Tuesday, August 23, 2016

'Witch' Prison Revealed in 15th-Century Scottish Chapel

An iron ring set in the stone pillar of a 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen may not look like much, but historians say it could be a direct link to a dark chapter in the city’s past — the trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen's "Great Witch Hunt" in 1597.

"I was skeptical, to be honest — the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine," said Arthur Winfield, project leader for the OpenSpace Trust in the United Kingdom, which is restoring the chapel as part of a community-based redevelopment of the East Kirk sanctuary at the historic Kirk of St Nicholas, in central Aberdeen.

Winfield told Live Science that two places within the kirk (the Lowland Scots word for "church") had been equipped as a prison for witches snared in the Aberdeen witch hunt: the stone-vaulted chapel of St Mary, and the tall steeple of the kirk, which was at that time the tallest structure in the city.

Winfield said that neither location would have been warm in the winter of 1597, when those accused of witchcraft awaited trail, and likely their execution: "In the winter nowadays, the temperature gets down to 3 degrees [Celsius] in St Mary's Chapel, and I guess it would be even colder up in the spire."

Witch hunting in Scotland in the 16th century was not carried out by mobs with pitchforks, but by royal commissions at the orders of the king. As a result, Aberdeen’s city archives today hold meticulous original records of the witch trials and executions in 1597, including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron rings and shackles installed to imprison accused witches at the Kirk of St Nicholas.

The city records also detail the costs for the rope, wood and tar later used to burn the convicted witches at the stake, at Castle Hill and Heading Hill in Aberdeen, before large crowds of onlookers. As a small mercy, most of the condemned were strangled to death before their bodies were burned, according to the University of Edinburgh’s online Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.

The Great Witch Hunt

Chris Croly, a historian at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science that Aberdeen’s Great Witch Hunt of 1597 was one phase of a wave of witch persecutions across Scotland sparked by the witchcraft laws of King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603).

"It is often said that Aberdeen burned more witches than anywhere else — that may not be entirely accurate, but what is absolutely accurate is that Aberdeen has the best civic records of witch burning in Scotland, and so it can appear that way," Croly told Live Science.

He said the wave of witchcraft persecutions that began in Europe in the 15th century and reached Scotland in the 1590s, continued into the Americas in the 17th century and led to the infamous witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693.

Many Protestant and Catholic authorities at the time were united in a belief that witchcraft was the result of witches "communing with the devil" and that biblical scripture justified their execution. "That's how this wave can sweep through both Protestant and Catholic countries," Croly said.

One the most famous cases of the 1597 witch trials in Aberdeen involved two members of one family. The mother, Jane Wishart, was convicted of 18 counts of witchcraft, including casting spells that caused illness in her neighbors; inducing a mysterious brown dog to attack her son-in-law after an argument; and dismembering a corpse that hung on a gallows, to provide the ingredients for her magic.

Wishart's son, Thomas Leyis, was also convicted of heading a coven of witches that had danced with the devil at midnight in Aberdeen's fish market area. Both mother and son were strangled and burned, and the city records note that it cost "3 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence" to provide enough peat, tar and wood for Leyis’ pyre.

Buried beneath the kirk

In 2006 and 2007, the East Kirk of St Nicholas was the scene of a major archeological excavation before restoration work could be done to develop the former church as a community center. The redevelopment effort is known as the "Mither Kirk Project," from the Lowland Scots words for "mother church."

No remains of the accused witches were found at the site, and Croly noted that they would have been buried elsewhere, on "unhallowed ground." But the excavations had provided archaeologists with an extraordinary look at the lives of the people of the city from the 11th to the 18th centuries, he said. Over the course of the excavation, the remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were disinterred from grave sites that lay under the floor of the East Kirk, said Croly, who was Aberdeen’s city historian at the time of the excavations, and worked closely with city archaeologists on the project.

Most of the bodies were buried before the 1560s, when the Protestant Reformation in Scotland forbade burials inside churches, but the practice was profitable and continued in a small way until the 18th century, he said.

The excavations had also found evidence of earlier church buildings beneath the existing kirk that dated to the 11th century, and the graves of nine babies that had been laid out together in an arc near an 11th-century wall — possibly the victims of an epidemic of disease, Croly said.

Now that archaeological tests on the bodies from the kirk have been completed, the Mither Kirk Project plans to hold a ceremony later this year to reinter the bodies in a vault beneath the current floor level.

At a later date, the former "prison for witches" in St Mary's Chapel will be redeveloped as a "contemplative space," said Arthur Winfield, the project leader for the OpenSpace Trust. "That space will be kept as an area of peace and tranquility — essentially, it is going to be respected for the chapel that it was, and will be again," he said.

