Archive for August, 2020

Malignant cancer found in dinosaur bone

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Researchers have discovered an osteaosarcoma on the lower leg of a Centrosaurus, the first time a malignant cancer has been discovered in dinosaurs.

The fossilized fibula of a Centrosaurus apertus, a horned dinosaur that lived about 76 million years ago, was discovered in a large bonebed replete with Centrosaurus fossils in Alberta, Canada in 1989. The fibula appeared to be malformed, perhaps the result of fracture that healed poorly. It was stored in the Royal Tyrrell Museum with other pathological dinosaur bones.

The fibula was rediscovered by Royal Ontario Museum paleontologist David Evans and McMaster University pathology specialist Mark Crowther who were looking for evidence of malignant bone cancer in dinosaurs. Tumors have been found in dinosaur bones before, but not malignancies. Evans and Crowther recognized that the malformation in the fibula was not in fact a break. Together with their multidisciplinary team of pathologists, radiologists, orthopaedic surgeons and palaeopathologists, they determined it was bone cancer.

“Diagnosis of aggressive cancer like this in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify,” says Crowther. Using a normal fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, as well as the fibula of a human with a confirmed case of osteosarcoma, the researchers were able to confirm the diagnosis. The extensive invasion of the cancer throughout the bone suggests that it persisted for a considerable time period of the animal’s life and may have spread to other parts of the dinosaur’s body prior to death.

“Diagnosis of aggressive cancer like this in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify,” says Crowther. Using a normal fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, as well as the fibula of a human with a confirmed case of osteosarcoma, the researchers were able to confirm the diagnosis. The extensive invasion of the cancer throughout the bone suggests that it persisted for a considerable time period of the animal’s life and may have spread to other parts of the dinosaur’s body prior to death.

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Yarm Helmet is only Viking helmet found in Britain

Saturday, August 8th, 2020

An iron helmet that was discovered in Yarm, North Yorkshire, during sewer work in the 1950s has been confirmed to be an extremely rare Viking-era helmet, only the second nearly complete Viking helmet in the world and the first and only one found in Britain.

It was referred to as the Viking helmet from the beginning, but its real age has been an open discussion since its find. It has design elements found in earlier forms from the Anglo-Saxon and Vendel era, and because the only other helmet in the world confirmed to date to the Viking era, the Gjermundbu Helmet found in Haugsbygd, Norway, in 1943, was not a direct comparison, it was difficult to conclusively identify the Yarm Helmet as an Anglo-Scandinavian piece. A new study by Durham University researchers has used recent archaeological finds and analysis of the iron and corrosion products to narrow down its age of manufacture. It is indeed an Anglo-Scandinavian helmet made in northern England in the 10th century.

With all the traveling and combat during the Viking era from Lindisfarne (793 A.D.) to the last raids by Magnus Barefoot in 1103, you’d think the archaeological record would be replete with Viking helmets, or at least that there would be a few out there. Instead, the early medieval helmets that have been found pre-date the Viking era. They are highly decorative ceremonial pieces discovered in graves. By the 10th century, most Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Scandinavians were Christian, ergo no more grave goods, ergo extremely rare survivals of helmets. The Gjermundbu Helmet was part of an elaborate funerary furnishing complete with chain mail shirt and weapons, but the Yarm Helmet seems to have been hidden in the watery bank of the River Tees rather than being a burial good.

[University of Durham researcher] Dr Caple commented: “We were initially alerted to the object by our colleagues at Preston Park Museum. It was a challenging project, as the thin iron sheet is now very susceptible to corrosion (it has to be kept in very dry conditions), so it was not simply a question of only showing the date at which it was created, but working out how it had survived until it was unearthed in the 1950s. Our analysis showed that it was initially preserved in waterlogged conditions, only later becoming damaged and starting to corrode. Fortunately it was discovered before it corroded away completely

“Although there are half a dozen early medieval helmets from Britain, the Sutton Hoo and Coppergate helmets being the most famous, this is the first Anglo-Scandinavian (Viking) helmet from Britain.

