Stories tagged archaeology

Maya frieze discovery: Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli looks at the frieze discovered at the Holmul Archaeological Project.
Maya frieze discovery: Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli looks at the frieze discovered at the Holmul Archaeological Project.Courtesy Francisco Estrada-Belli
One of the largest and most vibrant archaeological discoveries of the Maya culture was announced yesterday.

Archaeologists have uncovered a 30-foot by 6-foot frieze inside the base of a pyramid depicting deified Maya rulers. Much of the frieze's red, blue and yellow paint has been preserved by debris that had fallen over the frieze. Here's a link to the full report of the finding by archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli’s team at the Holmul Archaeological Project in Guatemala.

“This is a unique find. It is a beautiful work of art and it tells us so much about the function and meaning of the building, which was what we were looking for,” said Estrada-Belli. The carving depicts human figures in a mythological setting, suggesting these may be deified rulers. The team had hoped to find clues to the function of this building, since the unearthing of an undisturbed tomb last year. The burial contained an individual accompanied by 28 ceramic vessels and a wooden funerary mask.

The full frieze: Here's a panoramic view of the full frieze found in Guatemala.
The full frieze: Here's a panoramic view of the full frieze found in Guatemala.Courtesy Francisco Estrada-Belli

Maya mask: Maya is making the news everywhere, from Minnesota to Mexico
Maya mask: Maya is making the news everywhere, from Minnesota to MexicoCourtesy Wolfgang Sauber
You've likely seen the promotional announcements that the Science Museum of Minnesota today opens a huge, new exhibit on the Maya culture – Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed. And coincidentally, archeologists today announced the discovery of another hidden Maya city buried in jungle undergrowth in southern Mexico, including a 75-foot-tall pyramid and housing to hold up to 40,000 people.

Want to learn more about SMM's new Maya exhibit? Here's a link to coverage in the Star-Tribune and also a piece by Minnesota Public Radio.

Dead Sea Scrolls: Little scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls are now being sold, creating new controversies in the Middle East.
Dead Sea Scrolls: Little scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls are now being sold, creating new controversies in the Middle East.Courtesy unknown
Several years ago the Science Museum of Minnesota hosting a very popular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls are back in the news again with recent developments of scroll scraps now being up for sale on the open market. Most of these pieces are smaller than a postage stamp and contain no writing of the ancient Hebrew texts.

Here's a link to our Science Buzz pages exploring the current science being used to learn more about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Work with bulldozers and backhoes to collect materials for a road building project has destroyed an ancient Maya pyramid in Belize. You can read all the details here. And then you can wipe away your tears.


Royal bones: This is how archaeologists found the bones of King Richard III buried beneath a parking lot in Greyfriar's, England.
Royal bones: This is how archaeologists found the bones of King Richard III buried beneath a parking lot in Greyfriar's, England.Courtesy University of Leicester
Today, many of our former leaders get dropped into the dust bin of cable news commentators and talk radio hosts. But 500 years ago, the options appeared to be a little more drastic.

Researchers yesterday announced that they've confirmed that the bones they found last fall buried under a parking lot in Greyfriars, England, are that of infamous King Richard III.

Further investigation of his full skeleton shows that King Richard suffered traumatic, and fatal, injuries in the course of fighting the Battle of Bosworth. But further analysis also shows that he very likely suffered "humiliation injuries" after his death, signs of displeasure from those who did not agree with his politics or leadership. Click here to learn more about the scientific techniques being used to glean this forensic information from the king. Included is a graphic description of the humiliation injuries King Richard sustained.

Studying bones: Preliminary studies show King Richard had severe scoliosis, but not the hunchback that his post-reign critics want us to believe.
Studying bones: Preliminary studies show King Richard had severe scoliosis, but not the hunchback that his post-reign critics want us to believe.Courtesy University of Leicester
Authorities are also saying that finding the remains of King Richard will reopen the thinking of the young monarch's short reign. Popular depiction since his death was that King Richard was an evil, ruthless killer. Following his demise, a different branch of monarchy came into power and very well could have had an agenda of discrediting his legacy. Already, the discovery of the bones show that Richard III did suffer from severe scoliosis, but probably didn't have the hunchback that legend claims. Could this be the first of several King Richard III myths to be debunked?

After the research is completed, the plan is to entomb King Richard's remains at Leicester Cathedral and to have an interpretive center across the street to tell the details of king's newly discovered story.

Video summary:

Ever pull that old bottle of beer out of the back of the fridge and try to remember how old it is? Should I drink it? It might be months, maybe even a year or two old. Well how about 11,000-year-old breweries? Archaeologists have found some very old evidence of breweries and it has created a debate over if grain production started as a way to make beer or bread.


