Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

Friday, January 30th, 2015

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th – 3rd centuries B.C.

Using mutli-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

The skull of the 50-60 male showed no visible evidence of head trauma but rather suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Since even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Here’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

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Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Tutankhamun funerary mask before beard glue debacleThe AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

Detail of epoxy layer used to reattach beard, image courtesy Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

Jacqueline Rodriguez's photograph of man gluing the beard on Tut's funerary mask on August 12th, 2014The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

Photograph of the funerary mask taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-Shahed“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Twitter abounds with satirical memes on the beard; this is a "Conservation Manual"Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

Front view of glued-on beard, taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-ShahedSo that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

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Roman Silenus bed fitting found in Denmark

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Bronze Silenus found on Falster, 1st c. A.D.A metal detectorist has discovered a bronze figure of Silenus on the island of Falster in southeastern Denmark. When she first unearthed the bust of a togate, bearded figure, the metal detectorist thought it was a modern piece because it was so finely crafted and in such good condition. It wasn’t until she showed it to experts at the National Museum of Denmark that it was properly identified as a Roman bronze from the 1st century A.D.

The figure is small at just 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and depicts Silenus, the tutor and boon companion of Bacchus. Silenus is portrayed as an old man, bald and bearded, with thick lips and a squashed nose. He is the wisest of the god’s followers and, appropriately, also the drunkest, so drunk that he is usually shown riding a mule or being supported by satyrs.

Pair of bronze fulcra, 1st c. A.D., British MuseumThe Romans often used Bacchic themes in their dining room decoration and this Silenus was originally part of a lectus, the couch or bed on which diners reclined. Lecti had s-shaped headrest supports called fulcra (plural for fulcrum) on both sides. Usually made of bronze, fulcra were richly decorated, inlaid with precious metals and/or ivory. Each end of the fulcrum culminated in a sculpted figure. Satyrs and sileni were popular for one end, while the other end was often topped with the head of a donkey or mule, a reference to Silenus’ preferred form of transportation. The British Museum has a beautiful pair of intact fulcra with satyrs and mules on the ends. You can see how the Falster Silenus’ turned position matches the satyrs’.

Originating in Greece, the lectus reached its peak of popularity in the early Roman Empire. No wealthy person’s triclinium (dining room) was complete without three lecti arranged in a U shape at right angles to each other. In fact, the “tri” in triclinium is a reference to the three lecti. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a complete set of bronze lectus fittings from the late Republic, early Empire that they have put together with modern wood elements so you can see the architecture of the frame. In its day, it would have been topped with a mattress and sumptuous textiles and cushions.

Roman lectus, 1st c. B.C., Walters Art MuseumThese furnishings were expensive, highly prized pieces, so much so that they would sometimes be buried with their owners. That’s unlikely to have been the case with the Falster Silenus. It probably was separated from its bed long before it wound its way into the soil of Denmark. The Roman furniture fittings that have been discovered in Denmark thus far appear to have been individual objects rather than part of a larger piece, brought to the area as art works or war booty.

The number of Roman finds in the Danish islands south of Zealand may indicate an active trade network moving goods from southern Europe to Denmark, and there is some documentary support for contact during the early empire. In a passage from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an autobiographical summary written by Augustus during his lifetime for use on funerary inscriptions after his death, he dispatched ships to the peninsula of Jutland and established friendly relations with the locals.

My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people.

Fulcrum fittings weren’t a big part of that friendship, though. This is the first one that has ever been found in Denmark.

 

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Letters read on carbonized Herculaneum scrolls

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

When the wealthy town of Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., organic materials like wood, food and large quantities of poop were instantly carbonized by the superheated gases and ash, sucking all the water out of them and preventing their decay. Subsequent pyroclastic flows buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock that preserved the city and its contents for 2,000 years.

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre and Charles, the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, funded the first excavation of the site. In 1752, excavators unearthed the first carbonized papyri in a large villa that may have been owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father of Julius Caesar’s last wife Calpurnia of prophetic dream fame. Two years later, the excavation discovered a whole library with 1,800 scrolls tidily arranged on wall shelves. This is the only surviving complete ancient library in the world. The house was named the Villa of the Papyri after this unique discovery.

