Sometimes you come across nothing; sometimes you come across a whole treasure chest.”
"From Ancient Seeds to Scraps of Clothing, Rats’ Nests Are Full of Treasures" (Smithsonian)
More: How Can Little Critters Teach Us About Climate? (NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Information)
I’m not an engineer, but I can’t stop watching this hypnotic and oddly satisfying video of tying rebar.
The Australian Acoustic Observatory project, described by its creators as a kind of “Google Street View of sound,” is a new acoustic sensor network of hundreds of microphones and digital audio recorders distributed across multiple remote ecosystems on the continent. The solar-powered system will record animal and natural sounds continuously for 5 years. According to […]
Is your brain a machine? Are your thoughts and feelings just malware of the mind? (And what “really” is a machine, anyway?) John and Eva referee the transhumanist fight of the century. In the blue corner, we have Eva meeting founder and Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel, straight from his office in LA. And in […]
We’re living in the age of Big Data. As the driving force behind everything from Google’s famed algorithms to self-driving cars, massive sets of complex data can be found at the heart of some of today’s most exciting and important technologies. The Ultimate SQL Bootcamp Certification Bundle will give you the skills and tools you […]
So you missed Black Friday and Cyber Monday? Well, there’s one more holiday milestone coming up: Green Monday, on Dec. 16. It’s one of the busiest online shopping days for the simple reason that it will be 10 days before Christmas, which is when last-minute shoppers start to stress. Our advice? Don’t wait for that […]
Weighted blankets are officially a thing. And if you’ve ever tried one, you know there’s a reason for the fuss. Parents have known for generations that swaddling a baby has a profound calming effect, and the gentle pressure that blanket weights provide can have the same effect on restless sleepers. Pretty much all parts of […]