Frozen cave lion cubs studied and sampled

March 9th, 2016

Last summer, two cave lion cubs were found in the permafrost on the bank of the Uyandina River in Yakutia, Siberia. The water levels of the river had risen with the warmth of the summer. When the waters retracted, cracks appeared in the banks. Yakov Androsov, a contractor with the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) who was in the area collecting mammoth tusks, spied some ice with something inside it in one of the cracks. Upon closer inspection, he recognized the remains of prehistoric felines in the ice. He quickly placed them in a glacier to preserve them.

When the remains were recovered and examined by experts from the Academy of Sciences, they were identified as two very young Pleistocene cave lion cubs in exceptional condition. The cubs have been named Uyan and Dina after the river where they were found. Both are almost complete, Uyan more so than Dina, with body parts intact. Fur, legs, ears, eyes, tails, soft tissue, even their whiskers were preserved by the deep freeze. The lions were very young when they died, no more than two weeks old. Their eyes weren’t open and all of their baby teeth hadn’t grown in yet. They are about the size of plump house cats.

These are by far the most complete remains of cave lions ever found. Worldwide, only bones, partial skeletons and carcass fragments of cave lions have been found before this discovery. In Yakutia, it was only a few skulls, teeth and individual bones. Those limited remains and Stone Age cave art were the sole sources of information scientists had what cave lions looked like. The preservation of the cubs will answer a great many questions about the species.

Scientist Dr Gennady Boeskorov said: “The main complexity of our task is that here we have not adult lions, but cubs, so we are searching for the specialists experienced in the research of cubs. It’s interesting to see the adaptive mechanisms, which helped them to survive in the cold. They definitely differed from the modern lions, and we think there should be something that allowed them to adapt to the climate.”

Dr Protopopov said: “We suppose that the cave lioness behaved like the modern lioness in pride,” he said. “It seems like she gave birth to the cubs and hid them in cave or hole to protect from the hungry lion. Then the landslide covered it and they remained surrounded in permafrost. Also the air intake was blocked, and this helped their preservation.”

Cave lions went extinct about 10,000 years ago, so the cubs are at least that old. The remains will be radiocarbon tested for a more precise date range. Scientists from all over the world will contribute to the study of these little guys in the hope we can learn more about how they lived and died, their familial relations and what they ate.

Earlier this month, Dina, the less preserved of the cubs, was partially thawed and had samples taken at the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk so tissues could be studied under the microscope. Also present was controversial South Korean cloning expert Professor Woo Hwang Sok who wanted samples of his own for a potential cave lion cloning project. He’s taken mammoth samples before, but there is a big difference between a mammoth carcass and a lion cub and the Yakutian Academy of Sciences refused to let him take a piece of the cub large enough to satisfy him.

The Korean professor wanted a large section, such as part of the skull or a leg but this was opposed by the local experts who are anyway withholding one of the cubs from any research – the better preserved of the pair, called Uyan – confident that more advanced techniques in future years will ensure more is gleaned from it than if research is done now.

[Dr. Protopopov] revealed: “The dispute arose from the fact that the researchers, as always, want to be completely sure and take more tissue, and I can understand them. But the lion is not fully preserved and there are not so many tissues. We have planned other studies, so it is important to preserve the original morphology of the remains. Such disputes are normal in all studies, and in the end we came to a compromise.”

Director of the Mammoth Museum Semyon Grigoriev defended the decision to limit the sample available to the cloning guru. “The Koreans are sceptical and unhappy with the samples,” he said. “They expected to take more, as they did with the mammoth previously. But it will not work with these little kittens.”

Besides, I have yet to see any results from these ancient cloning studies. The institute Woo Hwang Sok leads, Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, does have a lot of material on its website about cloning your dead dog, though.

