Archive for April, 2010

The Noah’s Ark plot thickens

Friday, April 30th, 2010

A member of the ark-hunting team who made the purported discovery has expressed doubts about the veracity of the find. Not just about its being the Ark itself, mind you, but about whether the whole thing is a deliberate hoax.

Dr. Randall Price, an evangelic Christian professor at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was the sole archaeologist on the team in 2008 when they first discovered the wooden structures on Mount Ararat. He wouldn’t get into specifics with the Christian Science Monitor, but he did tell them that he had “difficulties with a number of issues related to the evidence at hand.” He also confirmed that he had sent a certain email which has now leaked in which he claimed the wood was planted.

From the email:

I was the archaeologist with the Chinese expedition in the summer of 2008 and was given photos of what they now are reporting to be the inside of the Ark. I and my partners invested $100,000 in this expedition (described below) which they have retained, despite their promise and our requests to return it, since it was not used for the expedition. The information given below is my opinion based on what I have seen and heard (from others who claim to have been eyewitnesses or know the exact details).

To make a long story short: this is all reported to be a fake. The photos were reputed to have been taken off site near the Black Sea, but the film footage the Chinese now have was shot on location on Mt. Ararat. In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese, are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. In the winter of 2008 a Chinese climber taken by Parasut’s men to the site saw the wood, but couldn’t get inside because of the severe weather conditions. During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.

Damn, yo. If true, I have to give the expedition credit for commitment to their con. Dr. John D. Morris, a consultant to the Chinese team and president of the Institute for Creation Research, declined to join the press conference and is withholding judgment until he sees some real evidence, but he points out to the CSM that hauling all that wood up 12,000 feet of snow-covered mountain then cramming it into the ice would be a dramatic feat. You’d need major heavy machinery to accomplish it.

It seems to me the con could be a lot more simple than that: pocket money from avowed Ark-hunters, take pictures and video from other sites, make a big splashy announcement with zero confirmable information and enjoy the publicity and further riches that inevitably ensue. If they disappear from this point onwards, the story will just fade away, one of a million media microfurors that get zero follow-up.

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The Noah’s Ark kerfuffle

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

A team of Chinese and Turkish explorers from an evangelical Christian group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International announced earlier this week that they’ve found the remains of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The news instantly spread around the world via wire service (AFP seems to have been the primary source) and a remarkable number of mainstream media outlets reported the claims virtually uncritically; see this absurdly definite headline from ABC, for example.

The basics are as follows: at an undisclosed location on Mount Ararat, the team claims to have found seven large wooden compartments, plus some fragments of wood nearby, in 2007 and 2008. In October of 2009 they returned with a film crew. They say they’ve carbon dated the wood and the results indicate the wood about 4,800 years old, which is kinda sorta when Noah would have been awaiting the rainbow sign, give or take 500 years going by Bishop Ussher’s chronology.

Explorer examines Mount Ararat structureFilmmaker Yeung Wing-cheung from the 15-person team went so far as to say “It’s not 100 per cent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it.”

In support of their claims, they offer the remote location which precludes human habitation as a source of the structures, some unauthenticated footage and a couple of pictures. Oh, and also the presence of tenons in the wood, which of course only existed before nails were invented. (Any mortise and tenon joints you might have encountered on your post-Noah furniture secretly include invisible nails.) The group refuse to disclose the location, for its protection, of course. They also say Turkish officials present at the press conference will ask the government to submit the site to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

The Turkish government doesn’t seem to be quite on board with the plan, however, because they’re actually initiating an investigation into the regional officials involved and into whether the team actually had permission to do any research on Mount Ararat and remove artifacts from the country.

Also displeased are Creationist scholars who point out that if radiocarbon dating is accepted in this case, then it would have to be accepted in all the other cases where the results are older than the 6,000 years of the earth according to Biblical literalists. If you recalibrate all carbon dating results so the maximum is 6,000 years, then of course the 4,800 years of this find make it way too young to be Noah’s wood. Also, it’s cedar wood, not gopher, so yeah, literalists not happy.

Meanwhile, actual archaeologists point out that even if this find is real and the dating is accurate — two huge ifs — that proves exactly nothing. The wood could be on Mount Ararat and a) not be from a ship, b) not have been used in construction right when it was harvested.

“I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it,” Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York state, told National Geographic.

The evangelical group says it found wood structures on Ararat, and carbon dating placed it at 4,800 years old. But even this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Noah’s Ark – or that the “structure” they found is that old.