The few scrolls that could be opened were and found to be philosophical texts on Epicureanism, but the opening process damaged the scrolls, often destroying them. Researches have been trying ever since to find a way into the carbonized papyri that doesn’t obliterate an irreplaceable ancient artifact. The development of imaging technology like X-ray and CT scanning holds tantalizing promise for a non-invasive exploration of the texts, but there have been problems making it work.

From 2007 through 2012, the Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration (EDUCE) program at the University of Kentucky attempted to read some Herculaneum scrolls in the collection of the Institut de France using a micro-CT scanner custom built for reading papyrus as opposed to human innards. They had some success at creating virtual models of the scrolls, revealing how dense and wavy the layers were and unwrapping them to their full length using image algorithms, but the lettering was a tough nut to crack because the carbonization made it all but impossible for the scanner to differentiate between the carbon-based ink and the papyrus.

Here’s a video of the EDUCE team scanning a Herculaneum scroll in 2010. You can see the results at the end and the one letter they point to is just a slightly darkish blur unreadable.

Now a new study published in Nature Communications reports that a similar imaging technique, X-ray phase-contrast tomography, has been able to pick out letters from the scrolls. The research team, led by Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council, took a fragment from an unwrapped scroll and one intact scroll from the Institut de France to Grenoble where the European Synchrotron particle collider lives. The high-energy beams from the synchrotron reflect back from the ever-so-slightly raised letters (carbon-based ink doesn’t soak into papyrus; it sits on top of it) at a different phase than they do from the papyrus. researchers measured the phase difference and were able to recreate the letters.

This video gives a quick glimpse into the scanning process, but you can’t really discern the letter here either because the actual identification is done after the scan.

Mocella and his team show that they were able to make out two previously unreadable sequences of capital letters from a hidden layer of the unrolled scroll fragment. The team interprets them as Greek words: ΠΙΠΤΟΙΕ, meaning “would fall”, and ΕΙΠΟΙ, meaning “would say”. Even more exciting for scholars, the team was able to pick out writing on the still-rolled scroll, eventually finding all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet at various points on the tightly bundled document.

Even though the current scans are mostly a proof of concept, the work suggests that there will soon be a way to read the full works on the rolled scrolls, the team says. “We plan to improve the technique,” says Mocella. “Next spring we have an allowance to spend more time at the Grenoble synchrotron, where we can test a number of approaches and try to discern the exact chemical composition of the ink. That will help us improve the energy setting of the beam for our scan.”

They’ll also collaborate with University of Kentucky computer scientist Dr. Brent Seales who spearheaded the EDUCE project. His work in mapping out the physical structure of the scrolls will be invaluable in helping place the letters in their proper order so the texts can actually be read rather than individual letters identified.

This is an important breakthrough for exploring other kinds of historical texts as well, like medieval palimpsests that have inaccessible writing in the binding or between glued pages, but if it does prove effective in reading Herculaneum’s carbonized scrolls, it could strike a motherlode of ancient sources. The scrolls that have been read so far all came from one room and they’re all in Greek. Archaeologists believe there may be a second library of Latin scrolls. If that’s true and more scrolls are found, a non-invasive means to read them could rediscover any number of lost ancient books. A virtual reality model of the Villa of the Papyri created at the UCLA’s Experiential Technologies Center conveys how large the structure is and how much is left to excavate.

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Remains of five people found in Amphipolis tomb

Monday, January 19th, 2015

On Monday Greece’s Ministry of Culture announced the results of the first bone study on the skeletal remains found in the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis. Approximately 550 fragments of bone — some crushed, some whole and one skull missing the facial bones and teeth — were found in the tomb. Multidisciplinary teams from the Democritus University of Thrace and the
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were able to sort 157 of the bone fragments into at least five individuals: a woman more than 60 years old, a man around 35 years old, a man around 45 years old, a neonate of unknown sex and fragments of cremated bones from a person of unknown age and sex.


