Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Image of St. Paul Believed to be Earliest

Catacomb's images of St. Paul (left) and St. Peter (right).

Fourth-century images of St. Peter and St. Paul were discovered earlier this month on walls of the Catacomb of Santa Tecla beneath Rome. The image of St. Paul is “the oldest icon in history dedicated to the cult of the Apostle,” according to experts of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.

Christians revere Peter and Paul as the greatest early missionaries. The apostle Peter accompanied Jesus during his lifetime, according the New Testament, while Paul converted to the faith following a blinding vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus in about 33 AD. He preached the faith to pagan Greeks and Romans and was martyred in Rome about 65 AD. Peter is presumed to have been martyred at the order of the Emperor Nero at about the same time.

The discovery of the images in the catacomb was made June 19 and announced yesterday.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Forensics Artists Reconstruct Mummy's Features

This video shows the reconstruction of Meresamun's head by Joshua Harker, while the drawing below shows her features as depicted by police artist Michael Brassell.

Two forensics artists have independently reconstructed the appearance of an ancient Egyptian temple singer named Meresamun, who lived around 800 BC and died of unknown causes at about age 30.

Researchers created a 3-D digital model of Meresamun's skull through multiple detailed CT-scans. Then the data was handed over to the two forensic artists to extrapolate the woman's facial features.

Chicago artist Joshua Harker used the Gatliff-Snow American Tissue Depth Marker Method to calculate the contours of the face and produce a digital reconstruction. This technique is considered accurate enough that its results are admissible in court to identify victims.

"The skull is the driving architecture of the face ~ all the proportions and placements are there, if you know how to read it," Harker said. "Even the shapes of the lips, nose and eyebrows can be determined if you know what to look for."

A more traditional police sketch was made by Michael Brassell, an artist who works on cold-case investigations with the Maryland Department of Justice and the State Police Missing Persons Unit. Brassell also used the CT-scan model to estimate the shape of Meresamun's face.

"The project was no different than any of the postmortem drawings I have worked on for cold case homicides," Brassell said. "The CT scans were very clear, making my job easy. If this was a homicide case, I would almost go as far to guarantee a hit on the profile drawing."

The woman inside the mummy was apparently tall for the time, with wide-spaced eyes and an overbite.

"Meresamun was, until the time of her death at about 30, a very healthy woman," said Michael Vannier, a University of Chicago radiologist who made the CT-scans. "The lack of arrest lines on her bones indicates good nutrition through her lifetime and her well-mineralized bones suggest that she lived an active lifestyle."

Click here for the LiveScience article.
Click here for the Archaeology magazine article.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Marble Head of Emporer Titus Found Near Rome

Archaeologists have unearthed a marble head of the Roman emperor Titus, during an excavation outside the southern Italian city of Naples.

So far, the digging in Rione Terra, a cliff in the port town of Pozzuoli, has yielded 12 ancient statues, columns and fragments bearing inscriptions from what appear to be monuments from the Republican and Imperial periods of ancient Rome.

The marble head of Emperor Titus ~ who ruled at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and who was celebrated throughout antiquity for providing generous financial assistance to survivors of the eruption ~ is the most striking find to date. Bearing a crown of laurel leaves, the emperor's head was found in an ancient water tunnel.

Nearby there were four marble busts, plus a frieze portraying two human figures, two figures wearing a toga, and part of an equestrian statue.

Click here for the complete Discovery News article.
Photo is marble head of Titus (39-81 AD) found recently in Pozzuoli.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Water System Contributed to Angkor Demise

Monks on the temple steps of Angkor Wat.

International scientists using new archeological, pollen and tree-ring dating evidence contend that Angkor crumbled due to urban sprawl and extreme weather conditions.

Sydney University archeologist Roland Fletcher ~ a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project, an initiative involving Cambodian, French and Australian experts ~ said he believed the new findings carry "clear implications for modern cities."

The scientists believe that before an alternating series of droughts and monsoon floods hit Angkor from the mid-14th to late 15th centuries, the capital of the Khmer empire had already had extensive problems with its vast, complicated water system.

Ultimately, it became impossible for the city to keep pace with further pressures from extreme weather. Although there was ongoing conflict with neighboring states, it was the over-built water infrastructure that locked Angkor into a trajectory of decline.

Before Angkor vanished into the jungle in the 17th century, it was the world's largest low-density pre-industrial city. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the metropolis was home to as many as 750,000 people.