Metcalfe, Tom. 2016. “'Witch' Prison Revealed in 15th-Century Scottish Chapel”. Live Science. Posted: July 19, 2016. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/55452-witch-prison-revealed-in-scottish-chapel.html

Monday, August 22, 2016

Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas


The rise in migrant deaths at the South Texas Border has created a humanitarian crisis.  The dead have been buried as “unknown” without proper analyses or DNA collection, leaving no hope of identification. With recent exhumations of these “unknowns”, Texas State University faculty and students are helping to identify and repatriate these individuals to their families.

The Humanitarian Crisis at The South Texas Border

"People sometimes have difficulty understanding why the families of those who die in disasters are so invested in the recovery of their loved ones' bodies...It is when the remains of their loved ones are returned to the family that the more personal experience of the death tends to begin. " Gerard Jacobs, 2014

In 1994, the United States Border Patrol (USBP) adopted the policy “Prevention through Deterrence” as the operational strategy of choice for securing the US-Mexico border.  This strategy deterred migrant crossings in populated areas that were relatively safe and instead forced migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas (Haddal 2010).  As a result, a funnel effect was created that led to an increase in migrant apprehensions and deaths (Rubio-Goldsmith 2006).  The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME) located in Tucson, Arizona receives the remains of migrants, due to their proximity to the border.  The PCOME also keeps official statistics on border deaths. In 2000, as a result of “Prevention through Deterrence”, migrant death rates began to rise.  Between the years of 1990 to 1999, 129 deaths occurred along the Arizona-Mexico border in contrast to the 802 deaths that occurred within the next five years (Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006).

Although USBP strategies have historically aimed to stop migrants before entering the US, the problem still remains that migration and death continue, creating a humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. Until recently the majority of migrant deaths occurred in Arizona despite the fact that the Texas-Mexico border covers 1,254 miles of the 1,900 miles of the entire border (Texas Tribune, 2014). However, in 2012 Texas surpassed Arizona in deaths, with the majority occurring in the Rio Grande Valley and more specifically in Brooks, County, Texas (USBP, 2012).

The Mass Disaster in Brooks County, Texas

In Texas, unlike Arizona, not all migrant deaths are sent to a medical examiner’s office.  Brooks County, Texas receives the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths each year (80 in 2011, 129 in 2012, and [Grave Marker] 87 in 2013, and these deaths fall under the jurisdiction of a Justice of the Peace (JP), as there is no medical examiner within the county.  When any individual dies and the circumstances surrounding death are unknown, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures requires a forensic examination, collection of DNA samples, and submission of paperwork to an unidentified and missing persons database.  However, due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, the local JP and Brooks County Sheriff’s Office were overwhelmed and began to bury the undocumented migrants, most without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples, leaving little chance that these individuals will ever be returned to their families.  In turn, families are left without knowing what has happened to their son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister.

In response to the migrant burials in Brooks County, Dr. Lori Baker (Baylor University) and Dr. Krista Latham (University of Indianapolis) and their students performed voluntary exhumations of these burials for the purpose of skeletal analysis and DNA sampling in hopes of facilitating positive identifications and returning individuals to their families.  However, the majority of the exhumations contained individuals in early to late stages of decomposition, requiring storage until the remains could be prepared for analysis.  Because the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) has large scale storage, processing, and analysis capabilities due to the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) and the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), the undocumented migrant remains (57 in 2013 and 20 in 2014) were brought to FACTS for processing (maceration to skeletal remains) and analysis to facilitate identification. Teaching, research, and service are the pillars of the FACTS mission.

Once in FACTS custody, all remains are taken to a special enclosure within FARF while faculty and students conduct intake procedures that involve opening body bags and documenting the condition of remains and personal effects.  At this time, personal effects are removed and placed in plastic bags for freezer storage until they can be hand-washed and dried for photography. Thus far, in our work towards identification, personal effects have played a major role in narrowing down the identity of remains because family members report what their loved one was wearing when they were last seen alive.  Once the remains have been processed at ORPL, they are analyzed to generate a biological profile, the estimation of age, sex, geographic origin, and height.  [Shirt] Additionally, any trauma or pathology is noted.

"The man tied a [brown plad] shirt around the knee to help him walk.  He was left behind under a tree, somewhere near Falfurrias, Texas.  The family visited Falfurrias and were shown pictures of a body that they believe is Oscar*, but were told that the body had already been buried and there was no DNA sample to confirm identity."

