Archive for March, 2008

Lasers, computers and prehistoric cave sculptures

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Sixty years ago, archaeologists discovered intricately carved friezes on the walls of caves in Roc-aux-Sorciers, France. Carved 15,000 years ago, they are the sculptural equivalent of the famous Lascaux cave paintings but are barely known because they have never been on display.

The messy business of tourism — breath and heat and sweat and sticky little fingers poking and scratching and touching — would damage the carvings beyond repair, so instead a replica has been created, exact to microscopic detail using computers and laser-copying technology.

A museum to open near Poitiers, in western France, will span one-a-half millenniums of human image-making, from stone chisels to computers. The star of the show, at Angles-sur-L’Anglin, in the départementof Vienne, will be a 60ft-long frieze of bison, horses, cats, goats and erotic female figures, carved into the limestone of western France 15,000 years ago.

The caverns containing the frieze were discovered by French and British archaeologists in 1950 but have never been opened to the public. The Roc-aux-Sorciers (witches’ rock) caves are the only site of their kind in Europe: a two-dimensional, carved equivalent of the celebrated cave paintings at Lascaux in Dordogne, 120 miles farther south, which were created 1,000 years earlier.

From today, the public will be able to visit a €2.7m (£2.1m) visitor centre where the original sculptures, and the contours of the cavern sides, have been precisely recreated to full size by computerised, laser-copying techniques. At intervals a half-hour son-et-lumière display will be projected on to the frieze, suggesting how the carvings may have been created and how they were discovered 58 years ago.

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A maritime Pompeii in Pisa

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

An archaeological dig in San Rossore train station on the outskirts of Pisa has uncovered 39 ancient shipwrecks in spectacular states of preservation. The ones that have been dated range from the 5th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., and you would not believe the stuff they’ve found.

The copper nails and ancient wood are still intact, and in many cases cargo is still sealed in the original terra cotta amphorae, the jars used for shipment in the ancient world. They have also found a cask of the ancient Roman fish condiment known as garum and many mariners’ skeletons—one crushed under the weight of a capsized ship. One ship carried scores of pork shoulder hams; another carried a live lion, likely en route from Africa to the gladiator fights in Rome.

What’s most dramatic about the discovery of this maritime graveyard is that the ships date from different centuries both before and after the advent of the Christian era, meaning the shipwrecks did not happen simultaneously but over time in the same area. Researchers say that starting around the 6th century B.C. the cargo docks of the port of Pisa were accessed by a canal that made a loop connecting the harbor to the open sea. Every hundred years or so over the course of nearly a thousand years, tsunamilike waves violently flooded the waterway and capsized and buried ships, their cargo and their passengers and crew, alongside uprooted trees and even tiny birds and animals.

Read the whole article because every paragraph is full of wonders. This site tells us so much about Etruscan, Greek, Phoenician, Roman pre and post-Christian shipping, life, everything. It’s a massive, mind-blowing find.

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Antiquities looting funds terrorism

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the investigator of the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum, claims that the traffic in looted antiquities is funding insurgents and militias in Iraq.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The smuggling networks that transport antiquities out of Iraq seem to have generated an underground tariff system across the Middle East, with Hezbollah “taxing” antiquities that pass through territory under its control.

Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney, noted that kidnappings and extortion remain the insurgents’ main source of funds. But he said the link between extremist groups and antiquities smuggling in Iraq was “undeniable.”

“The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan,” Bogdanos told The Associated Press in an interview during a two-day UNESCO-organized conference that ended Tuesday on returning antiquities to their country of origin.

“Well, they don’t have opium in Iraq,” he said. “What they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they’re using antiquities.”

He did not provide details on whether he believes factions in Iraq were actively engaged in smuggling or simply forcing payments from traffickers, whose networks often follow overland routes to Jordan and Syria and then onto cities such as Beirut, Dubai or Geneva.

None of this existed before 2004. Just another unplanned side-effect of the invasion of Iraq 5 years ago today.

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Fabulously preserved Mycenean town discovered

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Archaeologists have found a late Bronze age Mycenean harbour town so well-preserved that the entire layout of the buildings and street is clearly visible.

This is hugely rare, unique even. Most towns from this period (about 3,500 years ago) have long since crumbled under layers of dirt and subsequent usage. Korphos-Kalamianos, however, is above ground (and partially under water).

It seems to have been a military outpost. There is no evidence of agriculture, and the grid pattern of the town suggests it was built all at according to a plan.