The glorious Mogao cave temples and the earliest printed book

March 8th, 2016

Legend holds that in 366 A.D., a Buddhist monk named Yuezun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas on the face of a cliff near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China. He began digging caves into the cliff face to make his vision a reality. Who knows if there was a Yuezun who had a vision, but it’s undeniable that in the 4th century, Buddhist monks began to dig grottoes into the cliffs and they didn’t stop for a thousand years.

From the 4th to the 14th century, the monks, sponsored by politicians and wealthy donors who wished to express their religious devotion, dug 492 caves and decorated them with exquisite wall paintings, tile work and more than 2,000 clay sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other figures. The largest sculpture is a Buddha about 116 feet high, the third largest Buddha sculpture in China, which was made during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). In total, there are almost 500,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings depicting Buddhist stories, sutras, donors, abstract ornament and scenes of daily life.

The enormity of the Mogao Caves (Mogao means “peerless”) complex is a testament not just to the religious dedication of the monks, but to its location along the Silk Road. The evidence of the rich cultural exchange brought to the site by the Silk Road is evident in the mixed influences of the art, and it was the demise of the Road which led to the abandonment of the caves in the 15th century. They were all but forgotten, the painstakingly carved and painted grottoes sealed with sand from the Gobi Desert.

Hundreds of years would pass before someone embraced the ancient complex again. A Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu took it upon himself to care for the caves in around 1892. Entirely alone and unsupported, he began to clean the sand choking the temples and repair the wooden elements. In 1900, he opened a cave that had been sealed in about 1000 A.D. and discovered a massive cache of documents without parallel in human history.

Cave 17, which for obvious reasons became known as the Library Cave, held almost 50,000 manuscripts, printed texts, paintings on silk and paper, intricate embroidered silks and other textiles. The dry air of the Gobi had preserved them in exceptional condition. The documents provide a unique view of life in medieval China. There are financial ledgers, calendars, legal papers, property sale contracts, dictionaries, medical books, artworks that capture the music, dancing and games of the period. The are Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts are written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Tangut, Old Turkish and other languages spoken along the Silk Road.

The stand-out document amidst the vast archival treasure discovered in the cave is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed dated book. A copy of an ancient Indian Buddhist text, this Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra was made in 868 A.D., and we know this because the maker noted it in the colophon: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.” While there are extant woodblock printed art works on silk from the 3rd century, the earliest fragments of printing on paper date to the mid-7th century. Woodblock printing was established by the 8th century, but the Diamond Sutra is the first complete book that we have a precise date for known to survive. It is a scroll more than 15 feet long made from seven panels of paper pasted together.

Keen to preserve this great collection, Wang showed some of the texts to local government officials but they showed zero interest. In 1904, the governor order the Library Cave be resealed. Word of the find got out to archaeologists and explorers and in 1907 British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein offered to buy thousands of the manuscripts and artworks. This is Stein’s description of Cave 17:

“The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without perfect order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet. The area left clear within the room was just sufficient for two people to stand in.”

Wang wanted to build a Daoist temple but he had no money and since the government had told him to shove it in regards to conserving the Library Cave’s library, he went ahead and sold the documents to Stein for a pittance. The next year explorer French Paul Pelliot bought more than 10,000 pieces from Cave 17. Then came the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The collection was thoroughly picked over by the time the sales stopped with the beginning of World War I. Finally resurgent nationalism in the 1920s woke the Chinese government up and the remaining documents were moved to the National Library of China in Beijing.

The Diamond Sutra was acquired in 1907 by Stein and is now in the British Library along with more than 400 other pieces from Dunhuang. (The BL, incidentally, has spearheaded the International Dunhuang Project, an initiative to digitize images of texts, art and textiles found at Dunhuang and other archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. There are almost a million images in the database as of now, and they’re not done yet.)

The Diamond Sutra hasn’t left Britain in more than a century, but that’s about to change. It will be the star of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty Conservation Institute has been working closing with the Dunhuang Academy since 1989 to conserve the paintings on the walls of the Mogao Grottoes. To give visitors a truly immersive experience, the Getty has constructed exact replicas of three of the caves. These aren’t Hollywood sets made to look like the grottoes. The replicas are precise duplicates in shape, size and decoration. The replica paintings were done using the same pigments originally used in Dunhuang. The Getty even imported the actual clay used to sculpt the Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inhabit the caves.

