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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". You can watch it streaming on Netflix. It's a great overview of the little bits that we know about how non-elites lived thousands of years ago.

Via The Nation

Image: Pompeii, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from editor's photostream

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.

Check out NASA's page on LOIRP

Visit the official LOIRP team website

Check out Steve Jurvetson's photos on Flickr. If you scroll down in the comments, you'll find a photo of the outside of the LOIRP facility, taken this week.

CORRECTION: Sorry, guys. Apparently, I'm an idiot and/or need to cover space stories more often. I'd been under the impression that NASA Ames Research Center was in Iowa, I think because I once talked to a researcher there who also had an appointment at the University of Iowa. It is actually in California. D'oh. Story is fixed now.

Thanks to Andy Ihnatko for alerting me to these photos!

Image: McMoon, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jurvetson's photostream

Butterfingers may cost magazine photographer $300,000

During a photo shoot, photographers working with Art+Auction magazine picked up an irreplaceable 2600-year-old terra cotta statue from Nigeria's Nok culture so they could move it into a better line for a shot. Yada yada yada ... they're now being sued for negligence. (Via Dr. Rubidium)

Tutankhamen: A mummy story for grown-ups

When Howard Carter opened the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922 he found a series of chambers piled high with “wonderful things.” For nerds of a certain age, this is a story we’ve heard many times before. King Tut was a part of our lives from childhood. On the list of “Dead Things Small Children Get Really Excited About”, he ranks just below dinosaurs and just above Pompeii. By the time we reached junior high, we had explored the Valley of the Kings through diagrams in National Geographic, catalogued Tut’s treasures in the pages of glossy DK picture books, and watched innumerable actors recreate Carter’s day of discovery on TV documentaries.

Given all that you already know about the Tutankhamen story, why should you bother reading Joyce Tyldesley’s new book Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King? Because Tyldesley asks (and answers) questions those old familiar sources seldom bothered with. Her book takes a popular kid’s history and fleshes it out with grown-up levels of depth and context. For instance: Why exactly was King Tut buried with all those grave goods to begin with?

The answer isn’t as simple as you might suspect. The golden couches, ornate game boards, food, and flowers are all usually presented as things Tutankhamen thought he’d need in the afterlife. But that doesn’t match up with what we know about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, Tyldesley writes. Kings were supposed to spend their afterlives away from the tomb—reborn as a star, or merged with the god Osiris. It was non-royal elite who, at one point, thought they would need to deck out their tombs to be eternal vacation homes. By Tut’s time, though, even they were granted access to Osiris’ kingdom. Technically, there was no religious reason to bury anyone with as much stuff as Tut had, let alone a king. Howard Carter’s “wonderful things” were probably a function of cultural tradition, rather than religious necessity. It was about wealth and appearances, an effort to keep up with the Joneses which spiraled so out of control that real treasures were eventually replaced by representations of treasure. More important, Tyldesley says, there’s no reason to suspect that an older king would have been buried with more grave goods than Tutankhamen got.

Read the rest

A map to the past

Io9 has a very cool article about archaeologists using satellite mapping techniques to discover thousands of new sites in the Middle East. These places represent 8,000 years of human habitation and might never have been discovered with old-fashioned "eyes-on-the-ground" archaeology. (Via Dr. Rubidium)

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A great big chunk of ancient Assyria

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

Allan Berry sent in this photo from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum. That giant winged-bull-man-thing is a lammasu—ancient Mesopotamia's answer to the sphynx and possibly one of the greatest-looking monsters ever designed.

This one is part of a set that once flanked the doorway to the throne room of Sargon II, whose name really just goes perfectly with the aesthetic of the lamassu. Berry thought this might be a part of ancient Babylon, but from the spot of research I did this morning, Sargon II (and the lamassu) actually hailed from a place called Dur-Sharrukin, or, fittingly, "The Fortress of Sargon." Today, it's a village in northern Iraq, near Mosul.

Also: If you're looking for random ways to procrastinate today, I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry on the University of Chicago Persian Antiquities Crisis. Apparently, the Oriental Institute Museum has a lot of Persian tablets in its collection that are technically owned by the country of Iran. A few years ago, the U.S. Justice Department went after those artifacts, hoping to sell them off to raise money to pay to victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. It's a weird little bit of legal/political history.

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Minding the beeswax

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

This is a 300-year-old chunk of beeswax, housed at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum in Tillamook, Oregon. That part alone is pretty nifty, but it's the background that really makes this specimen sing. According to Roger Peet, who sent me this photo, the beeswax comes from the wreck of a Spanish galleon that washed ashore north of Tillamook long before any other European settlers had ever visited the area—probably around 1700 or so. Pollen analysis indicates that the beeswax actually came from the Philippines. How cool is that?