“Usually to excavate Mycenaean buildings you have to dig underground,” Pullen told LiveScience. “What we have here is the plan of an entire town preserved for us. We have the fortification wall, we have all these buildings, and we can often see where the doorways would be. We can see how the buildings relate to each other, because we have obvious alleyways and streets.”

When Pullen and his team first inspected the walls at the site, they counted more than 900 of them, he said.

The structures are mostly aligned along a grid, leading scientists to think the city was built all at once, as opposed to gradually over time, which would likely result in a more random arrangement of buildings.

“We think it was built for a specific purpose,” Pullen said. “We have evidence that there were a few people at this site for a long time before. Then at some particular point people came in and established this as a new outpost or maybe a naval or military base. And they brought their engineers and builders with them and constructed the main part of the site all at once.”

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St. Patrick in his own words

Monday, March 17th, 2008

There are just two extant letters written by Patricius, aka St. Patrick. His Confession, in which he describes his life, and his Elegy, a letter to Irish chieftain Coroticus protesting his penchant for killing new-minted Christians.

On this day in which we celebrate his birthday by dying rivers green and drinking ourselves into a stupor, let us take a moment to contemplate the man himself.

As a youth, nay, almost as a boy not able to speak, I was taken captive, before I knew what to pursue and what to avoid. Hence to-day I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education; for I am unable to tell my story to those versed in the art of concise writing—in such a way, I mean, as my spirit and mind long to do, and so that the sense of my words expresses what I feel.

Ya, he is a tad prolix. On second thought, I’ma stick with a pint of Guiness and a shamrock pinned to my lapel.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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Area man finds superrare Roman gold coins

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

The area is Derbyshire, England, and the coins are so rare that one of them is entirely unclassified and the other kind hasn’t been seen since 1975. Rare Roman gold coins unearthed in Derbyshire.

The museum’s Sam Moorhead, an expert in Roman antiquities, said: “These are the two most stunning coins I have ever seen and I have looked at over 30,000.

“Ethically, I am not allowed to put a valuation on them but I reckon they are priceless.”

This is the best picture I could find, I’m sad to say:


I want to see them in all their golden glory, but the Derbyshire paper must have a dial-up readership or something, ’cause their pictures are loooow res.

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Iran and Italy sitting in a tree

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Iran and Italy have signed a Memorandum of Understanding which will allow closer cooperation between Italian and Iranian archaeologists in the excavations of Burnt City.

The head of the Italian team working on Iran’s Burnt City project, Lorenzo Costantini, noted that different phases of excavations in the Burnt City have revealed the competence of people of the city in different sciences and crafts.

Located 57 km from the city of Zabol in Sistan-Baluchistan province, southeast Iran, Burnt City is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Iran which thrived during the third millennium BC.

All kinds of amazing things have been found in Burnt City, from delicately painted, 5000 year-old artificial eyeballs to the earliest known backgammon set (turquoise and agate pieces on an ebony board).

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Augustan temple digitally reconstructed

Friday, March 14th, 2008

This is what the Temple of Apollo, built by Augustus Caesar in 28 B.C., looks like now:

There’s so little of it left that reconstructing its former structure has been a challenge for archaeologists. University of Pennsylvania graduate student Stephan Zink spent two years on the Palatine examining the plinth foundations (those huge chunks of brown concrete in the middle) and the cross-sections of columns that remain.

Combining his own work with other measurements taken in the 50′s and 60′s, he’s been able to digitally reconstruct what the temple might have looked like back when it was brand new and 10 stories high.

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More subway archaeology

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

In Thessaloniki, Greece, this time.

Subway workers uncovered about a thousand graves, ranging in age from the first century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., and from simple wooden box burials to elaborate marble family mausoleums. Archaelogists have also found coins, jewelry and artwork in the graves.

The subway dig is scheduled to be completed by 2012. Much like the Roman subway dig, the Greek excavations are bound to turn up more archaeological discoveries.

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New museum at Gettysburg

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The old one was small, run down, and oh yeah, built in the middle of the actual battlefield in the 20′s. They’re razing it and restoring the whole battlefield to its Civil War topography.

The new one is 3/4 miles away from the battlefield, has 24,000 square feet of exhibition space, a fully renovated “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama, complete with its dioramas for the first time in half a century, and an all-new “Refreshment Saloon” where visitors can experience Civil War-era foods and original recipes.

(Virginia ham and apple pie, apparently. I call that kowtowing. Weevily hardtack and salt pork would have been so much cooler.)

The new digs open on April 14, with a grand opening in September 26 to launch the cyclorama. Read all about it on the Gettysburg National Military Park’s website.

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