The exhibition runs from May 7th through September 4th, 2016. For those four months, Los Angeles may be the closest you can get to the Gobi Desert and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.



Civil War steamer wreck found off North Carolina coast

March 7th, 2016

The wreck of an iron-hulled Civil War steamer has been discovered off the coast of North Carolina near Oak Island. It was found on Saturday, February 27th, by researchers from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology who were scanning the area with sonar. So far the complete hull of the 225-foot ship has been recorded and the study is ongoing.

The identity of the vessel has yet to be determined, but experts believe it is a blockade runner used to smuggle supplies and saleable goods through the Union naval cordon blocking the port of Wilmington. The wreck is 27 miles away from Wilmington near Fort Caswell which guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear River and played a key role, along with the blockade runners and Fort Fisher (which guarded the other inlet to the river), in keeping the port of Wilmington open longer than any other port in the Confederacy. It was open for virtually the entire war, in fact, until the Fort Fisher fell to a massive Union assault on January 15th, 1865.

The three likeliest candidates are blockade runners Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw, all of which were lost in the area. Agnes E. Fry is the front-runner because she was the largest of the three and her measurements come closest to matching those of the wreck. The Fry was built in Scotland in 1864 and renamed after the captain’s wife. Like all blockade runners, it was equipped with the fastest engines money could buy, fast enough to dodge Union ships on its way to and from the Caribbean. Havana, Cuba, was a frequent port of call for the Agnes E. Fry, and it may also have stopped at neutral ports in the British colonies of Bermuda and the Bahamas.

It’s been decades since a Civil War wreck has been found in the Oak Island area and researchers are particularly excited about this wreck because it appears to be in significantly better condition than past finds. The Cape Fear Civil War Shipwreck District covers 27 known wartime wrecks, blockade runners, Confederate ironclads and Union vessels, the greatest assemblage of Civil War ships known. However, the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina is a very high-energy environment with a great deal of waves and sediment movement, so most shipwrecks are broken in pieces. Judging from the sonar image, this shipwreck looks almost intact.

As for why the wreck is in such good shape, [deputy state archaeologist Billy Ray] Morris said the change in dune patterns means that sand has helped prevent the vessel from wearing down over the decades.

“She was sanded over for most of the time she’s been laying on the bottom,” Morris said. “Now, the sand’s been scoured free.”

Even though the risk of blockade running was high — the Union captured 1,100 blockade runners and either destroyed and forced aground another 355 — profits were so huge companies were willing to take the chance. A single successful run could pay for the ship and then some. The Fry ran itself aground to avoid capture. The engines, paddle wheels and other useable part of the ship were salvaged at the time.

A dive team will be exploring the wreck starting Wednesday. Researchers are optimistic that they’ll be able to confirm which ship it is once they explore it in person. Any surviving cargo, artifacts or ship parts will only be disturbed if they are needed to answer questions about the vessel. It’s illegal for people to remove anything from these protected vessels, but tourist divers are welcome to explore with their eyes as long as they keep their hands to themselves.

Descendants of Rollo, Viking founder of Normandy, exhumed

March 6th, 2016

Scandinavian researchers have exhumed the bones of two direct descendants of Rollo, the 10th century Viking founder of the Duchy of Normandy, in an attempt to answer the long-debated question of whether Rollo was Danish or Norwegian.

Historians have differed on the matter of Rollo’s national origins since at least the 11th century. Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin (ca. 965-1043) said in his Historia Normannorum that Rollo was the son of a “Danish” king who was exiled and made his way to France, but at the time Dudo was in the employ of Richard II of Normandy who was allied to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. He had a dog in the hunt, as it were, and cannot be considered reliable on this question. Goffredo Malaterra, a monk in Sicily writing in the late 11th century, said Rollo hailed from Norway. In the 13th Norwegian-Icelandic sagas Heimskringla and Orkneyinga, Rollo appears as Ganger-Hrólf, the son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, yarl of Møre in western Norway. (Rollo is a Latinization of Hrólf.)