“Whilst the Saxon helmets were often highly decorated and were worn by warrior leaders, as much symbols of authority as helmets, by the 10th century we can now envisage that most professional warriors had helmets like the Yarm Helmet. They were simply manufactured, well designed to protect the wearer (rivets flush with the surface so they did not catch bladed weapons) but no longer decorated. Together with a mail hauberk (shirt of chain mail), a helmet was essential personal protective equipment for a warrior. We see almost all the combatants in the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry wearing helmets and hauberks.”

The helmet predates the founding of the village of Yarm. It was discovered on the east bank of a loop in the River Tees, which may have been a quayside before the town was established. It is made of simple thin iron plates riveted together with iron bands. At the top of the lateral band is a decorative knop. Attached to the brow band is an iron semicircle divided into two by an iron nose band to form a spectacle mask. A mail curtain was likely attached by holes in the brow band. There are hammer marks visible on the surface and the infill iron plates are ragged at the edges. This was a plain, workmanlike piece intended for hard use, not display or ceremony.

The Yarm Helmet is on display at the Preston Park Museum in Stockton. The results of the study have been reported in the journal Medieval Archaeology.

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Gold pelican’s wing found in shipwreck

Friday, August 7th, 2020

A gold wing from a pelican figurine has been recovered from the Douglass Beach Wreck off Vero Beach, Florida. The little right wing was found resting comfortably in a bed of crushed shell and is in excellent condition, completely with three sections of chain on a ring.

The wing is part of a gold statuette that was discovered in 2010 from the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, one of 12 ships in the Spanish treasure fleet that were lost in a hurricane in 1715. Diver Bonnie Schubert found the gold pelican using an underwater metal detector.

Made of 22 karat gold, the figurine is 5 1/2 inches tall and weighs 177 grams. The head and shoulders of the bird are connected to the tail and legs by hinges. Archaeologists believe it was a reliquary, because there’s a cavity between the top and bottom halves that would have held something like the relics of a saint, or  perhaps incense or a jewel. It would have been hung from its chains in a chapel, not been worn like jewelry. (The chain attached to the wing wasn’t a hanging mount; it connected the two wings of the statuette to the bird.)

At first it was thought to be an eagle, but scholars identified it as a pelican in piety. The pelican in piety was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, a popular motif based on the accounts of medieval bestiaries that pelicans draw their own blood to feed or revive their young. Here’s a version of the tale from Guillaume le Clerc’s Bestiaire written ca. 1210:

There is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their fathers face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young.

Pelicans do not do any of this in real life, needless to say. This bestiary, like others of the epoch, wasn’t an attempt at recording natural history like Pliny, say, that missed the scientific mark a little, but rather a compendium of moral and theological lessons conveyed by animal stories, a sort of Christian Aesop.

Bonnie Schubert and her sole crewman, her 87-year-old mother Jo, searched for the missing right wing for two months at the find site and in different locations over the next two years, but were unsuccessful. A decade later, Capt. Henry Jones and crew member Tracy Newman followed in the Schuberts’ footsteps, exploring the waters off Douglass Beach on South Hutchinson Island near where the pelican had been discovered.

“Captain Jones and I were diving when his metal detector got a ‘ping. He brushed away some crushed shell, and the tip of the wing popped up. It was pretty and shiny and gold. He pulled the wing out of the sand, and things seemed kind of surreal. I was thinking, ‘This can’t be real,’ but at the same time I knew exactly what it was.”

Even more surreal, Newman had joked about finding the wing that morning.

“People have been looking for that wing since the bird was found 10 years ago,” Newman said. “We’ve looked for it numerous time. We had a huge map spread out on the floor of the condo trying to figure out where to go that day. I told Henry, ‘Let’s go find the bird wing.’ “

The gold pelican was sold to an anonymous private collector for $150,000 by 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels LLC which owns the salvage rights to treasure fleet wrecks. The collector is ecstatic about the discovery of the missing wing and hopes to have the opportunity to acquire it. The state of Florida gets a percentage of the salvage and first dibs, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that the wing and pelican will be reunited. If they are, the collector is reluctant to reattach the wing as the parts are so delicate. Displaying them together would be enough for him.

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Mini llama offering found in Lake Titicaca

Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Lake Titicaca was sacred to the Inca. They believed Inti, god of the son, was born on the Isla del Sol in the southern part of the lake and that Manco Cápac, the Inca primordial ancestor, emerged from a sandstone cliff on the island. In the 15th and 16th centuries as the Inca expanded their empire, they transformed the Island of the Sun into a major ceremonial complex; the remains of more than 80 temples, shrines and other religious structures from this period have been discovered on the island. Lake Titicaca became one of the most important pilgrimage site in the Inca Empire.

Even before the Inca the lake had ritual significance to the Tiwanaku Culture (800-1000 A.D.) who made underwater offerings off the Khoa reef, northwest of the Island of the Sun. The Inca followed in their footsteps, and numerous ritually submerged artifacts have been found both from the pre-Inca and Inca era. Since 2012, the Université libre de Bruxelles has undertaken an ambitious research program to thoroughly document the sacred offerings on and around the Khoa reef and K’akaya reef to its north.

One of the objects found on the K’akaya reef is a large rectangular stone box. It was resting on the lake bed, not buried in the sediment but a thin layer of concretion at its base indicates it has not moved at all since it was deposited hundreds of years ago. The box was carved out of a single block of andesite. It was perforated in the middle of both short sides and a cavity in the center was capped with a thick andesite plug. The seal is tight, but not watertight, and inside the cavity archaeologists found compacted sediment and some small fish bones. When the intruders were removed, inside were a small figurine of a llama or alpaca and a gold sheet curled into a cylinder. The camelid figurine was made of Spondylus shell and is a stripey pinkish orange on one side, white on the other. The gold sheet is pierced in two places. Spondylus shell was just as much of a luxury good as gold, its closest source being the coast of Ecuador

This is likely an Inca-era offering. Twenty-eight  stone offering boxes have been found on the Khoa reef, but only four had surviving contents.  Those four contained camelid figurines made of gold, silver and shell. The K’akaya box is made of the same andesite stone as the Khoa boxes and the cut and polish techniques are the same, but the newly-discovered is unique in shape. The Khoa boxes are usually cube shaped and have square caps. Some are cylindrical. None are rectangular with a circular plug.

The artifacts reside with the Bolivian municipality of Escoma, which has jurisdiction over the area in which they were found.

“One of the goals of our underwater archaeological survey was to identify the existence of similar sites and to our surprise we found at least one,” said [Université libre de Bruxelles junior research fellow Christophe] Delaere. “It presents not only one of the rare intact discoveries of an Inca underwater offering, but also that it was found at another place in the lake, which has an important implication for understanding the relationship between the expanding Inca empire, the local communities who lived in the lake, and Lake Titicaca itself prior to European contact.

“The inland underwater world remains largely unexplored and offers outstanding opportunities to understand prehistoric societies,” said Delaere. “The underwater heritage of Lake Titicaca still has many surprises to reveal.”

The study has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.

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Met’s iconic unicorn tapestry explored

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

One the greatest and probably the most famous treasure on display at The Met Cloisters is a series of seven tapestries that depict the mystical hunt of the unicorn.  Their early history is unknown and there are enough differences in style, size and composition suggest they made not have been woven as a single set. They were designed in France and woven in the southern Netherlands of wool, silk, silver and gold threads around 1500. The dense florals, rich colors, detailed figures of people and animals have made the Unicorn Tapestries iconic examples of late medieval art.

On each corner of the tapestries and in the center tied to the fountain and foliage with betassled rope are a cipher — A and a backwards E — which are likely a reference to the original owners. The series doesn’t appear on the historical record until 1680 when it was in the Paris mansion of François VI de La Rochefoucauld, the aristocratic writer of maxims. Historians believe the cipher points to the tapestries having been made for Anne of Brittany on the occasion of her wedding to King Louis XII in 1499, her second turn as queen consort of France. The series was acquired from the Counts de La Rochefoucauld by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1923. He loaned it to the Met for exhibitions before donating it to the museum in 1937.

The Met is still closed and will remain so at least until the end of the month. As part of its Insider Insights webseries, the museum has released an in-depth exploration of the Unicorn Tapestries focusing on one piece in particular: The Unicorn Purifies Water, described as “the most lyrical” of the set.

In this tapestry, 12 hunters and their dogs surround a unicorn on his knees, dipping his horn into a stream of water at the base of a fountain. The foreground and brush are inhabited by a diverse bestiary — a pair of goldfinches and pheasants on the fountain, a pair of lions in the bottom left foreground, a spotted hyena in front of them. The would-be hunters do not approach their quarry here. According to lore, a unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. In this case, purifying a poisoned stream, its contamination indicated by the presence of plants used to counter poison in the medieval pharmacopia, and because “unicorn horn” (ie, rhinoceros or narwhal horn) was considered a universal antidote.

The Cloisters research assistant Amelia Roche’ Hyde ties the visual iconography of the tapestry to its historical context and explains the dense layers of symbolism woven in with the gold and silver threads.

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Tiny avian dinosaur is actually medium lizard

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

The paper that identified the skull of an animal preserved in amber as a new species of avian dinosaur has been retracted. Trapped in amber 99 million years ago, the skull definitely looks like a bird’s with dozens of small teeth, but newly released data points to it being a 99-million-year old lizard instead of the smallest dinosaur.

The new data “do definitively say that we were wrong”, says Jingmai O’Connor, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, who co-led the now-retracted study. But, she contends, the specimen cannot be reclassified until the other fossil data are published.

Andrea Cau, a vertebrate palaeontologist in Parma, Italy, was among the scientists who were sceptical of the original classification. The fossil has several characteristics typical of lizards that have never before been seen in a bird-like fossil from that era, Cau says. And because so many of the specimen’s features are lizard-like — about ten, by his estimate — “the idea that it was  instead a lizard could not be excluded”. Cau is not surprised by the retraction, and notes that reclassifications, especially of incomplete fossil specimens from unknown groups, are not uncommon in the field.

Although the fossil is no longer thought to be the smallest-known dinosaur, O’Connor and Cau both say that it is still compelling because of its unusual combination of features. “The specimen is still very interesting to science,” O’Connor says.

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200 arrows from 14th c. battle found in Polish forest

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown medieval battlefield on a forested mountain near Sanok, southeastern Poland. The team unearthed more than 200 arrowheads and crossbow bolts from the mid-1300s, the reign of Casimir the Great of Poland.

The site is on Biała Góra, a peak of the Słonne Mountains. It came to archaeologists’ attention from reports of widespread looting taking place there. It was known to have had a fortified settlement in the late Middle Ages, but it was believed to have been built by the redoubtable Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland and wife of Sigismund I the Old, in the 16th century. The last time the site was archaeologically investigated was 50 years ago and none of the documentation from that survey is extant today. Treasure hunters flocking to the site with metal detectors suggested there was something to be found there and spurred new archaeological fieldwork.

The evidence of extensive looting dotted the hillside — numerous pits on the surface and iron objects of little interest to treasure hunters left behind. The great quantity of arrowheads and bolts were an unexpected discovery because they date to the mid-14th century and there is no specific record of a battle taking place there at that time. There sure was a lot of fighting going on in the area, however.

After Bolesław-Jerzy II, Piast dynasty ruler of the Ruthenian principality of Galicia, was poisoned to death by local nobles in 1340, Casimir III the Great of Poland inherited the kingdom. This was not an undisputed succession, to put it mildly, and Ruthenian noblemen, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland went to war to pursue their claims to the principality. Ultimately Casimir came out on top, and in 1344 he annexed Galicia, adding 20,000 square miles and 200,000 people to the Kingdom of Poland.

Chroniclers record that Casimir’s army took a number of castles when they invaded in 1340. The hillfort on Biała Góra may have been one of them. If so, its defensive response was weak as very few artillery projectiles were found with the arrowheads and bolts. The fortress was small, encircled by a single earthenware embankment and a dry moat. The highest concentration of bolts and arrows were found within the stronghold and right next to it. The attack came from the south and the remains of the embankment bear evidence of having been burned, so it seems the fort took heavy fire and was unable to dish any out.

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Exact spot of Van Gogh’s last painting found

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

The exact location of Vincent van Gogh’s last painting has been identified thanks to a vintage postcard. On July 27th, 1890, hours before he took the shot to the chest that would kill him two days later, van Gogh painted Tree Roots. He never finished it. His brother Theo’s brother-in-law described it in a letter: “The morning before his death, [Vincent] had painted a sous-bois [forest scene], full of sun and life.”

The spot was identified by Wouter van der Veen, the scientific director of the Institut van Gogh, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of van Gogh’s room at the  Auberge Ravoux and the landscapes around Auvers-sur-Oise that inspired his last works. The clue that solved the puzzle was a postcard. Titled “Auvers-sur-Oise — Rue Daubigny,” the card features a man walking his bike past a hillside with trees and exposed roots. It was printed from 1900 to 1910, so the photograph was taken at most 10 years after van Gogh’s death.

Van der Veen contacted experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam who together with a historical vegetation specialist (extremely cool job) did a comparative study of Tree Roots, the postcard and the hillside as it looks today. They agreed with Van der Veen’s conclusions that this was indeed the site of van Gogh’s last painting.

Wouter van der Veen[…]:

‘Every element of this mysterious painting can be explained by observation of the post card and the location: the shape of the hillside, the roots, their relation to each other, the composition of the earth and the presence of a steep limestone face. The site is also consistent with Van Gogh’s habit of painting motifs from his immediate surroundings. The sunlight painted by Van Gogh indicates that the last brush strokes were painted towards the end of the afternoon, which provides more information about the course of this dramatic day ending in his suicide.’

Teio Meedendorp (senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum):

‘In our opinion, the location identified by Van der Veen is highly likely to be the correct one and it is a remarkable discovery. On closer observation, the overgrowth on the post card shows very clear similarities to the shape of the roots on Van Gogh’s painting. That this is his last artwork renders it all the more exceptional, and even dramatic. This area had already been documented by Van Gogh in other paintings. He must often have passed by the location when going to the fields stretching out behind the castle of Auvers, where he painted several times during the last week of his life and where he would take his own life.’

Wouter van der Veen was finally able to scout the site in person some months after his discovery when lockdown ended in France in May. The spot is 500 feet or so from the Auberge Ravoux, easy walking distance for the artist carrying his equipment. The largest tree is still recognizable from the painting.

A wooden barrier has been erected to protect the site. On July 28th, 130 years to the day (minus one) since Vincent’s death, a plaque was installed in Auvers-sur-Oise to commemorate the location where he painted his last masterpiece. Willem van Gogh, Vincent’s great-grandnephew, was in attendance.

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California man indicted for Roman mosaic looted from Syria

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

Four years after a massive mosaic looted from warn-torn Syria was first confiscated, its trafficker has been indicted in federal court. It’s not much of a charge for so bold a crime; just one count of entry of goods falsely classified, which he has admitted doing already.

The mosaic is 18 feet long, eight feet high and weighs one ton.  It depicts Hercules, the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left arm, his club on the ground next to him, on his 11th Labour, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. In this scene he is shooting an arrow at the eagle coming to feast upon Prometheus’ endlessly regenerating liver. It is believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. and the style is consistent with mosaics found in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey.

The FBI seized the mosaic in 2016 in the home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in Palmdale, California, as part of an investigation into looted antiquities. He had imported it through Long Beach in 2015 along with two other mosaics and 81 vases. The paperwork declared the mosaics to be “ceramic tiles” and the entire shipment, mosaics and modern vases, to have been been acquired in Define-Hatay, Turkey, and to be worth a total of $2,199. The raid on his house turned up another ginned up document which even more ridiculously claimed he had bought the mosaic rolled up like a carpet in a 2009 yard sale from a family who had owned it since the 1970s.

Alcharihi admitted to authorities that he had paid $12,000 for the objects and lied on the form to dodge duties. He also admitted that he knew the mosaic was ancient, not a vague assortment of “ceramic tiles.” The feds found emails from him to a potential buyer in which he said the mosaic had been lifted from a historical building in Idlib and which included photographs of the mosaic in situ in 2010.

In 2018, the US Attorney’s Office of Los Angeles filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the mosaic, alleging Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi had illegally imported it into the country using fraudulent documents. Only now have the slow wheels of justice ground out an indictment, meagre though it may be.

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