2500-year-old brains, now with picture!

In August 2008, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age pit on the grounds of the University of York discovered a skull with something rattling around in it. Finds Officer Rachel Cubitt peered inside and saw an odd yellow substance. That substance turned out to be a brain.

Cubitt recalled a lecture she had attended by Dr. Sonia O’Connor — who had discovered 25 medieval skeletons with preserved brains a decade earlier — about rare instances of ancient brain matter surviving even when the rest of the soft tissues decayed, so she ensured the skull was treated with special care and contacted Dr. O’Connor for further research.

Heslington skull; dark part is folded brain matter, light part is soilThey took it to York District Hospital for CT scans and other tests and confirmed the presence of brain matter. The brain had shrunk to a quarter of its original size, but the cerebral structures were still clearly identifiable. Transmission electron microscopy examination revealed tubules like the myelin ones found around neurons, and chemical analysis indicated the presence of peptides found in neurofilaments.

Organs have been found before in decent states of preservation, but they’re usually the results of mummification, natural or man-made, or freezing, and in those cases other soft tissues survive as well. To find a brain inside a skull with no other non-skeletal remains is extremely rare.

“It was just amazing to think that a brain of someone who had died so many thousands of years ago could persist just in wet ground,” said Sonia O’Connor, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Bradford. O’Connor led a team of researchers who assessed the state of the brain after it was found in 2008 and looked into likely modes of preservation.

Dr. Sonia O'Connor examines brain inside the skull with an endoscope“It’s particularly surprising, because if you talk to pathologists who deal with fresh dead bodies they say the first organ to really deteriorate and to basically go to liquid is the brain because of its high fat content,” O’Connor said.

When it was found, the skull — which belonged to a man probably between 26 and 45 years old — was accompanied by a jaw and two neck vertebrae, bearing evidence of hanging and then decapitation. Cut marks on the inside of the neck indicate that the head was severed while there was still flesh on the bones, O’Connor said. There is, however, no indication of why he was hanged, and the rest of his remains have yet to be found.

What appears to have happened in this case is the body was buried very soon after death in its watery grave. The anaerobic environment — and possibly some physiological factors like disease or starvation during life — kept the brain from putrefying. Over time it shrank and changed from soft, fatty tissue to a rubbery, durable material.

Studies are ongoing, but the brain has been dated to between 673 and 482 B.C., about 500 years older than the initial assessment. This is definitely the oldest brain ever found in Britain. It’s hard to compare to other such finds because, surprisingly, there hasn’t really been a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of preserved brains. O’Connor’s team is compiling a list of similar finds over the past 50 years for a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

When I wrote about this discovery back when it was first reported, the only picture I had was the above CT scan. Now there’s a big juicy brain to show, sitting on a plate looking like an especially gross Halloween Jell-O mold. :boogie:

Delicious Heslington brains, 2500 years old

New species found: a saber-toothed vegetarian

Fossilized head of Tiarajudens eccentricusPaleontologists in Tiarajú, southern Brazil, have discovered the fossil of a new species: a plant-eater about the size of a large dog with 5-inch long canines jutting down over its lower jaw. Not only did the 260 million-year-old critter have saber teeth despite its exclusively vegetarian diet, but the entire roof of its mouth was covered with teeth, probably for ready replacement of old ones similar to how sharks have rows of backup teeth.

Scientists have named it Tiarajudens eccentricus — “Tiarajú” because it was found there, “dens” for “teeth,” and “eccentricus” for “eccentric” on account of its unusual and unexpected combination of features.

“If you asked me how surprised I was about finding this fossil, I can tell you that finding a fossil so bizarre as Tiarajudens eccentricus, a fossil that looks like if it has been made from parts of different animals, is like finding a unicorn,” vertebrate paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros at the Federal University of Piauí in Teresina, Brazil, told LiveScience. “You see it, but you don’t believe it.”

