Teens find famed 1946 plane wreck in Swiss glacier

Lucas Kocher, Manuel Ruefener and Peter Fluehmann find the propellerThree 18-year-old hikers have found the propeller from a C-53 Skytrooper Dakota that crashed on the Gauli Glacier in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps on November 19, 1946. The crash was front page news worldwide when it happened, and it’s still famous in Switzerland as the event that pioneered Alpine air rescue.

On Monday, November 18th, 1946, the U.S. military transport plane departed Vienna en route to Pisa. Hoping to avoid bad weather, the pilot, Captain Ralph Tate Jr., planned a longer route that would take them through Munich and Marseilles and get them to Pisa two days later. They were particularly keen to play it safe since the plane was carrying several high-ranking officers and their family members. The pilot was the son of Brigadier General Ralph Tate, the deputy U.S. commander in Austria, and his mother Mrs. Ralph Tate was a passenger. Also on board were Brigadier General Loyal M. Haynes, head of the advisory board of U.S. forces in Austria, and his wife, Colonel William McMahon, retiring chief of staff of U.S. forces in Austria, his wife and their 11-year-old daughter Mary Alice. The total complement on board was 12 people, including the four-member crew.

Wreck of the Dakota taken from the air; "FINI" was written in the snow by the survivors after a heavy supply drop almost tore the wing offSomewhere around Innsbruck, the pilots became disoriented and went off-course. They knew they were in the Alps because Tate had had to dodge several mountain peaks, but they thought it was the French Alps. When a downdraft sent them towards yet another mountain peak, Tate intentionally dropped the airplane, pancaking it onto the Gauli glacier from an altitude of 10,990 feet. The plane skidded on its belly uphill for short while, mercifully slowed down by a snow bank which caught the wing and kept them from plunging into a deep crevasse just a few hundred feet away. It was Tuesday, November 19th.

Tate’s quick action had saved their lives and the only serious injury among the passengers was a compound fracture to the leg, but now the 12 of them were stuck somewhere 10,000 feet up in the Alps in late November. They were able to radio out for help, but the mountains deflected the signal so the B-17 bombers sent by the U.S. military to search for the downed plane were unable to locate it.

Swiss mountaineer rescuers reach the DakotaTwo days passed, with the survivors subsisting on box lunches and candy bars they’d purchased in Munich. It was cold, like five degrees Fahrenheit cold. They used upholstery from the plane, army blankets and parachutes to wrap themselves in and wood and fuel to keep themselves warm and to melt snow for water. Then it snowed, covering the shiny metal of the airplane and making it even less visible from the sky than it had been before. Before the batteries in the radio ran out, Tate sent out one last message saying that conditions were rough and they had maybe 24 hours to live.

The next day, Friday, November 22nd, a B-29 bomber piloted by none other than General Ralph Tate Sr. passed over the wreck while he was on his way back to Munich from a failed search attempt. Tate Jr. sent up a flare and Tate Sr. responded with a flare of his own. Tate Jr. turned on the radio and heard his father’s voice. He was only able to say “Hi, Dad,” and hear “Hi, Ralph, how…” in reply before the radio died.

Swiss mountaineers assemble Saturday morning at 4:15 to rescue the passengers overlandWith the coordinates of the crashed plane finally established, the U.S. Army went into full rescue mode. Airplanes dropped packages of food, blankets, padded pants, boots and cigarettes. Many of them ended up down the ravines on either side of the wreck or too deep in the snow to be recovered. The army sent 150 mountain-infantry soldiers with a full complement of jeeps and snowcats to the nearby town of Meiringen, 15 miles east of Interlaken, to rescue the passengers overland, but the Swiss warned them none of those fancy vehicles could manage the Alpine terrain.

This was delicate terrain diplomatically as well. During the war, the Swiss Air Force had shot down both Allied and Axis planes flying in its airspace and relations with Switzerland were still frosty, to coin a phrase. The U.S. military was reluctant to leave the mission in Swiss hands, but Alpine rescue requires expertise the U.S. just didn’t have; so they kept their snowcats and jeeps in Meiringen while on Saturday morning at 4:15, the Swiss military sent 80 experienced mountaineers to the wreck site.

Fieseler Storch planes modified with skis for Dakota rescueIt took them 13 hours of hiking through massive snow banks to reach the crash survivors. When they finally got there, they realized there was no way this ragged and depleted group could manage the trek back to safety. The next day, the morning of Saturday, November 24th, the rescue team and survivors saw two lightweight Fieseler Storch airplanes with skis attached to them flying over the crash site.

The planes were an experiment. Their pilots, Captain Victor Hug and Major Pista Hitz, had practiced mountain landings and takeoffs before, but never on a snow-covered glacier. They decided now was the time to try, so they rigged runners to the undercarriage of their planes and took off. They were successful. They were successful nine times, in fact, taking seven hours to fly all the passengers and their baggage to safety in Meiringen.

General Tate met his son and wife at the airport. Captain Tate hugged him, while Mrs. Tate, still in shock, declared she had had “too many airplanes.” Little Alice McMahon, on the other hand, came out of the rescue plane chewing gum and declared, “I’m all right. I had a fine time.”

The next day snow fell and didn’t stop for three days. There is no way they would have survived until conditions allowed another rescue attempt. Most of the mountaineers in the rescue party made their way back on Sunday. Twenty of them spent the night in a cabin and finished the trip the next day.

This daring mission was the first Swiss air rescue but not the last. The Swiss Air Rescue Guard Rega runs helicopters these days, but it still traces its roots to the 1946 Dakota rescue which has achieved quasi-legendary status, especially in the Bernese Alps where it all went down.

Manuel Ruefener and Peter Fluehmann pose near the excavated propellerThis July, Canadian tourist Lucas Kocher was regaled with the crash story by the chef at his hostel. His two Bernese friends, Manuel Ruefener and Peter Fluehmann, had known about the Dakota since they were children, of course, and since the three of them planned to hike the glacier anyway, they determined to keep their eyes open for debris just in case.

They didn’t actually think they’d find anything. The summer after the rescue, the Swiss army recovered the engines from the airplane, and some visitors were able to collect scraps like the occasional blanket in years after. The bulk of the wreck, however, was lost under snow and ice. People searching with metal detectors have come up empty. The trio was solely equipped for hiking on July 27th when one of them spotted something sticking out of the ice that he thought was a log. Upon approach they realized it was the blade of a propeller. It was dented but in remarkably sound condition considering it crashed and then froze for nigh on seven decades. The gear still turned.

Experts recover the propeller from the glacierThey left the site alone but weren’t sure who to report it to. One of the mothers ended up telling a local television station, and the word got out from there. The exact location was kept under wraps to keep souvenir hunters away before mountain rescuers arrived to recover the remains. There was speculation that the prop might still have been attached to the body of the airplane, but when the rescuers removed the propeller from the ice on August 9th, they found it was on its own about two miles from the original wreck site. Between the crash, human interference, snow and the movement of the glacier over time, whatever is left of the Dakota has scattered.

The propeller has been transported to the Gauli cabin. No word yet on where it goes from there.

16 right hands found buried in Egyptian palace

A severed right hand, ca. 1600 B.C.A team of archaeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute and the Austrian Academy of Sciences have found the skeletal remains of 16 right hands buried under an ancient palace in Tell el-Daba, Egypt. The hands are about 3,600 years old and date to when Canaanite Hyksos rulers controlled parts of Egypt. Modern day Tell el-Daba was known then as Avaris, and, strategically positioned on the Nile Delta, it was the capital of Hyksos Egypt. At the time the hands were buried, the Hyksos King Khayan ruled from the palace at Avaris.

Two right handsTwo of the pits were discovered in the forecourt of the palace. They had 14 hands between them. Two more pits with one hand each were discovered under a four-columned building that appears to have been an extension added to serve a ceremonial or religious purpose. The hands were likely buried for ritual reasons, as offerings to the gods.

Pit with multiple right handsAll of the hands are large and would have once been attached to soldiers. We don’t know if those soldiers were Egyptian or from elsewhere in the Levant, but we do know they were spoils of war. It’s a handy (GET IT?!) way to tally your kills. Warriors would remove the right hand from enemy soldiers they had killed and then present them to the king or representative official in exchange for “gold of valor.” In this case, once the severed hands were redeemed for gold, they were ritually buried.

Cutting off the right hand of your enemy also had a symbolic and religious purpose: it removed a warrior’s strength, his means to wield a weapon, and left him defanged and crippled in the afterlife.

Biographical inscription on the tomb of the soldier AhmoseThis practice has been documented on tomb and temple reliefs, but this is the first time physical evidence of it has been discovered. Here’s a first person description of a warrior securing his gold of valor about 80 years after the hands were buried in Avaris. It’s a complete biography inscribed on the tomb of Ahmose, a soldier who fought under Pharaohs Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Thutmose I. Under Pharaoh Ahmose I, he fought against the Hyksos in the battle of Avaris and in the three-year siege of Sharuhen. Under later pharaohs, he fought against the Mitanni in Mesopotamia and rebellious Nubians in the Nile valley.

Then there was fighting on the water in “P’a-djedku” of Avaris. I made a seizure and carried off a hand. When it was reported to the royal herald the gold of valour was given to me. Then they fought again in this place; I again made a seizure there and carried off a hand. Then I was given the gold of valour once again. […]

Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His majesty despoiled it and I brought spoil from it: two women and a hand. Then the gold of valour was given me, and my captives were given to me as slaves. […]

Now when his majesty had slain the nomads of Asia, he sailed south to Khent-hen-nefer, to destroy the Nubian Bowmen. His majesty made a great slaughter among them, and I brought spoil from there: two living men and three hands. Then I was rewarded with gold once again, and two female slaves were given to me.

The practice continued undeterred for centuries. Four hundred years after the Avaris hands were buried, massive reliefs on the outer pylons of Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu depict officials emptying out baskets full of severed hands to tally the dead in the Libyan War and then presenting them to Rameses.

Hands of Libyan soldiers being counted at Medinet Habu

It’s not clear from the historical record where this practice originated. It could have been introduced by the Hyksos, or the Hyksos could have picked it up in Egypt, or it could have been adopted from a third party.

2000-year-old Roman shipwreck found in sea mud

Police divers recover intact amphora from Varazze Roman shipwreckA Roman merchant vessel that sank between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. has been found buried in the mud of the seafloor off the coast of Varazze, a town 18 miles from Genova in the northeastern Italian region of Liguria. The ship was full of cargo when it sank, and since it has been protected by layers of mud, archaeologists think it is virtually intact. An estimated 200 amphorae remain unbroken in the cargo hold, their pine caps sealed with pitch still in place.

Fishermen have been recovering broken pieces of amphora in the area since the 1930s, but the precise location of the wreck was unknown. In March of this year, Varazze fisherman Francesco Torrente caught a long-necked amphora in his net. He reported his discovery to the police who explored the area with sonar for the next five months, narrowing down the probable wreck site. Police divers and their cable-guided submersible vehicle Pluto explored the smaller area in careful detail and found the wreck itself.

The top deck is littered with the broken remains of clay vessels damaged by millennia of fishing nets dragging through them, but the sonar data indicates the hold is full of intact amphorae. Lt. Col. Francesco Schilardi, leader of the police divers, thinks foodstuffs like wine, olive oil, grains and garum, the ubiquitous Roman condiment made from bacteria-fermented fish intestines, might be recoverable from the sealed containers. It could prove to be a treasure trove of information about Roman food, commercial shipping and trade. The Ligurian coast was a stop on the busy trade route between Spain and central Italy.

Angelo Delfino, the mayor of Varazze, has sealed off the wreck site to prevent would-be looters from making off with souvenirs. No fishing or other water traffic is allowed. Should somebody be able to scrape together a dime or two, it is theoretically possible that the wreck could be excavated thoroughly and even raised. Given the general brokeness of the government, this is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Pluto and the divers have recovered an excellent, almost complete example of an early amphora from the shipwreck. The vessel will be desalinized and conserved. Archaeologists hope they’ll be able to find the amphora’s maker’s mark once they’ve removed the barnacles and concretions. Knowing who made the vessel and where will help pin down the ship’s dates and hopefully its movements.

Here’s Pluto on the wreck site grabbing amphorae with his pincer hand:


Black energy drink reached pre-Columbian St. Louis

Black drink ceremony among Florida's Timucuans, print from drawing by Jacques le Moyne ca. 1564Europeans who traveled among the Native American tribes of the coastal southeast in the 16th and 17th centuries reported seeing them drink a dark, hot, heavily caffeinated beverage known as black drink, then vomiting it up. Brewed from the roasted leaves and bark of the Yaupon holly bush, black drink was served in shell cups and imbibed in massive quantities during important rituals like community decision-making, preparation for war or religious ceremonies. The drink itself probably wasn’t an emetic — the vomiting was a necessary step in the purification ritual, but it could have been a deliberate choice, or at most helped along by the sheer amounts of black drink quaffed — but the Europeans called Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria because of its association with Native American heavy metal vomit parties.

The shell cups have been found from Maryland to Florida to Texas, as one would expect, and even in distant societies like the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia, now outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The cups themselves are not evidence that the black drink traveled outside the Yaupon growing range as early as 1000 years ago, however, as the cups could have been traded as objects in their own right. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proves that black drink did wind its way northwest hundreds of years before the New World was a twinkle in Spain’s eye.

Cahokia was an urban center with a population of 15,000 at its peak. Its downtown covered five square miles, and its defensive stockade was ingeniously designed to be taken down and rebuilt on a dime to reinforce areas under threat from an enemy. It was founded in 1050 A.D. and fell abruptly almost 300 years later. Archaeologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have excavated a number of colorful engraved ceramic vessels with a straight handle and a drinking lip from the Cahokia site. They found a black residue inside, but they could only confirm that the residue had traces of caffeine. Cacao also contains caffeine, but the residue didn’t match chocolate’s caffeine signature.

Cahokia ceramic vessels with black drink residue withinArchaeologists Thomas Emerson and Timothy Pauketat from Urbana-Champaign and Patricia L. Crown, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, enlisted the aid of W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Foods Technical Center in Pennsylvania. He’s the chocolate expert and biochemist who identified theobromine, the primary alkaloid of the cacao plant. Crown and Hurst analyzed the residue looking for theobromine and for ursolic acid, a compound found in the holly plants but not in chocolate. They found ursolic acid, thus proving that the Cahokians drank black drink as early as 1050 and no later than 1250 A.D.

Crown explains that because the bushes weren’t native to Cahokia but to the coastal region between eastern Texas and Florida, the leaves must have been brought to the inland city through trade routes connecting the two areas, which suggests the drink had huge cultural importance. Whether the Cahokians used black drink ritually isn’t known, but its appearance in fine-quality beakers suggests it was highly prized, if not sacred.

“We haven’t yet analyzed other types of pottery, so we can’t say that these beakers were for black drink exclusively,” Crown says. But the beakers were found at sites thought to be ritual gathering or burial places, and the distinctive handles, straight sides, and patterns are seen in pottery as far north as Wisconsin. If the beakers and black drink do go hand in hand, Crown and colleagues propose, it might signify wide-ranging Cahokian religious influence between the 11th and 13th centuries.

18th c. Hungarian mummies help TB research

A group of 265 mummies currently in the Hungarian Natural History Museum are being studied by medical researchers looking for new ways to combat tuberculosis. Tuberculosis killed 1.5 million people in 2010, and fully a third of the world population is infected but asymptomatic. The vaccine doesn’t work in many places where TB is endemic and antibiotics are increasingly powerless to combat the disease. It takes a six month regimen of antibiotics to battle tuberculosis; many people never complete the program. That only gives the bacterium more opportunities to become resistant to even the strongest and longest antibiotics. The group of well-preserved mummies from the 1700s and early 1800s, when tuberculosis was sweeping the continent as the White Plague, can provide invaluable information about the bacterium and our natural defenses against it.

Vác mummy in the Hungarian Natural History MuseumTwo hundred and sixty-five town residents — among them merchants, nuns, 30 priests, surgeons, craftsmen, and the postmaster’s wife and child — were interred in the crypt of the Church of the Whites in the northern Hungary town of Vác between 1731 and 1838. The cool air, low moisture and the bacteria- and fungi-killing pine oil from their wood coffins combined to create ideal natural mummification conditions, but nobody noticed because the vault had been bricked up and forgotten.

Coffins stacked in Church of the Whites vaultIn 1994, a worker investigating the source of some cracks in the church wall found a spot that sounded hollow when he tapped on it with a hammer. After a few more taps, the wall began to collapse and the builder realized it was only a single brick thick. He broke through and found a stone staircase leading into the inky darkness. He and the priest went down the stairs and found an enormous crypt packed to the ceiling with elaborately painted coffins stacked from largest to smallest.

Decorated coffin of a miner, tools of the trade painted on the sideThe priest, recognizing their rarity and significance — coffins don’t often survive above ground in pristine condition for hundreds of years — called in ethnographers to examine them. They looked inside the coffins and found the mummified remains and everything they were buried with. The crypt’s microclimate had preserved the clothing they were laid to rest in, from wool socks to bonnets to military uniforms, plus rosaries, ribbons and crowns of rosemary.

Johannes Orlovits, 10 months old when he died in 1801The mummies were transferred to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest where experts took X-rays of the mummies. They found evidence of tuberculosis on the bones. Dr. Ildiko Pap, director of anthropology at the Natural History Museum, contacted Professor Mark Spigelman, a surgeon who has pioneered the study of tuberculosis in archaeological remains, and told him he had almost 300 mummies to examine. Dr. Spigelman has done wonders discovering tuberculosis DNA preserved in the ancient tissues of the handful of mummies he’s had access to; having such a large group to study is a unique opportunity.

Veronica Orlovits, Johannes' motherTissue samples found evidence of tuberculosis infection in 89% of the mummies. Studying centuries-old TB might also give us an idea of how drug-resistant strains develop and how we can combat them in the short term. Only 35% of the Vác mummies appear to have died from the disease. Since there was no vaccine and no antibiotic treatment, the 65% who were not felled by the disease could prove to have had a genetic resistance, opening the door to a potential gene therapy for tuberculosis in the long term.