Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Science of Race: Why Rachel Dolezal Can't Choose to Be Black

The media and the public have been buzzing about the bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who says she identifies as black despite being born white.

In a "Today" show interview that aired yesterday (June 16), Dolezal hinted at a mismatch between her appearance and how she saw herself from a young age.

"I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black, curly hair," Dolezal said in the interview.

But just how common is it for people to have such discord between internal and external definitions of their race and ethnicity?

While many people feel some internal tension regarding their race or ethnicity, especially during adolescence, the lengths Dolezal went to in order to cover up her birth race are incredibly unusual, experts said.

"Kids will take on hip-hop culture or Latino culture based on their neighborhood, the schools, their community composition — but it's not something that would be lasting, because it wouldn't be reinforced" by people around them, said Anita Thomas, a health and psychology researcher at Loyola University Chicago who studies racial and ethnic identity.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Ethnicity is a complicated mix of customs, traditions and behaviors that are rooted in heritage, Thomas said. Most people get cues about their ethnicity from family, society and the media. And most people don't identify with all of the canonical traits ascribed to a given ethnicity, such as enjoying spicy food or having a close-knit extended family, Thomas said.

Though ethnic identity is often confused with racial identity, the two concepts are very different, said John Cheng, a historian of comparative racial and ethnic studies at Binghamton University in New York.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists believed "a race was the equivalent of a subspecies, so that it had meaningful biological utility. But no scientist has believed that since the 1950s," Cheng told Live Science.

In fact, race has no biological meaning, several experts said. Populations with different ancestry may have different prevalence of certain genes, including the relatively small number that produce traits stereotypically associated with a race, such as silky black hair in Asian people. But that handful of genes is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more genes that are invisible to bystanders showing up at different rates in populations of different ancestry. For instance, certain genes associated with heart failure risk are more common in African Americans, but society doesn't consider those genes a sign of being black. There are no black or Asian genes that define someone's race, said David Freund, a historian at the University of Maryland in College Park, who studies the history of racial "science," conflict and identity.

"Race and ethnicity are both 100 percent invented by modern societies," Freund told Live Science.

Just because race is constructed by society, however, doesn't mean its real-life consequences are nil or that race is malleable, he added. Race is a hierarchical system of classifying people based on four or five visible characteristics — such as skin color and hair texture — in order to confer certain privileges to one group and to disempower and discriminate against another, Freund said. And crucially, society plays a big part in defining race; few people have the option of choosing theirracial identity, he added. Racial mismatch

People commonly feel some discord between their internal and external ethnic or racial identity. For instance, expatriates may acquire some of the cultural habits of the local people, Thomas said. And children who are surrounded by people of other ethnicities and races may "try on" different ways of dressing, eating or acting, but if the people around them don't encourage it, they mostly "grow out of it," Thomas said.

Many children who are adopted by parents of a race different from their own continue to feel an ethnic or racial difference from their families, and instead identify more closely with their birth race or ethnicity, Thomas said.

"A lot of the research on transracial adoption — and particularly with international Asian adoptees — really talks about the fluidity of ethnicity," Thomas told Live Science. "But most of the adoptees would say, 'I always knew I was Korean; I always knew I was Chinese.'"

Passing as black

Historically, African Americans who were light-skinned may have passed as white, to escape oppression or even, as in the case of the early NAACP leader, Walter White, to infiltrate white supremacist groups to get informationon their plans for lynchings or other terrorist acts, Cheng said. Given the oppression faced by people identified as black, that's understandable to most people, Cheng said. But Dolezal's case is counterintuitive because she is "passing" in the opposite direction. She appears to have much darker skin, wears traditionally African American hairstyles, and has identified as black and biracial in a few situations, according to news reports.

"This case is really unusual — and actually, to be honest, really quite weird," Freund said.

Clearly, her identity as black seems to be deeply held, as she could have just said she was white but supportive of African American causes and made the controversy go away, Thomas said.

"But it's so much of how she sees herself that that disconnect can't be bridged for her," Thomas said.