This animal was a kind of anomodont, the most abundant four-legged creatures of the Permian, the 50-million-year-long period right before the age of dinosaurs. Anomodonts belonged to a group known as therapsids, which gave rise to modern mammals.

It’s the first therapsid found whose top and bottom teeth fit together like ours. That makes for highly efficient chewing to help grind up the fibrous plants and stems of Permian Brazil.

Tiarajudens eccentricus drawingThe saber teeth would not have been used for chewing, however. They were in all likelihood weapons used to protect against predators and spar with competitors, much how modern male deer use their antlers. Since scientists thought the sparring behavior was introduced by modern animals, finding a herbivore with sparring weapons from 260 million years ago when therapsids first appear in the fossil record rewrites evolutionary history.

Interesting technological side-note: scientists found this site using Google Earth. The area today is blanketed in dense vegetation, so researchers would be working blind if they hadn’t had satellite pictures showing in detail erosion patterns and colors of the stone. The erosion indicates which areas might have more fossils nearer the surface, and the colors indicate the different ages of the stone. They looked for well-eroded Permian-colored stone and they found them a saber-toothed pigturtle.


Roald Dahl made a great Rod Serling

Famed author and undercover sex spy Roald Dahl also wrote screenplays for American television in the late ’50s and ’60s. He’s best known for his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including having penned the scripts for the Emmy-nominated “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1958) episode starring Barbara Bel Geddes, and “Man from the South” (1960) starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre.

In 1961 he stepped in front of the screen for a brief, shining moment, hosting the science fiction anthology series ‘Way Out on CBS. It was a hastily assembled mid-season replacement for Jackie Gleason’s failed game show which had only aired once, followed the next week by a live on-air 30 minute apology from the comedian and then eight weeks of a completely different show wherein Gleason interviewed celebrities.

When CBS pulled the plug, they enlisted Dahl to scare up something quickly to air in its place. Dahl had a characteristically creepy short story already good to go, so in the blink of an extreme-closeup eye, the first episode of ‘Way Out, “William and Mary,” aired at 9:30 PM on Friday, March 31st, as the lead-in to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

The critical reviews were outstanding, especially for Dahl’s humorous introductions, like this one from the premiere episode:

Now you may find that this particular play disturbs you just a tiny bit as it goes along. If it does, let me assure you that that’s nothing to what it did to me when I wrote it. I thought it was perfectly beastly. The play is called “William and Mary” and it is not for children. It is not for young lovers either or for people who have stomach difficulties. It is more perhaps for wicked old women who relish a juicy plot where all sorts of nasty things happen which they can then wish upon their closest friends and their loving husbands. You see it’s ‘Way Out.

Sadly, despite the critical acclaim and strong ratings in cities, the show didn’t take off nationwide and CBS canceled the show after 14 episodes. It has never been released on VHS or DVD. The only place it could be seen was the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles, which has the entire 14-episode run available in its viewing rooms.

Now, thanks to this wonderful series of tubes we’re on, the Internet Archive has put the first five episodes online for our brain-in-a-jar viewing pleasure.

Watch them all because they are awesome.

As for Roald pronouncing his name Ru-al, I don’t even know what to say about that. I think I’m going to have to pretend I never heard it.

Sicily welcomes the Getty’s cult goddess home

In 1988 the J. Paul Getty Museum bought a larger-than-life-sized 5th c. B.C. Greek sculpture of a cult goddess (at the time referred to as Aphrodite, but later that attribution was found to be inaccurate) for a record sum of $18 million. The statue was so valuable because it was a very rare almost complete acrolithic sculpture, a sculpture where the face, hands and feet were carved out of marble or ivory and the body made out of wood or limestone that would be gilded or dressed with fabric for display. The bodies are usually long gone, so having the whole thing, plus the face, an arm and feet makes this a unique example.

The statue became the centerpiece of the Getty Villa museum in Malibu’s permanent collection. When the Getty bought it, however, they had to turn their necks all the way around like owls to avoid seeing the glaring evidence that it had been recently looted from Morgantina, Sicily, a former Greek colony and an extensive archaeological site that was poorly guarded and a prime target for thieves. Instead they claimed to believe the ludicrously false cover story that the goddess had been secreted away since the 1930s in a mysterious private collection in Switzerland, the Canadian girlfriend of provenances.

Finally, under pressure from the Italian government who had put Getty curator Marion True on trial and were loudly clamoring for the return of illegally exported artifacts, in 2006 the Getty hired a private investigator to trace the statue’s history of ownership, and the investigator found a number of photographs dating to the early ’80s showing the statue in pieces, fresh dirt still encrusted on her face, on a plastic tarp on a floor somewhere. So much for the Swiss collection from the ’30s. The investigators also found evidence linking the “collector” to a Sicilian smuggling ring.

Faced with this damning evidence, in 2007 the Getty board caved and agreed to return the goddess to Italy. (The year after that the LA Times revealed that the Getty had had a chance to see those same pictures a decade earlier, but they chose not to. Can you spell willful blindness, boys and girls? I knew you could.)

On Monday, they made good on the agreement.

The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds.

The Getty also generously donated the custom-designed seismic base they built to support the statue. Since Sicily is as earthquake-prone as Los Angeles, the base will provide an important measure of security for the statue, allowing it to move gently along with the earth during tremors.

The sculpture will be put back together for display in the Aidone Archaeological Museum. A full-scale exhibit is scheduled for May.


Civil War sub to sit up for the first time since 1864

The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine named after its inventor, sank under mysterious circumstances in 1864, right after she became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat. After torpedoing the USS Housatonic, a Union warship that was enforcing the blockade of Charleston harbor, the Hunley gave the agreed-upon signal that she was returning to base and then disappeared. No combat submarine would sink a warship for another 50 years.

Her location remained a mystery until underwater archaeologist E. Lee Spence pinpointed the likely location in 1970. It took 25 more years before divers from the National Underwater and Marine Agency would lay hands on her. She was found lying on her starboard side at a 45-degree angle only 100 yards away from the wreck of the Housatonic. The Hunley had been buried in layers of silt which preserved the vessel from treasure hunters and from the elements during her 130 years of slumber.

The H. L. Hunley on her side in the conservation tankUnderwater archaeologists took another five years to stabilize the wreck in situ on the ocean floor. Then in 2000, the Hunley was raised. They slipped a series of harnesses underneath her hull attached to a truss, then the recovery barge Karlissa B lifted it with a crane before a cheering crowd in Charleston harbor. The barge took the Hunley to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston where, still in her harnesses, she was immersed in a tank of refrigerated fresh water for further conservation.

Fast forward 11 years and now scientists are finally ready to take the Hunley out of the cradle and stand her upright. It’s taken so long because, among other tasks, archaeologists have had to map every shell, pebble, and mussel in the concretion layer coating the vessel. Not only does this layer contain valuable information about the Hunley‘s long underwater life, but it also provides a protective shell. Removing it before the sub is rotated could weaken her fatally.

The rotation, as the scientists call it, will set into motion the final phase of the sub’s rehabilitation — and may answer lingering questions about its disappearance in the dark days of the Civil War. People have waited a long time for those answers, but the crew at the Lasch lab has moved cautiously because, well, they don’t want to drop it.

Since the sub was delivered to Warren Lasch in 2000, archaeologists and conservators have removed several pieces of the sub and emptied it of sediment, crew remains and other artifacts. That has potentially changed the strength of the sub and created new stress points. But computer models show that the plan to slowly inch the sub upright and to the floor of the tank it sits in will work flawlessly.

Once she’s upright, the concretions will be removed and the hull will be visible to the naked eye for the first time, exposing any wartime damage and perhaps at long last answering the question of how and why the Hunley went down with all eight hands in the moment of her great triumph.