“All that we know at the moment is that the expedition members are showing us pictures and samples of a structure made out of wood,” Cline told The Christian Post.

“It could be ancient, it could be medieval, it could even have been constructed last week,” he said. “Even carbon-14 dating will only tell us how old the wood is; it will not tell us when the structure was constructed.”

“If the finds are published in a full and comprehensive manner, one will truly be able to assess it,” Dr. Aren M. Maeir, a professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told The Christian Post. “Meanwhile, it joins many other such discoveries – and sound quite hard to believe.”

There’s also zero geological evidence of a flood in Turkey 4,000 years ago, and Biblical scholars point out that the Bible says the ark landed in Urartu, a kingdom in eastern Turkey. The Mount Ararat location only became the prevalent theory in the Middle Ages.

So, in other words, the “find” is pretty much meaningless at this point. The articles quoting the team unchallenged are succumbing to the allure of Bible-related discoveries. We’ll see if there’s any fire to all this smoke should the discoveries ever be published.

Meanwhile, here’s an entertaining YouTube of the Noah’s Ark Ministries International team doing their version of archaeology on the Ararat site. I particularly like the stumbling around in thick boots part.

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Surprising Viking necklace found in Ireland

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Elaborate Viking necklace found in Burren, IrelandArchaeologists excavating Glencurran Cave in Burren National Park in County Clare, Ireland, have uncovered an unexpected treasure: a 1,150-year-old Viking necklace. It’s surprising because the piece is highly valuable so must have been treasured by its owner, but Vikings never settled in the Burren area.

Some smaller, less significant Viking bead necklaces have been found in burials in Dublin. Nothing as glamorous as this, though.

[Excavation team leader Dr. Marion Dowd] said: “The necklace is the largest Viking necklace to have been found in Ireland. Normally, Viking necklaces that have been found have five to six glass beads, but this has 71 glass beads covered with gold foil.”

A leading expert on Irish cave archaeology, Dr Dowd said: “It is really bizarre how this necklace from a high-status Viking came to be in a cave in the Burren.

“There is no parallel for it in Ireland and it is puzzling on a number of fronts.

“The necklace would have been imported into Ireland from Scandinavia in the late 9th and early 10th century.

“Small numbers of these beads have been found with Viking burials at Kilmainham, Dublin, but nothing like the number found in Glencurran Cave. Such necklaces were worn by high-status Viking women and they might denote a woman’s cultural and religious affiliations. These were certainly prestigious items.”

Dr. Dowd speculates that the necklace might have come via Limerick. There was a Viking settlement there, so they may have traded with the Gaelic inhabitants of Burren.

Glencurran Cave has produced other finds in the 6 years since excavations began making it an archaeological gem even before actual jewelry was discovered. The current team has also found the skeletal remains of a two to four-year-old Bronze Age child, placed in the cave about 3,500 years ago, which is currently undergoing DNA testing. In addition, they’ve found the remains of seven adults, two other young children and one baby, plus the 10,000-year-old scapula of a bear.

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New pictures of the ancient Greek DIY building

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Discovery News has some neat pictures of the remains of a Greek building found with assembly instructions in Basilicata, Italy.

Remains of Greek DIY building, coded roof tiles littering the ground
Slab engraved with assembly instructions
Digital reconstruction of finished roof

The only new information I could glean from the slideshow (other than the pictures themselves, of course) was that the inscriptions found on the roof tiles note that the structure was built by Greek artisans from the Spartan colony of Taranto in Apuglia, the region that forms the heel of the Italian boot.

There’s a wee drappie more information on the overall design of the building.

This building was no small piece of furniture. The elaborate structure was built with large walls topped by a sloping roof and was covered in red and black decorations. The building also boasted an impressive colonnade at the entryway.

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Demolished: 17 great fallen train stations

Monday, April 26th, 2010

I have a thing for trains and an even bigger thing for glamorous train stations from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, many of them succumbed to the explosion of car travel and the highway system in the 1950s. They were destroyed, oftentimes replaced with parking lots, bunker-style government buildings or even vacant lots in the middle of some of the prime real estate in the country. Boggles the mind, really.

Today I came across an excellent list of 11 beautiful train stations that were demolished and the crap that went up in their place, plus a follow-up article with 6 more destroyed stations.

I have personal knowledge of the crap that replaced several of these stations. In Atlanta, a city founded as a train depot and one the largest rail crossroads in the South, the sole train station remaining is a pokey two-track one-room cottage that used to be a minor commuter station. It’s an embarrassment, frankly, especially when you consider what they used to have.