The woman has the most surviving bones which were found three feet above the floor of the limestone cyst grave. The one almost complete skull is hers and was instrumental, along with the pelvic bones and the long bone measurements, in determining her sex. She was about 157 cm (5’2″) tall and suffered from antemortem tooth loss, degenerative changes of the spine, osteoporosis and frontal hyperostosis. Those conditions led researchers to put her age at over 60 years.


The younger of the men was about 168 cm (5’6″) tall and his bones bear clear unhealed cut marks that indicate he was violently assaulted with a sharp weapon in the left upper thoracic spine, on the nape of his neck and on both his sides. The older of the two was about 162 cm (5’4″) tall. He had fractured his right radius close to the wrist at some point, but it was fully healed before he died. Both men have degenerative osteoarthritis and spondylitis lesions in different areas.


The infant was identified as a newborn by the length and width of the left humerus and mandible. The sex could not be determined because the morphological features that help identify sex are not developed in so young a baby.


The fifth individual was identified from nine fragments of bones that bear the characteristic cracks, deformation and discoloration caused by complete cremations. Researchers believe these are the remains of an adult.

These are just the first round of results. Additional testing will include X-rays to find out more about the lesions and injuries to the bones, electron microscopy, paleogenetic analysis of any DNA recoverable, stable isotope analysis on the bones to identify the types of proteins in their diets, limited strontium analysis on bone samples (there were no teeth recovered except the root of an abscessed right mandibular second premolar, so the usual strontium testing on tooth enamel that can reveal where individuals lived as children is not possible) and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating.

The hope is that researchers will be able to discover the diets, places of origin and, if DNA is cooperative, whether any of the people entombed were related to each other. It’s a long shot. The lack of teeth is a big minus for DNA extraction, and the neonate and cremated individual have such limited sample material that it’s unlikely they’ll produce testable DNA. The AMS radiocarbon dating will be done on the human remains but also on a number of animal bones, probably belonging to a horse, that were discovered in the tomb. If all goes well, the dates will illuminate the order of deposition in the tomb which can’t solely be determined by the excavation strata because the tomb was disturbed.

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4,000-year-old copper crown found in India

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

This past August, kiln workers discovered human skeletal remains while digging for clay to make bricks in the village of Chandayan, Uttar Pradesh, northern India. The skeleton was wearing a crown, a copper strip with two copper leaves attached to it decorated with a tubular carnelian bead and a faience one. They also found a redware (terracotta) bowl with a collared rim, a miniature pot and a clay sling ball. The local residents were so excited by the discovery that they, along with the police, protected the site, stopping further clay digging.

Word of the find spread over the region, eventually catching the interest of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which dispatched an archaeological team to Chandayan. They excavated the burial site and found more of the skeleton — a pelvic bone, the left femur — as well as another piece of th crown, potsherds and 21 earthenware pots including storage jars and dish-on-stands. Most of them are plain redware, but there is a grey vessel and some lightly decorated pieces.

About 65 feet away from the burial at the same depth, the team discovered animal bones and more earthenware pots. Archaeologists believe the animal may have been sacrificed during the funerary rites for the crowned person. Another 150 feet from the burial they found evidence of an ancient home: a compacted earth floor, mud walls and postholes.

Carnelian, glazed faience, sling balls and collared pots are artifacts typical of the late Indus Valley (also known as Harappan after the type site discovered in the 1920s) civilization. In fact, work in carnelian and copper metallurgy were innovations introduced in the Indus Valley civilization. The late Indus Valley phase was from 1900 to 1600 B.C., and although burial sites from this period have been found in Uttar Pradesh, this is the first evidence of a habitation site. The crown is also a unique piece. A silver crown from the late Indus Valley period has been found before, but not a copper one.

The crown suggests that the skeleton belonged to someone of importance, perhaps the village chieftain or local leader of some kind. The crudeness of the pottery and the local flavor of the decoration (none of them decorated with the precision and elaborate geometries that make Indus Valley pottery so popular in museums) suggest he was a big fish in a small pond rather than a ruler of a large territory who would have had access to more expensive trade goods. The crown could have had another function or perhaps was merely decorative, so the deceased may have been someone with extravagant taste in jewelry rather than a dominant political figure.

Although with a range of 930,000 square miles it covered far more area than the other great Bronze Age civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia and China), the Indus script has yet to be deciphered so there’s still so much we don’t know about the Indus Valley civilization. The large urban centers that have been unearthed are impressive in their meticulous planning, water delivery and drainage systems, public baths, public buildings, residential areas distinct from administrative and/or religious compounds. More than a thousand towns from major cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro to small settlements have been found but only about a hundred of them have been excavated. The Chandayan settlement is the easternmost one found yet.

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42 mastodon bones found in Michigan backyard

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Contractor Daniel LaPoint Jr. was digging a poind with an excavator on his neighbor Eric Witzke’s property in Bellevue Township, southern Michigan, last November when he noticed a large bone jutting out of the pile of displaced soil. He pulled it out of the pile and saw it was a curved bone four feet long. Over the next four days, LaPoint and Witzke dug up the yard and unearthed 41 more large bones which at the time they assumed were dinosaur bones due to their impressive dimensions.

They enlisted the aid of Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, who examined the bones and determined they were from a mastodon, not a dinosaur, and are between 10,000 and 14,000 years old.

LaPoint and Witzke’s collection includes several rib bones, leg, shoulder and hip bones, the base of a tusk and pieces of the animal’s vertebrae.

Fisher has spent several hours looking through what they found and believes the mastodon was a 37-year-old male.

“Preliminary examination indicates that the animal may have been butchered by humans,” said Fisher. Bones show what look like tool marks, in places.

Only 330 confirmed mastodon bones have been found in Michigan, so the discovery of 42 in one place is exceptional. Fisher believes there may be more bones to be found in Witzke’s yard, but the wet earth was already difficult to excavate in November. It’s probably close to impenetrable in full winter.

The finders could make a few thousand dollars off the bones if they sold them, but they are awesome people so they’ve decided to keep a few bones as mementos and donate the rest to the museum. The bones will go to the museum at the end of the month. Once they’re there, researchers will radiocarbon date them to narrow down the date range to within a few hundred years.

In further evidence of LaPoint and Witzke’s awesomeness, the pair took the bones to the local middle school so the kids could get the hands-on experience before they disappear into the museum’s stores.

“Once these things go to the museum and get crated up, you’re not going to get to touch them again. It’s over with and I was that kid who wanted to touch that thing on the other side of the glass,” said LaPoint. “All the kids got to pick them up and hold them. Some kids, it was life-changing for them. To change one kid’s life because they got to touch it, I think, is an incredible opportunity.”

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Large chariot, horse burial found in China

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating a tomb complex in Zaoyang in the central Chinese province of Hubei have unearthed 28 chariots and 49 pairs of horses dating to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.). The chariots and horses were buried separately. The chariot pit, an impressive 33 meters (108 feet) long and four meters (13 feet) wide, was discovered first. Unlike other ancient chariot burials which feature the vehicles positioned vertically as if ready for use (see this tomb, for instance, discovered in 2011 in Luoyang, about 200 miles north of Zaoyang), the chariots in this pit were dismantled, the wheels laid along the edges and the rest of the parts placed carefully one-by-one between them. Along with the large wooden sections of the chariot, archaeologists found beautifully engraved bronze artifacts. The smaller ones are chariot fittings and parts; long cylindrical pieces were probably axles.

The large square horse pit was found 15 or so feet away. The skeletal remains showed no sign of a struggle, so the beasts were not buried alive. They were killed and then buried on their sides back-to-back in pairs, just as they would have drawn the chariots.

The Spring and Autumn Period was an era in which the power of the Zhou kings was collapsing. In 771 B.C., King You of Zhou, last king of the Wester Zhou, was killed when his father-in-law the Marquess of Shen allied with the northern nomadic Quanrong tribe to overthrow the king who had exiled his daughter and disinherited his grandson in favor of one of his concubines. The Marquess and his supporters put the formerly dispossessed Crown Prince Yijiu on the throne. He took the name King Ping and moved his capital east to Luoyang, away from marauding barbarians, thus kicking off the Eastern Zhou period.

The relatives and favorites who had received territories from the Zhou kings as vassals stepped into the power vacuum and became vassals in name only. The feudal system broke down into smaller and smaller statelets controlled by warlords, some of them the size of a single village or city. This is known as the Spring and Autumn Period after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle documenting the history of the state of Lu from 722 to 481 B.C. that was once thought to have been edited by Confucius and as such is held to be the first of the Five Classics of Chinese Literature.

The tomb found in Zaoyang must have belonged to one of these local lords. Chariots were very expensive, sophisticated technology that came to their apex of importance in the Spring and Autumn Period. Someone who could afford to be buried with dozens of chariots and their horses was demonstrating great military (and consequently political) power.

Not all of the 30 tombs so far uncovered are this large. There are a variety of sizes and a large number of grave goods. So far archaeologists have excavated only some of the complex but they’ve already unearthed more than 400 bronze and pottery artifacts, including a mystery item that could have been part of a farming implement or chariot fixture that is inscribed with Old Chinese characters. They’ve also discovered the remains of two important musical instruments. One is a Se, a 25-string zither-like instrument, that is the earliest ever recovered. Only half of it still survives, but you can see the holes where the strings were threaded through.

The other is part of a bianzhong set, arrays of bronze chimes mounted on lacquered beams and played by teams of musicians striking the sides and centers with wooden mallets. Although only seven fragments of the bases of the bells and one beam have survived, they indicate this was an extremely important set. The beam is 4.7 meters (15.4 feet) long and the chimes are decorated with dragons and phoenixes, symbols of royalty in Chinese iconography. (Some news stories are reporting it as the longest bianzhong beam ever found, but the long side of the exceptional 64-bell set discovered intact in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in 1978 is 7.48 meters (24.5 feet) long. I think the archaeologists meant they had personally never excavated one this size before and it got lost in translation.)

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Ancient amulet with 59-letter palindrome found

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

A 1,500-year-old amulet inscribed with a 59-letter Greek phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards has been found in Cyprus. Archaeologists from the Paphos Agora Project discovered it in 2011 during the first season of excavations of the ancient agora of Neo Paphos. Neo Paphos, a harbour city on the southwest coast, was the capital of Cyprus in the late Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

The inscription reads:

ΙΑΕW
ΒΑΦΡΕΝΕΜ
ΟΥΝΟΘΙΛΑΡΙ
ΚΝΙΦΙΑΕΥΕ
ΑΙΦΙΝΚΙΡΑΛ
ΙΘΟΝΥΟΜΕ
ΝΕΡΦΑΒW
ΕΑΙ

which translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

Renown for its temples to Aphrodite (she made landfall at Paphos after her birth from the sea), Neo Paphos also had an early connection to Christianity. It features in the Acts of the Apostles 13:6-13 wherein Paul curses a false prophet with a year of blindness for trying to lead the Roman proconsul Lucius Sergius Paullus astray. Amazed by the power of God working through Paul, Lucius Sergius converts to Christianity. After the death of Theodosius I, the last emperor to rule both the East and West halves of the Roman Empire, in 395 A.D., Cyprus became part of the Eastern Empire, and although the traditional Greek polytheistic religion was actively suppressed by the authorities, a strong culture of Hellenistic Christianity developed.

The amulet is evidence of how long polytheistic beliefs survived on Cyprus and how Christianity was integrated into traditional religious practices, a religious syncretism that would endure for centuries after Theodosius made Christianity the state religion. It 1.4 inches wide by 1.6 inches long and is made of mud clay. One side of the amulet is crudely engraved with images of Egyptian deities. At the bottom is a crocodile with open jaws. Above him is a mummy wrapped in bandages (probably meant to be the god Osiris) lying on a boat. To the left of the mummy is a bird (its comb suggests it may be a rooster), to the right is a snake and what archaeologists have identified as a dog-headed figure or cynocephalus even though the head is just a rudimentary circle.

