World’s biggest jigsaw puzzle is put back together

Baphuon temple todayOn July 3rd, the thousand-year-old Baphuon temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Thom complex will be officially reopened to the public after it was dismantled into its 300,000 component stones in 1960. It has taken a French and Cambodian restoration team 15 years to pick up where the 1960-1970 restoration was forced to leave off by the advancing Khmer Rouge forces and solve the greatest 3D puzzle in the world.

The three-tier pyramidical temple was built by King Udayadityavarman II in around 1060. Dedicated to Siva, it was the largest temple in the country until Angkor Wat was built in the next century, and it was famed for its dramatic central tower. With the tower, it was 164 feet (50 meters) high, and 426 by 340 feet (130 x 104 meters) wide. It was built around a sand core, however, and its massive size, hasty construction and thin walls led to structural problems almost from the beginning.

By the 15th century, large portions of it had collapsed, so when it was converted from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist one, builders had no qualms about removing large chunks of rock from the tower to create an abstract outline of a massive reclining Buddha (30 feet high and 230 feet long) on the second tier, endangering the structure even further.

Numbered blocks in the vast stone fieldCome the 20th century, the temple was in ruins. The Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO), the French organization that was in charge of Angkor conservation since 1908, started an ambitious program of restoration in 1960. Based on successful use of anastylosis by Dutch restorers in Java, the restoration of the Baphuon temple called for the ruins to be completely dismantled, the structure shored up, then the temple rebuilt. Each of the 300,000 sandstone blocks were numbered and spread out over 10 hectares of the surrounding area. Careful records were kept so that they could all be put back together again. This was a dry stone construction — no mortar was used to glue stones together — so every stone was individually shaped to fit together.

Soon after the temple was dismantled, the Cambodian civil war broke out. They were working on the second tier when the EFEO restorers were expelled from the country and many of the Cambodian restorers and builders were killed. When the KR took Phnom Penh in 1975, the EFEO offices were ransacked and all the records lost.

In 1995, after the civil war of the 1980s and the political turmoil of the early 1990s settled down, the EFEO restorers were allowed back into the country under the leadership of Pascal Royere. Without the original plans, however, the undertaking was daunting to the point of impossibility.

“It has been said, probably rightly so, that it is the largest-ever 3D puzzle,” Royere told AFP.

The team carefully measured and weighed each block and then relied on archive photos stored in Paris, drawings and the recollections of Cambodian workers to figure out where each part fits.

“We were facing a three-dimensional puzzle, a 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture. And that was the main difficulty of this project,” Royere said.

Baphuon temple in 2008Thankfully the EFEO offices in Paris had photographs of the site stretching back to 1910, so the team was able to track certain blocks and figure out where they went based on where they had been. Sometimes they would find the block they were looking for in 10 minutes, sometimes in three weeks. Royere was also fortunate to have the spry mind of Jacques Dumarcay, the architect who had supervised the dismantling in the 1960s, on his side, and about 30 Cambodian workers who had worked on Angkor projects in the 60s and 70s and had survived the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. One of them, Mith Priem, is now a team supervisor at Baphuon. He was able to recognize patterns on the stones based on his decades-old experience and train new workers to do the same.

They attempted computer modelling but it wasn’t as helpful as the experience and knowledge of the people who had been involved in the original project. Ultimately this immense 3D puzzle would be solved by dedicated people with good memories working hard for a decade and a half.

The rebuilding has taken a good seven years longer than the earliest overly optimistic projections, but partial access was allowed to visitors starting in May 2006. There’s a lovely photo gallery of the restored Baphuon temple here, and video accompanying the AFP story here.

Prehistoric aurochs BBQ leftovers found in Holland

Prehistoric hunters feasted on the bone marrow and juicy ribs of a felled female aurochs on the spot, then butchered the rest and brought it back to the nearby settlement to share with their families. The leftovers of this 7,700-year-old BBQ were discovered in the Tjonger River valley in the Netherlands. Archaeologists from the University of Groningen found the bones and a discarded flint blade.

