Stone Age children finger painted on cave walls

Archaeologists studying the 13,000-year-old cave art in the Cave of a Hundred Mammoths in Rouffignac, France, have discovered that some of the designs were painted by children. One particular area of the cave is replete with finger painted lines in a variety of geometric shapes called finger fluting that were made by children. Researchers have identified the marks of four children between two and seven and four adults working in this chamber.

“It suggests it was a special place for children. Adults were there, but the vast majority of artwork is by children,” said Jess Cooney, a PhD student at [Cambridge University]’s archaeology department.

“It’s speculation, but I think in this particular chamber children were encouraged to make more art than adults. It could have been a playroom where the children gathered or a room for practice where they were encouraged to make these marks in order that they could grow into artists and make the beautiful paintings and engravings we find throughout the cave, and throughout France and Spain. Or it could have been a room used for a ritual for particular children, perhaps an initiation of sorts.”

Most of the art in the cave is finger fluting. The animal figures it is most famous for are actual a small minority of the paintings. Artists, adult and child alike, would run their fingers over a soft red clay and then draw swirls and triangles on the cave wall. The size of the lines indicates the size of the fingers doing the painting. Designs high on the wall and on the ceiling indicate that the small children were being held up by adults, and the juxtaposition of different hands suggest a small adult, possibly an older brother, painting alongside a seven-year-old girl, and an adult guiding the fingers of a two-year-old.

The most prolific artist throughout the entire cave complex is a five-year-old girl. The range of the paintings done by children indicates that the Stone Age dwellers of Rouffignac placed few restrictions on their children’s movements. The were painting the walls even in the darkest, most distant caves.

Some of the children’s art goes beyond swirls and lines. There are finger fluted animals and what look like outlines of faces, but most notably there are hut shapes called tectiforms which are symbols native to one area of France. Those tectiforms are the first known example of Stone Age children creating symbolic figures.

Conan Doyle’s lost first novel published

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, back before he was a sir, was a physician struggling to build a private practice. He supplemented his meager income, as he had while a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, by writing short stories that were published in magazines. His first short story to make it into print, The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley, was published in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1879.

There wasn’t much money to be made selling stories to magazines, however, and the common practice at the time was to publish content anonymously. He would later note in an 1893 article in The Idler magazine that over his years of writing short stories, he earned an average of less than 50 pounds a year from his work and he was still a complete unknown. Conan Doyle realized that if he wanted to make a name for himself as an author, he would have to write a novel. Sometime between 1883 and 1884, he did so and mailed the manuscript to a publisher. Then disaster struck.

Alack and alas for the dreadful thing that happened! The publishers never received it, the post office sent countless blue forms to say that they knew nothing about it, and from that day to this no word has ever been heard of it. Of course it was the best thing I ever wrote. Who ever lost a manuscript that wasn’t? But I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print. If one or two other of my earlier efforts had also been lost in the post my conscience would have been the lighter. This one was called “The Narrative of John Smith,” and it was of a personal-social-political complexion. Had it appeared I should have probably awakened to find myself infamous, for it steered, as I remember it, perilously near to the libellous. However, it was safely lost, and that was the end of another of my first books.

Psych, Conan Doyle! You only thought it was safely lost! Really, though, he pysched himself out because the original manuscript never did turn up; he just rewrote the whole thing from memory but only told his mother so nobody realized it. He made no reference to it in his 1924 autobiography and subsequent biographers assumed that the first novel was lost for good. It wasn’t until 1970 when Arthur’s youngest son Adrian Conan Doyle died and his wife had an expert examine the huge collection of Conan Doyle’s papers Adrian had left her that a group of four notebooks containing an unpublished, untitled novel were noticed.

The notebooks still weren’t identified as The Narrative of John Smith at that point. They remained in the Conan Doyle archive and no scholars paid them any mind. The title was only associated with the rewritten manuscript in 2004, when the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle, Adrian’s wife, decided to sell the collection of Conan Doyle papers at a Christie’s auction. The Christie’s experts identified the four notebooks in Lot 11 as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lost first novel, The Narrative of John Smith.

The narrator ranges widely over the fields of history, religion, philosophy, medicine, science, music and prophecy; he advances views on domestic interiors, art, the future of China, the United States and Great Britain and he draws on his experiences from sealing in the Arctic, to ballooning and to travel in South Africa. He also refers to literature citing the stories of Bret Harte and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

It is evident that Conan Doyle began to revise the text of the first volume (changing the name of the doctor from Julep to Turner, for instance, and making other alterations). Mrs Rundle was a precursor of Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper Martha Hudson.