Either way, the deception is problematic because most people don't get to choose their race, Freund said. Dolezal is probably benefiting from her African American identity without having experienced a lifetime of racism, and she can shed her black persona if it becomes inconvenient, Freund said.

"She can hide in her whiteness at any moment if she wants to," Freund said.
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Reference:

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “The Science of Race: Why Rachel Dolezal Can't Choose to Be Black”. Live Science. Posted: June 17, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/51245-what-is-ethnicity-racial-identity.html

Monday, August 31, 2015

Face of Tehran’s 7 millennia old woman reconstructed


source: Mehr News Agency

The reconstruction of the face of Tehran’s discovered 7-millennia-old woman had been carried out as part of the anthropological features and documentation.

In November 2014, Mahsa Vahabi, an Archeology student serendipitously discovered in the dug soil in Mowlavi St., of Tehran Water and Wastewater Company some pottery.

Her discovery of simple earthen material drew attentions from her fellow archeologist and a study team addressed the place on Mowlavi St. Further excavations uncovered from under the soil bones and skeleton, reportedly and supposedly belonging to a women from 7,000 years ago.  

Soon archeology researchers carried out research to find out more about its characteristics. A 3D documentation method was carried out on the skeleton by Mohammad Reza Rokni, an expert in Archeology Research Center.

He told Mehr News that to develop a 3D documentation, “we used whole parts of the skeleton and the principle of symmetry of human skeleton to reconstruct the missing parts or parts which are unfit for the reconstruction.”

“The model was developed drawing upon the supine position of the skeleton to represent its true position when interred; to reconstruct the face we added a digital version of missing parts mounted on the 3D model; the prepared model was pinpointed in 11 points in face on eyes, nose, ears, chicks, lips, and chin, and then the digital texturing filled these pinpoints to give us a clear image of the face,” he detailed.

Rokni also commented on the way the hairs of the woman was reconstructed; “since we had no trace of the hairs, choosing a color for hair was a matter of taste; in doing so, we drew upon the signs in pottery found in Cheshmeh Ali; five strong and standard modeling software versions helped us synchronize and corrected,” he told Mehr News.

He claimed that the finished reconstructed face would be 95 per cent accurate compared with the original face of woman last seen 7,000 years ago. “This is a common practice to reconstruct the face of skulls; however, the public would be abandoned uninformed about the practice; to make the reconstructed face more true to natural state, we fed some people’s faces to the machine to use the details to give a better and improved finished face,” he added.

Hamideh Choubak, head of the Archeology Research Center believes it is very interesting for the public to know what the face of ancient past people looked like; she said that the estimations made would not show the level of similarity to the original face.
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Reference:

Mehr News Agency. 2015. “Face of Tehran’s 7 millennia old woman reconstructed”. Mehr News Agency. Posted: June 16, 2015. Available online: http://en.mehrnews.com/news/107975/Face-of-Tehran-s-7-millennia-old-woman-reconstructed

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Half of All Languages Come From This One Root Tongue. Here’s How it Conquered the Earth

Today, three billion people speak Indo-European langauges

What do Spanish, Hindi and English all have in common? They all descended from the same mother tongue: Anatolian, or more commonly Proto-Indo-European

In fact, there's about a 50 percent chance that any given person speaks a language from the Indo-European family, as Shoaib Daniyal recently reported for Quartz. Indo-European languages, a family that includes about half the languages spoken today. But there are still a lot of questions about who founded that original tongue, and when, and how it spread. Linguists do know that Proto-Indo-European was a language unique to a tribal culture in ancient Eurasia. They know that these ancient humans only spoke their language, they never wrote it down, and today it's extinct. (Of course, that hasn't stopped linguists from trying to reconstruct the language.) But they don't know exactly when and where the language truly began, or how it came to birth so many of our modern tongues. 

Under one hypothesis, the ancestral tongue is 6,000 years old. It originated among tribal nomads on the Pontic Steppe, at the intersection of Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. These nomads had significant military prowess and had domesticated horses. Such innovative feats allowed them to spread their language by travel and conquest.