The valley’s waterlogged, peaty soil is an excellent preserver of bone, antler and plant remains, and many prehistoric hunting sites, particularly from the Late Mesolithic (ca. 8000–5500 B.C.), have been found in the area. This site is unusual, however, because it preserves a single hunting and butchering instance rather than a collection of them spread out over time. The remains of a single hunt aren’t often discovered because they’re so small and hard to find.

What the bones tell us about this hunting event is that the quarry was a small female aurochs, only 134 centimeters (approximately 4 feet 5 inches) tall at the withers. They killed her either by trapping her in a pit and clubbing her on the head, or by shooting her with a flint arrow. There’s a well-preserved Mesolithic aurochs skeleton in the National Museum of Denmark from around that time which was killed by arrows (yellow circle marks a healed arrow wound, red circles mark later fatal arrow wounds), and it was a larger specimen than this comparatively small cow. (Look at them ribs!)

Marks on the bones indicate that after she was brought down, the hunters cut off her legs and ate the marrow. Then they skinned her and carefully removed large sections of meat from the bone.

Burn marks reveal that the hunters cooked the meaty ribs, and probably other smaller parts, over an open fire. They ate them right at the site, “their reward for the successful kill,” Prummel said.

The blade, perhaps worn down from so much cutting, was left behind and wound up slightly scorched in the cooking fire.

Niekus told Discovery News, “The people who killed the animal lived during the Late Mesolithic (the latter part of the middle Stone Age). They were hunter-gatherers and hunting game was an important part of their subsistence activities.”

There is evidence of Mesolithic hunters cooking meat over ground-level fires and in pits. Thousands of these pits, known as hearth-pits, have been found in the Netherlands. Since these communities of hunter-gatherers moved regularly to follow the food sources, they roasted or maybe smoked the meat from their kills to carry with them. Cooked food is easier to preserve and carry, and could be stored for lean times when the hunt was not successful.

The aurochs, a popular albeit challenging target for these peoples due to their delectable size and bad temper, would not survive the habitat loss ushered in by farming and domesticated cattle. They were already scarce in Caesar’s time and the last one died in a Polish zoo in 1627.

100 natural mummies found piled in church crypt

Church of the Conversion of St. Paolo the Apostle, Roccapelago, Emilia RomagnaArchaeologists from the regional Archaeological Superintendency of Emilia Romagna restoring the fortress-turned-parish church of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle in the small and chilly Apennine mountain town of Roccapelago have discovered 281 bodies piled in a pyramid shape under the church floor. One hundred of the bodies were naturally mummified with skin, tendons, hair, and clothes intact. The people weren’t the only creatures in that crypt to find themselves unexpectedly preserved; rats and larvae were too.

Vaulted church cryptThe unusual preservation was due to a confluence of the consistently cold temperature and two slots in the church wall that kept the air constantly circulating. The vaulted crypt — used as an armory when the church was a fortress in the Middle Ages — was first used for traditional inhumation under ground, but the practice later changed to corpses being dropped from a trap door in the church.

Pyramid of mummies and skeletons found in the cryptThere are several initial layers of bodies which were not well-preserved, probably due to the weight of later burials. The final stack of bodies was covered with a thin coating of pebbles then covered, at the apex of the pyramid, with large boulders. The remains must have already been mummified by then because they were not squashed by the closure of the crypt in the 18th century.

Upside down mummyThe 300 bodies were buried in the crypt between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and probably form the bulk of the population of Roccapelago. Although they were dropped into a mass grave, they weren’t treated disrespectfully. The bodies were all clothed in tunics, hats and heavy socks, some of them wrapped in shrouds, some of them placed in bags. Their heads were wrapped so the jaws wouldn’t gape open, their clothes tied between their legs so their genitals wouldn’t be exposed for all eternity, and their hands folded together as in prayer. Some of them still landed kinda funny, including one fellow who was found doing a headstand with his legs open.