With these conflicting and vague sources, historians have argued the point for centuries. It matters because of how important Rollo was to European history. His raids along the Seine so bedevilled Charles III, aka Charles the Simple, King of Western Francia, that he finally bought Rollo off with huge tracts of land between the city of Rouen and the mouth of the Seine in exchange for him switching from raider to protector. He appears in only one primary source: a charter from 918 which mentions the lands ceded to Rollo and his “Northmen on the Seine.” It seems Rollo ruled those lands as Count of Rouen until at least 927 after which his son William I Longsword acceded to what would become known during his rule as the Dukedom of Normandy, after the Norsemen who founded it. William Longsword’s son was Richard I of Normandy. Richard I’s son was Richard II. Richard II’s son Robert I was the father of William the Conqueror.

This January, French government and church authorities granted the research team permission to open the tomb of Rollo’s grandson Richard I and great-grandson Richard II. This is only the second time a French king’s tomb has been opened since World War II. On Monday, February 29th, Per Holck, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, and University of Copenhagen geneticist Andaine Seguin Orlando, opened the two small ossuary coffins buried under the floor southern transept of the gothic church of Fécamp Abbey. Inside one of them were the skeletal remains of Richard II, known as Richard the Good, including a lower jaw with eight teeth.

They were hoping to find teeth because extracting ancient DNA is tricky and the genetic material inside teeth is well-protected by the outer layers. Holck and Orlando retrieved five of the teeth. They will be tested at the University of Oslo and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. If all goes well, the research team and French authorities will announce the results in the autumn.

The remains of the Richards have been moved before. Richard I, who rebuilt the church after it was destroyed in Viking raids, and Richard II, who made it a Benedictine monastery, were initially buried outside the church. Richard II’s great-great-great-grandson Henry II of England had his ancestors’ bones reburied inside the church. Remains that are not in their original location can be problematic to authenticate. I don’t know if this study plans to do anything specific to confirm first and foremost that they really are the bones of Richard II. Also, if the bones were treated at any point — boiled to remove the flesh and make them a clean fit for a small coffin — DNA extraction will be even more challenging, albeit not impossible. Teeth are the Fort Knox of the body.

Spoiler Alert!

If you’ve been watching Vikings on the basic cable station formerly known as the History Channel, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is very loosely based on the historical Count of Rouen. They had to conflate sagas and mess with the timeline to make them brothers, so who knows if he’ll wind up in Normandy on the series, but he’s in France and married to Charles the Simple’s daughter, who may or may not have existed and if she existed, may or may not have survived to adulthood, but is mentioned as Rollo’s wife in William of Jumièges 11th century chronicle Gesta Normannorum Ducum and in Dudo’s history which relied heavily on Jumièges’.

Tiny hands in ancient rock art aren’t human

March 5th, 2016

The 8,000-year-old rock art painted on a walls of the Wadi Sūra II in the Sahara Desert is replete with handprints. It’s a common theme in ancient rock art. Artists used their hands as stencils and painted or blew pigment around them leaving a negative handprint. The cave was discovered in 2002 about six miles from the famous Cave of Swimmers which featured prominently in that endless bore of a movie, The English Patient. It’s 66 feet long and 26 feet deep and there are about 900 stencil paintings on the wall. In addition to the hands, artists used arms, feet, circular objects and sticks as stencils and red, yellow, orange and brown pigments. There are also drawings of headless people and a variety of wildlife which inspired the nickname Cave of the Beasts.