Evolutionary biologists recently usurped this nomadic theory. In 2012, a team from the University of Auckland in New Zealand estimated that Proto-Indo-European is even older, perhaps originating 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. As for its geographic origins, they pointed to Anatolia, or modern day Turkey. By their account, the first speakers practiced animal domestication and agriculture. As these practices spread, so did their language.

The video above, produced by Business Insider, maps this version of history, showing the spread and evolution of Indo-European from ancient Turkey around the world into the languages many speak today.
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Reference:

Thompson, Helen. 2015. “Half of All Languages Come From This One Root Tongue. Here’s How it Conquered the Earth.”. Smithsonian. Posted: June 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/smart-news/watch-how-indo-european-languages-conquered-earth-180955578/

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Shieling Project: Learning from the past in the Scottish Highlands

Recently, 40 pupils made the journey with me, their teachers and some parents up to the historic shieling site in the hills just above our office. The weather was windy and rainy, for many they had never been out for a day in such conditions, let alone walked such a long way in wild country.  Yet we were re-creating the journey children would have made for centuries every year: up with the cattle to the high ground, to the ‘shieling’ (àirigh in Scottish Gaelic), to milk, explore and live for the summer.

As we walked we discussed the contrast between our modern lives and these traditional ones whose footsteps we were walking in. We all felt that contrast in our bodies – breathing, working hard, carrying our needs with us on our backs. We sung Gaelic songs, and created Gaelic place-names as we went. Finally we got to the shieling – and at first the young people could see nothing – just a grassy area in the hills. But then it turned out they were standing on the ruins of a hut – not used for 250 years, but still visible if you looked. Suddenly the place came alive, as they told shieling stories, drew pictures of what it would have looked like, and we put up our own shelter to stay for the day. And this experience isn’t a one off – the teachers have been working with the Shieling Project for ten months and the pupils were on their second visit, using that ten month interval to develop projects tailored to their interests back in their class. It is this experience that we want to expand and develop. We would like to be able to host groups for whole weeks, where they could really get to grips with the history of the shieling and the implications for the present: landuse, farming, workskills, sustainability, conservation. We have a vision of a modern shieling camp, with micro-dairy and learning centre, leading Scotland in sustainability and heritage education.

Learning from the past

The project is inspired by the heritage, landscapes and traditional culture of Highland Scotland, specifically the shieling.  The shieling was a traditional practice of moving up to the high ground with livestock to live there for the summer. Young people had a fundamental role at the shieling: they took on new responsibilities, learning about themselves and the landscape beyond their homes. The shieling has many resonances today and can help Scotland’s young people face a variety of challenges: increasing levels of unhealthiness; physically, mentally and in their local environments, lack of opportunity to go outdoors, lack of contact with heritage and traditions of their local area, and little understanding of food production or farming.

Learning for sustainability

Our accredited training programmes for teachers in Learning for Sustainability enable them to address the deprivation caused by indoor lives. We combine this training for teachers with experiences for young people exploring the shieling and its impact on health and well-being today. These two services, accessed in combination or separately, support young people to understand and experience the landscape not just during the visit to the project but back home in the school and community life.

Since 2013 we have negotiated and signed a 10 year lease with the Struy Estate for our outstanding project site in Glenstrathfarrar, near Inverness. Working with our landlords, we have renovated the cottage on site for staff accommodation and office space. All project activities are now delivered from this site. We became the first organisation to be accredited by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) to deliver professional learning programme for teachers in Learning for Sustainability, and are currently recruiting our third cohort for this programme.

Our first cohort on the professional recognition programme involved mostly primary teachers and 137 young people, and has already received positive feedback from Education Scotland and the Scottish Government Learning Directorate. Our second programme (May 2015 – May 2016) is focused on secondary teachers, and our third will run from September 2015.

Transformative learning experiences

Young people and teachers report transformative learning experiences – with teachers having changed their approach, found new focus or inspiration, and young people reporting that coming to the Shieling Project was the “best day at school ever.”

Back in school after visiting the project, young people have been reflecting on what makes a community work; the values and skills needed, they have been designing small huts, creating artwork and videos, researching Gaelic work songs, and working together across classes and schools to continue these projects. They are captivated by the story of what young people did in the past, and excited to have so many opportunities to get outdoors. From a baseline at the start of their programme, they are expected to document and critique their learning journey. These journals also inform our understanding of the project’s impact.