The British Library bought the manuscript for £47,800 ($84,749) to add to their already extensive Conan Doyle collection. Sir Arthur’s daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, had left 900 documents to the library in her will. In addition to the notebooks, the British Library purchased 1,200 other Conan Doyle documents from the Anna Conan Doyle auction.

Until now, few people had had the opportunity to see the dawn of Conan Doyle as a novelist. The British Library has transcribed the manuscript and published The Narrative of John Smith.

An introduction to the new edition says: “The Narrative is not successful fiction, but offers remarkable insight into the thinking and views of a raw young writer who would shortly create one of literature’s most famous and durable characters, Sherlock Holmes.” The book gives a flavour of the preoccupations of the time, such as the British empire, science and the rise of secularism. It is also remarkably prescient, foreseeing the rise of America and China as superpowers, the advent of aeroplanes and submarines, and even space exploration. Stephen Fry, who has also seen the book, hailed Conan Doyle’s breadth of interests. “He was the first popular writer to tell the wider reading public about narcotics, the Ku Klux Klan, the mafia, the Mormons, American crime gangs, corrupt union bosses and much else besides. His boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention the perfect, muscular and memorable prose, are all on display here in a work whose publication is very, very welcome indeed.”

You can purchase a copy now from the British Library bookshop or pre-order it on Amazon US (the scheduled publication date is October 15). If you’re fortunate enough to be in London over the next few months, you can see the manuscript with your own eyes at the British Library’s exhibit dedicated to Conan Doyle’s early travails as a writer.

British WWII ship sunk carrying 220 tons silver found

The SS Gairsoppa, a British cargo steamship that was enlisted by the UK Ministry of War Transport to do its cargo runs, was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on February 17, 1941, in the North Atlantic about 300 miles west of Ireland. It had been loaded in Calcutta with an immense load of commodities — 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, 220 tons of silver ingots — headed for Liverpool. A merchant vessel built in 1919 for the British India Steam Navigation company, the Gairsoppa was unable to withstand the attack. That one torpedo blasted a hole in the hull and took down the foremast, severing all the radio cables and leaving the ship unable to communicate a distress call. The ship sank in just 20 minutes, taking its valuable cargo with it.

The 85-member crew sadly did not survive. Many of them made it to the lifeboats even under German machine gun fire, but then two of the three lifeboats capsized in the rough waters. The final lifeboat made it to the Cornwall shore 13 days later, but it too capsized while drifting along the coast and only one survivor was fished out: Second Officer R.H. Ayres, who received many awards for his bravery in trying to save his fellow passengers. (He lived a long life and passed away in 1992.)

In 1989, the British government attempted a salvage operation to recover the precious metals that sank on the Gairsoppa. The company who won the salvage contract also happened to be the only company that made a bid. It was unable to find the wreck.

The government tried again last year and this time the winning bidder was Odyssey Marine Exploration, a US treasure hunting firm that is known for big finds (and big legal entanglements). It’s quite the sweet contract. Odyssey gets to keep 80% of the net value of all the silver bullion found. That’s net, so obviously their expenses get paid first. At today’s prices, the silver could be worth as much as $210 million, which would make this haul the largest precious metal hoard ever found at sea.

Using data from the previous failed expedition plus extensive new research on where the wreck might be located, Odyssey was able to pinpoint the proper search area. They were then able to locate a likely wreck using a deep-tow low frequency sonar system. A remotely operated vehicle relayed video and photographic confirmation that this not just a likely wreck but the actual wreck of the SS Gairsoppa sitting upright nearly 4,700 meters below the surface of the North Atlantic.

Although the robot was unable to locate those tons of silver or something bearing the ship name, all the facts fit. The ship is the proper length, width and height; the torpedo damage matches the description in the German U-boat logs; stacks of tea chests were found, the proper number of cargo holds and derricks, the proper ship layout, even the same hull colors.

Odyssey is now putting together the necessary tools and equipment for a salvage operation 4,700 meters under the sea. The Gairsoppa did them a huge favor by landing on its feet, so all the cargo holds are open and accessible. The salvage crew will use them to unload the silver just like any stevedore would topside. Operations will begin next Spring in more propitious weather conditions.


First five Dead Sea Scrolls go online

After years of planning, pilot programs and painstaking effort by scholars, conservators and NASA scientists, the first five Dead Sea Scrolls have gone online. Four of them are part of the original seven scrolls discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave at Qumran, just above the Dead Sea, in 1947. One of them, the Temple Scroll, was discovered in a cave less than a mile away in 1956.

The Great Isaiah Scroll, the Temple Scroll, the War Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll and the Commentary on the Habakkuk Scroll, five of the most complete and important scrolls discovered in caves on the banks of the Dead Sea, are kept in a highly secured vault by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The isolation is necessary to protect the 2,000-year-old documents from any further deterioration, but it also means anyone who would like to peruse these invaluable Biblical manuscripts would have to jump through nearly impossible hoops.

Not any more. Photographer Ardon Bar-Hama has taken high resolution pictures up to 1,200 megapixels and Google technology has created a database that allows anyone with an Internet connection to get so close to the scrolls that you can see the most minute details of ink and parchment. Each scroll is introduced with more about its contents and history, both written and in short explanatory videos. The Dead Sea Scrolls Online site lets users click on the Hebrew text to get an English translation, and you can join the site via Google Connect to suggest translations in other languages or just to leave comments. The scrolls are all searchable, not just locally on the site but also via Google web search.

Google’s involvement with the Dead Sea Scrolls doesn’t end there. They are also collaborating with the Israel Antiquities Authority on a separate digitization project that will put the IAA’s collection of approximately 30,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments totaling 900 manuscripts on the Internet. This project will go several steps beyond high resolution photography.

The MegaVision system will enable the digital imaging of every Scroll fragment in various wavelengths in the highest resolution possible and allow long term monitoring for preservation purposes in a non-invasive and precise manner. The images will be equal in quality to the actual physical viewing of the Scrolls, thus eliminating the need for re-exposure of the Scrolls and allowing their preservation for future generations. The technology will also help rediscover writing and letters that have “vanished” over the years; with the help of infra-red light and wavelengths beyond, these writings will be brought “back to life”, facilitating new possibilities in Dead Sea Scrolls research.

This project is scheduled to be complete by 2016. By then, the Israel Museum’s digitization should also be complete, so if all goes well, the entirety of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be online and available to us all within five years.

Witches and hookers and saints, oh my!

An archaeological team excavating the Tuscan port town of Piombino hoping to find the remains of its patron saint has instead uncovered the skeletal remains of two 13th century women of questionable repute. Approximately 25-30 years old at time of death, they were both buried in the bare earth, without a coffin or even a shroud, very much against custom.

One of women had seven curved, one-and-a-half-inch-long nails placed in her mouth after death and 13 more nails jammed into the ground all around her body. Archaeologists speculate that the ones around her body were used to nail the body to the ground in some kind of exorcism ritual to prevent her using witchcraft to rise from the dead.

The other woman was buried with a leather pouch holding 17 bone dice. Games of chance were against civil and ecclesiastic law during the Middle Ages, and although the laws were constantly flouted, a women associated with dice was a woman associated with immorality. Also, 17 was and remains an extremely unlucky number in Italy. (The story I’ve heard about why it’s unlucky is that the Roman number for 17, XVII, is an anagram of “vixi” which is Latin for “I have lived” which is just like saying you’re dead and is therefore an ill omen. No idea if that’s true.)

L’Aquila University archaeologist Alfonso Forgione, the dig leader, notes that these burials are unique in his experience. Not only are they strangely bare and contain those odd accouterments, but they are also in consecrated ground. There’s a chapel on the grounds purportedly marking the burial spot of Saint Cerbonius, the sixth century A.D. bishop and patron saint of Piombino. The team was looking for the saint’s burial and for the remains of a medieval cathedral that was once dedicated to him when they found the ladies. If the women were social outcasts, one of them demonic, the other degenerate, neither of them worthy of a decent burial, how come they got to go to their eternal rest in a cathedral cemetery next to a saint?

Forgione speculates that they may have had the advantage of powerful friends and families surviving them who arranged for them to have at least a chance at heaven by ensuring their bodies were placed in consecrated ground.

The excavation will continue through the end of the month. They have already found 350 burials in four eight-by-ten meter (26 by 33 feet) sites on each side of the chapel, and there are strong indications that the cemetery goes on for another 65 feet inland and another 33 feet or so towards the sea. Such a large, well-populated cemetery indicates that little Piombino, the only known Etruscan port city, remained a thriving town through the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists are working against the clock, though. The cliff side is eroding faster than they can dig. There are bones visibly jutting out, to the delight of many a tourist taking a romantic walk on the beach, but they can’t be removed for fear that the entire promontory will crumble like a Jenga game.