Among the hundreds of adult human handprints are 13 tiny hands. While children’s handprints have been found in ancient rock art from Argentina to Australia, they’ve never been found before in the Sahara. When anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research first saw the small handprints in Wadi Sura II in 2006, she was shocked. They looked too tiny to be the hands of babies even a very small baby wouldn’t have the long, thin fingers of the prints on the cave wall.

Honoré took precise measurements of the handprints and set out to compare them to the hands of newborns and, because the prints are so small, to premature babies as well. Since she couldn’t very well just march into a maternity ward and demand to measure the hands of premies and full-term neonates, Honoré teamed up with doctors from the perinatal department of the Lille University School of Medicine, the largest medical school in France. They collected hand measurements from infants of 37 to 41 weeks gestational age and premature babies from 26 to 36 weeks gestational age. The parents of the babies, incidentally, were excited that their newborns would start off life contributing to a scientific study.

Just as Honoré suspected, the proportions were way off. She considered whether the stencils might have been wooden or clay molds, but the finger and hand positions were too irregular for that. Honoré then looked to other animals. Monkeys seemed likely candidates, but again the proportions didn’t work.

While doing research at a crocodile farm in Zambia, it occurred to Honoré that a reptile hand was a possibility. Reptiles like young crocodiles and desert monitor lizards leave handprints that at first glance look surprisingly like baby human hands. Crocodiles didn’t live there 8,000 years ago and would have had to have been transported to the Wadi Sura II area, or at least the feet would have. The desert monitor lizard, on the other hand, was native to the region, and its forefeet are tiny with long fingers, just like the stencils. Even today the desert monitor lizard lives in the area and is considered a protective force to the nomadic tribes who share their ecosystem.

Other prehistoric cultures used animals as stencils for their rock art. For example, the Aboriginal people used emu foot stencils in the Carnarvon Gorge and Tent Shelter in Australia, and choike/nandu (birds in the genus Rhea) stencils are in the rock art at La Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, the researchers wrote in the study.

It’s unclear why the ancient people at Wadi Sūra II used reptile hands as stencils, but Honoré said she’s working on a new study that analyzes possible reasons.

“I think we have to remain a bit prudent,” she said. “We have to explore all of the hypotheses without taking anything for granted.”

She’s also prudently avoiding speculation on whether the animal’s foot was severed before it was used as an artist’s stencil or whether the artists actually pressed the wee foot of a living lizard up to the wall.

This is the first time non-human five-fingered hand stencils have been discovered in rock art anywhere in the world. The study has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

14 men convicted in massive museum theft ring

March 4th, 2016

Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.

This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.

This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.

We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.

The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.

Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).

Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.

Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.

The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.

The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.

Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.

For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.

The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.

Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.

Anglo-Saxon island settlement found

March 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have found an Anglo-Saxon island settlement in Little Carlton, Lincolnshire, that they believe to be one of the most important discoveries in decades. It was metal detectorist Graham Vickers who made the first find: a solid silver stylus. He reported it to Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer Dr. Adam Daubney who identified it as a writing implement from the 8th century. It was used to inscribe words on wax tablets; the flat end (which is now bent, probably from an encounter with farming equipment) is an eraser. Pull it through the wax and it resets the field.

A decorated solid silver stylus was a very high status object in the Middle Saxon period. Inspired by his find, Mr. Vickers returned to the plough field and kept detecting, noting the GPS coordinates of every find so the archaeologists who followed him could map out the site. He wound up unearthing hundreds more artifacts: 20 styli, 300 dress pins, more than 100 coins and a very rare lead tablet inscribed with the female Anglo-Saxon name “Cudberg.” Vickers found more than 77 pounds of lead on the site, all relatively common finds. The fact that there’s a name inscribed on this tablet is unusual anyway, and a woman’s name makes it unique.

The coins are all sceats, a type minted in England, and in parts of modern-day Denmark and the Netherlands. Sceats are often found at important trading sites and since they were widely used in northern Europe and have been found in France as well, they were apparently a widely accepted international currency. Most sceats have no inscriptions to record where they were minted and there’s a bewildering variety of iconography. The pictured coin, for example, may not represent any actual king. It seems the minters roughly imitated Roman, Celtic and Germanic coin types because they were their idea of how coins should look.

