Return to Antikythera

The Antikythera shipwreck — source of the famous ancient clockwork Antikythera Mechanism — has remained shockingly unexplored in the 100 years or so that we've known about it. In fact, other than a visit by Jacques Cousteau in 1970s, there hadn't been any official, scientific excavations until last year. Turns out, there's a lot of stuff left to find at the site, from a ship's anchor and storage jars to a collection of bronze fragments — which could either turn out to be something mundane, like nails from the boat, or more clues to the Mechanism. According to The Guardian's Jo Marchant, "little bronze fragments" describes what the gears of the Antikythera Mechanism looked like before they were detached from rock and cleaned of rust. Read the rest

Ancient forest off the coast of Alabama

Sixty feet under the Gulf of Mexico lie the remains of an 50,000-year-old forest. Diver and photographer Ben Raines took some amazing photos of the site and sent samples of the trees — which still look like trees — to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for radiocarbon dating. You can see sap in a cross-section of the wood and, when it's cut, Raines says it still smells like fresh cypress. Read the rest

4,500 years of yum

Researchers map the history of curry by analyzing chemical traces in ancient Indian pottery. Read the rest

Baltimore hair stylist tries her hand at archaeology

Here's a nice reminder that an expert is only "an expert" in their specific, narrow field, and (more importantly) everybody in an expert in something. A Baltimore hair stylist has helped archaeologists better understand how Roman and Greek women achieved some of the complicated, towering hairdos depicted in sculpture and paintings. How? She experimentally demonstrated that the word most scientists had been translating as "hairpin" probably should be translated as "needle and thread". Read the rest

The bones of Richard III (or, possibly, someone else entirely)

Before you get excited about the bones of Richard III being found under a parking lot, consider this — the announcement included no mention of how common the DNA sequences that ostensibly identified the body as Richard really are. Those sequences might match Richard's descendants, but if the sequences are also really common, well, that's not saying much. Read the rest

Great mysteries of archaeology

These flat ceramic disks were either playing pieces for an ancient Roman game, or, possibly, really uncomfortable toilet paper. Scientists are investigating. Read the rest

Ancient Chinese art used a toxic lacquer made from a relative of poison ivy

On Christmas Day, I watched a documentary about the terra cotta warriors — thousands of clay soldiers built as funerary objects for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor. One crazy fact I learned: Unlike the type of lacquer we call shellac today (which comes from crushed beetles), ancient Chinese artists used a lacquer derived from the sap of the lacquer tree, a relative of poison ivy. Anybody tasked with the job of applying that lacquer can end up with a serious allergic reaction. Another fun fact: We've still never seen the inside of Qin Shi Huang's tomb. Partly, this is a bureaucratic issue. But the larger problem is the mercury-laden soil on top, possibly contaminated by Qin Shi Huang's tomb, itself, which was supposed to contain a scale model of his empire, complete with rivers and oceans flowing with (you guessed it) mercury. Read the rest

1000-year-old modded skulls discovered in Mexico

13 unusually-shaped skulls were recently unearthed in Mexico when workers were digging an irrigation system. They are about 1,000 years old. Time reported that researcher Cristina Garcia Moreno of Arizona State University said, “We don’t know why this population specifically deformed their heads.”

Tai-wiki-widbee said: "There's more information at the Artificial Cranial Deformation page at Wikipedia, where I found the image at right (Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process) and these notes:"

Early examples of intentional human cranial deformation predate written history and date back to 45,000 BC in Neanderthal skulls, and to the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (12th millennium BCE) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq. It occurred among Neolithic peoples in SW Asia. The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates' description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.
This is NOT the skull of an extraterrestrial alien Read the rest

45,000 years of caring for the disabled

Klippel–Feil syndrome is rare and it likely doesn't describe one single disorder. Instead, it's more of a catch-all, a name for a variety of conditions that all share one common feature — being born with some of the vertebrae in the neck fused together.

Besides that, Klippel-Feil syndrome is pretty diverse. It's associated with a wide variety of birth defects that not everyone with the syndrome has. So it's hard to say what an absolute outcome for Klippel-Feil would be. But, for one man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam, Klippel-Feil syndrome likely meant complete paralysis of the lower half of his body. There's a good chance his arms were at least partly paralyzed, as well. His head would have been torqued to the right. It was probably hard for him to chew. Basically, he couldn't have easily kept himself alive with no help

And yet, this man — known as Burial 9 — lived into adulthood. Discovered in 2009, he is only one of a collection of prehistoric burials demonstrating that, even while living under harsh conditions, our ancestors went out of their way to care for people who couldn't care for themselves and make space in the community for people who had to live differently than the norm. In the New York Times, James Gorman writes about this archaeology of compassion:

Among archaeological finds, she said, she knows “about 30 cases in which the disease or pathology was so severe, they must have had care in order to survive.” And she said there are certainly more such cases to be described.

Read the rest

How to: Tell time like the ancient Maya

I promised to not speak of Schmapocalypse Miffy Melve on BoingBoing anymore, and I am standing by that. However, I do think that I would be remiss not to point you toward this nifty, interactive version of the Maya's long count calendar system. It does a great job of helping explain the Mayan number system and how those numbers come together to mark important dates. If you're interested in Mayan hieroglyphics, I'd also recommend reading the book A Forest of Kings, which explains how the ancient Maya wrote and what their writing really tells us about their history. Read the rest

Something to keep you warm when it's nippy out

Earlier this year, construction workers discovered what is now the world's oldest known bra. It dates to the 15th century and was found with a bunch of other clothing, stuffed between the floors of an Austrian castle. Most likely, it was being used for insulation, the same way we might stuff a wall with fiberglass batting today. (Via Christopher Mims) Read the rest

Dried riverbed reveals stolen architecture, unexploded artillery shells

When Sweden invaded Poland in the 17th century, the Swedes made off with pieces of marble lintels, columns, and other architectural details from the Polish royal palace.

