Archive for November, 2011

15 infant dinosaurs found in a nest in Mongolia

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

A nest of 15 baby Protoceratops andrewsi, sheep-sized herbivorous horned dinosaurs related to Triceratops, fossils has been discovered in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Mongolian paleontologist Pagmin Narmandakh found the 2.3-foot-wide nest, the first Protoceratops nest ever discovered. Nests of fossilized eggs thought to be Protoceratops were found in Mongolia in the 1920s by naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, but when the eggs were opened they turned out to be Oviraptors (dinosaurs that fed on other dinosaurs’ eggs).

The babies are not newborns. They are 4 to 6 inches long and were probably about a year old when they met their sad fate about 75 million years ago.

“The evidence suggests they may have been overrun by migrating dunes during a sandstorm,” researcher David Fastovsky, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Rhode Island, told LiveScience.

The searing hot locale in the heart of the Gobi Desert where this nest was discovered, Tugrikin Shire, has proven rich in fossils in the past, including the “fighting dinosaurs,” an entombed Velociraptor and Protoceratops seemingly locked in mortal combat. The site was harsh back when these dinosaurs were alive, too — the sandstones they were buried in suggest the region was an erg, a windblown dune field a bit like parts of the modern Sahara. The dunes here might once have reached as tall as 80 feet (24 meters).

The relatively advanced age of the babies suggests that Protoceratops cared for their young. For them all to be still living together in the nest beyond the first few days they had to have an adult feeding and protecting them, especially considering how harsh the desert environment was even during the Late Cretaceous. Fastovsky notes that 15 is a large number of babies for one nest, which suggests that mortality may have been high so they hatched as many eggs as they could to increase the chances of a next generation surviving.

Also, since protoceratopsidae were early members of the ceratopsian group of dinosaurs, evidence of parental care in Protoceratops implies that this may have been a feature of the wider group as it continued to develop larger and more formidable neck-frilled, horn-beaked beasts like Triceratops.

Oscar Wilde’s tomb protected from kisses

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Oscar Wilde died of cerebral meningitis in Paris on November 30, 1900. On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of his death, his tomb in Paris’ famous Père Lachaise Cemetery has been restored and a new glass barrier erected around the monument to stop visitors from making out with it.

The practice began in the late 1990s when a woman kissed Wilde’s tomb leaving a red lipstick print. Because people are easily influenced and deeply unhygienic, that one lip print started an unstoppable trend. The tomb was soon covered in red lips. The threat of a €9,000 ($12,000) fine for damaging a historical monument had no effect, because it’s hard to catch people in the act and because most of the kissers were tourists and thus were long gone before the judicial system could snag them. Appeals from Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland to stop the practice fell on deaf ears. A plaque asking fans to respect the tomb instead of defacing it had no effect.

Meanwhile, those greasy red lipstick stains seeped into the stone making it harder and harder to clean. Every cleaning stripped another surface layer which made the stone even more porous, so the next cleaning had to go even deeper and wear away the stone even more. Today’s restoration will hopefully end this vicious cycle.

With the Paris authorities offering a fraction of the cost of preserving the memorial, the Irish have come to the rescue, paying for it through the office of public works in Dublin, which is responsible for a number of Irish monuments and buildings overseas. They have paid for a radical cleaning and “de-greasing” of the tomb, as well as a glass barrier which will surround it to prevent the kissers from causing further damage. […]

Holland hopes that the barrier will deter loving vandals. Designed to be unobtrusive and aesthetic, it could only discourage rather than be preventative and he says: “Some determined kissers will no doubt try to find ways of kissing the upper extremities.”

It’s fitting, perhaps, that Oscar Wilde’s memorial has experienced more than its fair share of scandal and hardship. It didn’t even exist until 14 years after Wilde’s death. He was bankrupt when he died, so his family and friends could only afford to bury him in a cheap plot in the Cimetière de Bagneux southwest of Paris. Through sales of Wilde’s writing over the next decade, Ross was able to afford a new plot in Père Lachaise. Wilde’s remains were reburied in their new, elegant Parisian digs in 1909.

Two years later, a friend of Ross and Wilde’s donated money to commission a memorial sculpture for the gravesite. Sir Jacob Epstein was the sculptor. He created a stylized Art Deco angel inspired by Assyrian winged lion and bull colossi at the British Museum. The monument was unveiled in 1914 and even the sophisticates of Paris clutched their pearls and popped their monocles. Why? Because the angel had male genitalia. The police labeled it indecent and covered it with a tarp.

In the early 1960s, the unfortunate manparts were hacked off and stolen and are still missing to this day.

Holland spoke of his mixed emotions at the monument in its restored state: “The graffiti was done with love, which is an unusual phenomenon.

Ancient Egyptian leather chariot trappings found

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Nobody’s quite sure where they’re from or how they got there, but an almost complete set of leather chariot trappings from around the time of Tutankhamun has been found in a back room of the Cairo Museum. A few chariots have been found in royal tombs — Tutankhamun had six in pieces in his tomb — but leather rots easily and there are only a few fragments extant of ancient Egyptian chariot gear, none of it decorated. This set is so extensive, so elaborate and in such amazing condition that it’s already filling in blanks and correcting misunderstandings of how ancient chariots worked.

In 2008, Ancient Egyptian Leatherwork Project expert André Veldmeijer of Cairo’s Netherlands-Flemish Institute saw a grainy picture of some well-preserved chariot trappings in a book from the 1950s. The book said the trappings were in the Cairo Museum so Veldmeijer asked curator Ibrahim El Gawad about them. Gawad had never heard of them.

Entirely by coincidence, a few months later Gawad stumbled on drawers full of leather chariot fittings in a storage room. There were 60 large pieces and many small leather fragments. According to museum records, they were purchased from a Greek antiquities dealer named Georges Tano in 1932, but there is no information about where he got them.

Veldmejier says that El Gawad called him to the museum and showed him “layer upon layer” of leather. “It’s a gorgeous find,” he says. “What was in the picture, that’s not even half of what’s in the museum. It was astonishing.”

The trappings are 90–95% complete, according to Veldmeijer, and include the leather casing that would have covered the wooden chariot, as well as harnesses, gauntlets, and a bow case and quiver. Wear marks and details of the stitching are still visible, and the intricate red, green and white design — the only known example of its type — is still bright after more than three millennia.

It’s hard to believe they’re ancient, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I saw that forearm gauntlet on Charleton Heston once. When you think that they languished forgotten in drawers for decades (at least), their condition is even more jaw-dropping.

Not that they don’t need some TLC. Veldmeijer and American University in Cairo Egyptologist Salima Ikram are co-directing the Egyptian Museum Chariot Project to conserve and study the trappings. The pieces that were folded so they’d fit in the drawers need to be painstakingly unfolded and repacked using proper conservatorial materials.

They’ve already found that the trappings all came from a single chariot and were therefore probably discovered together in a single tomb. The stitching and decoration on the leather point to a date between the late 18th Dynasty and the late 19th Dynasty, but further research is needed to narrow down the range.

Maya 2012 apocalypse conspiracy blown wide open

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Did you know that the whole thing about the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world in 2012 was based on one broken and eroded tablet of glyphs? The idea is that in the Mayan Long Count calendar, our current era (the 13-Bak’tun cycle) ends on the 21st of December 2012 and that this end date isn’t just the end of a historical era and the beginning of a new one, but rather the end of all eras. The sole reference to the 2012 apocalypse, however, is a highly nebulous line on a 1300-year-old stone tablet found in Monument 6 in the Tortuguero archaeological site in the southern state of Tabasco.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and Mayan experts in general have not been big fans of the Mayan apocalypse theory because they say it projects a Western obsession with eschatology onto Mayan culture. Nor have they found the various translations of that one line of hard to read glyphs particularly persuasive.

Or that’s what they said in public anyway. The Mexican government has been holding out on us, for the Tortuguero tablet is not the sole reference to 2012. There is a second one engraved on the face of one of the bricks in the nearby Comalcalco temple. (You can catch a glimpse of a Comalcalco brick in this news roundup of the story, but I’m not certain if it’s the One True Brick or just a representative.)

Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.

WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO HIDE? Oh sure, a handful of scholars knew about this brick, but they’re obviously in on it.

[University of Texas at Austin Mayan epigraphy expert David] Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick “‘is a ‘Calendar Round,’ a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years.”

The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods, and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.
But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.

“There’s no reason it couldn’t be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, ‘he/she/it arrives,'” Stuart wrote. “There’s no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical than prophetic.”

A likely story, Mr. “Stuart”, if that’s your real name.

In order to continue to pull the wool over out eyes until it’s too late, the National Institute of Anthropology and History will hold a round table of 60 Mayan experts next week at the Palenque archaeological site where they will “explain” the Mayan Long Count calendar’s vision of historical cycles. Doubtless those 60 experts will be paid with third class berths on the top secret giant arks being built in underground shipyards to save the privileged few from the extinction of our species.

Reputed Roman fort turns out to be actual Roman fort

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Local legend has long had it that the overbuilt and overgrown masonry structure known as “the Nunnery” perched over Longis beach on Alderney, a Channel Island just eight miles from the coast of France, was originally a Roman fort. Despite multiple archaeological explorations from the 19th century on, however, little evidence has been found to support the tradition. Roman stonework and tiles are visible high up on the ramparts, but they could have been repurposed during Medieval construction rather than original.

In fact, a 1930 excavation found Medieval material at deep layers and that, contrary to Roman architectural punctiliousness, the fortress was built directly on the sand. More recently, a 2002 excavation along the fallen east rampart (it collapsed from erosion sometime before the 18th century) showed Medieval midden piles at what archaeologists thought was the level of construction.

In 2008, the Alderney Society and Guernsey Museum collaborated on a project to pin down the origins of the Nunnery. With the permission of the landowner and tenants, Dr. Jason Monaghan, director of Guernsey Museums, organized a team of a dozen volunteers to spend the last week of August excavating the site. That first year they found a handful Roman objects — fragments of tile and pottery — deep down under the north wall.

Now, on the fourth consecutive year of these volunteer-staffed, week-long excavations, Monaghan and his team have found confirmation of the local legend: the remains of a Roman-era tower in the middle of the Nunnery. The team was specifically looking for one because the other 4th century Roman forts that dot northern England all have central towers, so the apparent absence of one here suggested later construction.

“The walls are 2.8m (9ft) thick, we don’t know how high it was, but it would have been a very big structure – it’s as thick as Hadrian’s Wall.”

The tower was found to be about 18 sq m. (58 sq ft). He said the team dug down to prove the outside walls were also Roman before doing the same for the gateway. […]

Dr Monaghan said: “It’s in an extremely good state of preservation… it’s better preserved than all the other small Roman forts in Britain.

“It’s in a better state than what they call the Saxon shore forts off southern England, it’s in better nick than most of Hadrian’s Wall.

That’s one of the reasons that the legend of the Roman fort was doubted for long, because the putatively ancient part of the walls was so exceptionally high, passing 16 feet, while the remains of the forts in Yorkshire, for instance, are shin-high at best. The Roman stonework, set in characteristic herringbone patterns with double rows of tiles, was built on in later years, but you can clearly see the original crenellations that were filled in so the wall height could be raised.

The tower itself was destroyed, probably by the Nazis (I hate those guys) when they built a bunker in the middle of the ancient structure during their occupation of the Channel Islands. They were just one in a long line of people who remade the Nunnery to suit their needs over the centuries. It was a barracks in the Middle Ages, then the governor’s residence, then a farm, even British military housing after the Germans were gone.

One of the things that makes the site so interesting to archaeologists is how many periods of use are still evident. There are only a handful of Roman structures in the Channel Islands and all of them have been laid waste by time. This one shows all of its ages.

Humans went deep sea fishing 42,000 years ago

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Archaeologists from the Australian National University excavated the Jerimalai on the southeast Asian island of East Timor have found direct evidence of humans fishing deep-sea species 42,000 years ago. Inside the shallow cave the team discovered over 38,000 fish bones from 2,843 individual fish dating back 42,000 years and half of those fish were fast-swimming deep-sea species like tuna and sharks.

Humans have been feasting on shore-based seafood like mussels for at least 165,000, but the earliest sites where deep sea fishing has been confirmed before this has been are only 12,000 years old. The Jerimalai cave also produced another first: a fish hook made of a mollusk shell that is 23,000 years old. That is the earliest confirmed date for a fish hook and the earliest evidence of line fishing.

The new evidence “certainly suggests that people had advanced maritime skills” by 42,000 years ago [Susan] O’Connor [, archaeologist at the Australian National University and the excavation leader] says, at least “in terms of fishing technology.” The finds indicate that this mastery of the sea “must have been one of the things that allowed the initial colonization” of East Timor and other Southeast Asian islands, such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. But O’Connor cautions that there is still no direct evidence about the maritime skills of the first people who colonized Australia, leaving open the possibility that they drifted there with the tides.

We don’t know how they might have fished tuna and sharks. The mussel shell hook would not have been used for deep sea fishing and thus far no remains have been found to answer the question. If the people who braved the oceans to populate Australia and East Timor during this period had oceanworthy ships rather than drifting there on rafts, certainly they could have mastered devising a net or dragline and hook combination that worked in the deep East Timor coastal wasters.

There are some objections to the interpretation of the data. One anthropologist noted that the tuna found in the cave are only between 20 and 30 inches long and are thus juvenile specimens who might have been caught wandering too close to shore. Since the water off the coast of East Timor gets deep very quickly, it’s easier to find deep sea fish near land. O’Connor rebuts that even young tuna are fast swimmers and can’t be speared or hooked from the beach in the thousands.

She intends to keep excavating the cave, moving deeper down into earlier eras. Here’s hoping she finds a boat.

Look at this restoration

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London unveiled the results of a two-year restoration of Saint Cecilia, a Baroque masterpiece currently attributed to the school of Annibale Caracci. The 17th century painting was in such awful condition that it had been off public display and in storage since the late 19th century. In 2009, sufficient funds were raised to begin a full restoration and it’s taken this long to painstakingly repair tears, reframe and clean the work.

And thus at long last, the sons pay for the sins of the father, for the person who is most responsible for its deplorable condition was Sir Francis Bourgeois, the founder of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. He and his partner Noël Desenfans ran an immensely successful and high-end art dealing business. In 1790 they were commissioned by Stanislaus August, King of Poland (and former lover of Catherine the Great’s), to create a royal collection of important art that would rival those held by the other crowned heads of Europe. Desenfans and Bourgeois worked for five years to put together a world-class art collection from scratch for Poland’s new national gallery.

Unfortunately in 1795 King Stanislaus was forced to abdicate and the country was dismembered by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Thus Desenfans and Bourgeois were left with a national gallery but no nation to put it in. They spent the rest of their lives selling some of the pieces in order to fund the purchase of equally important pieces and to find a place where the collection could go on display in appropriate splendor.

Desenfran died first in 1807. Bourgeois died in 1811 and left the collection to Dulwich College stipulating that the paintings were to go on public display. The Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded that year in accordance with the terms of the will and became the first public art gallery in the United Kingdom. (There was no National Gallery until 1824.)

Saint Cecilia used to hang in Desenfans’ and Bourgeois’ gallery/home. At the time it was attributed to seventeenth-century Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci himself. They hung it next to a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting but since Saint Cecilia was smaller than Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, just for the symmetry of it Bourgeois added wide strips of canvas around the former so that it would look like the two paintings were the same size.

The additions that Bourgeois made, however, eventually started to disintegrate and come away from the original seventeenth-century canvas. Well-known art critic Mrs. Jameson, writing in A Handbook to the public galleries of art in and near London (1842), made the rather scathing observation that she had ‘seldom seen a picture so shamefully maltreated – so patched and repainted…[Sir Francis Bourgeois’s] hand is clearly distinguishable’.

By the end of the century it wasn’t fit to be seen. Now look at it:

Now that it’s so clean and pretty, the question of attribution might be more fruitfully explored. The Gallery has a great deal of data from the conservation process that could help experts pin down whose hand painted Saint Cecilia.

The also have a rather nifty website, btw, with an extensive collection of videos about the paintings in the collection, visiting exhibits and the history of the collection. Check out the Masterpiece of the Month videos. It started in January of this year and will run until December, so you can watch them all back to back. :love:

Ashmolean opens six new Egyptian galleries

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum will put its collection of 40,000 ancient Egyptian and Nubian artifacts back on display in six refurbished galleries starting this Saturday, November 26. The collection includes a large number of human mummies and objects that have been part of the museum’s collection since the 17th century. Over half of the mummies and coffins have been in storage for decades and will go on display for the first time in the new galleries.

The Ashmolean is home to some of the finest Egyptian and Nubian collections in the country, with Predynastic and Protodynastic material which ranks amongst the most significant in the world. With new lighting, display cases and interpretation, the project completes the Ashmolean’s Ancient World Floor, comprising galleries that span the world’s great ancient civilisations – from Egypt and Nubia, Prehistoric Europe, the Ancient Near East, Classical Greece and Rome, to India, China and Japan. […]

Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said, “These remarkable collections are among the most important outside Egypt and one of the Ashmolean’s most popular attractions. With an exciting series of new galleries, the redevelopment transforms opportunities for using the collections for teaching and research at all levels, and the way they are enjoyed, cared for and integrated within the wider Museum.”

Each gallery is dedicated to a chronological period of ancient Egyptian and Nubian history. The first one is Egypt at its Origins, covering Egypt’s history from the Paleolithic era to the Early Dynastic period (ca. 3000 B.C.), includes some of the oldest stone sculptures in the world and the colossal limestone statues of the fertility god Min. Next is Dynastic Egypt and Nubia (2686 B.C. to 1540 B.C.) whose centerpiece is the Shrine of Taharqa, part of the temple of Amun at Kawa, in what is now Sudan, and the only complete free-standing pharaonic building in Britain. Life after Death in Ancient Egypt focuses on the tools and methods the Egyptians used to mummify and secure eternal life. The Amarna Revolution singles out the reign of King Amenhotep IV and the unique religion and art produced under him. Egypt in the Age of Empires depicts daily life in ancient Egypt using the documents found engraved on limestone chips at Deir-el-Medina, the village where construction workers building royal tombs lived during the New Kingdom (ca. 1000 B.C.). The last gallery is Egypt meets Greece and Rome which displays artifacts from Ptolemy’s accession to the throne of Egypt after the death of Alexander.

The original Egyptian rooms were apparently dark and pokey. The new galleries are bright, open and airy to facilitate visitor traffic flow and show off this extraordinary collection to its best advantage. That they’ve successfully built new interior spaces, moved 40,000 objects to and fro, including colossal statues and huge display cases in only 12 months while the rest of the museum was open is astonishing. It took them two months just to move artifacts into the new rooms.

Saxon graveyard found under Warwickshire patio

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Last summer, homeowners Stephen and Nicky West were having an addition built on to their house in Ratley, south Warwickshire, when their builders found a skeleton buried under the patio. The Wests are local history enthusiasts and immediately thought the body might be a casualty from a 1642 English Civil War battle that took place in nearby Edgehill.

