Stories tagged archaeology

Mar
16
2009

Bending pyramid rules: An engineering adjustment on the fly changed the dimensions of the Bent Pyramid of Dasher, giving the pyramid its unique shape and its name.
Bending pyramid rules: An engineering adjustment on the fly changed the dimensions of the Bent Pyramid of Dasher, giving the pyramid its unique shape and its name.Courtesy Ivrienen
The pyramids of Giza get all the hype, but there are plenty of other cool pyramids to check out in Egypt. And this week, one of the most unique pyramids in the region will have greater access to the public.

The burial chamber of the Bent Pyramid in Dashar will have its inner chambers opened to the public. Only about five percent of the tourists in Egypt go to see the Bent Pyramid, which is too bad in my mind.

I actually haven't been to Egypt but have been working on a new traveling exhibit about Egypt and archaeology, and that's how I learned about the Bent Pyramid. As you can see by the accompanying photo, it has a very unique shape. It's believed that the Bent Pyramid started out to be the tallest pyramid ever constructed. But engineering problems encountered along the way forced a redesign of that concept, lowering the angle of the pyramid's ascent and giving it a "bent" appearance.

Having full access into a burial chamber of a pyramid is a rare thing. Human traffic, and the moisture that comes from all those people's breaths, are not conducive to a pyramid's dry interior. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, was so concerned with the twists and turns of the Bent Pyramid's winding tunnels on his first trip inside that he had aides tie a rope around his waist so they could pull him out if he got lost.

All in all, it adds up to be another great reason to some day visit Egypt. Have you already been there, or some other points of interest in Egypt? Share them here with other Buzz readers.

Mar
09
2009

Quick! Someone get a brick in her!: Oh, Edvard...
Quick! Someone get a brick in her!: Oh, Edvard...Courtesy Edvard Munch
Halloween is right around the corner, and everybody has ghouls and ghosts on the mind, so naturally this story caught my eye today: “Vampire” discovered in mass grave.

You know how they could tell it was a vampire? Come on, guess.

Pointy teeth? Nope.

Moldering eveningwear? Not that the article mentions.

Batty features? Wooden stake in the ribs? Crosses and garlic?

No.

So what, then?

A brick in the mouth. Duh.

Yeah, one of the skeletons in a Venetian mass grave of plague victims had a brick in its mouth, making it a vampire. And the age of the grave (the plague hit Venice in 1576) makes it possibly the oldest vampire.

Some explanation may be in order, but I’m afraid that I might not be able to offer up anything totally satisfactory. According to the article, at the time of the “vampire” woman’s death, it was thought that vampires didn’t actually drink blood, but spread the plague by chewing on their shrouds after death. I’m not sure how that spread the plague (maybe they traded shrouds afterwards?), but gravediggers at the time would put bricks in the mouths of “vampires” to stop them from doing this.

Something seems to be lacking in that explanation, but, still, it got me looking into vampire folklore, which is kind of gross and awesome.

Ghosty vampirey stories go way back into folklore, but when people started connecting them with actual dead bodies, things got to be pretty interesting.

Folks suspected a vampire when they dug up a body that didn’t appear to have decomposed the way it should have. (Don’t ask me why they were digging up bodies in the first place.) Bodies can decompose in all sorts of ways (check this post out for an icky example) depending on soil conditions, etc, so sometimes people might find a body that would be swollen, or starting to turn dark, or where tissue had contracted to give it a strange expression, or expose more if its teeth—that sort of thing. Blood (and blood-like stuff) might sometimes well up in a dead person’s mouth, giving the impression that they had recently been out eating something ghastly. If the body was jostled, trapped gas escaping through the mouth (or any orifice…) could make life-like sounds. And if any body tried to put a stake into the body, those same gases could cause a really exciting, messy situation.

Original descriptions of vampires follow this rotting-corpsey theme. Instead of being gaunt and pale, they were described as bloated and dark or ruddy-colored, and they walked around in shrouds causing trouble (which, I think, is way creepier than a guy in an opera cape).

Another archaeologist (back to the article here) pointed out that it’s a neat find, but it’s not necessarily the “first vampire,” as there have been similarly dated finds in other European countries.

I’m still a little confused about the brick-mouth and plague thing. Maybe the brick was there to stop general vampire mischief, and the fact that it stopped the undead from spreading the plague was a bonus.

Anyway, happy Halloween, everybody.

Mar
01
2009

World's first temple?

Gobekli temple
Gobekli templeCourtesy Phraotes
Around 8000 BC, what is believed to be the world's first temple, was intentionally buried under thousands of tons of earth. Only about 1.5% of the site's total area has been excavated, so theories about what it was should be considered preliminary. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old. This is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-almost-everything. It is 7000 years older than the pyramids. Çatalhöyük, thought to be one of the ealiest villages, is 2,000 years later.