Built in 1905, Terminal was the grand portal to the city. It had two Italianate towers and a huge train shed behind. When the station was razed in 1970, it was replaced by a government office building.

Then and now:
Terminal Station Atlanta, built 1905, demolished 1970 Richard B. Russell federal building

And that’s just one of the dearly departed stations in Atlanta. The other was built in 1930, demolished in 1972 and replaced with a parking lot.

Then and now:
Atlanta Union Station Parking lot today

The two stations in Chicago replaced with vacant lots will break your heart too.

Perhaps more than any other American city, Chicago’s destiny has been a result of its transportation links to the rest of the country. As such, it had something of an abundance of train stations. Even while it still has four commuter terminals inside the Loop, knocking down impressive stations like Grand Central did not yield much for the city. The site of this former station, prime real estate on the banks of the Illinois River, is still a vacant lot after nearly four decades.

THEN: Located on the banks of the Chicago River, the beautiful station with ornate marble floors, Corinthian columns, and a fireplace. It served travelers to DC and many other cities.

Chicago Grand Central Station

NOW: A vacant lot

Site of the former Central Station

I don’t even understand how it’s possible for such expensive property to remain vacant all this time. You’d think before they knocked down an architectural gem like that, they’d have some concrete plans or at least a vague notion of any benefit whatsoever that might accrue from the destruction.

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Stamps designed by Lawrence of Arabia found

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

A proof sheet of stamps designed by T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, has been found folded over and forgotten in the Royal Philatelic Collection in St. James’ Palace, London. Lawrence designed the stamps for the Kingdom of Hijaz, a coastal area in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia, which existed only from 1916 to 1924.

Ruled by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, father of Lawrence associate Prince Faisal, later King Faisal I of Iraq, Hijaz included the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 1924 it was annexed by the Saud family and eventually folded into what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence had famously helped fight for Arabian independence from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and would be a member of Faisal’s Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, so when the Kingdom of Hijaz was created in 1916, Lawrence was asked to design its first three stamps. He later claimed to have used strawberry-flavored glue which drove people to buy the stamps just to lick them instead of using them.

First stamps of the Kingdom of Hijaz, designed by T.E. LawrenceA proof sheet of his 3 designs — no word on whether they taste like strawberry — along with a handwritten letter by T.E. Lawrence made it into the extensive philatelic collection of George V.

The original sheet of 50 stamps had been folded over so that it could not be seen in one of the 328 albums of the collection, started in the 1890s.

It was found by a member of staff at the Royal Philatelic Collection. Lawrence’s three designs were all decorative, as Islam frowned on figurative images of humans or animals.

George V’s enthusiasm for stamps was equalled only by his love of shooting pheasants. He is thought to have spent about three afternoons a week arranging the stamps and it is believed there are enough loose items to fill another 2,000 albums.

Which explains how such a remarkable piece could have gone unnoticed all these years. Hijaz stamps are all extremely rare and valuable today, even the ones not designed by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

The proof sheet and the stamps will go on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London starting on May 7th.

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Roman altar stones found in Scottish cricket ground

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

A cricket pavilion in Musselburgh, East Lothian, is undergoing renovations. Because Lewisvale Park, where the pavilion currently stands, is in a Scheduled Ancient Monument area, the developers hired an archaeology firm to survey the site before pouring new foundations.

Roman altar stones on cricket groundsThe archaeologists have uncovered two Roman-era altar stones, one dating to the 2nd century A.D. and dedicated to the god Jupiter. The other has yet to be dated. They both have intricate carving around the edges and on one side, and show signs of having been toppled over at some point. We won’t know what the inscriptions say until the dirt that has accumulated from that toppling is removed.

Some postholes, a lead bowl and both fine and handmade pottery were also found along with the stones, but the latter are the big news because they’re a rare find as far north as Scotland.

Councillor Paul McLennan, cabinet member for community wellbeing at East Lothian Council, said: “The discovery of these remains is particularly exciting, as it is not often that Roman altar stones are discovered during an archaeological excavation in Scotland.

This helps with the emerging picture of life in and around the Roman fort at Inveresk during the 2nd century.”

Inveresk was first settled by Romans after they invaded Scotland in 80 A.D. In addition to the fort, they also built a bridge that is still in use (with some rebuilding over the centuries) by pedestrians today. The civilian settlement included an amphitheater and a bathhouse.

The altar stones and the other artifacts found on site have been removed for conservation and study, so now the construction on the cricket pavilion can proceed apace. I guess the postholes are out of luck. :(

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Baboon mummies solve mystery of ‘Land of Punt’

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

We know pharaohs sent trading expeditions to a mysterious place they called the “Land of Punt” but until now we didn’t really know where that was. Thanks to oxygen isotope analysis and 3 baboon mummies in the British Museum, scientists think they’ve pinpointed the location of Punt: it was in an area that is now Eritrea and East Ethiopia.

Ancient Egyptians recorded travels to Punt where they got many exotic animals, including live baboons. There were no native Egyptian baboons, so we know the New Kingdom baboon mummies in the British Museum originated in the Land of Punt.

The team had permission to use baboon hairs from two of the mummies, and have just finished analyzing hairs from these baboons by using oxygen isotope analysis. Oxygen isotopes act as a ‘signal’ that can let scientists know where they came from.

It works this way because, depending on the environment an animal lived in, the ratio of different isotopes of oxygen will be different. “Oxygen tends to vary as a function of rainfall and the water composition of plants and seed,” said Professor Nathaniel Dominy of UC Santa Cruz, who is on the team.

The researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren.

Map of Eritrea and East Ethiopia “All of our specimens in Eritrea and a certain number of our specimens from Ethiopia – that are basically due west from Eritrea – those are good matches,” said Professor Dominy.

“We think Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”

Some of the other possible Punt candidates — Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique — do not match the specimens.

The team can’t narrow the location down any further with oxygen isotope analysis, but one of the modern specimens from the Eritrean harbour city of Massawa is an excellent match for the mummy specimens.

The results came from a very limited sample, however, so grains of salt are necessary. Next up: strontium isotope tests on a pea-sized section of baboon bone. They don’t have the British Museum’s permission to take this larger sample yet, and there’s some export red tape to overcome.

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Hoard of 2300-year-old coins found in Egypt

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Archaeologists excavating the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt have uncovered a large hoard of 383 bronze coins from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes in the 3rd century B.C.

The coins have the combined Greek-Egyptian deity Zeus-Amun on the obverse and the Ptolemaic eagle on the reverse with “Ptolemy” and “king” inscribed around it. Ptolemy III did not issue any coins with his own face on them, although his son stamped some commemorative ones after his father died.

The coins are in good condition and are the first large stash of Ptolemaic coins found. Archaeologists also found three necklaces made of ostrich eggshells at the site, a pot of kohl eyeliner from the Ottoman era, and, in randomly awesome news, the remains of an ancient prehistoric whale.

Obverse of Amun-Zeus on 3rd century bronze coins Some of the 383 3rd c. bronze coins

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Happy 2763rd Birthday, Rome!

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Today is the day we celebrate the traditional founding of Rome in 753 B.C. That’s not to say that Romulus actually drove his ox team around the boundaries of what would become the capital of the world in 753 B.C., but it’s been the traditionally accepted the date since it was first calculated by historian and all-around erudite man of letters Marcus Terentius Varro (116 B.C. – 27 B.C.).

He figured it out by counting back through the list of counsuls — there were two elected each year since the overthrow of the kings — then adding 244 years for the time between the founding and the last king. He probably took that number whole cloth from Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The Emperor Claudius was the first to throw huge anniversary festivities in honor of Rome’s 800th birthday in 47 A.D. Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, aka Philip the Arab, threw the rager to end all ragers in 248 A.D. to celebrate the first millennium of Rome’s founding. He cast a special coin commemorating the Saeculum Novum, held the ludi saeculares (century games), commissioned books and plays. Over 1,000 gladiators and hundreds of animals were killed in the ludi.

That same year would-be usurper Pacatianus cast a coin of his own celebrating himself as undefeated on one side and the 1001st birthday of Rome on the other.

Antoninianus Pacatianus coin, obverse inscribed 'ROMAE AETER AN MIL ET PRIMO', 'Eternal Rome Year One Thousand and One'

Once the Empire went Christian and the A.D. system kicked in, Roman birthdays no longer got the attention they deserved. But Romans still celebrate, of course, only with considerably less bloodshed. These days it’s more like mayoral ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, masses, musical recitals, lectures, museum events, sounds and lights shows and a re-enactment of the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii at the Circus Maximus.

Modern-day Horatii and Curatii celebrate Rome's birthday

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