Hundreds of years later, Nazis invaded Poland, carrying with them deadly, modern weaponry and a system of violent repression aimed at the country's Jewish population.

Now, thanks to a severe summer drought, evidence of both these invasions is turning up in Warsaw, beached on the dried riverbed of the Vistula.

Low rainfall over the past few months has brought the Vistula, Poland's longest river, to its lowest level since regular records began 200 years ago.Navigation along the river has already been affected and officials say if water levels do not recover soon, power stations in Warsaw that use river water for cooling may be forced to close down.

Unexploded World War Two ordnance was found on the river bed in one part of the city at the weekend. Kowalski said on the stretch of river bed he had been studying, a few pieces of Jewish matzevah, or gravestones, had been discovered.

Read more about what lies at the bottom of the Vistula at Yahoo News Read the rest

Cool ceramic jewelry for scientists, skeptics, and fossil lovers

A friend pointed me today toward the awesome work of Surly Amy (aka Amy Davis Roth), who makes really neat ceramic jewelry with science/skeptic themes. Some of her pieces are really simple and not super artsy—a pendant that says "This is what an atheist looks like", for instance. That's fine, but it's not the stuff I'm super excited about.

Instead, I really dig Roth's work that focuses on archaeology and paleontology—like a necklace printed with the silhouette of an archaeopteryx fossil on a crackled background that makes me think of broken stone; earrings decorated with ammonites; and a kick-ass bracelet that manages to make trilobites look just a little punk rock.

I also enjoyed reading Roth's bio on her Etsy page. It's long, but the two key takeaways are great:

1. I'm not as surly as I used to be. 2. Life is hard and it often sucks but sometimes, if you keep trying, things will get better!

Surly-Ramics wearable art Read the rest

Real history from a pretend pirate

Meet Richard Nolan: quartermaster of the Whydah, captain of the Anne, former coworker of Blackbeard—in general, pirate. He is also—at least through Labor Day—my friend Butch Roy.

Butch is an actor, a founder of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, and the executive director of Huge Theater here in Minneapolis. This summer, he took on a new role, playing pirate Richard Nolan in the Science Museum of Minnesota's Real Pirates exhibit.

When I first heard about Real Pirates I wasn't terribly excited. It sounded like the sort of kiddie-friendly, fact-lite thing that I tend to avoid on museum trips. I mean, for god's sake, there were actors running around going, "Arrgh," at people. But then I got a chance to talk to Butch about what, exactly, he was doing in the exhibit—and what it took to prepare for the role.

Butch and his cohorts aren't just playing pirates—they're playing real, documented people. What's more, all the actors had to build their characters from the ground up, using original historical sources and doing a lot of extra research on their own. They had to learn the skills of a pirate and the skills associated with their specific role on the ship. Butch, at least in theory, now knows how to load and fire an 18th century cannon. His fellow actor Michael Ritchie, who plays ship's surgeon James Ferguson, is up-to-date on all the latest medical research and techniques, circa 1717. The sheer volume of historical information Butch has picked up is absolutely fascinating. Read the rest

Volcano killed thousands of British people in the 13th century

In the 1990s, archaeologists found a mass grave in London, filled with more than 10,000 skeletons. There have been plenty of things over the centuries that could wipe out tons of Londoners en-masse—the Black Death, famine, fires, you name it. But this grave has turned out to be filled with victims of a far more unlikely natural disaster. Scientists now think those people were killed by a volcano.

Not a volcano in England, of course. But a massive eruption thousands of miles away.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly.

Read the rest

The graffiti of Pompeii

Pompeii is the city frozen in time. Which means that nobody ever came through and cleaned up all the (often incredibly dirty) ancient Roman graffiti (or added their own, more modern, stuff).

So, what you find is a really cool time capsule of the way random, average puellae et pueri talked, at least in certain situations. This is colloquial Latin, and that's not something we get many chances to see.

It's also hilarious. I've seen some of these examples of Pompeiian graffiti over the years, but, as far as I'm concerned, it never gets old. (Ba-DUM-ching!) Some good examples:

From the Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio: "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!"

From the Bar of Prima: The story of Successus, Severus and Iris is played out on the walls of a bar: [Severus]: “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”. [Answer by Successus]: “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.” [Answer by Severus]: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

From the House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door: "To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy."

From the basilica: "The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian."

Check out more of these at the Pompeiana website

For more about average Roman life, I really recommend Terry Jones' documentary "The Hidden History of Rome". Read the rest

Inside the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

If these photos of NASA's Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project look suspiciously like they might actually have been taken inside an abandoned McDonalds ... well, that's very observant of you.

All of those film canisters you see in the first image are actually spools of 70mm magnetic tape containing the analog originals of images taken by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in 1966 and 1967. Very few of these images have been seen by the public—at least, in their full glory. Some of the images were released early on, but only as grainy photos of photos. The originals are a lot more sharp and detailed.

After sitting in storage for decades—most notably in a barn in California—the tapes were brought to the NASA Ames Research Center in 2007. Since then, some of the originals have been digitized and preserved. (There's a good chance you saw a few in 2008, when the first preserved images were released.) Others are still in process. There's not much funding for this type of work, and it can get expensive, as it involves maintaining extremely rare FR-900 tape drives.

These photos of the LOIRP facility were taken in 2008 by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who has been on a couple of tours there. He says:

Some of the applications of this project, beyond accessing the best images of the moon ever taken, are to look for new landing sites for the new Google Lunar X-Prize robo-landers, and to compare the new craters on the moon today to 40 years ago, a measure of micrometeorite flux and risk to future lunar operations.

Read the rest

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