Mummy with hands clasped in prayerMass graves don’t usually survive complete with mummified human remains, clothes, and artifacts like lockets and crosses, even a letter; this discovery will allow archaeologists to trace 300 years of social history in the tiny burg. The human remains will reveal infant and child mortality proportions, what kinds of illnesses were endemic, how they ate, how they worked. Researchers are also hoping to be able to determine degrees of consanguinity, a particular interest with such a small community, and how closely related they are to the modern inhabitants.

Analysis of the body bags, shrouds, clothing fabrics and weaves, plus devotional objects like saint medallions, rosaries and crosses, pollen, animal and vegetable remains will provide an incredibly detailed snapshot of peasant life in the town, their beliefs and traditions, their daily habits, even what the animals ate.

The "lettera componenda"Archaeologists are particularly excited to have recovered a rare “lettera componenda” or “Rivelazione” (aka Revelation), a letter written to God that is basically a contract or deal. They promised prayer in exchange for God’s granting the deceased, in this case a woman, the five graces. These letters were thought to bless the person carrying them in life and when buried with them after death, usually in their hands or in their pockets. This one was found in the false floor of the room, however, so it may have been placed over the lady then covered with earth.

The letter is in need of restoration, but parts of it are already legible. A selection of the readable snippets:

Those who say three Our Fathers and if (…) two Hail Marys every day over the space of 15 years until they finish said number, I will grant them five Graces.

The first I concede them (…) remission of all sins. Second I will not make them submit to the pains of Purgatory.

If the present letter (…) goes to the Holy … Sepulchre in Jerusalem … and he who carries it on him will be free from the Devil and will not die in substance … bad death. Carried it on her the pregnant woman will give birth without danger. In the house where this Revelation lives there will be no illusion of bad things (….) before her death will see the Glorious Virgin Mary Amen.

Only authenticated pic of Billy the Kid sells for $2.3 million

The Upham tintype of Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney aka Billy the Kid, the sole authenticated picture of the famous outlaw, sold at Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in Denver on Saturday for $2.3 million. The pre-sale estimate was $300,000 – $400,000, but Florida billionaire, alternative energy investor and America’s Cup winner William Koch finally took it home for eight times that amount.

According to one of Billy’s old girlfriends, the tintype was taken by a traveling photographer on the street outside Beaver Smith’s saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1879 or 1880. One of the things that makes it such an iconic image of Billy and the old West is that it’s not a posed and polished studio portrait, but rather captures the Kid wearing his crumpled hat, thick sweater, thoroughly lived-in boots and baggy pants, with his 1873 Winchester carbine rifle in his left hand and his Colt .45 single action revolver in a holster on his right hip. (This picture is the reason Billy the Kid was widely thought to have been left-handed during much of the 20th century, when in fact tintypes are mirror images so really he was holding the Winchester in his right hand.)

Tintype of Dan Dedrick, ca. 1880, included in the auction lotThe camera used to take the photo was multilense, so four identical pictures were made at the same time. This is the only one known to have survived. Billy gave it to his cattle rustling colleague Dan Dedrick, who claimed he was present when the photo was taken, and who in turn gave it to his nephew Frank L. Upham in the 1930s.

The image was already famous by then. It was first printed in the Boston Illustrated Police News, January 8, 1881, when the Kid was still alive and in the Santa Fe jail that he would break out of, killing two deputies. The year after that Pat Garrett, the sheriff who had shot the Kid dead three months after that jailbreak, published the picture in his biography The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.

As famous as it was, within a few decades the original tintype appeared to be lost. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Upham family announced that they had lovingly kept their tintype of Billy the Kid and that they were donating it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust in New Mexico. That is the only time the tintype was ever on public display.

There was a stipulation, however, that if the Trust ever dissolved, then ownership of the picture would revert to the Upham family. The Trust ceased to exist in 1998 and the tintype went back to the Uphams. They put it up for auction Saturday along with an 1880 tintype of Dan Dedrick, six other pictures of Dedrick and his family, plus letters and documentation, all included in the lot.

Koch intends to loan the iconic picture to several small museums before taking it home to “just enjoy.”

Civil War sub H. L. Hunley sits upright

The H.L. Hunley upright, starboard side showingAfter more than a decade spent trussed in a cradle on her starboard side, the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley is upright for the first time since she sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina on February 17, 1864. She was raised in 2000 from the Atlantic floor at a 45-degree angle, the position in which she was found, and kept in 30 slings at that same angle in a conservation tank ever since.

Engineers were concerned that moving the 7-ton, 40-foot vessel upright would put unbearable stress on the rusted iron keel. They weren’t sure what they’d find on the starboard side which had been buried in the sand for 136 years and then obscured from view by the angle. In order to properly conserve the ship, however, they had to have access to that starboard side. The conservation team thus spent two years planning and testing how best to rotate the vessel without harming it, using 3D computer modelling to simulate the procedure.

The straps that were holding the Hunley in place were replaced one at a time with slings that had hand controls allowing for tiny movement so the team could lower the port side gradually until the sub was upright. On Wednesday, June 22, engineers and conservators began rotating the submarine, adjusting the slings by two millimeter increments to shift it gradually upright.

The process to rotate the sub was at times slow and tedious and others nerve-racking. The painstaking project took three days, with scientists rotating the submarine mere millimeters at a time. After each incremental move, a series of computer monitors were checked to ensure even weight distribution with no major stresses on the submarine.

Two technical issues added hours, and a little tension, to the project. At one point, the bow started to dip too much toward the ground and scientists had to make modifications to get the submarine level again. They had anticipated the potential of this occurring though had hoped it would not affect the rotation.

Also, a laser monitoring system – critical to detecting any potential warping or damage that scientists were desperately trying to avoid – had to be adjusted one morning, causing a delay of a few hours for rotation work to start.

Even with the technical glitches, the laser never strayed more than a millimeter out of its target range, which is a remarkably successful result even for automation, never mind for a rotation process that relied entirely on humans winching 30 slings for three days.

Behold the raising of the Hunley in neat-o time-lapse video:

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For the first time scientists are now able to examine the starboard side for indications of why and how the submarine sank right after successfully torpedoing the USS Housatonic, a Union warship enforcing the blockade of Charleston harbor, making the Hunley the first sub to sink an enemy ship in combat. There are large hull breaches on the starboard fin, as expected, and it is smooth-sided and shiny instead of encased in concretions like the port side. We don’t know yet if the breaches are man-made or the result of ocean and sand erosion or a combination of both.

Next week the team will lower the Hunley onto keel blocks on the way to eventual removal of the slings and truss that have kept the sub suspended for 11 years. Once the slings are gone, conservators will be able to remove all the concretions that coat the hull in preparation for a chemical bath that will restore the vessel’s iron hull.

The H.L. Hunley was a hand-powered submarine designed by Horace Lawson Hunley, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson. Mr. Hunley sponsored her construction in 1863. She sank while moored to a steamer on August 29, 1863, killing five members of her crew, but was salvaged and put back to work on diving trials. This time Horace Lawson Hunley was on board and when she failed to surface after a trial on October 15, 1863, he died along with the rest of the crew.

The tragedies did not deter the Confederate navy. They fished her up again and repaired her, this time ordering the crew to remain on the surface instead of diving. It actually worked, and the Hunley made her historic hit, sinking the USS Housatonic with a spar torpedo. Then something went wrong and the submarine went down for her big sleep. The remains of her crew were recovered and buried in 2004.

Cutaway drawings based on sketches by William A. Alexander who directed her construction