Excerpt from a missing persons report taken by the Colibri Center for Human Rights and upload into NamUS

*name has been changed

The Identification Process

The identification process for any unidentified human remains usually begins with entering the biological profile, along with all case information, including personal effects, into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).  Because NamUs contains both missing persons information (reported by family) and unidentified persons information (reported by medical examiners, anthropologists, or law enforcement), FACTS faculty and students can search through records of the missing and unidentified to narrow down potential matches.  If a missing person in NamUs is a potential match to an unidentified person, the family of the missing person can submit a DNA sample to the University of North Texas (UNT) and FACTS will submit a DNA sample from the skeletal remains.  Identity can be established or ruled out based on comparison of the DNA profiles.  Additionally, DNA testing through UNT is free.

Alternatively, if the biological profile of an unidentified individual does not have any potential matches within NamUs, a DNA sample from the skeletal remains is submitted to UNT and the DNA profile generated will be stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).  CODIS contains DNA from families and unidentified human remains.  CODIS will cross-reference DNA from unidentified human remains with DNA samples from families to see if there are any potential matches (identifications).

Problems With Identification For Undocumented Migrants

Resources for decedent identification within the US, such as NamUS and CODIS often lack missing persons information or appropriate DNA samples from family for comparison to undocumented migrant deaths. While DNA profiles of unidentified remains are cross-referenced with DNA from the families of missing persons within CODIS, CODIS does not allow foreign nationals to submit DNA samples unless there is a potential for a one-to-one match (e.g. based on circumstantial evidence, missing persons case A is likely one in the same as unidentified persons case A).  Therefore, although DNA samples from undocumented persons are submitted to CODIS, there is no DNA for comparison, therefore no identifications will be made.

The process of identification of migrant remains in Texas, as in every other border state requires collaboration with multiple agencies. Currently FACTS collaborates with the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and with the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to facilitate migrant identifications. The EAAF and Colibrí provide a mechanism for families of missing migrants to file missing persons reports. These agencies also provide a mechanism for families to submit DNA samples that can be sent to a private DNA lab for comparison. FACTS faculty maintain a close working relationship with these agencies in addition to foreign consulates and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as some of the cases represent individuals under the age of 18.  Working with all of these agencies has resulted in one positive identification of a young woman from Honduras and another pending identification.

Request for Funding

The amount of migrant deaths recovered from Brooks County, Texas in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737. If a 737 crashes, it is considered a mass disaster and state funding is spent to facilitate recovery and identification of the passengers. Because these migrant deaths accumulate slowly, albeit in the same geographic location, they are not considered a mass disaster and no funding has been released to adequately process this particular mass fatality. While Texas State University has the facilities to handle such a mass fatality, our efforts are strictly voluntary. Because FACTS also has a large willed body donation program, processing both the donated remains (~70 per year) and the migrant remains is time consuming and requires full time efforts. Time is of the essence in trying to identify these individuals.

We are seeking funding for a full time project manager and a part-time project assistant to ensure that the migrant deaths are processed in a timely fashion that will facilitate identification and repatriation of remains to families. The full time project manager will supervise all processing and analysis of remains, organize case information, serve as point of contact for collaboration with all external agencies including but not limited to the EAAF, Colibrí Center for Human Rights, foreign consulate offices, law enforcement, and NCMEC.  The project assistant will facilitate processing of human remains, assist with analysis, provide data entry into internal databases and NamUs, and supervise undergraduate students to wash and photograph personal effects for upload to NamUs, DNA sample collection, and assist in searching for possible matches with missing persons.

With funding we anticipate we can analyze all cases, upload to NamUs, submit DNA samples to UNT and private labs as needed, and work towards identification on the remaining 53 cases in our laboratory within a two-year time period.  Without funding, it may take five years or longer to complete this work. Traditional funding sources, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Health only fund research. Operation Identification is an applied project, not research oriented, that benefits the many families who are missing loved ones. Any financial support will go directly to Operation Identification funds for processing, analysis, and identification.

Texas State University is a Hispanic Serving Institution and maintains a 501c3 status for charitable gifts.

Spradley, Kate. 2016. “Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas”. Texas State University Department of Anthropology. Posted: March 25, 2016. Available online: http://www.txstate.edu/anthropology/people/faculty/spradley/Identifying-Migrant-Deaths-in-South-Texas.html

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Vikings abused and beheaded their slaves

The Vikings in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland had slaves, or thralls. These thralls probably held multiple roles, serving their masters in many ways in Viking society a thousand years ago.

They could also be given the ultimate rough assignment when important Vikings died.

Some followed their masters into the grave.

Few contemporary descriptions of Viking burials exist. But the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlān witnessed one such ritual when a Viking chieftain died.  Fadlān had met the Eastern Vikings, also called Rūsiyyah, in what is now Russia:

“Six men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the ‘Angel of Death’ placed arope around her neck (…) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (…) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.” [From Ibn Fadlān’s Account as related in an article by James E. Montgomery, Cambridge, published in The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 2000] (more text here)

Ibn Fadlān journeyed into what is now Russia in the 920s AD and left us a manuscript describing his experiences. He told the above story of this slave girl who volunteered to be sacrificed.

The Viking Age started in the late 700s and lasted until the year 1050. Vikings travelled far out of Scandinavia, west as far as present day Canada and east through Russia to Constantinople.

But who were their slaves and what can we learn from the archaeological findings?

Physical labourers and advisors

As many as 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia could have been slaves, according to the Norwegian website Norgeshistorie.no. These can have been kidnaped and forced into slavery. They can have been captured during Viking raids but they can also have simply sunk into debt and had to meet their obligations by entering into lifelong servitude. 

In “Rigsthula”, which is one of the Edda Poems of Iceland, it is clear that the thralls comprised the lowest class in society. They were shouldered with the heavy and undesirable tasks on the farms, such as digging peat or watching over pigs, according to Norgeshistorie.no. They could also be exploited sexually.

There were probably many categories of these thralls. But how much do we know about their roles?

Anna Kjellström is a researcher at the Osteological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University. We met her recently at the conference “Viking World 2016”, held at the University of Nottingham in England.

Kjellström participates in a project examining the graves of what are assumed to be slaves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The skeletal remains of these servants of the Vikings are being analysed to reveal some facts about where they came from and how they lived.

Several of these slave graves have one thing in common: The thralls did not end their lives in a peaceful way. Most of them had been abused, injured and decapitated before being laid to rest together with their masters.

In some of the graves the skulls were missing altogether but no one knows why.

Not typical slaves

Few archaeological traces of the Viking’s slaves are found. Kjellström’s investigations cover around ten graves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark where slaves are thought to be buried, either alone or along with persons of rank.

But can slavery be detected by studying bones?

“Often what we find in graves are higher-ups, but other individuals can also be present. These are not as dutifully interred in the grave,” explains Kjellström.

These companions in death were also buried without any grave goods or treasures, which are otherwise common in Viking graves. The graves in this study have been known for a long time and excavated decades ago. One of these graves belonged to the “Moose Man” from Birka, near Stockholm.

This is a famous grave found in 1988. Its occupant was a warrior who had been buried with weapons, a shield and moose antlers. Beside the man was a thrall who was interred without any possessions. The head had been separated from the body. This person is thought to have been sacrificed.

“Many bare signs of execution or mortal harm. They don’t have signs of injuries which have healed. This would have suggested that their injuries came to them earlier in life, for instance in battle,” says Kjellström.

Another example is the Grimsta grave, also in the Stockholm area. Two decapitated men were found here who could also have been slaves and perhaps sacrificed.

Human sacrifices?

“In addition to Fadlān’s tale there are a few descriptions in the sagas of slaves and wives who volunteer to being killed and placed in the grave,” says Elise Naumann, an archaeologist and postdoc at the University of Oslo.

“We have no reason to doubt that the burials were brutal,” says Naumann in comment to the Fadlān narrative.

“Another common practice was the sacrificing of animals and placing them in human graves, so this does tie in with Viking rituals.”

Naumann has also studied a Viking grave at Flakstad, in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Again, slaves might have been included along with grave goods. Here too, the dead who accompanied a person of high rank had been decapitated and are presumed to have been slaves.

“But we don’t really know why the slaves were killed. The term ‘human sacrifice’ can be a bit off the mark, as that usually applies to sacrifices to the gods.”

Naumann mentions the theories of the archaeologist Neil Price who works at Uppsala University. He has pointed out that every one of these graves is different, despite sharing common characteristics. The grave goods in them differ and the slaves have been abused or killed in various ways.

“There are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang [Norway].”

“The fact that the graves are so disparate might mean that they are part of a burial ritual that recreates important incidences in the deceased person’s life. This would explain why each grave is unique,” says Naumann.

In any case, many slaves seem to have suffered a brutal death.

Not much difference

Anna Kjellstrøm’s project is not complete yet. But she presented some initial results at the conference in Nottingham.

Strontium isotope analyses have been made on the remnants of the persons who were assumed to be slaves. These can show where a person has grown up. Strontium is present in rocks round the world and we absorb it in our bodies through water and food. It builds up in our teeth and bones in the course of our lives, as described in Archaeology magazine.

Strontium levels can thus provide indications of whether, for instance, persons have grown up at the same location.

“The results clash. Some individuals have come from other places. But some of the skeletal material we have seen shows little difference from other, local groups,” she says.

This could mean that a few of the slaves in the graves had grown up in the same place as their masters. People may have a notion of thralls being captured elsewhere and brought to Scandinavia. But many might have been locals who were born into slavery.

“We don’t have may graves to og by. So it’s hard to tell whether these are common slaves or whether these once had special roles, perhaps as advisors.” Despite the obviously brutal executions, the skeletons do not indicate that these persons were undernourished. 

“Some diseases leave traces in the bones. Theoretically, you would see whether individuals have suffered much, but we are not seeing this here.”

“In some of the graves it looks like these persons have lived quite like their masters.”

Kjellström stresses that bones do not tell the whole story and she would be cautious about drawing conclusions.

“They can have been slapped around daily, but that doesn’t turn up in the bones.”

Local slaves

Elise Naumann also thinks it probable that many slaves came from the same locations as the rest of the Viking population.

“The female slaves might have given birth to lots of children. Even though the master had sired many of these kids, such offspring could still grow up as slaves,” says Naumann.

Researchers who have studied slavery in the Nordic countries commonly think the majority of the thralls came from Scandinavian countries.

The historian Tore Iversen took his doctorate with a study of Norwegian slaves in the Middle Ages and concludes that many were recruited from within the country.

Biørnstad, Lasse. 2016. “Vikings abused and beheaded their slaves”. Science Nordic. Posted: Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/vikings-abused-and-beheaded-their-slaves

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Blue, green or 'nol'?

A new Northwestern University study shows that even in infants too young to speak, the object categories infants form and their predictions about objects' behavior, are sculpted by the names we use to describe them.

As English speakers, we might encounter a natural scene and describe the blue lake, green grass and light blue sky in front of us. But speakers of Berinmo, an indigenous language of Papua New Guinea, have a single term for the colors we describe as blues and greens. They would describe the lake, grass and sky all as "nol."

"This cross-linguistic difference reveals that the particular categories we impose on our experience of the world are shaped by the language we speak. And this has consequences for thinking and memory," said senior author Sandra Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and faculty fellow in the University's Institute for Policy Research. "Berinmo speakers are less likely to remember distinctions among shades that English speakers describe as blue versus green."

This compelling cross-cultural evidence leaves little doubt that the categories we form bear the imprint of our language. But how early in life does naming shape the categories we perceive?

To answer this question, the Northwestern researchers created a continuum of colorful cartoon-like creatures. First, in a learning phase, 9-month-old infants had an opportunity to observe several of these creatures, presented in random order: Each appeared at the center of the screen, moved in one direction or another, and then disappeared. By experimental design, creatures from one end of the continuum moved to the left, and those from the other end moved to the right.

What varied was how the creatures were named. Some infants heard the same novel word applied to all objects along the entire continuum; others heard two different names, one for objects from one end of the continuum and another for objects from the other end. Next, in a test phase, new creatures from the same continuum appeared in the center of the screen.

The researchers were interested in whether infants could anticipate the side to which the new objects would move, and whether this varied as a function of how the creatures had been named in the phase.

The results were striking, according to lead author Mélanie Havy of the University of Geneva.

"Infants who heard two different names discerned two categories and therefore were able to anticipate correctly the likely location to which the test objects would move," she said.

In sharp contrast, infants who heard one name formed a single overarching category and therefore searched for new test objects at both locations.

"These results constitute the first evidence that for infants as young as 9 months of age, naming not only shapes the number of categories they impose along a perceptual continuum but also highlights the joints or boundaries between them," Havy said.

"Naming influences 9-month-olds' identification of discrete categories along a perceptual continuum" will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Cognition.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Blue, green or 'nol'?”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 18, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-07/nu-bgo071816.php

Friday, August 19, 2016

7 Bizarre Ancient Cultures That History Forgot

Long-Lost Cultures

The ancient Egyptians had their pyramids, the Greeks, their sculptures and temples. And everybody knows about the Maya and their famous calendar.

But other ancient peoples get short shrift in world history. Here are a handful of long-lost cultures that don't get the name recognition they deserve.

The Silla

The Silla Kingdom was one of the longest-standing royal dynasties ever. It ruled most of the Korean Peninsula between 57 B.C. and  A.D. 935, but left few burials behind for archaeologists to study.

One recent Silla discovery gave researchers a little insight, however. The intact bones of a woman who lived to be in her late 30s was found in 2013 near the historic capital of the Silla (Gyeongju). An analysis of the woman's bones revealed that she was likely a vegetarian who ate a diet heavy in rice, potatoes or wheat. She also had an elongated skull.

Silla was founded by the monarch Bak Hyeokgeose. Legend held that he was hatched from a mysterious egg in the forest and married a queen born from the ribs of a dragon. Over time, the Silla culture developed into a centralized, hierarchical society with a wealthy aristocratic class. Though human remains from the Silla people are rare, archaeologists have unearthed a variety of luxurious goods made by this culture, from a gold-and-garnet dagger to a cast-iron Buddha to jade jewelry, among other examples held at the Gyeongju National Museum in South Korea.

The Indus

The Indus is the largest-known ancient urban culture, with the people's land stretching from the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and the Ganges in India. The Indus civilization persisted for thousands of years, emerging around 3300 B.C. and declining by about 1600 B.C.

The Indus, also known as the Harappans, developed sewage and drainage systems for their cities, built impressive walls and granaries, and produced artifacts like pottery and glazed beads. They even had dental care: Scientistsfound 11 drilled molars from adults who lived between 7,500 to 9,000 years ago in the Indus Valley, according to a study published in 2006 in the journal Nature. A 2012 study suggested that climatic change weakened monsoonal rains and dried up much of the Harappan territory, forcing the civilization togradually disband and migrate to wetter climes. 

The Sanxingdui

The Sanxingdui were a Bronze Age culture that thrived in what is now China's Sichuan Province. A farmer first discovered artifacts from the Sanxingdui in 1929; excavations in the area in 1986 revealed complex jade carvings and bronze sculptures 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall.

But who were the Sanxingdui? Despite the evidence of the culture's artistic abilities, no one really knows. They were prolific makers of painted bronze-and-gold-foil masks that some archaeologists believe may have represented gods or ancestors, according to the Sanxingdui Museum in China. The Sanxingdui site shows evidence of abandonment about 2,800 or 3,000 years ago, and another ancient city, Jinsha, discovered nearby, shows evidence that maybe the Sanxingdui moved there. In 2014, researchers at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union argued that at around this time, a major earthquake and landslide redirected the Minjiang River, which would have cut Sanxingdui off from water and forced a relocation.

The Nok

The mysterious and little-known Nok culture lasted from around 1000 B.C. to A.D. 300 in what is today northern Nigeria. Evidence of the Nok was discovered by chance during a tin-mining operation in 1943, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Miners uncovered a terra-cotta head, hinting at a rich sculptural tradition. Since then, other elaborate terra-cotta sculptures have emerged, including depictions of people wearing elaborate jewelry and carrying batons and flails — symbols of authority also seen in ancient Egyptian art, according to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Other sculptures show people with diseases such as elephantiasis, the Met said.

Contributing to the mystery surrounding the Nok, the artifacts have often been removed from their context without archaeological analysis. In 2012, the United States returned a cache of Nok figurines to Nigeria after they were stolen from Nigeria's national museum and smuggled into the U.S.

The Etruscans

The Etruscans had a thriving society in northern Italy from about 700 B.C. to about 500 B.C., when they began to be absorbed by the Roman Republic. They developed a unique written language and left behind luxurious family tombs, including one belonging to a prince that was first excavated in 2013.

Etruscan society was a theocracy, and their artifacts suggest that religious ritual was a part of daily life. The oldest depiction of childbirth in Western art — a goddess squatting to give birth — was found at the Etruscan sanctuary of Poggio Colla. At the same site, archaeologists found a 4-foot by 2-foot (1.2 by 0.6 meters) sandstone slab containing rare engravings in the Etruscanlanguage. Few examples of written Etruscan survive. Another Etruscan site, Poggio Civitate, was a square complex surrounding a courtyard. It was the largest building in the Mediterranean at its time, said archaeologists who have excavated more than 25,000 artifacts from the site.

The Land of Punt

Some cultures are known mostly through the records of other cultures. That's the case with the mysterious land of Punt, a kingdom somewhere in Africa that traded with the ancient Egyptians. The two kingdoms were exchanging goods from at least the 26th century B.C., during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza).

Strangely, no one really knows where Punt was located. The Egyptians left plenty of descriptions of the goods they got from Punt (gold, ebony, myrrh) and the seafaring expeditions they sent to the lost kingdom. However, the Egyptians are frustratingly mum on where all these voyages were headed. Scholars have suggested that Punt may have been in Arabia, or on the Horn of Africa, or maybe down the Nile River at the border of modern-day South Sudan and Ethiopia. 

The Bell-Beaker Culture

You know a culture is obscure when archaeologists name it based on its artifacts alone. The Bell-Beaker culture made pottery vessels shaped like upside-down bells. The makers of these distinctive drinking cups lived across Europe between about 2800 B.C. and 1800 B.C. They also left behind copper artifacts and graves, including a cemetery of 154 graves located in the modern-day Czech Republic.

The Bell-Beakers were also responsible for some of the construction at Stonehenge, researchers have found: These people likely arranged the site's small bluestones, which originated in Wales. 

Pappas, Stephanie. 2016. “7 Bizarre Ancient Cultures That History Forgot”. Live Science. Posted: July 18, 2016. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/55430-bizarre-ancient-cultures.html

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Did the Lost Colony live at "Site X"? Clues point the way

Evidence is mounting that at least part of John White’s lost colony may have ended up in Bertie County.

Archaeologists have excavated 850 square feet of the tract in question and found dozens of artifacts including bale seals used to verify cloth quality; 16th-century nails; firing pans from snaphaunce guns of the day; aglets used to form tips on shirt lace strings; tenterhooks used to stretch hides; pieces of pottery jars for storing dried and salted fish; and bowl pieces like those found in Jamestown.

The findings do not prove Lost Colony residents lived there, but they certainly show they could have, said Clay Swindell, archaeologist and collections specialist at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. A member of the First Colony Foundation, Swindell reported last week on the recent findings and conclusions drawn from them at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. He shared them with a reporter Thursday.

The rural site south of the Chowan River bridge has been inhabited for centuries first by Native Americans, then early English settlers, Swindell said. Later it became the site of a governor’s plantation. The ground is high and dry and lies next to the river, ideal for habitation.

“It’s got lots and lots of different time periods represented,” Swindell said.

A series of events led to the discovery of Site X. In 2007, a developer planned to build a large subdivision there. As usual, the state first required a search for historically significant sites or artifacts. A team found early English pottery and signs of a Native American village. Meanwhile, the development never panned out.

In 2012, researchers looking at a map that John White drew of eastern North Carolina in the 1580s found a patch covering what looked like a fort. The map is still preserved at the British Museum in London.

The fort symbol sat at the western end of the Albemarle Sound in what is now Bertie County, matching where the English artifacts were found.

“We put two and two together,” Swindell said.

Before he left for England in 1587, John White told the colony to “remove 50 miles into the main.” That clue did not help archaeologists much at first, since a 50-mile radius from Roanoke Island covers most of northeastern North Carolina.

“No one had a good understanding where the 50 miles might be,” Swindell said.

The Bertie site lies 49.32 nautical miles (or 56.76 miles) from Roanoke Island, according to Google Earth.

Researchers are continuously discovering how the artifacts and writings may tie the Lost Colony to the Bertie site. The North Devon baluster jars used to provision ships with dried or salted fish were used in the late 1500s. The Surrey-Hampshire Border ware matches hundreds of pottery fragments found in early Jamestown, but was not used that much past the early 1600s. The explorers of the day wrote about the Chowan River and the tribes that lived there.

“That location is something they were familiar with,” Swindell said.

John White was part of all three Walter Raleigh expeditions from England to the North Carolina coast. In 1585 and 1586, he made the map preserved at the British Museum. In 1587, he returned to Roanoke Island with a group that included his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and son-in-law, Ananias Dare. Eleanor gave birth on Aug. 18 to Virginia, the first English baby born in the New World. He left the colony shortly afterward to resupply.

White could not return until three years later. By then, the colony was gone. He found the word “Croatoan” carved in a post and CRO carved into a tree. The Croatoan tribe lived around Buxton.

Years later, Jamestown leaders sent a party south to search for the colonists, but bad relations with Native Americans hindered the effort. The party never made it to the Bertie site, Swindell said. The recent discoveries do not indicate a fort as was shown on the map, but only show evidence of a smaller group of early English there.

“We have new clues,” Swindell said. “That’s all we can say, there are new clues.”

Hampton, Jeff. 2016. “Did the Lost Colony live at "Site X"? Clues point the way”. the Virginian Pilot: Pilot Online. Posted: July 16, 2016. Available online: http://pilotonline.com/news/local/history/more-clues-appear-showing-lost-colony-may-have-gone-to/article_ddedefad-c4ea-5e54-88a6-44b388fb8e75.html

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Kendra Sirak: Combining anthropology and genetics to study ancient DNA

Kendra Sirak, a PhD candidate in anthropology in the Laney Graduate School, is currently working in Ireland, testing the DNA of people ranging from medieval Nubians to an ancient Chinese specimen to an Irish rebel.

Originally from the small town of Dallas, Pennsylvania, Sirak attended Northwestern University on an athletic scholarship for field hockey. There, she fell in love with study of anthropology.

"Starting out in psychology, I was inspired by an amazing young professor and became hooked after writing a research paper about the allegedly extinct subspecies Homo sapiens idaltu," Sirak recalls. "I wanted to study the past of humanity so I added anthropology for a double major."

Sirak came to Emory in 2012, drawn by the opportunity to work with George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology (who passed away in 2014).

"I emailed George, who was one of the gods of anthropology, not expecting an answer," she says. "He responded in 37 minutes."

Now, Sirak is working as a visiting researcher at the Earth Institute at University College Dublin. Her research has also taken her to Russia, Hungary, Romania, China, India and Italy to access DNA in human skeletons and train other researchers in those techniques.

In an interview from Ireland, Sirak talks about her work and how she came to add genetics to anthropology, resulting in fascinating research and career paths.

What led you to add genetics to anthropology?

I had no interest in genetics, being totally dedicated to the study of human osteology and paleopathology. But George [Armelagos] believed DNA was going to become a critical part of anthropological research — and he couldn’t have been more right.

He proposed that I take some Nubian skeletal remains he had excavated in the 1970s to Ireland and learn how to do ancient DNA analysis at Trinity College Dublin.

I went home and cried because I didn’t want to say no, but I really, really did not want to go. However, I decided to just go anyway. It was the best academic decision I could have ever made. I stepped into the ancient DNA lab at Trinity and realized that I had been spelling “chromosome” wrong for as long as I could remember, which was where my knowledge of DNA was then.

What do you gain by combining anthropology with genetics in your research?

Genetics provides really fantastic, concrete data. However, it doesn’t provide the contextthat anthropology does. I like to think of genetics giving me the hard scientific data that I want, but anthropology adding in the human context and making the molecular data a human reality.

At Emory, I have learned how to think from a “biocultural” point of view. While many other anthropology programs stress only either a “biological” or a “cultural” approach, Emory combines the two.

I study the biology of past populations and I think about the way their culture and social environment could have influenced individual health and well-being, population demographics, patterns of morbidity and mortality, etc.

What have you been working on in Ireland?

Primarily extracting and sequencing DNA from skeletal remains from two socially disparate medieval cemeteries at the site of Kulubnarti in Sudanese Nubia. I am also part of a collaboration between University College Dublin and Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics lab.

We were recently contacted by the Irish National Police to help identify the remains of Thomas Kent, executed by the British for his part in the Easter Rising insurrection in 1916 and buried in a shallow grave on the grounds of Cork Prison; however, his body could not be positively identified. Collaborating with another team, we came up with this novel method to compare genetic data collected from two of Kent’s known living relatives and confirm his identity. He was given an honorable burial and a big state parade.

What other projects do you have in the works?

We hope to become involved in the Duffy’s Cut Project. Duffy’s Cut is the location of railroad tracks west of Philadelphia built by 57 Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s. All 57 are thought to have died from cholera. However, forensic evidence suggests that some might have been murdered, perhaps because of fear of contagion. We are hoping a DNA analysis on these samples will help identify these men and their family relationships.

We are in conversation with an Irish human rights group about identifying the remains of more than 800 Irish babies uncovered in a mass grave in western Ireland. This grave was a consequence of the period when it was not socially acceptable for a woman to have a baby out of wedlock. The ultimate goal would be a database of the unidentified infants’ genetic information. Then people who believe they might have some relative in this mass grave could be tested for a genetic match. This project was presented at the United Nations.

What are your post-Emory plans and goals?

My goal is to start writing my dissertation, a bioethnography of the ancient Nubians, this fall and be graduated from Emory in June 2018.

Post-Emory, I can see myself applying for a postdoc position to expand my research, or I might like to get involved with scientific communication to the lay public.

After taking a human genetics course taken at Emory, I’m really interested in genetic counseling. I’ve been thinking about becoming a certified genetic counselor.

What do you like to do in your “off” time?

I am a world traveler, marathon runner and craft beer connoisseur. Studying anthropology and working in ancient DNA has given me incredible opportunities to travel around the world to collect samples for our analyses.

King, Leslie. 2016. “Kendra Sirak: Combining anthropology and genetics to study ancient DNA”. Emory. Posted: July 13, 2016. Available online: http://news.emory.edu/stories/2016/07/er_profile_kendra_sirak/campus.html