Teachers are already reporting changes in their educational practice, the benefits of sustained reflection and discussion of outdoor learning, the opportunities to run new projects with their classes.  For example, Aboyne Academy teacher Jane Summers explained:

“I am taking part in the Shieling Project’s Professional Recognition Programme in Learning for Sustainability recognised by the General Teaching Council (Scotland). Learning for Sustainability means loads of different things to different people. To me, it’s about two things, building personal capacity in pupils and adults through engagement with their past and their environment and it’s about learning to live in and contribute effectively to their community.  The Shieling Project challenges us to do this through looking at how communities lived and worked in the past and how that can inform the way that we teach and live in our communities today. “

“I have completed my first weekend at the site in Glen Strathfarrar focusing on what I wanted to achieve in my year working with Sam and sharing experiences and insights with other colleagues. Sam works brilliantly to facilitate creative and strategic thinking, coaxing the most interesting ideas out of us through immersion in the landscape. The project is about the archaeology but it is about so much more than that too. To me, it’s about what the archaeology can inspire when used in different ways to connect young people with their landscape, culture and community today. I have had my own experiences using archaeology to develop inter-disciplinary learning in schools, and working with Sam I hope to take this further over the next 2 or 3 years, gathering valuable evidence of the importance of place-based learning to the development of young people and gaining professional recognition for my work in this area.”

A week of shieling Life

Arriving on the Monday the class will orientate itself around the shieling, learning the basics about the site, settling themselves in at the camp, looking at how water, waste and energy are managed here and how this contrasts with their everyday lives.

Camping in the comfort of simple wooden cabins, the days will follow a routine: starting in the morning with some of the class milking the cow, while the others prepare breakfast. The children will be responsible for cleaning up and making their lunches, then we will start an activity which will keep us outside for most of the day: going to the peat moss to cut and collect peats, going to the historic shieling site, mapping the area, surveying the wildlife, learning about useful plants, going to the dairy to help make and package cheese and butter. The choice of activities will be determined by the time of year, weather, and interests of the class, as well as the questions they have been working on through the project prior to the residential. The afternoon will contain some free time inside the project site and recording their experiences. The evenings will involve craft activities such as dying, weaving, felting, basketry, rope-making, story telling as well as making an evening meal. On the Friday after reviewing the week, packing and tidying, the class will depart in time to return to the school by the end of the school day.

Archaeology and experimental reconstructions

This autumn we will do an initial investigation of our historic shieling site which will involve local community, schools and university students. From this initial study we will create a fuller programme of digs in 2016 and 2017. We hope that some of the information we gather can lead to some experimental reconstructions of the shieling huts in situ.
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Reference:

Past Horizons. 2015. “The Shieling Project: Learning from the past in the Scottish Highlands”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 13, 2015. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2015/the-shieling-project-learning-from-the-past-in-the-scottish-highlands

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hidden secrets of 1491 world map revealed via multispectral imaging

Henricus Martellus, a German cartographer working in Florence in the late 15th century, produced a highly detailed map of the known world. According to experts, there is strong evidence that Christopher Columbus studied this map and that it influenced his thinking before his fateful voyage.

Martellus' map arrived at Yale in 1962, the gift of an anonymous donor. Scholars at the time hailed the map's importance and argued that it could provide a missing link to the cartographic record at the dawn of the Age of Discovery. However, five centuries of fading and scuffing had rendered much of the map's text and other details illegible or invisible, limiting its research value.

A team of researchers and imaging specialists is recovering the lost information through a multispectral-imaging project. Their work is yielding discoveries about how the world was viewed over 500 years ago.

Last August the five-member team visited the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where for years the Martellus map hung from a wall outside the reading room. (It was recently moved to the Yale University Art Gallery for storage while the library is under renovation.) The team, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, photographed the map in 12 reflective colors, including several frequencies beyond the range of visible light. Those images were processed and analyzed with high-tech software.

