21 December, 2008

Sunday Sensational Science

Digging in the past.

Archaeology is one of the most fascinating branches of science. Uncovering our buried history helps us make sense of who we are, how we thought, and can help us understand why civilizations rise and fall. Ancient cultures were beautiful, brutal, and just plain interesting.

There have been several recent discoveries that reveal origins more ancient than we expected, potentially solve some longstanding mysteries, and give us unanticipated glimpses into our ancestors' physiology. Let's dig, shall we?

New Pyramid Found in Egypt

The 4,300-year-old monument is believed to be the tomb of Queen Sesheshet, the mother of Pharaoh Teti, the founder ancient Egypt's 6th dynasty.

Once nearly five stories tall, the pyramid—or at least what remains of it—lay beneath 23 feet (7 meters) of sand.

The discovery is the third known subsidiary, or satellite, pyramid to the tomb of Teti. It's also the second pyramid found this year in Saqqara, an ancient royal burial complex near current-day Cairo.


Starting from the 4th dynasty (2616 to 2494 B.C.), pharaohs often built pyramids for their wives and mothers.

"Mothers were revered in ancient Egypt," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the discovery.

"Building pyramids for one's mother in her dead state … was fairly emphasized in the whole vision of kingship that the ancient Egyptians had," Ikram said.

"That was something that was instituted during [a pharaoh's] lifetime and was a very public way of expressing his debt to her, his connection to her, and her importance in Egypt politically and as a symbol for kingship."

Stonehenge: an Ancient Lourdes?

The first excavation of Stonehenge in more than 40 years has uncovered evidence that the stone circle drew ailing pilgrims from around Europe for what they believed to be its healing properties, archaeologists said Monday.
Archaeologists Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill said the content of graves scattered around the monument and the ancient chipping of its rocks to produce amulets indicated that Stonehenge was the primeval equivalent of Lourdes, the French shrine venerated for its supposed ability to cure the sick.
An unusual number of skeletons recovered from the area showed signs of serious disease or injury. Analysis of their teeth showed that about half were from outside the Stonehenge area.

"People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," Darvill told journalists assembled at London's Society of Antiquaries.
He pointed out that experts near Stonehenge have found two skulls that showed evidence of primitive surgery, some of just a few known cases of operations in prehistoric Britain.

"Even today, that's the pretty serious end of medicine," he said.

DNA Identifies Copernicus's Remains

Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski told a news conference that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull, missing the lower jaw, his team found in 2005 buried in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Frombork, Poland, bears striking resemblance to existing portraits of Copernicus.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Moreover, the skull belonged to a man aged around 70 — Copernicus's age when he died in 1543.

Interactive Dig: Sagalassos

In 1706, Paul Lucas, traveling in southwest Turkey on a mission for the court of Louis XIV, came upon the mountaintop ruins of Sagalassos. The first Westerner to see the site, Lucas wrote that he seemed to be confronted with remains of several cities inhabited by fairies. Later, during the mid-nineteenth century, William Hamilton described it as the best preserved ancient city he had ever seen. Toward the end of that century, Sagalassos and its theater became famous among students of classical antiquity. Yet large scale excavations along the west coast at sites like Ephesos and Pergamon, attracted all the attention. Gradually Sagalassos was forgotten...until a British-Belgian team led by Stephen Mitchell started surveying the site in 1985.

Since 1990, Sagalassos has become a large-scale, interdisciplinary excavation of the Catholic University of Leuven, directed by Marc Waelkens. We are now exposing the monumental city center and have completed, or nearly completed, four major restoration projects there. We've also undertaken an intensive urban and geophysical survey, excavations in the domestic and industrial areas, and an intensive survey of its vast territory. Whereas the former document a thousand years of occupation, from Alexander the Great to the seventh century, the latter has established the changing settlement patterns, the vegetation history and farming practices, the landscape formation and climatic changes during the last 10,000 years.

Tomb of the Real Gladiator

The tomb of the real-life gladiator who inspired Russell Crowe's Hollywood version has been discovered, the Scotsman reported.

The tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus is "the most important Ancient Roman monument to come to light for 20 or 30 years," senior archeologist Daniela Rossi told the Scotsman. "This is without doubt an extraordinary find." The demolition of a warehouse to make room for a housing complex turned up the tomb.
Macrinas, from Brescia in northern Italy, served Emperor Marcus Arelius as a confidant. Macrinas was the pro-consul of Asia, and the emperor wanted him to lead Roman troops in battle against Germanic tribes to the north, the BBC reported.

2,000 Year-Old Brain Discovered

British archaeologists have unearthed an ancient skull carrying a startling surprise _ an unusually well-preserved brain. Scientists said Friday that the mass of gray matter was more than 2,000 years old _ the oldest ever discovered in Britain. One expert unconnected with the find called it "a real freak of preservation."

The skull was severed from its owner sometime before the Roman invasion of Britain and found in a muddy pit during a dig at the University of York in northern England this fall, according to Richard Hall, a director of York Archaeological Trust.

Finds officer Rachel Cubbitt realized the skull might contain a brain when she felt something move inside the cranium as she was cleaning it, Hall said. She looked through the skull's base and spotted an unusual yellow substance inside. Scans at York Hospital confirmed the presence of brain tissue.


Mike at The Big Stick said...

I spent three years as an archaeologist and the coolest hing I found was a 'bit' from a British shilling in the builder's trench of a circa 1816 house.

Those European guys get to have all the fun.

Dana Hunter said...

Hey, at least you got more than a lousy t-shirt. ;-)

We Southwesterners had a bit o' fun - we had an old Sinagua pit house ruin behind our house. Lots of potsherds, old firepit, the occasional arrowhead. That may be where I picked up my love for ancient history, who knows?

A lot of the canals in Phoenix follow the old Hohokam canals. And there's cliff dwellings all over the state. If you've never gotten the chance, you'll have to get yourself out there and let your inner archaeologist swoon.

Mike at The Big Stick said...

As a matter of fact I will be in the Southwest next summer on vacation. We doing Mesa Verde. Normally I'm not too excited about prehistoric American stuff, but those are too cool to miss.

That's also probably because the Indian tribes here were just hunting parties so we don't have a lot of 'civilization'. Just lots and lots of projectile points and the occasional pottery shard.