Here's an excerpt from an archaeological report on the wreck that Peet sent along with the photo:

Native oral histories and the earliest accounts of Euro-American settlers on the Northwest Coast refer to a wrecked vessel (or several wrecked vessels) at the beach of Nehalem, as being the source of an abundant supply of beeswax that the local Indians used and traded prior to and after the time of Euro-American settlement. The first written accounts of the wreck come from Astoria fur trader Alexander Henry in 1813, who reported that great quantities of beeswax were dug out of the sand at the spit and that the Indians brought the wax to Astoria to trade. As the 19th century progressed, numerous accounts of the presence of both beeswax and teak lumber at Nehalem and reports of intact pieces of wreckage appeared in various newspapers and books, and such reports continued into the early 20th century.

The wax and its origin were widely discussed throughout the 19th century, both locally in Oregon and in newspapers from California, the Midwest, and even New York. Beeswax was found in such abundance that, for a brief time, some non-residents were convinced it was actually a petroleum product that indicated large oil deposits were in the area (Chicago Daily Tribune 1891; Christian Science Monitor 1909), and a short lived oil boom occurred despite the Indian accounts of the wreck and the presence of candles and wax blocks with carved symbols on them.

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": The Poulton Elk

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

What lived in your neighborhood before your neighborhood existed? When did human beings first live on the land you think of as home? Those are the questions that make an old elk skeleton something extraordinary for reader Ant Mercer.

The Poulton Elk hails from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, England. It's part of an exhibition aimed at telling the story of Preston—or, rather, of the site that eventually became Preston. Here's Ant Mercer's explanation of why this elk is so meaningful:

I should point out that we don't have many exciting, ferocious and big animals naturally living in our habitats and this massive Elk stands out all the more for that. We don't have Elks in the UK anymore and, well, to this day I don't think I've seen one with it's skin on.

The Poulton Elk is a complete skeleton of a prehistoric elk that died in Lancashire around 13,000 years ago. The skeleton was found in 1970 by chance during the excavations for a house in Poulton le Fylde.

The discovery of the elk was of major importance as it had with it evidence of have been hunted by humans. Two bone points from weapons were found associated with it making the elk the earliest evidence of human habitation in this area.

Archaeologists discover tomb of female singer in Egypt

The tomb was recently unearthed in the Valley of the Kings, and her coffin will be opened this week. "The singer's name, Nehmes Bastet, means she was believed to be protected by the feline deity Bastet."

The last thing I will post about apocalypse in 2012

Seriously. If you haven't figured out by now that the world is not ending and that any Mayan predictions claiming otherwise are largely fabricated pseudoarchaeology, then I'm not sure that I can help you. One last try, though. Please read this excellent FAQ, written by actual archaeologist (and my former professor) John Hoopes. I did an interview with Dr. Hoopes last year about the 2012 as a phenomenon, but the new FAQ covers, in detail, why a 2012 apocalypse is bunk, and what sources you can check out to find further accurate information about the confluence of ancient Mayan mythology and modern Western mythology. And that is all I have to say about this for the rest of the year. Coming in 2013, though: Lots of stories about Mayan archaeology. Just to mess with you.

No. Nobody found Mayan ruins in Georgia


I hate to lend any dignity to this story by commenting on it, but it's making the rounds, so here goes. Two things:

1. Nobody found Mayan ruins in the U.S. state of Georgia. An article posted on The Examiner claimed this was the case. That article is full of it. So full of it that even the scientist cited in the article is (in a more polite way) publicly calling out The Examiner for being full of it. Mark Williams of the University of Georgia does do research on North American archaeology. He has spent 20 years excavating sites in Georgia's Oconee River valley. But these sites are not Mayan. Instead, they're part of what are broadly known as "Mississippian cultures," a conglomeration of ancient North American peoples who built a lot of earth mound structures and whose cultures are distinct from those of the Mayans and other Central Americans. 

2. Do not automatically trust anything you read on The Examiner website. The Examiner is a content farm that allows anybody to write whatever they want about anything with absolutely zero oversight or fact-checking. The guy who wrote the bogus story on Mayan artifacts in Georgia appears to have just made up the entire Mississippian/Mayan connection out of his own imagination. As archaeologist Mark Williams told ArtInfo, "No archaeologist would defend this flight of fancy." (Again, this is polite scientist speak for, "Oh, my god. That guy is full of it.") While you're at it, apply the same level of skepticism to anything that comes from Hubpages, which has a similar model to The Examiner and was the source of that bogus "There's a secret cure for cancer!" story  earlier this year. In general, remember that just because it's formatted like a newspaper story, with a dateline at the beginning, does not mean it has been written according to any kind of standard of quality. Check the sources of the article. Check what you read against what Wikipedia and other people have written on the same subject. 

