Monday, February 28, 2011

Juggling languages can build better brains

Once likened to a confusing tower of Babel, speaking more than one language can actually bolster brain function by serving as a mental gymnasium, according to researchers.

Recent research indicates that bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals--people who speak only one language--in certain mental abilities, such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important information, said Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Penn State. These skills make bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time.

"We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking," said Kroll, director of the Center for Language Science. "Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking."

Kroll said that these findings counter previous conclusions that bilingualism hindered cognitive development.

"The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children," said Kroll told attendees today (Feb. 18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. "The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you."

Researchers trace the source of these enhanced multi-tasking skills to the way bilinguals mentally negotiate between the languages, a skill that Kroll refers to as mental juggling.

When bilinguals speak with each other, they can easily slip in and out of both languages, often selecting the word or phrase from the language that most clearly expresses their thoughts. However, fluent bilinguals rarely make the mistake of slipping into another language when they speak with someone who understands only one language.

"The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals; in other words, there are alternatives available in both languages," Kroll said. "Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice."

This language selection, or code switching, is a form of mental exercise, according to Kroll.

"The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competition of the languages," Kroll said. "The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages."

Kroll's symposium at the meeting included distinguished language scientists who have investigated the consequences of bilingualism across the lifespan. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University, Toronto, was instrumental in demonstrating that bilingualism improves certain mental skills.

According to Bialystok, the benefits of bilingualism appear across age groups. Studies of children who grow up as bilingual speakers indicate they are often better at perspective-taking tasks, such as prioritizing, than monolingual children. Experiments with older bilingual speakers indicate that the enhanced mental skills may protect them from problems associated with aging, such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Researchers use MRIs and electroencephalographs to track how the brain operates when it engages in language juggling. They also use eye-movement devices to watch how bilinguals read sentences. When a person reads, the eyes jump through the sentence, stopping to comprehend certain words or phrases. These distinctive eye movements can offer researchers clues on the subtle ways bilinguals comprehend language compared to monolinguals.

Kroll noted that the enhanced brain functions of bilinguals do not necessarily make them more intelligent or better learners.

"Bilinguals simply acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information," Kroll said.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Juggling languages can build better brains". EurekAlert. Posted: February 18, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mio-Pliocene faunal exchanges and African biogeography: The record of fossil bovids

New fossil discoveries have provided a glimpse into the biogeographic configuration of Africa over the last seven million years.

Modern-day Africa south of the Sahara is home to a unique variety of mammals, a great number of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Biogeographers have long recognized that sub-Saharan Africa constitutes one of the world's six major mammalian biogeographic divisions, termed 'realms'. However, the historical development of these continental regions of biogeographic diversity has been little explored.

Description of six million-year-old fossil antelopes from the Middle Awash in Ethiopia's Afar Region has now provided new information on the development of today's sub-Saharan mammalian community. The new fossils are identified as a spiral-horned antelope named Prostrepsiceros cf. vinayaki. These Ethiopian fossils are closely related to species previously described from the Indian Subcontinent and Arabia and constitute the first African record of this otherwise Eurasian antelope. The discovery of a Eurasian antelope in Africa nearly six million years ago (Mya) is of significance given the extraordinary isolation of sub-Saharan antelope communities today. The new fossils therefore signal a period of time when mammalian dispersal between Africa and Eurasia remained less restricted than today.

More information on the historical development of modern African biogeography is gleaned from a review of the African record of fossil bovids (the natural group comprising antelopes, oxen, and kin). By seven Mya and up to five Mya, the composition of African bovids is already clearly distinguished from that of Europe and Asia; however, barriers to mammalian dispersal among these three continental regions are much weaker than in the modern world. This is evidenced by the retained presence of very similar species, such as the Middle Awash fossil antelope and multiple species of tragoportacin antelopes, a now extinct group that at this time ranged widely across Eurasia and Africa.

In contrast, the record of fossil bovids after five Mya indicates extremely limited faunal exchange taking place between Africa and Eurasia. Despite the presence of very large fossil assemblages from the last five million years, there are few records of closely related bovid species shared between African and Eurasian sites throughout this time. The study proposes that a major biogeographic break occurred around five million years ago, after which time the proportion of Eurasian taxa in Africa decreased significantly, beginning to resemble the situation in sub-Saharan Africa today. African fossil sites from between six and five million years ago, such as those from the Middle Awash from which the hominid Ardipithecus kadabba has been named, are then recognized to lie just before this notable increase in African biogeographic isolation.

The Ethiopian biogeographic realm therefore appears to have had a distinct history of ever-increasing isolation over the last seven million years. The modern African sub-Saharan mammalian community may be understood to be the vestiges of a once wider-ranging and more broadly connected African mammalian fauna. The causes of the gradual geographic restriction of Africa's mammals over time are not clear, but global climate change may be implicated. With gradual cooling and drying taking place globally since 17 Mya, strengthened latitudinal climatic gradients might have created ecological barriers to dispersal between the African continent to the south and the Eurasian landmass to the north. With the onset of the northern hemisphere glaciation and ice age cycles of the last 2.5 million years, intensified subtropical aridity and the expansion of the Saharan and Arabian deserts probably played a major role in the modern-day isolation of sub-Saharan mammalian communities.

The last seven million years is the time during which hominids, the human line from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, evolved and dispersed from Africa. The earliest hominids are known from about seven to five Mya and include Ardipithecus kadabba from the Middle Awash, Orrorin tugenensis from Kenya, and Sahelanthropus tchadensis from Chad. Bovids have a very large and rich fossil record and are usually among the most abundant fossil taxa found at hominid sites. Studies on the bovid record therefore provide one of the best proxies for reconstructing large-scale paleobiological patterns as well as direct evidence for the contexts of early human evolution. Through description of the new Middle Awash specimens and a review of the bovid fossil record, this paper also sheds light on the continental-scale biogeographical context of early human evolution.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Mio-Pliocene faunal exchanges and African biogeography: The record of fossil bovids". EurekAlert. Posted: February 16, 2011. Available online:


Bibi F (2011) Mio-Pliocene Faunal Exchanges and African Biogeography: The Record of Fossil Bovids. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16688. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016688

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ancient Mesoamerican sculpture uncovered in southern Mexico

With one arm raised and a determined scowl, the figure looks ready to march right off his carved tablet and into the history books. If only we knew who he was - corn god? Tribal chief? Sacred priest?

"It's beautiful and was obviously very important," says University of Wisconsin-Madison archaeologist John Hodgson of the newly discovered stone monument. "But we will probably never know who he was or what the sculpture means in its entirety."

The man is the central figure on a stone monument discovered in 2009 at a site called Ojo de Agua in far southern Mexico in the state of Chiapas along the Pacific coast. Hodgson, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UW-Madison, describes the new monument in the cover article of the current issue (December 2010) of Mexicon, a leading peer-reviewed journal of Mesoamerican studies. The article, titled "Ojo de Agua Monument 3: A New Olmec-Style Sculpture from Ojo de Agua, Chiapas, Mexico," is co-authored with John E. Clark, of Brigham Young University, and Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta, director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Chiapas.

Monument 3 is just the second carved monument found in Ojo de Agua. Monument 1 was discovered accidently when a local farmer hit it with a plow in the 1960s. Monument 3 was a similarly fortuitous finding, uncovered in the process of digging an irrigation ditch. (Monument 2 is a large boulder with a flat surface and no visible carving, which Hodgson found in 2005 and reported in the January/February 2006 issue of Archaeology magazine in an article on Ojo de Agua.)

Hodgson was working in the area and received word of the finding within just a few days of its discovery. He was able to see the monument's impression in the trench wall and study the soil layers where it had been buried, gaining a wealth of information that is usually lost long before any archaeologist lays eyes on a piece.

"Usually sculptures are first seen by archaeologists in private art collections and we normally have no good idea where they came from. The depictions of figures and the motifs change in form through time so you can get an approximate date by comparing styles," he says. "But we were able to date the new monument by where it was found to a narrow 100-year window, which is very rare."

The archaeological context and radiocarbon dating of ceramic sherds associated with the stone monument show that it dates to 1100 to 1000 B.C., making it approximately 3,000 years old. Its age and style correspond to the Early Formative period, when an early culture known as the Olmec dominated the area.

Its purpose and meaning, however, will be harder to ascertain.

"Everything means something in this kind of culture," says pre-eminent archaeologist Michael D. Coe, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University and expert on Mesoamerican civilizations. "It obviously was a public monument — an important one, probably in connection with some really big cheese who lorded it over the area." Coe was not directly involved in the work but is familiar with the newly discovered monument.

"It appears to me to be a depiction of an event or a way to convey other types of information," Hodgson adds. "This dates to a time prior to a developed written language, but like the modern symbol used internationally for the Red Cross, symbols are very efficient at communicating complicated ideas."

The main figure on the tablet is depicted wearing an elaborate headdress, loincloth and ornate accessories, including a pair of large, comb-like ear ornaments, a rope-like necklace and a thick belt with a jaguar-head buckle. A face on the headdress includes features such as sprouting plants that identify it as a corn god. The tablet also includes a smaller secondary figure and a series of asymmetric zigzag designs that the authors suggest could represent lightning, local mountain ranges, or other features of the natural world.

"This is closely connected with agriculture and the cult of the corn god," Coe says, pointing out the zigzags. "Thunderstorms bring the rain."

The monument is a carved flat slab of a relatively soft, local volcanic stone that weighs about 130 pounds. It stands nearly three feet tall, about 14 inches wide, and ranges from four to seven inches thick. The use of local materials shows it was made in or near Ojo de Agua, Hodgson says, but style similarities to pieces found in larger Olmec centers near the Gulf of Mexico and the Valley of Mexico indicate pan-regional influences as well.

"It's cruder in execution than most Olmec monuments from the other side of the isthmus — 'provincial' Olmec," Coe says. But despite lacking some of the intricate artistry, it is still relatively sophisticated, he says. "This adds to our knowledge of the Olmec on the south side of the isthmus."

The depiction of corn is particularly notable. Corn cultivation is generally associated with a settled lifestyle rather than a nomadic existence, indicating that Ojo de Agua was almost certainly a farming community. The grain's storability and nutritional content also would have allowed the population to expand drastically and the civilization to become more complex, Hodgson says, adding that "the early date of the monument supports the idea that there was an early association between corn and religion."

Ojo de Agua lies in the heart of the ancient Aztec province Soconusco, nestled in a bend of the Coatán River. It is the earliest known site in Mesoamerica with formal pyramids built around plazas.

Though it has not been worked very extensively as an archeological site, Ojo de Agua appears to cover about 200 hectares and is the largest site in the area from the time period 1200-1000 B.C. The limited work to date describes civic architecture consistent with a decent-sized planned settlement. The identified platform mounds are laid out in a deliberate alignment that may be relative to magnetic north.

"That's something we see later but to see it this early is pretty surprising," says Hodgson, who has been working at Ojo de Agua since 2003.

The site appears to have been occupied for 150 to 200 years before being abandoned for unknown reasons.

Hodgson expects there are many more clues at Ojo de Agua and hopes to have the opportunity to continue working at the site and perhaps another look at Monument 3.

"We've just scratched the surface there. The things we've found are fantastic," Hodgson says. "These early societies were a lot more complicated than we thought they were."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Ancient Mesoamerican sculpture uncovered in southern Mexico". EurekAlert. Posted: February 14, 2011. Available online:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Egypt's 'Indiana Jones' at Center of Archaeology Uproar

The political upheaval in Egypt has thrown Egyptian archaeology into a state of uncertainty — expeditions have been disrupted and Zahi Hawass, the head of the country's antiquity council, is now coming under fire from protesters.

Known for his flamboyant style – including an Indiana Jones-style fedora – and his boosterism of Egypt's treasures, Hawass is the face of Egyptian archaeology. As secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Hawass is in charge of approving any archaeological research that goes on in Egypt.

And he's now the central figure in a war of words, with some archaeologists taking verbal shots at him for what they see as a corrupt system, and others, in interviews with LiveScience, defending his character and his actions.

Protesting Hawass

Hawass was given a cabinet minister position shortly before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, and the association has not served him well in the aftermath of the regime change. On Feb. 14, about 150 archaeology students and workers protested outside Hawass' office, demanding he resign, according to news reports.

Some of the protests have centered around Hawass' handling of a Jan. 28 break-in at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Hawass originally said that no artifacts had been stolen during the break-in; later, he announced that 18 items, including some belonging to King Tutankhamen, were missing.

But on a Facebook page calling for a protest at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo at 2 p.m. local time on Feb. 18, demonstrators also called for an end to "corruption" and "nepotism" in the SCA.

"Archaeologists demanding proper wages, contracts and end of corruption, end of zahi #Jan25," wrote Cairo archaeologist Nora Shalaby on Twitter Feb. 14.

Wage protests have occurred around Egypt in the wake of the successful bid to oust Mubarak. According to a Feb. 14 news report by the BBC, workers were striking in industries as varied as health care, banking, public transport and tourism.

Support for Hawass

Condemnation of Hawass is by no means universal. Several archaeologists contacted by LiveScience were unwilling to comment on the record about the protests. Those who did, however, praised Hawass' work.

"Since Zahi is so well known outside of Egypt, he's a good target for reporters looking for a sensational story," Peter Lacovara, the curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubain and Near Eastern Art at the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, told LiveScience. But that narrative ignores Hawass' contributions to Egyptian archaeology, Lacovara said.

"No director since Auguste Mariette, who founded the service in 1858, has done more," Lacovara said. "He modernized the ancient, arbitrary and uninformed bureaucracy that had existed before and moved the offices from a dusty, remote slum into a modern office building in central Cairo and one that operated swiftly and efficiently."

The SCA does keep a tight reign on public information about Egyptian digs, said Jay VanRensselaer, a Johns Hopkins University photographer who has served as a dig photographer for Egyptologist Betsy Bryan since 1996. But VanRensselaer said he had nothing negative to say about Hawass, whom he called "very friendly and very kind."

"Zahi has done an incredible amount of good for Egypt and for the monuments and for raising appreciation in Egypt of what they have," VanRensselaer told LiveScience.

Future of fieldwork

VanRensselaer was in Luxor, Egypt when the protests began. He caught a flight to Cairo on Jan. 28 and spent the night in the crowded Cairo airport, waiting for a flight out of the country.

"Sometime over the night they had shut off the Internet and cell phones so we didn't know what was going on," VanRensselaer said. When the phones came back on the next morning, he called his wife in Maryland – at 3:00 a.m. Eastern time.

"She said it was the one time a 3:00 a.m. phone call was very welcome," he said.

The entire Johns Hopkins team evacuated Egypt within a matter of days after VanRensselaer left. A team of University of California, Los Angeles archaeologists also left the country. Foreign researchers with field seasons scheduled for the future are now watching and waiting.

"We need to see how things settle out," said Stephen Davis, a professor of religious studies at Yale University who directs two ongoing digs at early Christian monastic sites in Egypt. Davis' field season is scheduled to start May 1, he told LiveScience, but he's "fully prepared" to adjust if his field season is delayed or cancelled.

VanRensselaer said he has "complete faith" that the new Egyptian government will continue to allow foreign teams to work in the country. Yale's Davis isn't sure if the SCA will recover from the upheaval in time for his spring field season, but he's adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the possibility.

"I think to try to push for these answers too early is not the right approach," Davis said. "There's a lot of things happening that are bigger than my dig right now."

2011. "Egypt's 'Indiana Jones' at Center of Archaeology Uproar". Live Science. Posted: February 15, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

University of Arizona experts determine age of book 'nobody can read'

While enthusiasts across the world pored over the Voynich manuscript, penned by an unknown author in a language no one understands, a research team at the University of Arizona solved one of its biggest mysteries: When was the book made?

University of Arizona researchers have cracked one of the puzzles surrounding what has been called "the world's most mysterious manuscript" – the Voynich manuscript, a book filled with drawings and writings nobody has been able to make sense of to this day.

Using radiocarbon dating, a team led by Greg Hodgins in the UA's department of physics has found the manuscript's parchment pages date back to the early 15th century, making the book a century older than scholars had previously thought.

This tome makes the "DaVinci Code" look downright lackluster: Rows of text scrawled on visibly aged parchment, flowing around intricately drawn illustrations depicting plants, astronomical charts and human figures bathing in – perhaps – the fountain of youth. At first glance, the "Voynich manuscript" appears to be not unlike any other antique work of writing and drawing.

An alien language

But a second, closer look reveals that nothing here is what it seems. Alien characters, some resembling Latin letters, others unlike anything used in any known language, are arranged into what appear to be words and sentences, except they don't resemble anything written – or read – by human beings.

Hodgins, an assistant research scientist and assistant professor in the UA's department of physics with a joint appointment at the UA's School of Anthropology, is fascinated with the manuscript.

"Is it a code, a cipher of some kind? People are doing statistical analysis of letter use and word use – the tools that have been used for code breaking. But they still haven't figured it out."

A chemist and archaeological scientist by training, Hodgins works for the NSF Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, Laboratory, which is shared between physics and geosciences. His team was able to nail down the time when the Voynich manuscript was made.

Currently owned by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, the manuscript was discovered in the Villa Mondragone near Rome in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich while sifting through a chest of books offered for sale by the Society of Jesus. Voynich dedicated the remainder of his life to unveiling the mystery of the book's origin and deciphering its meanings. He died 18 years later, without having wrestled any its secrets from the book.

Fast-forward to 2009: In the basement underneath the UA's Physics and Atmospheric Sciences building, Hodgins and a crew of scientists, engineers and technicians stare at a computer monitor displaying graphs and lines. The humming sound of machinery fills the room and provides a backdrop drone for the rhythmic hissing of vacuum pumps.

Stainless steel pipes, alternating with heavy-bodied vacuum chambers, run along the walls.

This is the heart of the NSF-Arizona AMS Laboratory: an accelerator mass spectrometer capable of sniffing out traces of carbon-14 atoms that are present in samples, giving scientists clues about the age of those samples.

Radiocarbon dating: looking back in time

Carbon-14 is a rare form of carbon, a so-called radioisotope, that occurs naturally in the Earth's environment. In the natural environment, there is only one carbon-14 atom per trillion non-radioactive or "stable" carbon isotopes, mostly carbon-12, but with small amounts of carbon-13. Carbon-14 is found in the atmosphere within carbon dioxide gas.

Plants produce their tissues by taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and so accumulate carbon-14 during life. Animals in turn accumulate carbon-14 in their tissues by eating plants, or eating other organisms that consume plants.

When a plant or animal dies, the level of carbon-14 in it remains drops at a predictable rate, and so can be used to calculate the amount of time that has passed since death.

What is true of plants and animals is also true of products made from them. Because the parchment pages of the Voynich Manuscript were made from animal skin, they can be radiocarbon-dated.

Pointing to the front end of the mass spectrometer, Hodgins explains the principle behind it. A tiny sample of carbon extracted from the manuscript is introduced into the "ion source" of the mass spectrometer.

"This causes the atoms in the sample to be ionized," he explained, "meaning they now have an electric charge and can be propelled by electric and magnetic fields."

Ejected from the ion source, the carbon ions are formed into a beam that races through the instrument at a fraction of the speed of light. Focusing the beam with magnetic lenses and filters, the mass spectrometer then splits it up into several beams, each containing only one isotope species of a certain mass.

"Carbon-14 is heavier than the other carbon isotopes," Hodgins said. "This way, we can single out this isotope and determine how much of it is present in the sample. From that, we calculate its age."

Dissecting a century-old book

To obtain the sample from the manuscript, Hodgins traveled to Yale University, where conservators had previously identified pages that had not been rebound or repaired and were the best to sample.

"I sat down with the Voynich manuscript on a desk in front of me, and delicately dissected a piece of parchment from the edge of a page with a scalpel," Hodgins says.

He cut four samples from four pages, each measuring about 1 by 6 millimeters (ca. 1/16 by 1 inch) and brought them back to the laboratory in Tucson, where they were thoroughly cleaned.

"Because we were sampling from the page margins, we expected there are a lot of finger oils adsorbed over time," Hodgins explains. "Plus, if the book was re-bound at any point, the sampling spots on these pages may actually not have been on the edge but on the spine, meaning they may have had adhesives on them."

"The modern methods we use to date the material are so sensitive that traces of modern contamination would be enough to throw things off."

Next, the sample was combusted, stripping the material of any unwanted compounds and leaving behind only its carbon content as a small dusting of graphite at the bottom of the vial.

"In radiocarbon dating, there is this whole system of many people working at it," he said. "It takes many skills to produce a date. From start to finish, there is archaeological expertise; there is biochemical and chemical expertise; we need physicists, engineers and statisticians. It's one of the joys of working in this place that we all work together toward this common goal."

The UA's team was able to push back the presumed age of the Voynich manuscript by 100 years, a discovery that killed some of the previously held hypotheses about its origins and history.

Elsewhere, experts analyzed the inks and paints that makes up the manuscript's strange writings and images.

"It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do. First, they are on a surface only in trace amounts" Hodgins said. "The carbon content is usually extremely low. Moreover, sampling ink free of carbon from the parchment on which it sits is currently beyond our abilities. Finally, some inks are not carbon based, but are derived from ground minerals. They're inorganic, so they don't contain any carbon."

"It was found that the colors are consistent with the Renaissance palette – the colors that were available at the time. But it doesn't really tell us one way or the other, there is nothing suspicious there."

While Hodgins is quick to point out that anything beyond the dating aspect is outside his expertise, he admits he is just as fascinated with the book as everybody else who has tried to unveil its history and meaning.

"The text shows strange characteristics like repetitive word use or the exchange of one letter in a sequence," he says. "Oddities like that make it really hard to understand the meaning."

"There are types of ciphers that embed meaning within gibberish. So it is possible that most of it does mean nothing. There is an old cipher method where you have a sheet of paper with strategically placed holes in it. And when those holes are laid on top of the writing, you read the letters in those holes."

"Who knows what's being written about in this manuscript, but it appears to be dealing with a range of topics that might relate to alchemy. Secrecy is sometimes associated with alchemy, and so it would be consistent with that tradition if the knowledge contained in the book was encoded. What we have are the drawings. Just look at those drawings: Are they botanical? Are they marine organisms? Are they astrological? Nobody knows."

"I find this manuscript is absolutely fascinating as a window into a very interesting mind. Piecing these things together was fantastic. It's a great puzzle that no one has cracked, and who doesn't love a puzzle?"

High-resolution images of the manuscript's 240 pages, including a special section on highlights and special features, are online at

To learn more about the script visit Omniglot's page on Voynich.


EurekAlert. 2011. "University of Arizona experts determine age of book 'nobody can read'". EurekAlert. Posted: February 10, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ancient buildings brought to life from historic maps

SOFTWARE that recognises the outlines of buildings shown on historic maps should make it easier to create digital reconstructions of long-lost cities. It could also lead to virtual museum exhibits of historic locations.

The conventional method for digitising paper maps involves the labour-intensive process of tracing over buildings by hand. Now a team led by Stephen Laycock of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, has developed software to do this.

On maps where buildings are shown in characteristic colours, the software is fully automatic. It first detects blocks of colour on a scan of the map, and then highlights the edge of each block to generate a clear outline of the building. It will also work with black and white maps if the user clicks a point inside each building.

The automatic mode is between 10 and 100 times faster than tracing the outlines by hand. Even with black and white maps, it is at least twice as fast.

One problem when working with old maps is that the scale can be seriously distorted. The software can correct for this by overlaying the building outlines on an accurately surveyed modern map.

"I can certainly see myself using it," says Paul Richens of the architecture department at the University of Bath, UK, whose team now does a similar job by hand. "We take the old maps and stretch them a bit - a pretty laborious technique," he says.

The extracted outlines can be imported into a commercial software package called CityEngine that generates 3D images with the help of information about what buildings from the period in question would have looked like. Laycock suggests that museum curators might use the software to add interactive tours of historic locations to their exhibits.

New Scientist. 2011. "Ancient buildings brought to life from historic maps". New Scientist. Posted: February 9, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Could this be the earliest portrait in history?

A lifelike, touching statue of an Ancient Egyptian family shows our sense of individuality has deep and universal roots

The Dwarf Seneb and his Family portrays the Ancient Egyptian official as a full and distinctive person. Photograph: Roger Wood/Corbis

An Egyptian family sit proudly for the artist – I nearly wrote, for the camera. But the lifelike portrayal of the Dwarf Seneb and his Family, one of the most captivating things in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, right at the heart of the revolution on Tahrir Square, was carved and painted at least 4,000 years before the invention of photography. It is one of the earliest works of art in history to which it seems fitting to give the title "portrait."

Of course, Seneb, his wife and their two children did not really "sit" or pose for their portraits. For one thing, this is a posthumous image of Seneb, made to fit into a niche in his tomb close to the Pyramids of Giza. But it achieves its moving sense of picturing real people, in all their uniqueness, by a bold utilisation of physical facts. Seneb was a dwarf, but smallness did not hold him back in life – as this fine work of art from his expensive tomb attests. The artist has deliberately used physical difference to proclaim Seneb's individuality; his two children stand in front of his short figure in place of adult-length legs. Meanwhile his tall, slender wife touches her husband affectionately. This is a loving family, memorialised for the ages.

Even to use the word "history" is to come up against the fact that Old Kingdom Egypt, from which these faces come to us, flourished when most places on Earth were firmly prehistoric. No faces as lifelike and graceful and humane as these survive from Britain or Europe 4,000 years ago. When Seneb was being portrayed as a full and distinctive person, the builders of Stonehenge were leaving wordless, silent, and remote monuments.

We look at the pyramids, and imagine them too as the monuments of a massively forbidding society. But look closer, and the culture that built these wonderful structures abounds in personality, character, and ordinary peoples' faces, bodies, voices. Seneb is not an anonymous functionary in an authoritarian order. He is gloriously himself. His family are so recognisable and loving. Perhaps this icon of the Egyptian Museum – the very museum that is seeing such dramatic scenes and historic moments again this week – is a reminder that the democratic sense of individuality and pluralism has deep and ancient and universal roots, not least in Egypt.

Jones, Jonathan. 2011. "Could this be the earliest portrait in history?" Guardian. Posted: February 9, 2011. Available online:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Archaeologists find hidden African side to noted 1780s Md. building

Evidence of slaves' technical skills and religion at enlightenment greenhouse

One of North America's most famous Revolutionary-era buildings – a lone-surviving testament to an Enlightenment ideal – has a hidden West African face, University of Maryland archaeologists have discovered.

Their excavation at the 1785 Wye “Orangery” on Maryland's Eastern Shore – the only 18th century greenhouse left in North America – reveals that African American slaves played a sophisticated, technical role in its construction and operation. They left behind tangible cultural evidence of their involvement and spiritual traditions.

Frederick Douglass, who lived there as a young man, made it famous through his autobiography. But the team concludes that he failed to appreciate the slaves’ full contribution.

"For years, this famous Enlightenment structure has been recognized for its European qualities, but it has a hidden African face that we've unearthed," says University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who led the excavation. "Concealed among the bricks of the furnace that controlled the greenhouse temperature, we found embedded a symbol used in West African spirit practice. An African American slave built the furnace, and left an historic signature."

His team also found African charms buried at the entrance to a part of the Wye greenhouse that once served as living quarters for the slaves who maintained the building.

"Ironically, these African symbols distinguish this building from its more elaborate European counterparts, and give it a unique American character," Leone adds, who has uncovered other evidence of African spirit practice through his Archaeology in Annapolis project.

AFRICAN AMERICAN CONTRIBUTIONS: The slaves were pioneers in early U.S. agricultural experimentation, the new research concludes. They did far more than manual labor, performing work that today might be conducted by skilled lab technicians, though under far different conditions.

"These greenhouses were for agricultural and horticultural experimentation in 18th century America, and African American slaves played a far more significant and technical role in their operation than they've been given credit for," Leone says. "This work required sophistication and skill, and the slaves provided it." For example, slaves began experimenting there with wild broccoli and other greens, Seneca snakeroot as a cure-all, ginger root for tea, buckbean as an analgesic and antiemetic, and hardy bananas.

EUROPEAN CONTRIBUTIONS: Leone says that Enlightenment ideals of beauty, natural order and scientific understanding made greenhouses important to colonial-era estates in America and across Europe. His excavation at the Wye greenhouse revealed the European tastes of its owners.

RARE POLLEN ANALYSIS: Based on an analysis of centuries-old pollen recovered from the site – a rarely used procedure in historical archaeology – plus written historical records, Leone says the greenhouse started with a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. By the 1820s, more exotic plants were cultivated, including lemon and orange trees, and possibly tubs of pond lilies. This corresponds to Frederick Douglass' descriptions in his autobiography.

The Wye "Orangery" stood on the thriving Lloyd Plantation, a large operation with several hundred slaves. The property, first settled by Edward Lloyd I in the 1650s, is still owned by his descendents. The family has encouraged the excavation for the historical and scientific knowledge it can provide.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: The building's fame stems, in large part, from the garden's description by Frederick Douglass. In his "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave" (1845), Douglass wrote: "Colonel Lloyd kept a large and finely cultivated garden, which afforded almost constant employment for four men, besides the chief gardener," he recalled two decades after leaving the plantation. "This garden was probably the greatest attraction of the place. During the summer months, people came from far and near – from Baltimore, Easton, and Annapolis – to see it. It abounded in fruits of almost every description, from the hardy apple of the north to the delicate orange of the south."

Writing in 1855 ("My Bondage and My Freedom"), Douglass identified the greenhouse chief as Mr. McDermott, the "scientific gardener imported from Scotland," and again, noting his team.

Pollen analysis confirms the broad sweep of plant life grown in the greenhouse, as Douglass describes it. In turn, his writings provide historical markers in the evolution of the greenhouse. But the total archaeological record suggests Douglass did not recognize the skilled work the greenhouse slaves performed, Leone concludes.


* Slaves constructed the brick and mortar furnace that regulated temperature in the greenhouse. Evidence for this comes from the excavation's discovery of a concealed West African-style charm cemented among the bricks at the rear of the furnace where it connects to ductwork – a spot where no one would see it, since spirit practice was conducted in secret. The African America builder of the furnace had placed a stone pestle there to control spirits. This corresponds to the Yoruba practice of placing an old, sharp object from the ground there, Leone says. The pestle was discovered by Drake Witte, who rebuilt the furnace and repaired the heating conduits.

* Slaves lived in the greenhouse, where they could operate the heating system – the "hypocaust" – and maintain the heat, light and water required by the plants. The team recovered evidence of domestic life in one of the greenhouse's three rooms. Most recently the area has been used as a potting shed. But, buried underground were fragments of earthenware and other domestic objects. Leone says the loft in the room was likely used for sleeping. By the door, the team also unearthed another set of West African charms – a coin and arrowheads – placed there to manage spirits.

Systematic experiments were conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries to determine optimum light, temperature and water requirements of exotic plants, and slaves took an active role in this work. "These buildings were not only for beauty or display," Leone says, drawing on historic records and modern scholarship. "Plantation owners like the Lloyds also were conducting agricultural experiments out of economic necessity and by the temperament of the times. They wanted to have access to exotic plants, and they wanted to learn how to make them thrive. They approached this in a systematic way, and it's no stretch to consider this scientific experimentation."

Furnace operators – the slaves – would have had to monitor conditions and maintain temperatures within the recommended range of 42 to 54 degrees F, Leone adds. Working under a Scots gardener, they would have to read the thermometer, understand each plant's requirements, control the windows and monitor the furnace. The knowledge and skill acquired from these experiments became one of the slaves' possessions, and helped createan African American tradition of gardening.

Harrison Roberts, born a slave at Wye House, continued the gardening tradition there and died in the 20th century. He mastered the skills while a slave and continued to use them after freedom. "The knowledge didn't just go away – it endured longer than the plantation system," Leone concludes, based on an oral history from the 1960s.

* Evolution from greenhouse to orangery – pollen analysis and Frederick Douglass tell the story. In the late 18th century, the greenhouse had a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. Over time, the plant arrays expanded, and by the 1820s citrus and more exotic species were cultivated. Lemons and oranges grew there, as did members of the rose family, lily, saxifrage, phlox, iris and members of the nightshade family. Evidence for this comes from pollen excavated from the greenhouse by the team and analyzed by specialists. Historic records and descriptions also supplement the picture, especially the autobiographical writings of Frederick Douglass, who spent his early years as a slave on the Lloyd Plantation.

* Look of the greenhouse: Anything in the greenhouse would have been potted or in a trough of some sort, and these would have been in tiers or placed on risers, Leone explains. The plants would probably have been kept in groups, which was the preferred technique shown in gardening manuals at the time.

* The 1785 greenhouse was built on top of an earlier one. Around 1770, Edward Lloyd IV built his first greenhouse. In 1784 or 1785 he started again – the building that stands today, equipped with a hypocaust. At Leone's request, Bryan Haley, of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi (now of the Tulane Department of Anthropology), used extensive soundings from a magnetometer and ground penetrating radar to discover evidence of the larger, earlier structure. Haley's analysis showed what may be the underground remains of structures attached to the original greenhouse, which did not have a heating system within it. This would have been a garden pavilion that used either the heat of the sun or the heat from piles of dung kept inside.


To analyze the traces of old pollen found buried in the greenhouse soil, Leone consulted with a palynologist. It's the first time the technique has been used on an historic U.S. greenhouse, Leone says. Research scientist Heather Trigg at the University of Massachusetts, Boston's Fiske Center for Archaeological Research was able to identify families of plants grown in the greenhouse. "The technique often does not permit the identification of specific species," Trigg explains. "Pollen from the rose family was identified in the soil of the greenhouse, for example, meaning that rose, strawberries, or some wild plants, such as cinquefoil, were grown there."


The Orangery remains active today, maintained by descendants of Edward Lloyd IV, who first started construction on it even before the Revolutionary War. The excavation was launched at the request of the family, and preceded structural work to maintain the building.

"I'm committed to preserving the history of this building and the entire estate," says Mrs. R.C. Tilghman, an 11th generation descendant of Lloyd. "This land has always been a part of my life, and its preservation comes as a duty."

The Tilghmans permitted Leone to conduct an earlier series of excavations on the property, which uncovered slave quarters and other buildings.


Three of Leone's graduate students, Matthew Cochran, Stephanie Duensing, and John Blair, conducted the Orangery excavation. For the past three decades, Leone has focused much of his work in nearby Annapolis, launching the Archaeology in Annapolis program. "We've rewritten Maryland history in a number of cases by unearthing the activities of African Americans," he reflects. "The formative years of Maryland's history were shaped by a blending of European and African culture, and this helps us understand our modern experience."

List of images associated with the article:
Greenhouse Images:
#1: The Wye Orangery as it appeared 1785-1820
(Credit: Brian Payne/UMD)

#2: Evidence of African Spirit Practice – Stone Pestle Hidden in Greenhouse Oven
This prehistoric pestle was found cemented among the bricks at the back of the furnace. Leone identifies it as an African charm put there by the slave who built the furnace.
(Credit: UMD)

#3: Stone pestle as found during excavation
(Credit: UMD)

#4: African charms buried at doorway to greenhouse living quarters
In West African practice, placing metal and pointed objects at the doorway helps deter harmful spirits from entering. These were found buried at the entrance to the slave quarters, until now known only as a potting shed – its most recent use.
(Credit: UMD)

#5: Part of the Library of Congress Collection of the Orangery.
Because of its age and uniqueness, the Orangery has been frequently photographed, but, until now, never systematically examined by archaeologists.

#6: Greenhouse as it appears today.
(Credit: UMD)

#8: Greenhouse interior under excavation
(Credit: UMD)

#9: Team at work at the greenhouse.
(Credit: UMD)

EurekAlert. 2011. "Archaeologists find hidden African side to noted 1780s Md. building". EurekAlert. Posted: February 14, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Damaged Ancient Egyptian Artifacts to Be Restored

The artifacts damaged at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo last week will be restored in five days, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities said on Monday.

Among the 70 artifacts vandalized during anti-government protests, the most significant are a statue of King Ahkenaten wearing the blue crown and holding an offering table, King Tutankhamun’s gilded walking stick and a wooden statue of King Tut standing on the back of a panther.

The damage was caused by about six people who broke into the museum through its windowed ceiling using ropes.

“One of those people fell down on a showcase while going down using the rope. He got injured and could not escape, and was arrested inside the museum. The army also arrested about 10 more people who tried relentlessly to scale the western museum surrounding wall,” Zahi Hawass, Minister of Antiquities, said in a statement on Monday.

According to Hawass, the thieves were “ignorant” people who took out the objects from their showcase and dropped them on the floor when they realized that they were not made of gold.

The thieves also ransacked and vandalized the newly opened museum gift shop, which they believed it was the real museum.

“The funny part of the story is that only the books of the gift shop remained untouched. Looters are never interested in books, I guess,” Hawass said.

He added that the looters were desperately looking for a mummy in order to find “red mercury,” which it is fabled to be a magical substance used by the ancient Egyptians in mummification.

For this reason they smashed a New Kingdom empty coffin.

“These incidents show the ignorance of the vandals,” said Hawass.

The newly appointed Minister of Antiquities also clarified what happened to the two mummies whose heads were photographed lying on the floor among scattered bones.

“When the crisis erupted, I took a very quick walk through the museum and thought that the two skulls thrown on the floor of one of the side rooms might belong to some of the royal mummies examined in our DNA research project on the royal mummies (the Egyptian Mummy Project), namely those found in KV55,” Hawass said.

In particular, he feared for the mummies of Akhenaten (from tomb KV55), Queen Tiye (also known as the Elder Lady from KV35), and the mother of Tutankhamun (also known as the Younger Lady from KV35), which are housed in vitrines next to the second royal mummy room on the west side of the museum.

“I am happy to report that they all are safe and untouched,” Hawass said.

He confirmed what was reportedon Friday by Discovery News, namely that the two mummies were “unidentified Late Period individuals that were going to be used to test the CT machine.”

“They were two already disembodied heads being temporarily stored next to the CT scanning lab in the museum’s grounds,” Hawass told Discovery News.

A team of 11 members has already begun the restoration work, starting from the statue of Akhenaten carrying an offering tray.

“On the staff of the Egyptian Museum is Nadia Lokma, one of the best experts on wood conservation in the world,” Bob Brier, senior research fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, said.

“For her master’s thesis she restored Tutankhamen's chariot, a project that took years. I guarantee you she is already planning how to restore the broken Tutankhamen objects to their former glory,” Brier, one of the leading experts on mummies and Egyptology, said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Damaged Ancient Egyptian Artifacts to Be Restored". Discovery News. Posted: February 7, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Language may play important role in learning the meanings of numbers

Research shows 'homesigners' unable to comprehend the value of large numbers

New research conducted with deaf people in Nicaragua shows that language may play an important role in learning the meanings of numbers.

Field studies by University of Chicago psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow and a team of researchers found deaf people in Nicaragua, who had not learned formal sign language, do not have a complete understanding of numbers greater than three.

Researchers surmised the lack of large number comprehension was because the deaf Nicaraguans were not being taught numbers or number words. Instead they learned to communicate using self-developed gestures called "homesigns," a language developed in the absence of formal education and exposure to formal sign language.

"The research doesn't determine which aspects of language are doing the work, but it does suggest that language is an important player in number acquisition," said Betty Tuller, a program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, which funded the research.

"The finding may help narrow down the range of experiences that play a role in learning number concepts," she said.

Research results are reported in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in a paper titled, "Number Without a Language Model."

While the homesigners do have gestures for number, those gestures are accurately used for only small numbers--numbers less than three--and not for large ones.

By contrast, deaf people who acquire conventional sign languages learn the values of large numbers because they learn a counting routine early in childhood, just as children who acquire spoken languages do.

"It's not just the vocabulary words that matter, but understanding the relationships that underlie the words--the fact that 'eight' is one more than 'seven' and one less than 'nine,'" said Goldin-Meadow. "Without having a set of number words to guide them, the deaf homesigners in the study failed to understand that numbers build on each other in value."

"What's most striking is that the homesigners can see that seven fingers are more than six fingers and less than eight fingers, but they are unable to order six, seven and eight fingers," added Tuller. "In other words, they don't seem to understand the successor function that underlies number."

The complexity for homesigners learning seemingly simple concepts such as "seven" may help researchers learn more about the important role language plays in how all children learn early mathematical concepts, especially children who are having trouble learning number concepts in their preschool years.

Scholars previously found that in isolated cultures where the local language does not have large number words, people do not learn the value of large numbers. Two groups of people studied in the Amazon, for instance, do not have words for numbers greater than five. But their culture does not require the use of exact large numbers, which could explain the Amazonians' difficulty with these numbers.

In Nicaraguan society, however, exact numbers are an important part of everyday life, as Nicaraguans use money for their transactions. Although the deaf homesigners in the University of Chicago study understand the relative value of their money, their understanding is incomplete because they have never been taught number words, said Elizabet Spaepen, the study's lead author.

For the study, the scholars gave the homesigners a series of tasks to determine how well they could recognize money. They were shown a 10-unit bill and a 20-unit bill and asked which had more value. They were also asked if nine 10-unit coins had more or less value than a 100-unit bill. Each of the homesigners was able to determine the relative value of the money.

"The coins and bills used in Nicaraguan currency vary in size and color according to value, which give clues to their value even if the user has no knowledge of numbers," Spaepen said. The deaf homesigners could be learning rote information about the currency based on the color and shape of the currency without fully understanding numerical value.

"The findings show that simply living in a numerate culture isn't enough to develop an understanding of large number," said Tuller. "This conclusion comes from the observation that the homesigners are surrounded by hearing individuals who deal with large numbers all of the time.

"The findings point toward language since that's what the homesigners lack," she said. "In all other respects they are fully functioning members of their community. But that doesn't mean that there might not be other, nonlinguistic ways of teaching them, or others, the idea of an exact large number."

The research team is currently working on developing a training procedure to do exactly that--train deaf homesigners the meaning of number using nonlinguistic means.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Language may play important role in learning the meanings of numbers". EurekAlert. Posted: February 8, 2011. Available online:

Friday, February 18, 2011

Anthropologist: 'Body Worlds' visitors confront bodies but not death

In two new works, an anthropologist tackles a perplexing question relating to the enormously successful "Body Worlds" exhibits: How does society tolerate – and even celebrate – the public display of human corpses?

"Body Worlds – The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies" is the most widely attended exhibit in the world, said Jane Desmond, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and author of a paper and book chapter on the subject. While the exhibition has generated some controversy, its promoters have succeeded in presenting it to more than 31 million visitors in Asia, Europe and North America since it opened in Japan in 1995.

Today, new exhibits are being developed for museums and galleries around the world, including the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, on March 18.

Gunther von Hagens, a German physician and anatomist, is the creator of "Body Worlds" and inventor of the "plastination" technique that makes it possible. Plastination infuses dead tissues with plastic polymers. The tissues are malleable at first, allowing technicians to manipulate them before they harden.

In a paper in the journal Configurations, Desmond, who wrote a social history of taxidermy, contrasted the treatment of specimens in "Body Worlds" to that of taxidermied animals. Unlike taxidermy, which focuses on the animal's exterior, "Body Worlds" shows the insides – the muscles, bones, nerves, organs and vascular systems – of the plastinated human bodies. Most traces of hair, skin and body fat are stripped from the specimens.

The lack of identifying features avoids offending viewers by drawing their attention away from the person whose body is on display and toward the body itself as an object of wonder or scientific curiosity, Desmond said.

"This process of subtraction that's taken away all the social markers in a sense idealizes and universalizes these individuals so that symbolically they come to stand for the undifferentiated human, which allows us to look with impunity because we're not really looking at a person or an individual," she said. "Von Hagens' plastinates could never be displayed with their skins on."

The corpses appear lifelike and often are positioned in athletic poses. Plastination also leaves the muscles pink, as if infused with blood, Desmond said, adding to the impression that the bodies are still animated.

"So there is the fencer, the chess player, the bicyclist, the archer, the figure skaters," she said. "And everyone looks like a marathon runner."

In the exhibition Desmond saw in London in 2002, the specimens were in pristine condition; in all cases but one (a pair of disembodied, cigarette-blackened lungs) they bore no signs of the actual or probable cause of death.

"In many ways, we don't see graphic images of death," Desmond said. "We see fictionalized images of death."

The context in which the bodies are presented is meant to soothe the moral, ethical and legal concerns that some audience members might have about the display, Desmond said. The exhibitors prominently assert in the museum halls and on their website that the individuals displayed voluntarily donated their bodies "for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons."

In a possible nod to religious viewers, one of the figures in the exhibit kneels in what could be interpreted as an attitude of prayer, Desmond said. Nearby a sign expresses gratitude to the body donors.

The exhibitors also promote the display as an advancement in the age-old study of anatomy, Desmond wrote, in "Touring the Dead," a chapter in an upcoming book on tourism research.

"The wall (of the exhibition space) is decorated with blow-ups of Renaissance and medieval anatomical prints, quotes from philosophers like Kant and Goethe, and illustrations of dissections, all anchoring the present exhibit in the past and accruing the legitimacy that such an invocation of art, anatomy, and the search for knowledge can afford," she wrote.

"Because of all of this animation, because of the de-emotional screen of scientism through which the entire thing is constructed, because of the depersonalization and the universalization, all of that, I think, is so powerful that it's possible to forget that we're in a room full of dead people," she said.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Anthropologist: 'Body Worlds' visitors confront bodies but not death". EurekAlert. Posted: February 7, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

UT historian explores role of small villages in ancient Near East

NEH funds project to reshape understanding of social landscape in Bronze, Iron Age Israel

A University of Tennessee, Knoxville, archaeologist who excavates ancient villages in the Near East has received a grant to reshape the modern understanding of the region's political, economic and social structure by studying its smallest rural settlements.

J.P. Dessel, a UT Knoxville historian who specializes in Bronze and Iron Age villages of ancient Israel, has received a $50,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that will allow him to integrate his own research with other studies to show how rural villages affected the social landscape of ancient Israel, otherwise dominated by major cities like Jerusalem and Megiddo.

"I hope to rebuild our understanding of the biblical region from the village up," Dessel said. "Most of what we know about the ancient Near East in the Bronze and Iron ages is the result of studying major urban areas, cities that represent the social and economic elites of the time.

"By looking at small settlements, I expect to show that rural villages were just as vibrant and dynamic as some of the city-states in their midst."

Dessel's research award marks the 10th in a string of NEH grants to UT faculty since 2004, putting UT Knoxville among the top seven institutions nationwide in the number of NEH grants during that period. Nationally only 7 percent of applicants received an NEH fellowship in 2010.

Dessel's own excavations have focused on two tiny village sites near Nazareth -- Tell el-Wawiat and Tell 'Ein Zippori -- that were occupied between 1550 and 1000 B.C.E., but his yearlong study will include a review of other archaeological data from village sites. His focus on a rural heartland will offer a contrast to urban-focused archaeology that emphasizes ancient texts and elite culture.

"This project will show that these villages were diverse and culturally complex entities rather than simple sites focused on agricultural production," he said. "We'll be able to understand the culture of the region against a backdrop of an extensive rural settlement that spanned both the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age."

Dessel, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, joined the UT Knoxville faculty in 1999 as an assistant professor of Jewish and ancient Near Eastern history. In 2005 he was named Steinfeld Associate Professor of ancient Near Eastern archaeology and history. He serves jointly in the history department and the Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies.

The success of UT Knoxville faculty in winning NEH research fellowships is part of an ongoing initiative to make the university one of the top 25 public institutions in the nation in both scientific research and humanities scholarship. Only Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Princeton, Harvard and Texas have won more NEH fellowships in the past seven years. The University of California, Irvine, and Washington University share the seventh ranking with UT Knoxville.

EurekAlert. 2011. "UT historian explores role of small villages in ancient Near East". EurekAlert. Posted: February 7, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

U.K. Archaeologists Protest Rule Forcing Reburial of Human Remains

United Kingdom archaeologists are protesting a recent change in the licensing of excavations that requires the reburial of any human remains found in England or Wales.

In a letter in the Guardian, 40 leading archaeologists write:
The current licence conditions are impeding scientific research, preventing new discoveries from entering museums, and are not in the public interest. The long-term retention of excavated ancient human remains is a fundamental principle of scientific research, regulated by professional ethics and guidelines, and is a museum practice that has been much examined around the world. Curated remains continue to be reanalysed for centuries, as new techniques are developed. Such research makes important contributions to the public's understanding of the lives of the people who came before us; it helps put our own lives into perspective. If the requirement for wholesale reburial remains, Britain risks losing its leading role in archaeology, a decline that will be observed by a mystified international scientific community.

This story is interesting because it smacks of NAGPRA in the United States. I'm not opposed to reburial, but I am an avid supporter of the scientific method and that includes the scientific inspection of remains. Reburial and repatriation can occur, should occur, but scientific inquiry and investigation must be carried out, particularly in remains that are considered ancient i.e. old enough to not reflect modern humanity or modern human groups. In NAGPRA, this repatriation/reburial scenario has seriously affected the study of Clovis Point people who have no relation to modern Native American populations, but are routinely turned over to them for reburial.


Travis, John. 2011. "U.K. Archaeologists Protest Rule Forcing Reburial of Human Remains". Science Magazine. Posted: February 4, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Language Style Predicts Romantic Chemistry

Language style affects long-term relationship strength and the compatibility of existing and would-be couples, suggests a new study.

Led by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, the study -- featured in the journal Psychological Science -- advances our understanding of how language influences romance.

The group compared people's use of "function words," which rarely carry any meaning on their own, but help build context in conversations.

Content words, such as nouns, adjectives and verbs, carry an explicit meaning. Function words, on the other hand, vary in their use and help provide reference points in conversations. For instance, words like "the," "that" and "of" can act as function words.

The researchers conducted two experiments to measure language similarities. One setup involved 40 speed dating sessions among college students, where duos' conversations were recorded and transcribed for analysis. The study's authors found that people who used function words similarly were more likely to express romantic interest in seeing one another in the future.

A second experiment measured the use of function words in the online chats of 86 couples over the span of 10 days. The researchers found that couples that used function words similarly were more likely to still be together later.

Three months after the data were collected, the team discovered that 76 percent of couples with similar language styles were still together compared to 53 percent of other couples that lacked similar styles of speech.

The findings suggest that romantic compatibility may not depend solely on saying the right things but rather whether they're said in a relatable way.

James Pennebaker, a coauthor of the study, comments on the natural tendency of these speech styles in a press release: "What's wonderful about this is we don't really make that decision; it just comes out of our mouths."

English, Marianne. 2011. "Language Style Predicts Romantic Chemistry". Discovery News. Posted: February 4, 2011. Available online:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Stone Age Fertility Ritual Object Found

Etchings on a carved elk antler dating to nearly 11,000 years ago, may have been used to promote fertility.

A Stone Age-era artifact carved with multiple zigzags and what is likely a woman with spread legs suggests that fertility rituals may have been important to early Europeans, according to new research.

The object, which will be documented in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, is made out of a large elk antler and has been radiocarbon dated to about 10,900 years ago.

"The ornament is composed of groups of zigzag lines and a human representation, probably a woman with spread legs with a short zigzag nearby," lead author Tomasz Płonka told Discovery News. "The woman may be nude, but the geometrical style of representation does not allow us to answer (this question)."

Płonka, a University of Wroclaw archaeologist, and his colleagues analyzed the object, unearthed by a farmer at Swidwin, Poland.

At first the scientists believed the geometrical figure carved onto the antler could have been either the mentioned woman, or a nude man raising his arms. Measurements to determine the ratio of the stick figure limbs, in addition to comparisons with other early human representations, lead the researchers to support the woman interpretation.

Zigzags are very popular motifs on artifacts from many cultures throughout the world, with many possible meanings, but Płonka said, "I think our zigzag lines are connected with water and life symbolism."

The lines also appear to have been carved by different individuals, suggesting that some group effort was involved in the creation of the object.

A geological study of the Polish site found that thawing of ice blocks occurred, increasing the number of water bodies in the region.

"Consequently, the role of aquatic environment as the source of food (fish, mammals) and perhaps transport thoroughfare gained importance," the scientists concluded.

Giant elks were the most imposing animals of the European Plain, perhaps symbolizing "the power of life," according to Płonka. The structure of the carved antler indicates its growth stage was spring or summer. The scientists believe the elk was selected and killed on purpose to make the object, which may have served a role in rituals for many years.

"Some strokes of zigzag lines, which are near the edge of the ornamented surfaces are worn," Płonka explained.

Co-author Krzysztof Kowalski of the National Museum in Szczecin told Discovery News that he and his colleagues are not certain what culture produced the piece, but they've narrowed it down to two probable candidates: the Federmesser or the Ahrensburg cultures.

The Federmesser culture is known for its distinctive flint blade tools, while the Ahrensburg people were famous for their animal-hunting prowess. Intact Ahrensburgian reindeer skeletons with arrowheads in their chests suggest some animals were sacrificed during rituals.

Other European objects, such as an amber figurine found in Weitsche, Germany, provide "evidence there were richly ornamented ritual artifacts at the end of the Paleolithic in Central Europe," Płonka said.

The researchers aren't yet certain if the images on the carved antler are associated with Venus figurines, statuettes of women with exaggerated sexual features that date to as early as 35,000 years ago. Some Venus figurines have been excavated in Poland not too far from the Swidwin site.


Vegas, Jennifer. 2011. "Stone Age Fertility Ritual Object Found". Discovery News. Posted: February 4, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Giant archaeological trove found in Google Earth

Indiana Jones, put down your whip. To scour the globe for archaeological sites these days all you need is a desktop computer.

Almost two thousand potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia have been discovered from an office chair in Perth, Australia, thanks to high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth.

"I've never been to Saudi Arabia," says David Kennedy from the University of Western Australia, Australia. "It's not the easiest country to break into."

Instead Kennedy scanned 1240 square kilometres in Saudi Arabia using Google Earth. From their birds-eye view he found 1977 potential archaeological sites, including 1082 "pendants" - ancient tear-drop shaped tombs made of stone.

According to Kennedy, aerial photography of Saudi Arabia is not made available to most archaeologists, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to fly over the nation. "But, Google Earth can outflank them," he says.

Kennedy confirmed that the sites were vestiges of an ancient life - rather than vegetation or shadow - by asking a friend in Saudi Arabia, who is not an archaeologist, to drive out to two of the sites and photograph them.

Indiana Jones, put down your whip. To scour the globe for archaeological sites these days all you need is a desktop computer.

Almost two thousand potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia have been discovered from an office chair in Perth, Australia, thanks to high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth.

"I've never been to Saudi Arabia," says David Kennedy from the University of Western Australia, Australia. "It's not the easiest country to break into."

Instead Kennedy scanned 1240 square kilometres in Saudi Arabia using Google Earth. From their birds-eye view he found 1977 potential archaeological sites, including 1082 "pendants" - ancient tear-drop shaped tombs made of stone.

According to Kennedy, aerial photography of Saudi Arabia is not made available to most archaeologists, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to fly over the nation. "But, Google Earth can outflank them," he says.

Kennedy confirmed that the sites were vestiges of an ancient life - rather than vegetation or shadow - by asking a friend in Saudi Arabia, who is not an archaeologist, to drive out to two of the sites and photograph them.

Picture-17a.jpgGround views confirmed what Kennedy was seeing on Google

By comparing the images with structures that Kennedy has seen in Jordan, he believes the sites may be up to 9000 years old, but ground verification is needed. "Just from Google Earth it's impossible to know whether we have found a Bedouin structure that was made 150 years ago, or 10,000 years ago," he says.

Since Google Earth was launched five years ago, the field of "armchair archaeology" has blossomed. And it's been harder for archaeologists to get out of the office, since Spot Image started providing Google Earth with 2.5-metre resolution imagery taken from the SPOT 5 satellite.

In 2008 researchers from Melbourne, Australia, found 463 potential sites in the Registan desert in Afghanistan using the desktop computer program.

Zukerman, Wendy. 2011. "Giant archaeological trove found in Google Earth". New Scientist. Posted: February 4, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Genetic Study Uncovers New Path to Polynesia

Surprising new evidence which overturns current theories of how humans colonised the Pacific has been discovered by scientists at the University of Leeds, UK.

The islands of Polynesia were first inhabited around 3,000 years ago, but where these people came from has long been a hot topic of debate amongst scientists. The most commonly accepted view, based on archaeological and linguistic evidence as well as genetic studies, is that Pacific islanders were the latter part of a migration south and eastwards from Taiwan which began around 4,000 years ago.

But the Leeds research -- published February 3 in The American Journal of Human Genetics -- has found that the link to Taiwan does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the DNA of current Polynesians can be traced back to migrants from the Asian mainland who had already settled in islands close to New Guinea some 6-8,000 years ago.

The type of DNA extracted and analysed in this kind of study is that stored in the cell's mitochondria. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down the maternal line, providing a record of inheritance which goes back thousands of years. The scientists look for genetic signatures which enable them to classify the DNA into different lineages and then use a 'molecular clock' to date when these lineages moved into different parts of the world.

Lead researcher, Professor Martin Richards, explains: "Most previous studies looked at a small piece of mtDNA, but for this research we studied 157 complete mitochondrial genomes in addition to smaller samples from over 4,750 people from across Southeast Asia and Polynesia. We also reworked our dating techniques to significantly reduce the margin of error. This means we can be confident that the Polynesian population -- at least on the female side -- came from people who arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea thousands of years before the supposed migration from Taiwan took place."

Nevertheless, most linguists maintain that the Polynesian languages are part of the Austronesian language family which originates in Taiwan. And most archaeologists see evidence for a Southeast Asian influence on the appearance of the Lapita culture in the Bismarck Archipelago around 3,500 years ago. Characterised by distinctive dentate stamped ceramics and obsidian tools, Lapita is also a marker for the earliest settlers of Polynesia.

Professor Richards and co-researcher Dr Pedro Soares (now at the University of Porto), argue that the linguistic and cultural connections are due to smaller migratory movements from Taiwan that did not leave any substantial genetic impact on the pre-existing population.

"Although our results throw out the likelihood of any maternal ancestry in Taiwan for the Polynesians, they don't preclude the possibility of a Taiwanese linguistic or cultural influence on the Bismarck Archipelago at that time," explains Professor Richards. "In fact, some minor mitochondrial lineages back up this idea. It seems likely there was a 'voyaging corridor' between the islands of Southeast Asia and the Bismarck Archipelago carrying maritime traders who brought their language and artefacts and perhaps helped to create the impetus for the migration into the Pacific.

"Our study of the mtDNA evidence shows the interactions between the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific was far more complex than previous accounts tended to suggest and it paves the way for new theories of the spread of Austronesian languages."

The study, which involved researchers from the UK, Taiwan and Australia, was mainly funded by the British Academy, the Bradshaw Foundation and the European Union.

Science Daily. 2011. "Genetic Study Uncovers New Path to Polynesia". Science Daily. Posted: February 3, 2011. Available online:

Journal Reference:

Pedro Soares, Teresa Rito, Jean Trejaut, Maru Mormina, Catherine Hill, Emma Tinkler-Hundal, Michelle Braid, Douglas J. Clarke, Jun-Hun Loo, Noel Thomson et al. Ancient Voyaging and Polynesian Origins. American Journal of Human Genetics, Feb 3, 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.01.009

Friday, February 11, 2011

University of Toronto anthropologists discover earliest cemetery in Middle East

Evidence of emotional relationship between human and fox

Anthropologists at the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge have discovered the oldest cemetery in the Middle East at a site in northern Jordan. The cemetery includes graves containing human remains buried alongside those of a red fox, suggesting that the animal was possibly kept as a pet by humans long before dogs ever were.

The 16,500-year-old site at 'Uyun al-Hammam was discovered in 2000 by an expedition led by University of Toronto professor Edward (Ted) Banning and Lisa Maher, an assistant professor of anthropology at U of T and research associate at the University of Cambridge. "Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least 11 individuals – more than known from all other sites of this kind combined," says Banning, of U of T's Department of Anthropology.

Previous research had identified the earliest cemeteries in the region in a somewhat later period (the Natufian, ca. 15,000-12,000 years ago). These were notable for instances of burials of humans with dogs. One such case involved a woman buried with her hand on a puppy, while another included three humans buried with two dogs along with tortoise shells. However, this new research shows that some of these practices occurred earlier.

Most of the individuals buried at the Jordan site were found with what are known as "grave goods," such as stone tools, a bone spoon, animal parts, and red ochre (an iron mineral). One grave contained the skull and right upper arm bone of a red fox, with red ochre adhered to the skull, along with bones of deer, gazelle and wild cattle. Another nearby grave contained the nearly complete skeleton of a red fox, missing its skull and right upper arm bone, suggesting that portions of a single fox had been moved from one grave to another in prehistoric times.

"What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner," says Maher, who directs excavations at the site. "Later, the grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved. But because the link between the fox and the human had been significant, the fox was moved as well."

The researchers say that it could suggest that foxes were at one time treated in much the same way as dogs, in that there could have been early attempts to tame foxes, but no successful domestication. Studies have shown that foxes can be brought under human control but is not easily done given their skittish and timid nature, which may explain why dogs ultimately achieved "man's best friend" status instead.

"However, it is also noteworthy that the graves contain other animal remains, so we can only take the fox-dog analogy so far," says Banning. "We should remember that some more recent hunter-gatherers consider themselves to have social relationships with a wide range of wild animals, including ones they hunt, and that this sometimes led to prescribed ways to treat the remains of animals, as well as to represent relationships between particular humans and particular animals." Banning says that the "pet" hypothesis is only one among several, which happens to fit with modern preconceptions about human-dog relationships.

Either way, because the same grave that held the fox remains also contained other bones, Banning says that the find holds important clues about burial methods of civilizations past.

"These were unusually dense and diverse concentrations of bones, and indicate very early mortuary practices that involved interring selected animal remains with humans," says Banning. "The site has implications both for our understanding of the development of ideas about death and mortuary practice, and for our understanding of the beginnings of domestication of dog-like animals."

The paper can be viewed here.

EurekAlert. 2011. "University of Toronto anthropologists discover earliest cemetery in Middle East". EurekAlert. Posted: February 2, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pictures: Ancient Bog Girl's Face Reconstructed

illustration courtesy Ursula Wittwer-Backofen, University of Freiburg

"Moora" stares across millennia, thanks to a digital reconstruction based on the Iron Age girl's fragmented skull

Along with the nearly complete corpse of the teenager, peat bog workers found her 2,600-year-old skull bones—mangled by peat-harvesting machinery—in Germany's Lower Saxony state (map) in 2000.

At first, "the police thought it was a criminal case"—perhaps the remains of Elke Kerll, a young woman who disappeared in 1969—said Andreas Bauerochse, a paleoecologist with the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage.

But the DNA of the corpse and Kerll's living mother didn't match, and the identity of Moora—nicknamed after Uchter Moor, where the remains had been found—remained a mystery until 2005.

That year, peat workers found a hand at the same spot where the bog body had been found and scientists including Bauerochse were called in.

The hand was physically a good fit for the body, they found. What's more, by radiocarbon-dating the peat on the hand, the pair determined that Moora died about 650 B.C.

Than, Ker. 2011. "Pictures: Ancient Bog Girl's Face Reconstructed". National Geographic. Posted: February 2, 2011. Available online:

Illustration courtesy Ursula Wittwer-Backofen, University of Freiburg

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Apocalypse then and now: Centuries of doomsday scenarios

Concordia professor Lorenzo DiTommaso studies ancient and modern signs

Montreal, February 1, 2011 – Call it the world's oldest urban legend. Century after century, prophets of all stripes have forecast a dramatic end to civilization – often with an exact date. A case in point is the ancient Mayan calendar, which some people believe predicts a global calamity on December 21, 2012.

Such doomsday scenarios have kept Lorenzo DiTommaso busy. A professor in Concordia's Department of Religion, DiTommaso specializes in the study of ancient to modern apocalypticism – a worldview that expresses a radical way of understanding time, space and human destiny. To date, he's authored or edited five books and written over 100 journal articles, book chapters and other short works on apocalypticism. His next book, The Architecture of Apocalypticism, the first volume of a projected trilogy, will be published by Oxford University Press.

Acute interest in apocalypticism and the end of the world means that DiTommaso is frequently invited to lecture around the globe. This year he will be speaking in Jerusalem, Milan, London, Brasília and Storrs, Connecticut.

"The world is often seen as terrible place, filled with oppression, injustice and the menace of death," says DiTommaso. "Apocalypticism provides a powerful response: The world is so bad, it can't be restored. So it will be swept away."

Religious leaders have long espoused end-time scenarios from holy books and pulpits. "Judaism, Christianity and Islam all forecast an apocalypse," he says. "The end of the world, typically with a judgment day and an Armageddon, reflects the desire to escape this existence, punish one's enemies and be vindicated in light of a higher power or transcendent reality."

Professor DiTommaso studies ancient scrolls, mediaeval manuscripts, modern books and films. Fascinated by the ongoing persistence of apocalyptic beliefs, especially in their secular forms, he examines judgment-day patterns on the internet and in new religions, political rhetoric, contemporary fiction, Japanese anime and graphic novels such as The Watchmen.

Movies are another medium that feature apocalypticism. "The Matrix has all the key elements of the worldview, rebooted on a science-fiction platform," says DiTommaso, referring to the 1999 blockbuster starring Keanu Reeves. "The main character Neo is the prophesized messiah, who overthrows the system, destroys the oppressors and redeems humanity."

DiTommaso is deeply concerned by the resurgence of apocalyptic discourse over the past four decades. "More and more people see the world through the lens of apocalypticism," he observes. "One reason is that things appear to be so irreparably broken: the environment, the economy, the political system."

And therein lies the danger, he warns. "At its core, apocalypticism is a simplistic response to complex problems – either good or evil, nothing in between. And it's an adolescent response, since it places responsibility for solving these problems elsewhere."

Ultimately, doomsday prophecies are ignited by people's uncertainty about the future. "The basic propositions of the apocalyptic worldview haven't changed for over 2,000 years," DiTommaso says. "In some ways, we are prisoners of our past."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Apocalypse then and now: Centuries of doomsday scenarios". EurekAlert. Posted: February 1, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Uncontacted Amazonian Tribe Spotted in Rare Photos: Big Pics

Brazil has allowed the release of rare photographs of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe to bring attention to the plight of indigenous people who rights groups say are faced with possible annihilation.

The astonishing images, showing curious adults and children peering skyward with their faces dyed reddish-orange and toting bows, arrows and spears, were taken by Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

Rights group Survival International, which accompanied the government agency on the overflight near the Brazil-Peru border, said their baskets were full of papaya and manioc grown in a communal garden.

"Illegal loggers will destroy this indigenous people. It is essential that the Peruvian government stop them before it is too late," warned Survival's director Stephen Corry.

FUNAI has released similar photographs in the past and acknowledged that Peruvian loggers are sending some indigenous people fleeing across the border to less-affected rainforests in Brazil.

In 2008, indigenous tribes expert José Carlos Meirelles released a set of photographs that allegedly documented an uncontacted tribe. Those images were later determined to be staged in an elaborate hoax that Meirelles claimed was intended to raise awareness of logging.

The coordinator of Brazil's Amazon Indian organization COIAB, Marcos Apurina, said he hoped the images would draw attention to the plight of the indigenous peoples and encourage their protection.

"It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored -- it is therefore crucial that we protect them," he said.

FUNAI says there are 67 tribes in Brazil that do not have sustained contact with the outside world. Some are often referred to as "uncontacted" tribes even though they have some kind of, albeit limited, contacts.

A year ago, rights groups sent a letter to then president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva voicing concern that the very survival of indigenous groups was under threat.

Brazil's latest census counted more than 500,000 indigenous people among more than 190 million Brazilians. Millions in the country, however, have some indigenous ancestry.

Most indigenous people in the Americas descend from Asian people who crossed a land bridge from Siberia, an estimated 13,000-17,000 years ago. One notable exception: the indigenous people on Chile's Easter island, in the Pacific, are ethnic (Rapa Nui) Polynesians.

Discovery News. 2011. "Uncontacted Amazonian Tribe Spotted in Rare Photos: Big Pics". Discovery News. Posted: February 1, 2011. Available online:

Photos credit: Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ship wreck reveals ancient secrets of medicine

It has been more than 2,000 years since a Roman merchant ship foundered off the west coast of the Italian peninsula and almost 40 years since the wreck was discovered. Now, the DNA trapped in medicines found aboard the ship is yielding secrets of health care in the ancient world.

Samples from two tablets analyzed at the Smithsonian's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics reveal a dried concoction of about a dozen medicinal herbs, including celery, alfalfa and wild onion, bound together with clay and zinc.

The tablets may have been used externally to treat skin conditions or dissolved in water or wine and taken for intestinal ailments such as dysentery, speculates Alain Touwaide, historian of sciences in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The DNA tests confirm that medicines written about in ancient texts were actually used, said Touwaide, who with his wife and research partner, Emanuela Appetiti, obtained the tablets from the Italian Department of Antiquities in 2004.

Archaeologists have found older artifacts in Egypt and China, vessels for wines that contained herbal additives. Touwaide, however, says the shipwreck tablets are the first remains of ancient pharma-ceuticals to be found and also the first to be successfully analyzed with advanced DNA sequencing techniques. Preserved inside small tin boxes, the tablets are gray-green solid disks about an inch across and one-third of an inch thick.

"Extracting the DNA and sequencing it was not an easy task," Touwaide said. The analyses were conducted intermittently over four years, the last in October, by Smithsonian geneticist Robert Fleischer, who said that the results are preliminary and that more testing is in the works.

"I didn't expect it to work at all," said Fleischer. "They're very old. I had assumed everything had degraded, but they were in pretty remarkable condition. You could still see plant fibers."

The ingredients also include radish or cabbage, wild carrot or a relative, yarrow, jack bean and a hibiscus species. Fleischer found smaller genetic traces that may be a carrot relative named angelica, as well as willow, aster, the common bean and nasturtium.

A tramp freighter?

The ship was about 50 feet long, dates to around 130 B.C. and went down in the Gulf of Baratti off the coast of Tuscany. It was discovered in 1974 by members of the Italian Experimental Center for Underwater Archaelogy, but its contents were not surveyed and excavated until the 1980s. Touwaide and Appetiti received the tablet fragments under an agreement between the Smithsonian and the Archaelogical Department of Tuscany.

Divers retrieved several tin containers, 136 vials made of boxwood, a locker and medical tools. The large number of vials suggests that the medicines were being shipped rather than being used by the ship's doctor. "It might be both," said Touwaide. "There might have been a physician on board; there might have been a medical cargo."

Among the recovered objects are glass from Syria, a Cypriot pitcher and lamps from Asia Minor, suggesting the vessel may have been a tramp freighter plying the ports of the entire Mediterranean.

That may be a false assumption, according to Cemal Pulak, vice president of Texas A&M University's Institute of Nautical Archaeology, who said the items might have been stored in a port and placed on the ship all at once, or salvaged from another wreck. Pulak, who is not involved with the Tuscan wreck, has excavated and studied eastern Mediterranean shipwrecks that date to the Bronze Age.

Higgins, Adrian. 2011. "Ship wreck reveals ancient secrets of medicine". Washington Post. Posted: February 1, 2011. Available online: