Green Viking, walk. Red Viking, stop.

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.

The one million dollar dime

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.”

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

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.

Rare Pictish symbol stone recycled as headstone

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.

Gleeful seed gets toad friend

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.