"We've recovered more information than we dared to hope for," says Chet Van Duzer, a map historian who is leading the project. The map, which dates to about 1491 and depicts the Earth's surface from the Atlantic in the west to Japan in the east, is dotted with descriptions in Latin of various regions and peoples. A text box visible over northern Asia describes the people of "Balor" who live without wine or wheat and subsist on deer meat.

Van Duzer says the new images reveal many such descriptions. For instance, text uncovered in southern Asia describe the "Panotii" people as having ears so large that they could use them as sleeping bags.

Newly revealed text in eastern Asian is borrowed from "The Travels of Marco Polo." From the discrepancies in wording, Van Duzer has determined that Martellus used a manuscript version of the travelogue, not the sole printed edition in Latin that existed at the time.

Perhaps the most interesting revelations, say the researchers, concern southern Africa. By studying visible river systems and legible place names, Van Duzer had previously determined that Martellus based his depiction of the region on the Egyptus Novelo map, which survives in three manuscripts of Ptolemy's "Geography." The Egyptus Novelo used geographical data from native Africans, not European explorations. It is thought that the map was based on information shared by three Ethiopian delegates to the Council of Florence in 1441.

The new images show that the Martellus map's depiction of southern Africa extends further east than the known versions of the Egyptus Novelo do, suggesting that the German cartographer was working from a more complete version of the map that showed the eastern reaches of the continent.

"It's a seminal and tremendously important document of African mapping by the people of Africa, in this case preserved by a western source," says Van Duzer.

The new images also have helped Van Duzer to determine how the Martellus map influenced later cartographers. The map is similar to a world map drawn by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507, which was the first map to apply the name "America" to the New World. The multispectral images show many of the same texts on Martellus' map in the same locations as on the 1507 map, confirming that the Martellus map was an essential source for Waldseemüller, says Van Duzer. At the same time, he notes, the cartographers' works are not identical: Waldseemüller borrowed most of his place names in coastal Africa from a different map.

"It puts you in the mapmaker's workshop," says Van Duzer. "It's easy to imagine Waldseemüller at his desk consulting various sources."

Waldseemüller was not alone in contemplating Martellus' work. Van Duzer says it is nearly certain that Columbus examined the Martellus map, or a map very similar to it.

Writings by Columbus's son Ferdinand indicate that the explorer had expected to find Japan where Martellus depicted it, and with the same orientation, far off the Asian coast, and with its main axis running north and south. No other surviving maps from the period show Japan with that configuration, says Van Duzer.

In addition, the journal of one of Columbus's crewmembers, who believed the expedition was sailing along island chains in southern Asia, describes the region much as it is depicted in the Martellus map.

Revealing the map's faded details provides a more complete picture of Columbus's perception of geography, notes the historian.

"It's always interesting to learn how people conceived the world at that period in history," says Van Duzer. "The late 15th century was a time when people's image of the world was changing so rapidly. Even within Martellus's own career, what he was showing of the world expanded dramatically."

The discoveries are the result of painstaking effort. The multispectral images are processed using special software that finds the precise combination of spectral bands to enhance the visibility of text. The work involves a lot of experimentation. The map's text was written in a variety of pigments, which complicates the task of recovering lost letters because individual pigments respond differently to light.

"We're still finding things," says Professor Roger Easton of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology. "We're focusing on these difficult cartouches and text blocks. One day last week we pulled out 11 characters. The next day, we got several words."

Easton estimates the team has uncovered about 80% of recoverable text. Some of the text is entirely invisible before processing. The team is currently at work uncovering details in the region around Java.

Once the project is completed, the new images will be made available to scholars and the public on the Beinecke Library's website.
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Reference:

Cummings, Mike. 2015. “Hidden secrets of 1491 world map revealed via multispectral imaging”. Phys.org. Posted: June 12, 2015. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2015-06-hidden-secrets-world-revealed-multispectral.html

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Five Reasons You Shouldn't Buy That Ancient Artifact

As an archaeologist who works in Italy, I usually get contacted a few times a year by someone wanting to know if an artifact they bought on vacation somewhere in Europe is authentic. Surely an expert on Roman culture can give detailed information on a pot or a statuette, figure out if it’s authentic, and estimate its value, right? Not quite. Professional archaeologists are bound by codes of ethics. The two national organizations I belong to, the Society for American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America, both exhort archaeologists to avoid “activities that enhance the commercial value” of archaeological objects. We are not and should not be in the business of appraising antiquities, and my response to these queries involves trying to educate people on the reasons behind these ethics.

So why shouldn’t you buy that ancient artifact on vacation? It has nothing to do with the “mummy’s curse” and everything to do with legal, scientific, and ethical issues.  Many people think there is no harm in collecting a piece of the past and that they are investing in history, but here’s why they couldn’t be more wrong:

1. The object is most likely fake. Fake artifacts have a long history around the world, as even the Romans were copying original Greek sculptures, and chances are the pot or statuette you find in a small town in a foreign country was produced for the tourist market. Some countries, such as Israel, have laws that mandate sellers specifically mention when something is a replica, but these laws are not always followed.

2. If it isn’t fake, it may be illegal. Buying and bringing antiquities back to your home country may be illegal. In 1970, UNESCO wrote a convention on cultural property. The countries that adopted it — now totalling 128 — were required to set up cultural heritage guidelines and laws to prevent illegal import and export of ancient objects. These regulations were put in place at different times by different countries, but the 1970 date has stuck as a short-hand because of the Association of Art Museum Directors‘ widely-adoptedguidelines to the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art.

3. Its trade helps fuel international conflicts and wars. In current conflicts in Syria andEgypt and ongoing ones in Iraq, archaeological sites are literal battlegrounds, and radical terrorist groups count antiquities sales among their income streams. This makes for difficult ethical quandaries for archaeologists, who have dual obligations to protect cultural heritage and to put aside ancient history to help modern people. By dint of existing, the lucrative antiquities market means conflicts will involve damaging, destroying, or ransoming ancient objects and sites.

4. It may have been procured from looting of archaeological sites, which destroys our ability to understand the past. As soon as artifacts are taken out of the ground, their specific context disappears. Archaeologists record all the data we can — not just what an artifact looks like, but how it is related to other artifacts, people, and buildings — with increasingly sophisticated techniques. Driven usually by the desire to make money off of the sale of newly-found artifacts, many looters break into artifact storage areas or, worse yet, dig haphazardly in the ground. Looters prevent us from fully understanding the past by destroying the archaeological context of artifacts.

5. It probably can’t be donated to a museum. Indiana Jones taught us that artifacts belong in a museum, and some collectors get tax breaks for donating their items.  But since the 1970 UNESCO convention, museums have tightened their guidelines for what they can and cannot accept. The J. Paul Getty Museum is the most high-profile museum to come under fire for acquiring objects with less-than-clean bills of sale. Last month, a couple dozen items were returned to Italy from public and private collections around the U.S., and thousands of items have been repatriated in the last decade. If an artifact doesn’t have a spotless history, a museum won’t touch it.

The U.S. is the biggest art market in the world, followed by China and the U.K., and therefore we all need to be aware of looting, black-market art trade, and our ethical responsibilities to our collective past and to present conflicts. Looting and illicit antiquities trading destroy our ability to learn about the past and contribute to the marginalization of modern people around the world.

What should you do if you are already in possession of suspected antiquities or if you’re unsure of their provenance? If you’ve inherited an arrowhead collection your grandfather dug up on his farm, go ahead and email an archaeologist at your local university, as she may be able to help you confirm that finds made on private land are historic or prehistoric. But if you have potentially ancient objects from another country without good documentation prior to 1970 or that were imported after that date, my best advice is to contact either a reputable appraiser or auction house, or to contact a lawyer who specializes in art, antiquities, or cultural heritage. They are better equipped to offer helpful, legally-informed advice than archaeologists are.
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Reference:

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Five Reasons You Shouldn't Buy That Ancient Artifact”. Forbes. Posted: June 12, 2015. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/06/12/five-reasons-you-shouldnt-buy-that-ancient-artifact/

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Burned Bones in Alexander the Great Family Tomb Give Up Few Secrets

It's a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, with a backstory that puts "Game of Thrones" to shame: Who was laid to rest in a lavish, gold-filled Macedonian tomb near Vergina, Greece? The tomb, discovered in 1977, might be the final resting place of Philip II of Macedon, conqueror of Greece and father of Alexander the Great, who would push his father's empire to the edge of India. 

Or, it might be the grave of the distinctly less impressive Philip III Arrhidaios (also written as Arrhidaeus), the half brother of, and figurehead successor to, Alexander the Great. 

The latest volley in the debate over which Philip occupies the tomb makes a case for the illustrious Philip II, arguing that the woman found interred alongside the much-debated male body was too old to have been the younger Philip's wife. But this new research seems unlikely to resolve the great Macedonian tomb mystery.

A complicated history

Archaeologists discovered the contentious tomb in 1977. Amid paintings and pottery was a gold sarcophagus containing a man's cremated bones. Nearby were the even-more-fragmentary burned bones of a woman. 

The tomb's discoverers declared the man was Philip II, who took the throne of Macedonia in 359 B.C. as regent for his infant nephew. Displaying the kind of initiative that defined the Macedonian royal family, Philip II quickly took the throne for himself and started conquering his neighbors. 

This went well until 336 B.C., when one of Philip II's bodyguards assassinated him as he walked into a theater in the Macedonian capital of Aegae. It's not entirely clear why the king was murdered; ancient historians told various tales, including one in which the murderer was a former male lover of Philip who had hounded another of Philip's male lovers to suicide and then was himself subjected to sexual assault by one of Philip's in-laws as revenge for that suicide. Some argued that Philip's fourth wife, Olympias, who was rumored by the historian Plutarch to sleep with snakes, had something to do with it. 

Regardless of whether Olympias was that diabolical, she certainly knew how to play politics — with bloody results. The queen moved quickly to put her own son, Alexander, on the throne. She arranged for Philip's two children by another wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, to be killed; Cleopatra Eurydice committed suicide by force soon after. Archaeologists who argue that the tomb at Vergina contains Philip II's bones have argued that the female remains found in the tomb belong to Cleopatra Eurydice.

But not everyone believed the bones matched those of Philip II. In 1981, a further examination of the remains led to claims that the body instead belonged to Philip III Arrhidaios. After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. (under mysterious circumstances, naturally), Philip III Arrhidaios took the throne as a figurehead, with his niece and wife Eurydice (not the same person as his father’s seventh wife) as queen. Ancient historians described Philip III Arrhidaios as mentally unfit. Plutarch blamed Olympias for the mental issues, claiming she'd tried to poison Arrhidaios as a child, but Plutarch clearly was not Olympias' biggest fan, and modern historians are skeptical. 

Eurydice, however, was a force to be reckoned with. Her attempts to grab real power put her on a collision course with Olympias and her allies. In 317 B.C., during a war over secession, Olympias' forces defeated the king and queen — Philip III Arrhidaios and Eurydice. He was executed, and she was forced to commit suicide. As if that weren't enough indignity, their bodies were dug up more than a year later and cremated for a royal funeral meant to shore up legitimacy for the next king.  

Archaeological arguments

Much of the debate around whether the tomb belongs to Philip II or Philip III Arrhidaios has focused on the burned bones. In the 1980s, Jonathan Musgrave, an anatomist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, created a facial reconstruction of the skull and argued that a notch in the bone over one eye matched historical descriptions of one of Philip II's battle wounds. In 2000, Greek paleoanthropologist Antonis Bartsiokas published a paper in the journal Science arguing that the bone notch and other features Musgrave had highlighted were simply incidental to cremation. (Musgrave does not agree.) 

Another line of debate questions whether the bones show signs of warping, which occurs when flesh-covered bodies are cremated. If the bones of Philip III Arrhidaios were dug up and cremated months after the king's death, they might show less warping, or at least a different warping pattern compared with what would be found if the bones were cremated immediately. 

Much of this argument falls by the wayside in the new paper, recently accepted for publication by the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The researchers, led by Theodore Antikas of Aristotle University in Greece, conducted a five-year forensic study of the bones, including computed tomography (CT) scans. 