Above the mummy is a depiction of Harpocrates, a Hellenized version of the Egyptian child god Horus, deity of silence and secrecy, sitting on a cross-frame stool and holding a large scepter in his left hand. He is recognizable because of the characteristic position of his right hand raised to his mouth, a depiction of the hieroglyphic for “child” which the Greeks misunderstood as a “shh” gesture. Horus the Child/Harpocrates was often depicted with a dog, which is how, I believe, the archaeologists identified the cynocephalus as such, but there are incongruities with the design that suggest the carver was confused about the religious iconography.

“It must be stated that the depiction is fairly unskilled and schematic. It is iconographically based on Egyptian sources, but these sources were not fully understood by the creator of the amulet,” adoration,” [Joachim Śliwa, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland,] wrote in the journal [Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization] article.

For instance, rather than sitting on a stool, Harpocrates should be sitting on a lotus flower, with legs drawn up, Śliwa said. Additionally, the dog-headed cynocephalus should not be mimicking Harpocrates. In “the classic version, the cynocephalus faces Harpocrates with paws raised in adoration,” Śliwa wrote.”We can find no justification for the cynocephalus’s gesture of raising its right paw to its lips in a manner similar to Harpocrates.”

Even stranger is the fact that Harpocrates and the cynocephalus have crisscrossing lines on their bodies, which suggest the ancient artist thought these figures should be mummified along with Osiris. While the cynocephalus can be shown with mummy bandages, Harpocrates is not supposed to have them. Mummy bandages have “no justification in the case of Harpocrates,” Śliwa wrote.

It makes sense that after more than a century of official Christianity, with all the temples, schools, libraries, etc. where one might learn the standard polytheism destroyed or redirected towards Christianity, people exploring traditional religious imagery and language would wind up with jumbled details.

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Ode on the animation of a Grecian urn

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I’m a devoted fan of the Greek vase animations made by Panoply. Computer animator Steve K. Simons and Greek warfare expert Dr. Sonya Nevin work together to develop moving parts from the static images on Greek pottery, much of it in the extensive collection of the University of Reading’s Ure Museum. They collaborate with ancient music experts to create soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the symposia depicted on the vases. It’s a full-spectrum historical immersion achieved through modern technology.

The project is focused on education and community outreach. Each animation provides additional resources for teachers to use the animations in class, and many of Panoply’s videos are storyboarded by local schoolchildren who get to enjoy an exceptional opportunity to learn about ancient art and history by studying a vase and then get to express their own creativity in the creation of the animated version of the scene. Sometimes they’re more serious treatments, sometimes lighthearted, but either way, the results are consistently wonderful. One of my favorites in the lighthearted category is this brilliant Dance Off storyboarded by the pupils of the Maiden Erlegh School and Kendrick School in Reading.

That 6th century B.C. Etruscan black figure oinochoe vase just GOT SERVED.

A more serious treatment is this animation of a combat sequence from 6th century B.C. lekanis vase made on the Greek island of Euboea.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that there isn’t more of it, which is why I was so excited to see Panoply’s latest effort, Hoplites! Greeks At War, a much longer and more detailed animation of the practice of ancient war from religious sacrifice to the thrust and parry of battle to the final victory.

I think it’s a masterpiece: the way the music and action are in perfect rhythm, how that blow creates the crack in the vase, integrating the condition of the vase into the scene, the addition of figures to form a little army instead of using the individual images alone. I feel like starting a petition demanding that all cheeseball reenactments of ancient history on television be replaced with Panoply animations.

Because I can’t resist them, I’m going to embed a couple of other favorites below, but you should go through all of the animations. They’re very short — Hoplites! is the exception length-wise, Dance Off the rule — so it won’t take you long to watch them.

Clash of the Dicers, created for a conference at the University College Dublin, features Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a lull in the Trojan War. It’s from a 6th century B.C. black figure amphora signed by potter Exekias now in the Vatican Museum. I love how the background glows like lava.

Medusa, storyboard by pupils from Addington School in Reading, was created pulling characters from three different vases: the gorgon is from a 6th century B.C. black figure kylix cup, her stoney victim from an Apulian 4th century B.C. red figure alabastron, and the warrior is from the Hoplites! lekanis.

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