Click here for the article in The Australian.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Parthenon Once Had Painted Blue Highlights

Millennia have stripped away any visible traces of blue paint.

We’re familiar with Greece’s ancient Parthenon as a classic white edifice, but new imaging technology reveals that portions of it originally were painted blue.

The temple ~ sitting atop the Acropolis in Athens ~ dates from the 5th century BC. Its carved statues and friezes show scenes from mythology and are some of the most impressive to survive from ancient Greece. Pigments are known to have adorned other Greek statues and temples, but despite 200 years of searching, archaeologists had found no trace of them on the Parthenon's sculptures.

Until now.

Giovanni Verri, a researcher at the British Museum in London, has developed an imaging technique that's ultra-sensitive to traces of an ancient pigment called Egyptian blue. He shines red light onto the marble, and any traces of paint that remain absorb the red light and emit infrared light. Viewed through an infrared camera, parts of the marble that were once blue will appear to glow.

Egyptian blue has shown up on the belt of Iris, Poseidon's messenger goddess, and as a wave pattern along the back of Helios, god of the sun, who is depicted rising out of the sea. It also appears as stripes on the woven mantle draped over another goddess, Dione.

"This adds another dimension to how we perceive the Parthenon," says Ian Jenkins, also at the British Museum. He believes the temple would originally have looked "jewelled" and "busy." The main pigments used are likely to have been blue and red, with the white stone showing through in parts, as well as gilding.

Click here for the New Scientist article.
Click here for the longer Discover Magazine article.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Crop Circle Pattern Reveals Huge Bronze Age Site

Underground remains of the Bronze Age burial complex are etched into the crops about 15 miles from Stonehenge.

A group of farmland patterns resembling crop circles in southern England have led to discovery of a huge prehistoric ceremonial complex a thousand years older than Stonehenge.

The site includes remains of wooden temples and two massive 6,000-year-old tombs that are among "Britain's first architecture," according to archaeologist Helen Wickstead of Kingston University in London. She said for such a site to have lain hidden for so long is "completely amazing."

Archaeologist Joshua Pollard agreed. The discovery is "remarkable," he said, given the decades of intense archaeological attention to the greater Stonehenge region. "I think everybody assumed such monument complexes were known about or had already been discovered," he told National Geographic.

At the 500-acre (200-hectare) site, outlines of the structures were spotted "etched" into farmland near the village of Damerham, some 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Stonehenge. Discovered during a routine aerial survey by English Heritage, the U.K. government's historic-preservation agency, the "crop circles" are the results of buried archaeological structures interfering with plant growth.

The central features are two great tombs topped by massive mounds called long barrows. The larger of the two tombs is 70 meters (230 feet) long. Such oblong burial mounds are very rare finds, and are the country's earliest known architectural form, Wickstead said. The last full-scale long barrow excavation was in the 1950s.

Click here for the National Geographic article.
Click here for previous post on the finding.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Did Machu Picchu Symbolize Mythic Journey?

Was Peru’s famed Machu Picchu actually a destination for Incan pilgrimages, offering a scaled-down version of the mythological realm encountered by Incan ancestors?

That’s the contention of a new study that disputes the conventional view that Machu Picchu was a royal estate of the Inca ruler Pachacuti, who built it around A.D. 1460. According to National Geographic:

"I believe that much of the sacred space of the Incas has still to be recognized as such," says study author Giulio Magli, an astrophysicist at the Polytechnic Institute in Milan, Italy.

Perched on a mountain ridge some 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu was for years lost to history after the Spanish conquest. The site gained notoriety following a 1911 visit by U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham, whose Machu Picchu excavation was funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

According to Magli, Machu Picchu was conceived and built specifically as a pilgrimage site where worshippers could symbolically relive an important journey purportedly taken by their ancestors.

In Inca mythology, the first Inca were created on Bolivia's Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca. From there, they undertook a harrowing journey beneath the Earth and emerged at a place called Tampu-tocco, close to the future site of the Inca capital Cusco.

Magli argues that certain structures at Machu Picchu symbolize important landmarks of this journey. For instance, a disorderly pile of stones represents the underground "void" that the first Inca traveled through.

"Pacha-Mama, or Mother Earth, was associated with disorder," Magli said. Similarly, a plaza at Machu Picchu represents Tampu-tocco, and a stone pyramid at the site doubles for the Huanacauri hill.

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.

Aztec King's Tomb Still Eludes Archaeologists

Archaeologist cleans the Tlaltecuhtli monolith, looking for blood samples that would indicate human sacrifices at the site.

Archeologists continue to dig in the dirt and black ooze under Mexico City in hopes of finding the burial place of one of the last Aztec rulers.

"They keep finding astonishing things as they inch their way along," says David Carrasco, a Harvard University historian working with Mexican archeologists at the Templo Mayor.

But the great find – a royal tomb – has eluded scientists. The city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that lies beneath the modern Mexico City, was founded on an island in the middle of a saltwater lake.

A high water table makes progress difficult. "When you dig a pit or a trench, you find very quickly the water level and cannot continue if you don't have a powerful pumping system," says Leonardo Lopez, the archeologist heading the excavation.

Since he uncovered a carved monolith of the ferocious earth deity Tlaltecuhtli in 2006, there has been intense speculation, based on historical writings and their own discoveries, that the four-metre-by-3.5-metre stone covers a royal tomb.

The stone monolith is inscribed with dates and language associated with Ahuitzotl, a king who died in 1502. Radar indicates "anomalies" under the monolith, which could be funerary spaces.

Though archeological finds in Mexico City date back to 1790, no one has ever found the burial site of an Aztec king.

"Everyone wants us to dig faster," says Lopez, "and this is the only thing we cannot do. You can only excavate once an archeological site. We are not treasure hunters but scientists, and we have a professional responsibility to record the slightest artifact in the best way."

Click here for the Toronto Star article.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

China May Unearth Another 5,000 Clay Soldiers

Chinese archaeologists today began a new excavation to find more terracotta warriors in hopes of unraveling the mysteries surrounding the ancient figures buried in the tomb of the first emperor.

The new dig is in the site's largest pit, which is believed to be still hiding around 5,000 of the life-size figures. This is the third excavation in the pit ~ one of three at the site near Xian, the capital of northern Shaanxi province ~ since 1974 when the army of terracotta warriors and horses was discovered by a peasant digging a well.

"This time, the excavation could open many unresolved mysteries, such as whether there are civil servant officials in the pit as well as soldiers," according to an official statement. According to the official China Daily newspaper, the majority of the discovered figures are archers, infantrymen and charioteers that the Qin Emperor, who had the site built, hoped would follow him into the afterlife.

Less than 10 armored generals have been unearthed with the army, part of a burial site for Qin Shi Huang, who presided over the unification of China in 221 BC and declared himself the first emperor of the nation.

In past excavations, according to the China Daily, richly coloured clay figures have turned an oxidized grey when they have been exposed to the air. The Terracotta Army is one of the greatest archaeological finds of modern times, and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Click here for the Sydney Morning Herald article.

Tomb May Be of Aztec Ruler

Archaeologists exploring a Mexico City site opened up by earthquake damage believe they have found the first tomb of an Aztec ruler. The site ~ likely the tomb of Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502 ~ may yield one of the great treasures of antiquity.

The dig is in what was the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Nearby stands the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, which was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The temple’s ruins were subsequently lost for nearly five centuries and discovered only by accident in 1978. An earthquake in 1985 cleared the way for the present dig.

The new finds appear to be offerings left at the entrance to a tomb. Among them is a fearsome stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, goddess of the Earth, perhaps a capstone to a burial chamber. When archaeologists moved the sculpture in 2007 they found four containers filled with more than 3,000 items, including animal skeletons, a fire god sculpture, blocks of incense and wooden masks.

Archaeologists found several plaster seals, which means that the site has not been looted. Between the seals there are several offerings blocking the entrance, including the skeleton of a dog, an animal that traditionally led the dead to the afterlife.

Click here for the London Times article.
Photo is mosaic serpent statue found at the site.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Basis of Death's 'Sardonic Grin' is Revealed

Scientists have determined how ancient Phoenicians created gruesome smiles ~ known as a “sardonic grin” ~ on the dead some 2,800 years ago.

According to National Geographic, elderly people who could no longer care for themselves and criminals "were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death," according to the new study.

For centuries the herb's identity has been a mystery, but study leader Giovanni Appendino and colleagues say they have discovered a sardonic grin-inducing compound in a plant called hemlock water-dropwort.

By the eighth century B.C., Homer had coined the term "sardonic grin" ~ "sardonic" having its roots in "Sardinia" ~ referring to the Sardinia’s ritual killings.

About a decade ago, a Sardinian shepherd committed suicide by eating a hemlock water-dropwort, leaving a corpse with a striking grin.

The death spurred study co-author Mauro Ballero, a botanist at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, to study every dropwort-related fatality on the island in recent decades.

For the new study, Ballero and colleagues detailed the molecular structure of the plant's toxin and determined how it affects the human body.

Study leader Appendino, an organic chemist from the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale in Italy, said, "The compound is highly toxic and causes symptoms similar to those described by the ancients for the sardonic smile, including facial paralysis."

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.
Photo shows 4th Century Phoenician mask displaying the notorious grin.

Ancient Tombs Found Near Stonehenge

Archeologists have discovered two 6,000-year-old tombs near Stonehenge. The Neolithic site had gone unnoticed under farmland despite being just 15 miles from the famous monoliths.

The tombs already are considered to be among the oldest monuments to have been found in Britain. Archaeologists say they will hold valuable clues about how people lived at the time and what their environment was like.

“It’s one of the most famous prehistoric landscapes, a Mecca for prehistorians, and you would have thought the archaeological world would have gone over it with a fine tooth comb,” Helen Wickstead, the Kingston University archaeologist leading the project, told the London Times.

From examining similar sites, archaeologists know that complex burial rituals were common at the time. Typically bodies would be left in the open air until the flesh had decayed, leaving only a skeleton. Then bones were put in special arrangements in the tombs.

“The tombs were like bone homes for important people in the community,” Wickstead said.

Click here for the complete Times Online article.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Mayans Likely Exhausted Natural Resources

Temple ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.

Builders of ancient Mayan temples at Tikal in Guatemala switched to inferior wood a few decades before they abandoned the city in the 9th century AD. This is the strongest evidence yet that Mayan civilization collapsed because it ran out of resources, rather than dying off due to war or illness.

Researchers have sampled wooden beams from all six major temples and two palaces at Tikal. The first three temples, built before AD 741, used only large, straight sapodilla logs ~ a strong wood that is nevertheless easy to carve.

But after that date, sapodilla was replaced in temple construction by logwood, a smaller tree almost impossible to carve. Researchers believe this indicates the superior sapodilla supply had been exhausted due to ecological over-exploitation.

Earlier studies of pollen deposits have suggested that deforestation and soil erosion increased in the region as Mayan civilization neared collapse.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pieces of Roman Temple of Isis Believed Found

Image of Isis from a 2nd Century AD linen shroud.

Workmen inside the courthouse in Florence, Italy, have uncovered a spiral column and hundreds of multicolored fragments that may have belonged to a Roman temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Dating to the second century AD, the remains were discovered as the men dug a hole for a new water cistern for the courthouse.

''These finds are of extraordinary importance,'' said Alessandro Palchetti, the archaeologist overseeing the works in the courthouse, who suspected something interesting might be uncovered because of the area's historic relevance. 

He said the remains were comparable to others found over the last three centuries in the immediate area that have also been attributed to the temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility who was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans.

The actual location of the temple is unknown, Palchetti said, but it is believed to have been built just outside the Roman part of the city, near the current courthouse building.

Click here for the Ansa.it article.

Second Viking Site Found in Canada

The site on Baffin Island where the Viking dwelling has been unearthed.

Remnants of a stone-and-sod wall unearthed on Canada’s Baffin Island may be traces of a shelter built more than 700 years ago by Norse seafarers. If so, it would be just the second location in the New World with evidence of a Viking-built structure.

Northern Newfoundland's L'Anse aux Meadows ~ about 900 miles southeast of the Nanook dig ~ is the only confirmed location of a Viking settlement in North America. There, about 1,000 years ago, a party of Norse voyagers from Greenland built sod-and-wood dwellings before abandoning their colony under threat from hostile natives.

However, over the past 10 years, research teams led by the Canadian Museum of Civilization's chief of Arctic archeology, Pat Sutherland, have compiled evidence that strongly suggests the Norse presence in northern Canada didn't end with the retreat from Newfoundland.

At three sites on Baffin Island, which the Norse called "Helluland" or "land of stone slabs," and another in northern Labrador, researchers have documented dozens of suspected Norse artifacts such as Scandinavian-style spun yarn, distinctively notched and decorated wood objects and whetstones for sharpening knives and axes. Among the new artifacts found near the sod-and-stone features at Nanook is a whalebone spade, consistent with tools found at Norse sites in Greenland, and which might have been used to cut sections of turf for the shelter. 

There is also evidence at Nanook of what appears to be a rock-lined drainage system comparable to others found at proven Viking sites.

Click here for the Canada.com article.