On November 10, 2011, at 17:25 UTC (or 11:25am Central Standard Time), a shallow quake occured in Greece about 11.8 miles NE of the town of Patras. According to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre, this earthquake had a magnitude of 5.1 (later downgraded to a 4.6) and was a relatively shallow quake at 5 km (approximately 3.1 miles) below the Earth's surface.

This region is characterized by a high level of seismicity, and small tremors are continually recorded along the coast of Patras. Another interesting aspect of Patras is that in antiquity, there was an ancient oracle, over a sacred spring, dedicated to the goddess Demeter. Professor Iain Stewart from the University of Plymouth has been studying a supposed link between ancient. sacred places in Greece and Turkey and seismic fault lines. Many ancient temples and cities lie along those fault lines and this may not be merely due to chance, but they may have been placed there deliberately.The Temple of Apollo at Delphi with Mount Parnassus in the Background
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi with Mount Parnassus in the BackgroundCourtesy Wikimedia Commons

For example, the Oracle at Delphi has been given a geological explanation. The Delphi Fault (running east-west) and the Kerna Fault (running SE-NW) intersect near the oracular chamber in the Temple of Apollo. In that area, bituminous limestone (i.e. limestone containing bitumen, a tarlike deriviative of petroleum) has a petrochemical content as high as 20%. Analysis of spring water in the area showed the presence of hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene. Geologists have hypothesized that friction from fault movement heats the limestone, causing the petrochemicals within to vaporize. It has been suggested that exposure to low levels of the sweet-smelling gas ethylene would induce a trance, or euphoric state. Could the naturally occuring ethylene account for the strange, prophetic behavior of the Pythia (the priestess at the Temple of Apollo)?

The Delphi research is certainly persuasive, and received favorable coverage in the popular press and Scientific American, but it has come under criticism. Critics argue that the concentrations of ethylene identified by the researchers would not be sufficient to induce a trance-like state, and thus the connection to the mantic behavior of the Pythia is dubious.

Report: Geomythology: Geological Origins of Myths and Legends
Article: Breaking the Vapour Barrier: What Made the Delphic Oracle Work?
Report: Oracle at Delphi May Have Been Inhaling Ethylene Gas Fumes

Related Report: Earthquake Faulting at Ancient Cnidus, SW Turkey


Here on good ol' Planet Earth, the human population is growing and boy are folks hungry. By 2050, there should be 9 billion of us running around, but Earth isn't getting any bigger and we probably don't want to try farming on the moon. On the Buzz, we've read about some plants that have been modified to resist drought and tough climates, but what about the wisdom of the ancient Andeans?

The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?
The Andes: Just in case you didn't know what they look like. Kinda gorgeous, eh?Courtesy David Almeida

No, no, not that wisdom, delicious as it is. I'm talking about Andean farmers. These guys are reviving tough heirloom potatoes, clever terraces, and Incan irrigation systems. The species and systems had been used for thousands of years, and were probably adapted to the uncertainties of agriculture in the high mountains.

But when Spaniards showed up a few centuries ago with their own methods, traditional ways slowly fell out of use even though they were better suited to the region's need. Now that farmers are rediscovering the benefits of these ancient traditions, they're hoping these methods can help hungry folks in other parts of the world, too. Now that's a wisdom I can sink my teeth into!


LOLCourtesy dan mogford
Can you believe it’s been almost two whole years since you had your last Science Buzz Extravaganza?!

What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?

You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)

So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!

You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.

Story the first: humans of the 20th century weren’t the first to screw themselves over with agriculture.

Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.

So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?

That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!

You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.

Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.

While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?

In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?

If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.

Rendered insect meat!


An explorer of the past!: But aren't we all?
An explorer of the past!: But aren't we all?Courtesy cobalt123
Beneath the remains of a Roman-era, three-story apartment building in the destroyed city of Herculaneum, archaeologists have found a king’s ransom in brown gold.

(Herculaneum, by the way, was a neighboring city to Pompeii, and it was likewise destroyed and buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.)

I don’t want to get in trouble for corrupting young minds (again), so I can’t tell you straight out what the “brown gold” is. But let it be known that this rich seam is telling archaeologists a lot about what the ancient residents of Herculaneum ate. Also, it rhymes with “trap.”

Recovered from an 86-meter-long septic tank-like section of sewer, the ancient, compacted gold fills over 770 bags, and seems to indicate that the buildings’ former residents, despite their low- or middle-class status, had a surprisingly varied diet. They ate fish, vegetables, fruit, eggs, olives, walnuts, sea urchins, and lots of figs. Also, they ate dormice, which is simply adorable.

Archaeologists working at the site say that it’s lucky that the gold wasn’t discovered before, because the technology for analyzing the material wasn’t available until relatively recently. Also they just didn’t appreciate this sort of thing back then.*

*This last statement is based on how I imagine my grandmother would react if I explained the discovery to her. Fortunately she’s dead, so it probably won’t come up.