The researchers argue that the bones of the man and the woman were, in fact, cremated with the flesh still on; however, because Philip III Arrhidaios was not in the ground long enough to become completely skeletal before exhumation, this does little to distinguish the two men. 

The new study likewise fails to find any evidence of an eye wound in the male skull, though the researchers did find a healing wound in the hand that might match one of Philip II's battle injuries. The male body also had growths called Schmorl's nodes on his lower vertebrae, a telltale sign of bone stress from horseback riding. 

With no smoking guns to identify the male skeleton, the team turned to the female bones. Here, they argue, was a 30- to 34-year-old woman, also a horseback rider, who had a fractured leg bone that would have caused her left leg to be shorter than her right. Tellingly, a set of leg armor, or greaves, found in the tomb appears to be made to fit someone with a shortened left leg, Antikas wrote. This suggests the tomb artifacts, including a quiver holding 74 arrowheads, belonged to the woman buried in the tomb, pointing to her identity as a Scythian princess married to Philip II in 339 B.C. Scythia was a kingdom comprising what is now Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe.

"The gorytus, arrowheads, spears and everything in the antechamber belong to a Scythian warrior woman and NOT to Philip or any other woman but the seventh wife/concubine, namely the daughter of King Ateas," Antikas wrote in an email to Live Science. (A gorytus is a case for bows and arrows.) Antikas declined to comment on other aspects of the study. If he’s right, however, the woman in the tomb is not the Macedonian Cleopatra Eurydice, but another, foreign bride of Philip II’s. 

Bone backlash

But the move toward identifying the tomb's occupants based on the female skeleton rather than the male one brings its own controversy. 

"Frankly, I am disappointed that the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology has published this article," said Maria Liston, an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who studiescremated remains in Greece. "I don't think it makes a substantive contribution to this debate, and it certainly does not refute the position of those who say the skeleton is not Philip II."

Among the problems with the new research, Liston said, is an overconfident approach to aging the skeletons. The researchers looked at the pubic symphysis, the cartilage-padded joint of the pubic bone, to peg the woman's age at between 30 and 34 years. But the method they used can't possibly determine age to that level of precision, Liston said. Rather, it can pinpoint the woman's age only to between 21 and 53 years old, she said. 

The researchers also found that the sternal end of the clavicle, the end near the breastbone, was fused. But that fusion blows their case out of the water, Liston said, because the bones begin to fuse by 19 or 20 years old and are usually done fusing within a few years, and are always fused entirely by age 29. 

"It can't be the age they're saying," Liston told Live Science. If the woman was younger than 29, as the clavicle fusion suggests, she could well be Philip III Arrhidaios' wife Eurydice, who was only about 20 when she died. 

Even the broken leg doesn't seal the case, Liston said. She's not convinced the asymmetrical greaves are made for someone with legs of two different lengths — one may simply have a lengthened flange that flared over the ankle, providing the leading leg with an extra bit of protection. Thus, the greaves may not belong to the woman in the tomb at all. 

Other archaeologists contacted by Live Science declined to comment, citing the preliminary nature of the paper (the journal has not yet released a final version of the publication) or unfamiliarity with the burial context. The tombs at Vergina are an important cultural and tourist site in Greece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which raises the stakes of what would otherwise be a largely academic debate. The museum at Aigai, which oversees the tombs, refers to the tomb as Philip II's without caveat, as does UNESCO. But among archaeologists, nothing is settled. 

"We're never going to build a case that it's Philip II or Philip III that we could go into court and say, 'We have a positive ID,'" Liston said. She understands the draw of giving the skeleton a name, however. 

"I'm as subject as anyone to the thrill of touching the past," she said. But whether the skeleton is Philip II or Philip III, she said, it's rare and exciting to be able to identify so closely a set of bones from more than 2,000 years ago — and either way, the tomb's occupant was a Macedonian royal.  

"Frankly, to me, whoever it is, it's really cool," Liston said. 
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Reference:

Pappas, Stephanie. 2015. “Burned Bones in Alexander the Great Family Tomb Give Up Few Secrets”. Live Science. Posted: June 11, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/51172-alexander-the-great-family-tomb-mystery.html