Another intriguing find is a glass domed bead made from recycled Roman glass. The core is made of re-melted and reshaped Roman glass. The swirly bars of colored glass on top are very refined and could have only have been made by an expert glass maker. The surface shows signs of abrasion, which could have been done to shape it or mount it. Archaeologists think it’s a gaming counter, but if so it’s a very fancy one and it could be a decorative embellishment from a larger piece like jewelry or a bowl.

The University of Sheffield realized from the quality, number and nature of the finds that Mr. Vickers had stumbled on something remarkable so Dr. Hugh Willmott and graduate student Pete Townend from the Department of Archaeology did geophysical and magnetometry surveys of the site. The data was then 3D modelled so they could better understand how the lay of the land and how it was used in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The imagery showed that the island they had discovered was much more obvious than the land today, rising out of its lower surroundings. To complete the picture the researchers raised the water level digitally to bring it back up to its early medieval height based on the topography and geophysical survey. [...]

Students from the University have subsequently opened nine evaluation trenches at the site which revealed a wealth of information about what life would have been like at the settlement.

They found a number of intriguing items including an area which seems to have been an area of industrial working, as well as very significant quantities of Middle Saxon pottery and butchered animal bone.

Archaeologists believe this wasn’t your average Middle Saxon settlement. So many writing implements, jewels and coins indicate this was a monastery or a center of trade and finance, perhaps part of an international trading network. There are very few surviving documents from this period in Lincolnshire. Reading the artifacts and context of this site will contribute significantly to historical understanding of the area in 8th century.

Western Han tomb is Marquis of Haihun’s

March 2nd, 2016

The immensely rich and well-preserved main tomb in the Western Han Dynasty cemetery near Nanchang, China, has been confirmed as that of Liu He, emperor for less than a month (from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C.) and finally Marquis of Haihun. As they had hoped, archaeologists found a white jade seal at the waist of the human remains in the interior coffin of the tomb. The base of the seal is inscribed “Liu He.” As if that weren’t explicit enough, another jade seal was found in the tomb inscribed “Seal of Master Liu” and several of the gold coins and bamboo slips also bear his name.

The tomb is the largest and best preserved Western Han tomb ever discovered. It is packed to gills with archaeological treasure, and I don’t just mean the gold although there’s a crapload of that too. A total of 285 gold coins, in fact, each weighing about 250 grams, have been found packed in lacquer boxes. Archaeologists believe they were gifts from the emperor to Liu He. There’s also a stack of 20 gold plates, each 23 centimeters (nine inches) long, 10 centimeters (four inches) wide and 0.3 centimeters (.12 inches) thick. It’s far and away the most gold ever found in a Han Dynasty tomb.

In total more than 20,000 objects have been excavated from the tomb since digging began in 2011. If archaeologists had begun a day later, the tomb would have been emptied out by looters, its priceless archaeological information destroyed. Excavation began as an emergency response to a report that the tomb was being raided. In the process of stealing the saleable stuff — gold coins, bronze bells, bronze lamps, two million bronze coins, jade — the earliest known portrait of Confucius, 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips would almost certainly have been damaged or destroyed. The tablets that have been examined so far are copies of reports the Marquis submitted to the Dowager Empress Shangguan and the Emperor Xuan. The bamboo slips haven’t been read yet, but if they’re like other examples found in Western Han tombs, they are likely medical and agricultural books.

The discovery of the tomb and its contents may well redeem Liu He for the history books. Before now, all the information on the record about him was written by the people who overthrew him 27 days after he took the throne. According to the victors, Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.), and successor to his uncle, Emperor Zhao, was a spendthrift, depraved, disrespectful horndog who had all the sex, food and hunting he could during his four weeks as emperor when he supposed to be in mourning for his grandfather. When he was deposed, he was charged with 1127 counts of misconduct.

His tomb, however, shows no sign of this purported unprincipled profligacy. There is no decoration or content of any kind referring to his brief stint as emperor. As a marquis, he was allowed a grave mound no longer than 13 meters, but his was significantly shorter than that. The sheer amount of reading material in the tomb indicate that he was a man of learning. Archaeologists speculate that instead of being a drunken, gluttonous party animal, Liu He may have been a bookworm which didn’t suit the political machinations of the imperial courtiers. On the other hand, he may have just grown up a lot in the 15 years between his deposition and death.

More than 400 artifacts from the tomb have gone on display at Beijing’s Capital Museum. The show runs for just three months until June 2nd, and the museum is expecting big crowds. It’s only the second time any objects from Liu He’s tomb have been exhibited, and the first time outside of Jiangxi. When the Jiangxi Provincial Museum put 120 pieces on display last year, more than 180,000 people came to see them. The Beijing Capital Museum has crowd control plans in place. They will allow 1,000 individual visitors a day in the first week, with groups being given priority. After that, the limit will be raised to 5,000 people a day.

Matthias Buchinger: no hands, no legs, great artist

March 1st, 2016

The art of micrography, drawings composed of lines of text so miniscule they are all but unreadable to the naked eye, is a traditional Jewish artform developed in the 9th century. One of its greatest masters did it without hands.

Matthias Buchinger was born on June 3rd, 1674, in a town near Nuremberg. He had no arms below the elbows and no legs below his upper thighs. According to an 1833 article in The Dublin Penny Journal that cites the nephew of a friend of Buchinger’s, his parents were “distressed at his unnatural form” and “concealed him as much as possible.” Other than that there’s a record of an unnamed individual matching his description at a fair sideshow in Leipzig in 1694. His first concrete entrance in the historical record comes in the first decade of the 18th century with his earliest surviving artworks.

By then he was in his 30s and was 29 inches tall. He was also a polymath genius, accomplished not just in calligraphy and drawing, but in playing multiple musical instruments, sleight-of-hand (minus hands), creating miniatures in bottles, carving wood, threading a needle, shooting and bowling, all accomplished by the dextrous use of small fin-like appendages at the ends of his arm stumps. Buchinger traveled all over Europe, from Augsburg to Amsterdam to Paris to Copenhagen to London to Belfast, displaying his many talents and tricks to amazed crowds and crowned heads alike. Poetry was written about “the Little Man of Nuremberg.”

Nobody could do him as much justice as he did himself. Here’s how he described himself in a 1724 engraving publicizing his performances.

“This is the effigies of Mr. Matthew Buchinger, being drawn and written by himself he is the wonderful little man of but 29.inches high, born without hands, feet, of thighs, June the 2. 1674. in Germany, in the Marquisate of Brandeburgh, near to Nurenburgh. He being the last of nine children, by one father and mother, viz. eight sons, and one daughter. The same little man has been married four times, and has had issue eleven children, viz. one by his first wife, three by the second, six by his third, and one by his present wife. This little man performs such wonders as have never been done by any; but himself. He plays on various sorts of music to admiration, as the hautboy, strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet; and designs to make machines to play on almost all sorts of music. He is no less eminent for writing, drawing of coats of arms, and pictures to the life, with a pen. He also plays at cards and dice, performs tricks with cups and balls, corn and live birds; and plays at skittles or nine-pins to a great nicety, with several other performances, to the great satisfaction of all spectators.”

Notice that his self portrait in that engraving is a micrograph. The curls of his peruke contain the complete 27th, 121st, 128th, 130th, 140th, 149th, and 150th Psalms, plus the Lord’s Prayer.

