Roman shipwreck to aid in search for neutrinos

Twenty years ago, divers found a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Sardinia. The ship had gone down some time between 80 and 50 B.C., and it was an unusual find in many ways. For instance, the ship sank straight down vertically and there was no evidence of mooring attempts despite its proximity to shore or any evidence of what caused it to sink, no sign of fire or of it being crushed by waves or shoals. Archaeologists speculate that the captain might have intentionally scuttled the ship to keep it out of enemy hands.

Lead ingot stamped with Pontilieni nameThe star of the show, however, was its cargo. The ship was full of lead. Usually lead lined the hull of Roman ships, but this was a full-on shipment of lead ingots from mines in Cartegena, Spain, with Rome as its ultimate destination. The hull was found to contain approximately 2000 carefully stacked ingots of lead, each weighing 33 kg (73 lb) or 100 Roman pounds, the maximum amount by law that a slave was allowed to carry. All the ingots were stamped with the names of the merchants who extracted and shipped the lead, Caius and Marcus Pontilieni and their servant Pilip claiming the majority.

Lead ingots still stacked on sea floorThe ship was 36 meters and 12 meters wide of a type called navis oneraria magna, a cargo vessel specially designed to carry heavy loads. It would have to be, because that cargo of lead weighed 39 tons. This is the largest lead cargo to have ever been found. It exponentially increases the total amount of ancient lead we have access to.

That’s where the neutrinos come in. Neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect because although billions of them pass through us every day, their signature can easily be obscured by every day elements, like cosmic rays or naturally occurring radiation in rocks. Scientists struggle to find material to shield their neutrino experiments from these kinds of interference. Even lead, which as we all know blocks Superman’s X-ray vision, contains trace amounts of decaying lead-210 isotopes.

But ancient lead, on the other hand, has long since outlasted the half-life of all its radioactive isotopes.

When nuclear physicist Ettore Fiorini at the University of Milan-Bicocca read about the find in a newspaper he went to Cagliari to offer the financial support of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in excavating the vessel and its precious cargo. Accepting the offer, archaeologists in Cagliari at the time gave the INFN 150 ingots in return, and they recently sent off a second batch of 120 ingots, which reached the Gran Sasso laboratory last week. These will now be stripped of their historically interesting manufacturers’ names, cleaned of any incrustations and then melted to provide a shield for the CUORE experiment.

CUORE, which should be ready in about two or three years time, will use 750 kg of tellurium dioxide to try and discover an extremely rare nuclear process predicted by theory and known as neutrinoless double beta decay. Involving the transformation of two neutrons into protons and electrons but no neutrinos, this decay would imply that neutrinos are, uniquely, their own antiparticle. Observing the decay would also provide physicists with a way of directly calculating the mass of the neutrino, something that to date can only be done indirectly.

Scientists have used old lead from shipwrecks before — US researchers used lead from a 450-year-old Spanish galleon for the IGEX experiment — but the sheer quantity of this find, its age and the purity of ingots make this collaboration of ancient and cutting edge particularly exciting.

Intact Etruscan home found in Tuscany

Etruscan domus with grain pitcher and olive pressArchaeologists excavating the archeological site of Vetulonia outside of Grosseto, Tuscany, have found a remarkably intact Etruscan house dating to between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. Most of the standing structure appears to have been a basement used for food storage. You can still see the family’s earthenware grain storage pot and olive press in the corner. The team also found all kinds of pottery, vessels, plates which although broken are complete enough to be put back together for display.

The original beaten clay floor are intact, and the sun-baked clay bricks used to build the walls are the first Etruscan bricks ever found. The house contained a large number of nails which suggests there was a second floor made from wood and clay, with wooden beams supporting it. The team even found a door knob and the remains of bronze furniture.

“These are the best [Etruscan] ruins that have ever been found in Italy,” said Simona Rafanelli, director of the Isidoro Falchi archeological museum in Vetulonia, told journalists.

“They represent something incredibly important from an archeological and historical point of view, because they finally give us an understanding of new techniques linked to Etruscan construction that we did not know until today.

“Here today we are rewriting history. It is a unique case in Italy because with what we have found we will be able to completely reconstruct the entire house.”

Etruscan and Roman coins found in the house date the collapse of the building to 79 B.C., the year after dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s retired as leader of Rome after years of war and bloody proscriptions. Vetulonia is known to have been in the thick of Sulla’s wars during those years.

It was an important Etruscan center in its heyday. According to 1st century epic poet Silius Italicus, the fasces, Roman Republican symbol of authority, were introduced to Rome from Vetulonia. By the time this domus was built, however, the town had begun to fade into obscurity.

For more pictures of the find, see this slideshow from Italian newspaper, La Repubblica.

Huge number of tombs and mummies found in Egypt

Archaeologists excavating in the city of Lahoun in the Fayoum oasis (the same area where the hoard of Ptolemaic coins was found Painted wooden sarcophaguslast month) have uncovered an underground labyrinth containing 57 tombs from different periods, 45 of them complete with coffins, sarcophagus and mummies inside. (NB: The ABC News story erroneously reports the total number of tombs as 45, but it gives the best overview so I decided to link to it anyway.)

The breadth of this find is astonishing. There were 12 wooden sarcophagi stacked inside an 18th dynasty (1550 to 1292 B.C.) tomb, each of them still containing mummies. The sarcophagi are made out of cartonnage, layered plaster and papyrus that forms a hard covering for a body or face mask, and richly decorated with incantations from the Book of the Dead and scenes of the deities.

But the most surprising finds upend what archaeologists knew previously about the site:

2nd dynasty tomb with house coffin and funereal furnitureBut the most significant findings were 14 tombs, all from the second dynasty. [Lead archaeologist Abdel Rahman] El-Aydi explained to ABC News that one of the tombs was found intact inside. “We found a coffin of the deceased, a wooden coffin of the type known as a house coffin, because it has the shape of the palace or house facade of this period.”

Inside this coffin the deceased was placed in a twisted position and covered in huge amounts of linen, not rags, because in that dynasty ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the mummification process, El-Aydi said.

Other coffins were found placed in the southwest corner of this one tomb, and on the floor toward the east side was funeral furniture, consisting of huge cylindrical alabaster jars, a wooden headrest and a polished wooden offering table.

Before this find, archaeologists believed the site dated to the reign of 12th dynasty King Senwosret, but the 2nd dynasty tombs are a full thousand years older than that, from around 2750 B.C.

The team will continue excavating, cataloging and recording the site until June, then will move the finds to museums and storage facilities.

Copernicus gets hero’s reburial in Poland

In 2005 archaeologists excavated Copernicus’ remains from an unmarked grave underneath a side chapel in Frombork Cathedral, the church where he had been a canon when he died in 1543. Forensic researchers examined the remains over the next few years, creating a facial reconstruction (eerily reminiscent of James Cromwell) from the skull and running DNA tests against hairs found in a book Copernicus owned. The latter proved quite conclusively that the bones were indeed the earthly remains of Copernicus.

Now his remains have been re-interred with all the Catholic pomp and attention due a star of his magnitude.

Mind you, he wasn’t intentionally shoved into an unmarked grave. When Copernicus died his heliocentric theory was just beginning to be discussed in scientific circles, so there was no question of him being considered a heretic. He didn’t even get a published copy of “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” until the day he died. He was just an obscure canon and he got a correspondingly obscure burial.

He did have some run-ins with his superiors, but they weren’t about whether the earth revolved around the sun or vice versa. One was about his refusal to give up his mistress. He was also suspected of harboring secret Lutheran sympathies.

Anyway, those days are over now.

On Saturday, his remains were blessed with holy water by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before an honor guard ceremoniously carried his coffin through the imposing red brick cathedral and lowered it back into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found in 2005.

A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon, a cleric ranking below a priest. The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

He was also lain in state in a city nearby, and on Friday the coffin with his remains were taken on a tour of local spots to which he had connections in life before being brought to the cathedral for the funeral.

Copernicus reburied under altar of Frombork Cathedral

17th c. collector’s cabinet in Augmented Reality

Augsburg collector's cabinet, ca 1630The J. Paul Getty Museum has utilized a technology called Augmented Reality to display the details of a collector’s cabinet from Augsburg, Germany, (made ca. 1630). The cabinet is an incredibly complex piece of furniture that was designed to showcase its owners’ most precious collectibles. It opens on four sides to expose a bewildering array of drawers, cubbies and richly decorated surfaces.

Visitors aren’t allowed to touch it, of course — it’s a delicate piece — so the Getty decided to provide a virtual experience of the cabinet’s wonders both for the museum visitors and for visitors to its website.

“We are always looking for ways in which we can enhance the viewer’s experience,” says Erin Coburn, head of the museum’s Collection Information & Access department. During a discussion about the pavilion’s reopening, she says, “A curator suggested we do something to help people understand the Augsberg cabinet in a way other than just staring at it.”

Coburn and her colleagues created an “interactive” — a virtual model that computer users can spin, open and reassemble. This model is accessible via two touch screens in the gallery and on the Getty’s website at

The Getty also has enabled online computer users to view and interact with a floating 3-D simulation of the cabinet, thanks to Augmented Reality technology, which combines the real and the virtual in real time.

There’s a wee delay while it loads, but nothing dramatic. Not only can you move all the way around it and zoom in to every section, but there are explanatory details on the most salient features of each side. Click on the “Overview” button for an awesome animation of the whole cabinet spinning around with its drawers pulled out. When you click “Show Structure” the outer walls go transparent and you can see the guts of the piece, exploring all kinds of drawers and pull-out trays in annotated detail.

I love it when technology makes history accessible. No more roped off velvet chairs and plexiglass walls keeping our collective grubby hands off of beautiful, fascinating objects.

Protip: It plays a little better in Firefox than it does in Internet Explorer. Mainly the browsers both handle it fine, but IE gave me trouble when I tried to click on the drawers and pull-outs in the “Show Structure” mode.