They contacted the Warwickshire County Council who dispatched experts to determine whether the skeleton was historical or a the result of contemporary foul play. The archaeologist’s preliminary assessment was that any foul play that might have occurred took place hundreds of years ago. Under normal circumstances the find would not have been pursued much further because the local council doesn’t have the money to analyze every skeleton found under people’s patios. It was Stephen and Nicky West who personally commissioned Archaeology Warwickshire to excavate further under the patio and test the bones.

The archaeologists identified the remains of at least four bodies which included two adult females, a young male and a juvenile aged between 10 and 12.

Radiocarbon dates from two of the skeletons show that they died around 650-820 AD in what is known as the middle Saxon period. […]

[Archaeology Warwickshire’s manager Stuart] Palmer said: “The discovery of this previously unsuspected burial ground is an extremely rare and important addition to what has previously been an archaeologically invisible period of Warwickshire’s history.

“Detailed analysis of the skeletons has revealed an insight into the health of the middle Saxon population who clearly suffered periods of malnourishment and were subject to a wide range of infections indicative of lives of extreme hardship and often near-constant pain.”

Palmer believes the four skeletons found are part of a larger burial ground underneath the West’s home and adjacent properties. There won’t be further excavations, what with the people living there, but given the centuries of development on the spot, it’s remarkable that 1200-year-old plus skeletons were found at all.

The bones will be kept in storage by Archaeology Warwickshire until they decide what the final disposition will be. No little girls have been reported sucked into their TVs as of press time.

Texas drought reveals graves, ghost towns

Monday, November 21st, 2011

The year of drought in Texas has caused lake and reservoir levels to recede so severely that the remains of ghost towns and graves that have been submerged for decades are now on dry land. Most of the lakes in the state were manmade, created by the construction of hydroelectric and flood control dams, hence the presence of entire towns underwater. With an average rainfall 13 inches below normal for the year, most of the lake levels have dropped over a dozen feet.

The old town of Bluffton, normally under 20 feet of Lake Buchanan, is showing its bones, literal and metaphoric. The gravestone of a little boy, Johnny C. Parks, who died in 1882 just a few days shy of his first birthday, is now in plain view. The remains of the gas station/general store, the grist mill, hotel and cotton gin are now tourist attractions for hikers, as are the rusted hulks of old oil tanks and the town well.

Local historian Alfred Hallmark, whose great-great-great grandfather helped establish Bluffton, said his research showed 389 graves were moved starting in 1931 when dam construction began. That’s the same year Bluffton’s 40 or 50 residents started moving several miles west to the current Bluffton, which today amounts to a convenience store and post office at a lonely highway intersection serving 200 residents.

Residents had to leave their ranches and abandon precious pecan trees, some of which produced more than 1,000 pounds of nuts each year. “It was devastating,” said Hallmark, 70, a retired teacher, of the move. “They had no choice.”

Some had even fewer choices. This summer an entire children’s cemetery was found under the Richland Chambers Reservoir near Dallas-Ft. Worth. Bones and a single grave had been found before on the shore of the lake, but it wasn’t until the drought that a burial ground containing the graves of 25 children buried before 1890 was discovered. The bones found on the shore dated to around the same time — 100 to 120 years ago — and were consistent with a male of African descent.

A descendant of the 19th century owner of the land that became the reservoir notes that “black people worked for my family and other white families like mine,” meaning her great-grandfather, who moved to Texas from Mississippi in 1866 to start a cotton farm and horse ranch, had sharecroppers living on the property. This might be their cemetery. Archaeologists are working urgently to get the county to fund the full excavation and respectful reburial of the human remains before the drought breaks and the site is resumberged.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, the non-profit public utility that completed Buchanan Dam after the collapse of the holding company that first fund during the Great Depression, has an incredible collections of pictures from its archives documenting the construction of the dam from 1931 onward on its Flickr page. Go back a page to see their photographic archives of the construction workers’ camp and of the newly relocated Bluffton cemetery with its freshly dug graves. It’s amazing, really, how deep a visual record they’ve kept. Every public utility should upload their archives.

You can see the ruins of Bluffton in this news clip:





November 2011


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