Thanks to John Hoopes for bringing this foolishness to my attention

Image: Herb Roe, used via CC 

Archaeologists expose everything in 2012

Now available on eBay: The naked archaeologists calendar you may or may not have been waiting for.

Via Kristina Killgrove

Fate and the archaeologist

Some archaeologists get to discover Tutankhamun's tomb. Others go down in history for finding Kaiser Wilhelm's urinal. (Via A blog about history and Cort Sims)

One of the earliest known examples of math homework

It's stuff like this that makes me love archaeology. Turns out, we can trace the concept of math homework back to at least 2300 B.C.E., in ancient Mesopotamia.

In the early 20th century, German researchers found several clay tablets at the site of Šuruppak. (Today, that's basically the Iraqi city of Tell Fara.) Some of the tablets appear to be the remains of math instruction, including two different tablets that are working the same story problem.

A loose translation of the problem is: A granary. Each man receives 7 sila of grain. How many men? That is, the tablets concern a highly artificial problem and certainly present a mathematical exercise and not an archival document. The tablets give the statement of the problem and its answer (164571 men - expressed in the sexagesimal system S since we are counting men - with 3 sila left over). However, one of the tablets gives an incorrect solution. When analyzing these tablets, Marvin Powell commented famously that it was, "written by a bungler who did not know the front from the back of his tablet, did not know the difference between standard numerical notation and area notation, and succeeded in making half a dozen writing errors in as many lines."

That comes from a site set up by Duncan Mellville, a math professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He's actually got a whole collection of essays on Mesopotamian mathematics. I am certain, that by posting this, I've just ruined somebody's productivity for, like, a week.

Image is not THE cuneiform tablet in question. Just A cuneiform tablet. I couldn't find a picture of those specific ones:Marks and signs, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from nicmcphee's photostream.

Via John Baez

Ancient Egyptians: They're just like us!

Egyptian mummies were coiffed for the afterlife with the help of animal fat-based hair gel. Bonus moment of cultural weirdness: The article linked here seems to ignore the fact that styling the hair of the dead isn't just some odd thing the ancient Egyptians did. In fact, it's a common facet of modern Western burial practices. (Via Rowan Hooper)

The annotated apocalypse: Anthropologists tackle 2012

It's August of 2011, do you know when your Apocalypse is?

There are 1000s of people who think that something important—if not the end or the world, then something—will happen on December 21, 2012.

Read the rest

Strange tunnels of Austro-Germany

German and Austrian archaeologists are taking notice of an extensive network of tunnels that riddle central Europe. These tunnels -- thought to date from the 10th to 13th century -- have fanciful names like "goblin hole" and their exact historical function is somewhat mysterious. A group of female healers, noting the exit looks "like a vagina," re-enacted their births using Austrian "Schlupf" tunnels. Others attribute them to the druids, or Christian rituals, or believe they were used to hide from bandits in the lawless "medieval clearing period."
The tour begins in the taproom and proceeds down a stone stairway into the cider cellar, where there is a trap door that opens into a gaping hole. "We don't let people with heart conditions do the tour," Wösner says in his thick Austrian accent. He keeps a large sling on hand for emergencies, so that if anyone faints he can pull them out of the narrow tunnel.

The vaults could not have served a practical purpose, as dwellings or to store food, for example, if only because the tunnels are so inconveniently narrow in places. Besides, some fill up with water in the winter. Also, the lack of evidence of feces indicates that they were not used to house livestock.

There is not a single written record of the construction of an Erdstall dating from the medieval period. "The tunnels were completely hushed up," says Ahlborn.

Archeologists have also been surprised to find that the tunnels are almost completely empty and appear to be swept clean, as if they were abodes for the spirits. One gallery contained an iron plowshare, while heavy millstones were found in three others. Virtually nothing else has turned up in the vaults.

Until recently, the secret caves were explored only by amateur archeologists. The pioneer of Erdstall exploration, Lambert Karner (1841 to 1909), was a priest. According to his records, he crawled through 400 vaults, lit only by flickering candlelight, with "strange winding passages" through which "one can often only force oneself like a worm."

Experts Baffled by Mysterious Underground Chambers (via BLDGBlog)

(Image: Ben Behnke / DER SPIEGEL)