Buchinger wasn’t just tooting his own horn to draw an audience, either. Eyewitness reports matched his account. Here’s a review from James Paris, who saw him in London on March 10th, 1731:

“He did with his stumps what many could not do with their hands and feet so well as he in playing at cards, dice, ninepins, shuffel-board and roily-poly. He did cutt paper in several curious shapes, forms and figures. He writ, cast accounts, and designed very prettily; comb’d, oyl’d and powdered his perruque very well; load and discharge a pistol and did never fail of hitting the mark. He darted a sword at a mark exactly at a great distance and performed a great many other strange things.”

Said spectators included three successive German emperors and one king of Britain. He moved to England from Hanover in 1717, three years after the Elector of Hanover became King George I. Hoping to secure a lucrative appointment from the new king, he presented him with an instrument of his own invention. King George gave him a nice prize of 20 guineas, but no job, so he kept moving. He traveled through England, Scotland and Ireland, finally settling in County Cork. By the time of his death in County Cork in 1739, Buchinger was a wealthy man. He left behind a widow and at least 14 legitimate children. He was reputed to have had 70 mistresses and dozens of illegitimate children.

Sixteen of his drawings are now on display in Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Magnifying glasses are available so visitors can attempt to read the miniscule calligraphy. Even magnified it’s still almost impossible to read. How he managed to write such tiny letters without the aid of a magnifying device of his own (and we know he didn’t use them because he drew so many pieces in front of an audience) is still a mystery today.

As a renown master of sleight-of-hand and collector of historical marvels, Ricky Jay has been fascinated by Buchinger’s talent and bravado for three decades. Most of the Buchinger drawings in the exhibition are on loan from Jay’s collection. Buchinger’s work is joined by his other masters of micrography, including a portrait of Martin Luther by Johann Michael Püchler, who worked in Nuremberg when Buchinger was young and who may have taught him but certainly inspired him. The exhibition brings the art of lettering into the modern era with pieces by Jasper Johns and other contemporary artists. It runs through April 11th, 2016.

Colon cancer gene found in Hungarian mummy

February 29th, 2016

Mutations of the Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene associated with the developement of colorectal tumors are common in the modern population, but because lifestyle and environmental factors like obesity, physical inactivity and chemical exposure prevalent today contribute to cancer rates, human remains from earlier times in history provide a unique insight into the evolution of disease. With soft tissue diseases like colorectal cancer, it’s difficult to find evidence in remains most of which are skeletal.

Mummies can bridge the gap, especially natural mummies with surviving tissue that was not embalmed. The mummies of more than 265 people buried in the crypt of the Church of the Whites in Vác, Hungary, between 1731 and 1838 have already proven a boon to medical research. The crypt was bricked in decades ago and forgotten until it was rediscovered by construction workers in 1994. The steady, cool temperature, continual low-level ventilation and the anti-microbial and moisture-absorbing properties of the pine shavings in the coffins created a perfect storm of preservation. There’s also extensive surviving archival information about the people buried in the crypt, which gives researchers valuable information about familial relations, professions, age, dates, etc.

Last year a study found 12 different strains of tuberculosis in DNA extracted from the Vác mummies. Now a new study has found a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer in one of the mummies.

The researchers used genetic sequencing to identify mutations in APC genes that were isolated from the mummies. “Mummified soft tissue opens up a new area of investigation,” Prof. Hershkovitz says. “Very few diseases attack the skeleton, but soft tissue carries evidence of disease. It presents an ideal opportunity to carry out a detailed genetic analysis and test for a wide variety of pathogens.”

“Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era,” Dr. Sklan says. “But we’ve found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions.”

The discovery of the gene doesn’t mean the individual ever had colon cancer, of course. While very well preserved, the sample was still desiccated and, well, mummified, so researchers weren’t able to distinguish tumors from normal colon tissue.

This is an important breakthrough in the analysis of ancient DNA and the study of the evolution of disease. Until now, ancient DNA studies have primarily focused on extracting the DNA of pathogens. This is the first published study to report the presence of cancer or mutations association with cancer in the DNA. Research on ancient cancer has had to make do with bone lesions and microscopic evidence.

The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE and can be read free of charge here.

Navigation

Search

Archives

September 2016
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication