Archive for August, 2019

Tour “frozen in time” HMS Terror

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

Parks Canada has released the first film taken inside of the wreck of the HMS Terror. A remotely-operated vehicle explored the interior of the ship, recording high-definition video of the cabins and the astonishingly well-preserved artifacts still in place. 

Over seven days, under exceptional weather conditions, the interior spaces of the wreck of HMS Terror were scientifically and systematically explored for the first time. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team conducted seven ROV dives and explored 20 cabins/compartments on the ship, in search of uncovering a better understanding of the fate of the Franklin expedition. The team obtained clear images of over 90 per cent of the lower deck of the ship, which includes the living quarters of the crew.

Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team reports that HMS Terror has been well-preserved by the cold deep water of Terror Bay and layers of protective sediment. In fact, sedimentation provides the best conditions for preservation as it allows for an environment with less oxygen (anaerobic), which helps preserve organics, like paper.

In the officers’ cabins, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team discovered beds and desks in place, in addition to shelves with some items on them. Other findings include: shelves with plates and glass bottles (tumblers and stemware glasses) in what is believed to have been the officers’ mess pantry and rows of shelves with plates, bowls, and glasses – all intact – in the forward area where the accommodations for the common sailors would have been located.

The Captain’s cabin is the best preserved space of the entire lower deck. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team discovered that a significant amount of sediment has seeped through the stern gallery windows, covering a good portion of the artifacts and likely preserving what lies beneath. The Captain’s desk, map cabinets with drawers closed, boxes that most likely contain scientific instruments, a complete tripod (similar to a surveyor’s tripod) and a pair of thermometers were identified. The only space on the lower deck that remains inaccessible is the Captain’s sleeping quarters, behind the only closed door on this deck.  

The HMS Erebus was the flagship commanded by Sir John Franklin on his doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The Terror was commanded by Captain Francis Crozier. The ships were stranded in the ice off King William Island in September of 1846 and the crew abandoned both vessels. A note left by Francis Crozier in April of 1848 records that 105 of the original 129 member crew had left the ships. By the time he wrote the letter, 24 of the 105 were already dead, Sir John Franklin among them. Crozier stashed the letter in a stone cairn on King William Island and set off towards a river with the surviving crewmen.  Hypothermia, starvation and disease killed them all. What little we know of how the expedition met its horrific end has come down to us from the letter (discovered by the McClintock expedition in 1859), Inuit witnesses and the remains of three bodies buried on King William Island. 

Many dozens of expeditions and 168 years later, the wreck of the HMS Erebus was discovered in the Victoria Strait by the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) in 2014. The wreck of the HMS Terror was discovered in Terror Bay in September 2016. No artifacts have been recovered from the Terror yet, but several objects from the Erebus, most notably the ship’s bell, have been.

The exceptional condition of the contents of Terror make it probably that future dives might recover written documents like ship’s logs that will shed new light on the ill-fated expedition. The water temperature is consistently 0 degrees Celsius or lower, there is no light penetration and sediment has provided an extra layer of protection.

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Intact Roman funerary chamber found under house in Spain

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Renovation work on a private home in the Andalusian town of Carmona, 20 miles east of Seville, has revealed an intact Roman funerary chamber dating to between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. The family discovered a small archway when they knocked down a wall on their patio. The opening led to a columbarium, an underground chamber built to hold cinerary urns.

There are eight loculi (niches) in the wall, six of them containing urns. The urns are made of three different materials: two types of limestone and glass. The glass urns are encased inside protective lead containers.

Three of the urns have inscriptions on the surface, possibly the names of the deceased. The contents include ashes and bone fragments, but also personal accoutrements like unguentaria, small bottles used to hold oils, cosmetics and perfumes. Bowls, plates, glass and ceramic vessels that held funerary offerings were found in the loculi and on the floor.

The chamber itself is in exceptional condition. The vault and walls are painted with intersecting red lines.

Juan Manuel Romàn, an archaeologist employed by the council, emphasized “the outstanding importance of the discovery”.

“It’s been 35 years since a tomb was found in such a magnificent state of conservation,” he said adding that it didn’t appear to have suffered any deterioration over the centuries since it was sealed.

“There is barely two fingers worth of sedimentation,” he added.

The artifacts have been recovered and will be conserved for future display in the archaeological museum. The fate of the columbarium is undetermined at the moment.

José Avilés, 39, the owner of the house who is known by neighbours as Pepe told local media that he was astounded by the discovery. “We never imagined when we were building an extension to the house that we should find such a thing,” he said.

“It’s all happened very quickly but our intention is to keep the chamber open, preserve it and protect it and somehow incorporate into the house,” he said.

“But we’ll have to see what the archaeological teams say,” he added.

You can get a closer look at the chamber and entrance in this video.

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Largest Norman coin hoard found in Somerset

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

The largest hoard of coins from the immediate post-Norman Conquest period ever discovered has been unearthed in Somerset. It contains five times more coins bearing the head of William the Conqueror than the total number known to exist before the find. It is the largest Norman treasure of any kind found since 1833.

It was discovered by metal detectorists Adam Staples and Lisa Grace in an unploughed field on a farm in Chew Valley, Somerset, this January. They were showing friends how to use their new equipment when the detector alerted them to the presence of the first coin, a silver penny of William the Conqueror. Over the next five hours, the three of them dug up thousands more. They put them in a bucket, notified the local finds liaison officer as required by law and drove them straight to the British Museum.

Most of the coins are silver pennies of William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087) and the last Anglo-Saxon king of England Harold II (r. January 1066-October 14 1066). Harold’s reign was so short his coins are very rare. With more than a thousand of them found together in this hoard, it’s likely that there are coins in the mix that haven’t been seen before and even mint marks from previously unknown moneyers. There are also a half pennies (literally silver pennies cut in half) and a few coins bearing the portrait of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042- January 1066) that were part of a tax evasion scheme.

Gareth Williams, the [British M]useum’s curator of early medieval coinage, said the hoard of 2,528 coins was unusually large and “massively important” in shining light on the history of the period.

“One of the big debates amongst historians is the extent to which there was continuity or change, both in the years immediately after the conquest and across a longer period,” he said. “The coins help us understand how changes under Norman rule impacted on society as a whole.”

Three of the coins have been identified as “mules”, a combination of two types of coin – essentially an early form of tax-dodging by the moneyer, the person who made them.

These coins have designs and language that relate to both Harold and William, and would have been easy to pass off as legal tender as the average Anglo-Saxon was illiterate and the stylised images of the kings looked similar.

The hoard must have been buried before 1072, and probably just two or three years after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The value of the coins at that time would have been enough to buy 500 sheep, so a considerable amount of wealth. During those turbulent times, hiding portable wealth in a hole in the ground was the safe choice.

The coins are currently being assessed and catalogued by experts at the British Museum. A coroner’s inquest will be held to determine if the hoard qualifies as treasure under the terms of the Treasure Act of 1996. (It does, no question.) A treasure valuation committee will then determine fair market value for the coins. Museums will be given the opportunity to raise the amount of the assessed value which will be shared 50/50 by the finders and the landowner.

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Six sacrificed noble children found in Peru

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of another six sacrificed children in the ancient city of Huanchaco on the northern coast of Peru. They had cut marks on the thorax from when their hearts were moved, and were placed in graves facing the ocean. Some of the skeletons still have remnants of skin and hair.

The graves were unearthed in the town’s Pampa la Cruz neighborhood where 56 skeletons were found in June of last year, but unlike previous finds, these children were interred with precious artifacts, gold and silver jewelry and feather and textile headdresses. These are markers of rank, an indication that the children came from wealthy noble and/or priestly families.

“This is the biggest site where the remains of sacrificed children have been found,” chief archeologist Feren Castillo told AFP on Tuesday.

Castillo said the children, who were aged between four and 14, were sacrificed in a ritual to honor the Chimu culture’s gods.

“They were sacrificed to appease the El Nino phenomenon,” and show signs of being killed during wet weather, he said.

He added that there may still be more to be found.

“It’s uncontrollable, this thing with the children. Wherever you dig, there’s another one,” Castillo said.

Today Huanchaco is a popular beach destination outside the colonial city of Trujillo. It has been inhabited by a chronology of Peruvian cultures since the Salinar first fished there between 400 and 200 B.C. The Chimú culture ruled the area from the mid-9th century until they were conquered by the Inca in 1470. At the time of the mass sacrifices — 1200 to 1400 A.D. — Huanchaco was the main port of the Chimú capital Chan Chan. 

The latest finds bring the total tally of sacrificed children discovered at the site up to 227. The skeletal remains of more than 50 adult men, likely warriors, have also been found, but they range in date from the 8th century through the 15th, so were not part of the single large sacrifice event that claimed the lives of the children and more than 200 camelids, believed to be llamas.

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Prehistoric standing stones found in Auvergne

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Preventative excavation in advance of highway construction near Veyre-Monton in Auvergne, central France, has unearthed dozens of prehistoric menhirs and a burial cairn containing a human skeleton. The findings could range anywhere from 6,000 B.C. (the Neolithic period) to 1,000 B.C. (the Bronze Age). It is the first time a standing stone complex has been discovered in Auvergne or in central France, for that matter.

There are 30 monoliths one to 1.6 meters high (ca. 3’3″-5’3″) arranged in an approximately rectilinear alignment over 500 feet.  The largest of them are clustered at the top of a slope in north of the site; the smaller ones are set closer to each other at the bottom of the slope. The curated layout along a north-south axis would have made the stones highly visible in the prehistoric landscape. The rectilinear menhirs are aligned with another group of five stone blocks forming an arc or horseshoe shape, and six regularly spaced stones formed into a circle 50 feet in diameter.

All of the monoliths were deliberately toppled, pushed over into pits. Some of them were damaged. Some were covered with earth. This appears to have been an established practice as it has been found at other monolithic monument sites. It’s possible the removal of the standing stones represented a shift in cultural beliefs.

One of the menhirs in the main alignment is unique among its fellows. It is a limestone rock (the others are basalt) and it has been carved. The carvings suggest an anthropomorphic female shape: rounded shoulders on the top, two round protuberances like two very small, close-together breasts. The shapes a were created by carving away at the entire surface of the limestone. Twenty inches below the “breasts” are highly eroded engraved lines forming a chevron that could have referred to arms placed on the belly.  This kind of statue-menhir hybrid is very rare in France, and the newly discovered one is the only one ever discovered in Auvergne.

Like the standing stones, the cairn was deliberately flattened to remove it from its prominent place on the landscape. The vertical stones were pushed down into a large pit next to it. It is 46 feet long and 21 feet wide, a rectangle built around a central grave. It contained the skeletal remains of a tall man. His body had been interred in a wood coffin, now decayed, and surrounded with stone blocks. Their size indicates they may have been reused menhirs, perhaps even deliberately broken for reuse in the cairn. It total, 30 tons of stone were transported to this location to build the cairn.

The Veyre-Monton site is a challenging one to date because there were no artifacts found to help identify the period of occupation. The complexity of the construction, including the transport of stones from several different locations, and subsequent destruction indicates a long-term occupation by successive communities, but if they left anything behind other than the stones and burial, it has yet to be discovered. Archaeologists will attempt to determine the dates of occupation using radiocarbon dating of the skeletal remains and of the few traces of organic matter found in the dig.

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Green Viking, walk. Red Viking, stop.

Monday, August 26th, 2019

As of Monday, August 26th, 17 of the traffic lights in Aarhus, Denmark, are using red and green Vikings to signal to pedestrians when it’s safe to cross the street.

The second-largest city in Denmark today, the fortified settlement of Aros was founded by Vikings in the 8th century. It was located at the mouth of the Aarhus river, a natural harbour of a fjord on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula and by the 10th century, it was a major center of trade, the seat of bishopric and defended by a powerful earth rampart that encircled the city.

There are a couple of Danish cities that may have older pedigrees than Aarhus’, but Ribe and Hedeby (founded in the early 8th century) and other early Viking-settled towns can no longer boast their original layouts. The historic center of Aarhus today maps onto the medieval settlement. The structures have changed and ground level may have risen, but many of the streets in central Aarhus are exactly where they were in the 10th century. (Click on the arrows and drag left and right to compare the 10th century map to the center of modern Aarhus.) The 17 traffic lights encircle the Viking center.

“Many people do not know about Aarhus’ special importance for the Viking period, and I want to change that. We want to tell the forgotten stories and rebrand Aarhus as the Viking city we are,” Aarhus Technology and Environment Councilor Bünyamin Simsek] said.

“On a modest budget, we can change selected pedestrian crossings and create value for both tourists and Aarhusianers,” he continued.

It is a cheap and cheerful way to mark a Viking Aarhus walking route. Each light costs 1,000 Danish kroner, less than 150 dollars, and they are just ridiculously charming. The old-school stick figures stand no more of a chance against the brutally cute invaders than the monks of Lindisfarne did.

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The one million dollar dime

Sunday, August 25th, 2019

An extremely rare 1894 dime has sold at auction for more than a million dollars. It was bought at the Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night Auction held by the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Chicago on  Thursday, August 16th, by Salt Lake City businessman and avid collector Dell Loy Hansen for a cool $1.32 million.

The dime was designed by Charles E. Barber, 6th Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint (1879-1917), whose stolid, practical, low relief designs — Liberty head in profile on the obverse, eagle and/or wreath on the reverse — held up so well to wear and tear that his coins continued to circulate well into the 1950s. The conservative look and longevity of the coins didn’t endear them to collectors initially, but the scarcity of the 1894-S dime put it in a class of its own among the Barber Coinage.

It’s a proof coin, one of only 24 1894-S dimes struck at the San Francisco Mint. It’s unknown why the San Francisco Mint only struck 24 of these dimes. Today only nine of those 24 are known to exist, and of those nine, two are heavily worn impaired proofs. The dime sold last week is graded PR-63 by the Professional Coin Grading Service, defined as an “average or slightly weak strike with moderate marks or hairlines.”

This acquisition fills a challenging gap for any collector of Barber Coinage and US Mint coinage in general. Hansen’s ambitious goal is to amass the first complete private collection of U.S. coins from 1792 to the present. This is known as the “Eliasberg Quest” after Louis E. Eliasberg, the only collector ever to reach this lofty goal.

Mr. Hansen, a Utah businessman and partner of [David Lawrence Rare Coins], has been an active collector since childhood, but has only rekindled his passion over the last three years. In that small time span, he has acquired what is widely considered to be the Greatest All-Time Collection of U.S. Coins. He commented, “This was an opportunity to buy yet another famous rarity for the growing collection. As the final piece of the Barber Coinage puzzle, we have now completed the collection of Proof and Circulation Strike sets of Barber Dimes, Quarters, and Halves. I never imagined that this incredible hobby would bring such excitement and joy, but I’m truly ecstatic to be able to be the caretaker of this famous piece of American History and to add it to the collection.”

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14,000-year-old Siberian puppy makes RNA breakthrough

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

The body of a canid puppy preserved for 14,000 years in the Siberian permafrost has helped scientists make a crucial breakthrough in archaeological RNA analysis. In the right conditions, DNA can be extracted from archaeological remains thousands of years old, but the widely accepted hypothesis was that RNA degrades relatively quickly due to enzymatic action in plants and animals, especially in mammalian soft tissues.  Recent studies have been able to reveal RNA genomes in archaeological material, almost all of the specimens from plant seed endosperm which is uniquely suited to long-term preservation. A new study sought to sequence RNA in historic and archaeological tissue specimens that, through rapid desiccation or freezing, had been exceptionally well-preserved.

The team took five samples from three canids: one sample each from two historical wolves (19th and 20th century) from Greenland, and tissue from the liver, cartilage and muscle of a “wolf” puppy discovered in Tumat, Siberia, in 2015. The pup was found in the thawing permafrost and many of its soft tissues had survived the 14,000 years in excellent condition. It was identified as a juvenile canid, but it’s not clear whether it was a wolf pup or a domesticated wolf-dog hybrid.

The DNA of the samples had already been sequenced, which gave researchers the means to verify the authenticity of any RNA results. Not surprisingly, there was much more RNA in the two historical samples, but the team was able to sequence the RNA from the Tumat canid’s liver tissue. This is the oldest directly sequenced RNA by at least 13,000 years.

“Ancient DNA researchers have previously been reluctant to attempt to sequence ancient RNA because it is generally more unstable than DNA, and more prone to enzymatic degradation,” [University of Copenhagen’s Dr. Oliver] Smith said.

“However, following our recent successes in sequencing ancient RNA from plant material, we speculated that a well-preserved animal specimen, frozen in the permafrost, just might retain enough material to sequence.”

“To our delight, we found that not only did we find RNA from various tissues, but in some case the signal was so strong that we could distinguish between tissues in a way that makes biological sense.”

“Knowing that RNA acts as an intermediary between DNA and proteins, both of which are more stable, it might be tempting to ask, ‘so what?’ But we think the future of ancient RNA has great potential. For example, many of the most clinically relevant viruses around today have RNA genomes, and the RNA stage is often crucial to understanding the intricacies and complexities of gene regulation. This might have repercussions when discussing the environmental stresses and strains that drive evolution.”

The results of the study have been published in the open access journal PLoS Biology.

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Rare Pictish symbol stone recycled as headstone

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Pictish symbol stone that was reused as a headstone in the 18th century. It was found during a survey of an early Christian church site near Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. It had been identified as a likely cross slab dating to the late 8th century. An inscription squeezed in on the top left of the front face reads: “Hugh McAulay Alexander McAulay January 2 1796.”

Cross slabs are named for a design element — an intricately carved cross — found on at least one side. There are around 350 recorded and documented Pictish symbol stones. There are only around 50 carved Pictish cross slabs known. There is no cross on the front of the newly discovered stone (which technically makes it the back, or reverse of the stone; the cross side is the obverse). When the back of the slab is cleaned and if the carvings are sufficiently extant, experts will be able to confirm whether this is a cross slab.

Only about half of the height of the stone survives. Archaeologists think it was originally over six feet tall; there’s just over a meter (3.2 feet) left, likely from the top part. There are carvings on both sides — archaeologists saw as much when the stone was lifted, but the coating of soil obscured the imagery.

John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: “The discovery of the top half of a large cross slab with Pictish symbols is of national importance.

“The find spot – an early Christian site in Easter Ross – is a new location for such sculpture so adds significant information to our knowledge of the Pictish church and its distribution,

“This new discovery will continue to stimulate debate and new research.”

Recycled Pictish stones have been found before. They were reused as boundary stones and lintels, in portals and as headstones. This one has some characteristic Pictish abstract designs including the Z-rod and Double Disc, but it has Celtic interlace motifs as well. This is typical of later symbol stones which syncretized the decorative traditions and included carved pictorial references to Biblical characters, see the Nigg Church Pictish cross-slab, for example.

The stone was raised on Thursday and will be cleaned and conserved. Eventually it will be exhibited in a museum, ideally in the Highlands.

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Gleeful seed gets toad friend

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

The 3,800-year-old relief with the emoticon-like seed discovered last year at the ancient site of Vichama in Peru has a new-found friend: a toad with anthropomorphic hands on each side of a disembodied head. This tableau is on a small wall in front of the larger frieze, but they share a common theme. The large frieze on the nine-foot wall behind this ones featured four disembodied human heads with two serpents winding above them that meet over the anthropomorphic seed putting down roots and looking really happy about it. 

Snakes and toads both represented water in the Norte Chico civilization which occupied Vichama about 1800 B.C., a period afflicted by a succession of droughts that ultimately lead to the abandonment of Caral, Norte Chico culture’s captial and its largest and oldest city. Vichama, thanks to its proximity to the ocean and the freshwater Huara River, outlasted it by centuries.  The city was abandoned around 1500 B.C.

Dr Ruth Shady Solís, director of the Caral Archaeological Zone (ZAC), believes the scene represents the “arrival of water” through rainfall.

She says that in Andean civilisation, toads represented water and says the face below it represents humans waiting for rainfall to give continuity of life. […]

Researchers said the sculptures would probably have been produced in a period of scarcity and famine.

Tatiana Abad, another archaeologist at the site, said at a news conference on Monday the carving represented a time of “crisis” for the people living there.

There are some differences between the figures on the background and foreground relief. The toad on the newly-discovered wall has PacMan-like pupils that look due east. The human face has the east side eye open and the west side one closed. (The heads on the long frieze all have closed eyes.) That persistent unidirectional strabismus may be a reference to the Andes which like to the east of Vichama and are the source of fresh water for the coast.

The friezes were found in the anteroom of a large ceremonial hall that was almost 10,000 square feet in total area. That structure overlooked the agricultural fields of the Huaura River valley. The building was used for centuries and was constantly being remodeled, repaired and redesigned. Several important sculptural friezes have been found since excavations began in 2007. The motif of famine is addressed in many of them even more directly, depicting anthropomorphic characters with empty stomachs, some dead, other engaged in a ritual dance. Archaeologists have also discovered 22 architectural complexes including public buildings, plazas — one circular sunken one — and residential dwellings.

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