Religious organization enabled larger projects

Klaus Schmidt believes that Gobekli Tepe was a place of worship, a sanctuary that attracted peoples from great distances to offer sacrifices. An elite class of religious leaders probably supervised the erection of the huge stone monoliths thought to represent ancestors.
Gobekli monolith
Gobekli monolithCourtesy Zunkir

Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the 10-20 ton pillars (in fact, some weigh up to 50 tons) from local quarries and move them 100 to 500m to the site.

Birthplace for farming

Imagine an area with lush green meadows, ringed by woods and wild orchards, herds of game, rivers of fish, and flocks of wildfowl. Such a plentiful source of food could support hundreds of people. If natural fields of wild grain were being eaten by wild game, the people might learn to cooperate to drive them away from this easy food source. The next step would be to help nature "plant" its seeds over a larger area.

Garden of Eden?

Many scholars view the Garden of Eden story as folk-memory, or allegory. As indicated in the Book of Genesis, Eden, like Gobekli was west of Assyria. Gobekli may have been a place where hunter-gatherers could pluck fruit from the trees, scoop fish from the rivers and spend the rest of their days in worshiping. When their increased numbers outgrew what nature offered they tried to grow their own.

As we began farming, we changed the landscape and the climate. When the trees were chopped down, the soil leached away; all that ploughing and reaping left the land eroded and bare. What was once an agreeable oasis became a land of stress, toil and diminishing returns.

Learn more about Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe: Wikipedia
The World's First Temple: Archaeology.org
Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?: DailyMail

Feb
20
2009

The Danton: The 150 meter long Danton carried about 1,000 men, 296 of whom went down with the ship when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.
The Danton: The 150 meter long Danton carried about 1,000 men, 296 of whom went down with the ship when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.Courtesy Joao Carvalho
The BBC has really outdone itself today, as far as maritime archaeology goes—it’s running a story on how cool Elizabeth I’s naval guns were, and one on the recent discovery of a French WWI battleship, found 3000 meters under the surface of the Mediterranean.

The first story is based on the finds from another shipwreck, a small fighting ship from the late 1500s. Archaeologists and historians were surprised to discover that the cannons on the ship were all the same size and used the same size ammunition. Older ships had plenty of cannon, but they were often mismatched and not necessarily designed for fighting at sea. It appears that Elizabeth began to standardize England’s naval artillery earlier than people had though. This sort of efficiency allowed for England’s eventual naval supremacy of Europe, and contributed to worldwide political changes that still affect us today blah blah blah. Whatever—we’re still interested in those cannons.

The archaeologists actually had a replica of the recovered cannon built, so they could test its effectiveness. It turned out that it was very effective at making a loud noise and throwing a ball of iron very far, very hard. These smallish cannons would have been able to lob a cannon ball about half a mile, and could penetrate the oak hulls of other battleships at 100 yards.

Is it just me, or does almost all experimental archaeology involve weapons? (I’m not complaining.)

The other article is interesting because it demonstrates how some of the coolest shipwrecks are found: accidentally. This one was found by a company doing underwater surveys on the proposed route for an underwater gas pipeline. A large section of the pipe’s path goes through an exceptionally deep part of the Mediterranean Sean, a plain of seabed about 2,850 meters below the surface, and the company was surveying it with their Autonomous Underwater Vehicle—sort of a little remote control submarine.

The AUV spotted the French battleship the Danton, resting right side-up among a field of its own debris. Apparently the path the ship had plowed through the sea floor as it hit the bottom is still visible.

The Danton was sunk by a German submarine in 1917, but was supposed to have gone down several nautical miles away from where it was actually found.

Pretty cool stuff.

If you’re interested in shipwrecks and maritime archaeology, be sure to check out the Titanic exhibit coming to the museum this summer. We’ll be displaying, among other things, Leonardo DiCaprio’s undying love.

If you’re interested in the watery part of this stuff, and not the shipwrecks so much, maybe the Water exhibit that’s running right now is the place to start.

Later, mateys.

Jan
02
2009

Archaeologists excavate mass graves in Iraq.
Archaeologists excavate mass graves in Iraq.Courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District and Regime Crimes Liaison Office
It’s the last weekend to go check out the CSI exhibit which takes visitors through the process of gathering forensic evidence and solving a case and the January issue of Archaeology magazine offers a really interesting look at how forensic techniques can be used on a large scale. It follows the role of American archaeologists in gathering evidence used in the trial of Saddam Hussein and other leaders for the 1988 mass murder of Kurdish people in Iraq.

Investigators had many documents suggesting the previous Iraqi leaders were guilty of genocide and had found what looked like mass graves. However, they looked to excavating the graves and locating the bodies in order to prove that the previous Iraqi government had targeted a civilian population of a particular ethnicity.

Mobile camp to analyze remains and artifacts
Mobile camp to analyze remains and artifactsCourtesy US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District and the Regime Crimes Liaison Office
A team of archaeologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the desert and found 10 burial pits all oriented in the same direction. They uncovered one of the pits and photographed it. Then they removed each body with its clothes and belongings one at a time, marking each one’s position. They made a case file for each victim and analyzed each individual’s clothing, bones, and DNA samples to reconstruct what had happened.

I was shocked to read that of the 114 people they found, 84 were children. From the belongings people had with them, the team thought that the victims expected to be relocated but were instead led into a one of 10 already dug pits and shot.

The archaeological evidence was used in court along with government documents and eyewitness accounts including the testimony of a man who had survived the massacre. Hussein had been sentenced to death in another trial, but five of the other six defendants were convicted.

The team of archaeologists stayed to excavate and return the bodies to Kurdish officials, who held a reburial ceremony and plan to use some of the objects for a holocaust museum.

Dec
14
2008

The oldest brain, in its natural habitat: Really, you don't even need to read the post if you look at this picture. It tells the whole story.
The oldest brain, in its natural habitat: Really, you don't even need to read the post if you look at this picture. It tells the whole story.Courtesy flappingwings
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but all y’all Buzzketeers can stop your searching—the hunt is over, and the oldest brain on the island nation of Great Britain has been found. The prize goes to this crusty old skull, found in a muddy pit in York. The skull, in turn, person who had his or her head cut off about 2000 years ago, before the Roman invasion of Britain, probably as part of a ritual sacrifice and burial (the head’s body wasn’t buried nearby).

An archaeologist was cleaning the skull (archaeologists love skulls, especially clean ones), when she noticed an “unusual yellow substance” move inside the cranium. Brain.

The “unusual yellow substance” is shrunken and fragmentary, and it probably won’t reveal much about human neurological evolution, as we haven’t evolved much in the last few thousand years (although I beg to differ—let’s see who can beat Double Dragon II first, me or an Iron Age Brit), but it still takes the oldest brain cake. Or the cake for “oldest brain,” lets say. The find is remarkable because soft tissue, brain especially, is rarely preserved over such a long period of time.

The archaeologists did point out, however, that a whole bunch of well-preserved brains inside skulls) surfaced in a Florida peat bog in the 80s, and these brains date back as far as 8000 years. So, you know, USA, USA.

Dec
01
2008

It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.
It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.Courtesy Martin LaBar
That little devil Otzi is in the news again.

I readily acknowledge the fact that I haven’t lived my life quite up to Otzi standards—I don’t have any tattoos (that I know of), I’ve never killed anybody (that I know of), I don’t own a cape…the list goes on—but I hope that when hikers find my frozen corpse, thousands of years in the future, they’ll be as thrilled with it as they are with Otzi. Honestly, every millimeter of our leathery friend is getting the once over and the double take.

Scientists figured out what Otzi’s last meal was years ago (they practically dove into his stomach), but they’re still going over the most minute of minutia of the iceman’s guts. And, you know what? I’m into it.

Archaeobotanists and moss-experts are the last to have taken a swing at Otzi. They have found trace remains of six different kinds of moss in Otzi’s intestines, and were able to identify them under a microscope. None of those moss varieties, interestingly, are the kinds of moss that you’d eat (if there are any kinds of moss you’d eat). They do, nonetheless, add to the details of Otzi’s life.

One of the kinds of moss, the scientists guess, was used to wrap one of Otzi’s last meals (sort of a fuzzy saran wrap, I guess), another probably got into his water, and another was most likely used as a dressing for a wound (he probably chewed it up and swallowed a little). At least one of the mosses, however it got into him, isn’t known to grow in the region where Otzi was found, adding another location to Otzi’s travel diary. So cross that off your bucket list, little dude.

None of this information is insulating my attic, or buying me dinner, but I still think it’s pretty cool. The same sort of forensic techniques we might use to solve a murder today are being used to learn about the life of a guy who died 53 centuries ago. I like it.

Nov
20
2008

Nicolas "Sly dog" Copernicus: What's he thinking about? What's he looking at? The stars? Young research assistants? His future as a cyborg?
Nicolas "Sly dog" Copernicus: What's he thinking about? What's he looking at? The stars? Young research assistants? His future as a cyborg?Courtesy Regional Museum of Turun
Lost for hundreds of years, the final resting place and remains of the father of modern astronomy, Nicolas Copernicus, have been found in the Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland.

Copernicus was born in 1473 in Torun, Poland, and he was the first European to suggest that the Earth rotated on its own axis once a day, and revolved around the sun once a year. Followers of the Ptolemaic theory, which had the universe revolving around the Earth, were all, “Say what?!” And some of them were even, like, “Oh no you di’n’t” and snapped in Z-formation at him. Copernicus was all “Believe it, y’all.”

But then Master C died in 1543, and seventy-three years later a pope condemned his work as contrary to scripture, and a lot of people were all “Copernicus who?” And we all forgot exactly where he was buried.

The Bishop of Frombork, however, had the notion that DJ N.C. Astronomy might be hiding out in the tombs beneath the cathedral. A few years ago, archaeologists found a body that more or less matched Copernicus’ description (male, about 70 years old, dead), but it was only recently that geneticists were actually able to confirm the identification of the remains—DNA taken from the skeleton matched DNA taken from two strands of hair found in a book known to have belonged to Copernicus.

Debate on the issue has now centered on best way to resurrect Copernicus. German researchers, for the most part, are strongly in favor of the zombie method, while their polish counterparts argue that the strength and processing power of a cyborg frame would better suit the crumbly astronomer. French scientists are dead set on cloning a younger, sexier body for Master C. The Bishop of Frombork, meanwhile, just wants to put something nice together for the tomb.

Any thoughts?

UPDATE 11/21—I just came across this article this morning. It's mostly the same information that was in the other article I linked to, but there's a cool image of the facial reconstruction from Copernicus' skull. The final image really does look like Copernicus as an old man.

Aug
27
2008

Like this: But way better. And stuff.
Like this: But way better. And stuff.Courtesy Library of Congress
Protect your grills, everybody, because the future is looking to get all up in them again!

Over the next two years, the oldest known copies of biblical documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, will be digitally scanned and placed online for all the world to examine at their leisure.

Well, not all the world. Just the parts with computers and access to the Internet, and just those people who know and care that the Dead Sea Scrolls are available for public study. So not all the world at all.

The first of the scrolls were discovered accidentally in a cave in the West Bank by a goatherd in 1947. Over the next thirty years, more scrolls—about 1000 documents in total—were found in 11 caves in the area. The documents include texts from the Hebrew Bible, dating to before 100 AD. The scrolls are also reported to contain an astonishing number of recipes and very dirty jokes.

The thousands of fragments of the scrolls were photographed in their entirety (up to that point) only once, in the 1950s. Many of those photographs are now crumbling, and so, despite the arguments of some Luddites who are no doubt on the way out themselves, scholars are taking advantage of this amazing time we live in (the future), and are subjecting the whole of the scroll collection to some fancy pants scanning.

The images of the texts will be taken in very high resolution and with varying wavelengths of light, highlighting details not readily visible to the naked eye.

The physical scrolls will be beginning a tour of the United States next month at the Jewish Museum of New York.

Jul
25
2008

Hold your horses: Chariot races were a big part of the original Olympic games. Archaeologists in Greece believe they have found the orginial hippodrome race track where those races were contested.
Hold your horses: Chariot races were a big part of the original Olympic games. Archaeologists in Greece believe they have found the orginial hippodrome race track where those races were contested.Courtesy A. Brady
Do you have Olympic fever yet? The Beijing Games get underway in just two weeks. And of course, there are bound to be a bunch of new events.

But what I’d like to see is a throwback to one of the old events: chariot races. The idea popped into my head today when reading this article that archaeologists in Greece may have found the ancient hippodrome – fancy term for track – used for chariot races in the original Olympics.

A team of German researchers, using geomagnetic technology to take pictures of structures under the ground, believes it has found the chariot track of Olympia. It was last visible some 1,600 years ago before it was buried in a river of mud. Get the full details here.

The geomagnetic technology has undiscovered an ancient circuit that stretches of nearly 656 feet underneath an area that’s now fields and olive groves. The next step in the process will be to do spot digs at the site to go down and find out what is actually there.

Part of the oblong track's distinctive outline was documented some seven feet (two meters) beneath fields and olive groves and extended almost 656 feet (200 meters) in length. Documents from Greek texts of the past peg the size of the chariot track at 3,444 feet long and featuring very elaborate starting gates, sharp turns and fancy distance posts.

Also, chariot racers where the only old Greeks to be clothed while competing. While other athletes competed nude, chariot drivers wore tunics.

So come on International Olympic Committee and NBC, let’s bring back the good old days of chariot races at the games. My hot tip – but don’t tell anyone you heard it from me – is to bet on the guy who looks most like Charleton Heston driving a team of white horses.