Monday, August 31, 2015

Face of Tehran’s 7 millennia old woman reconstructed

source: Mehr News Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mehr News Agency. 2015. “Face of Tehran’s 7 millennia old woman reconstructed”. Mehr News Agency. Posted: June 16, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, August 30, 2015

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

Today, three billion people speak Indo-European langauges

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

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

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

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

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

Thompson, Helen. 2015. “Half of All Languages Come From This One Root Tongue. Here’s How it Conquered the Earth.”. Smithsonian. Posted: June 16, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, August 29, 2015

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

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

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

Learning from the past

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

Learning for sustainability

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

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

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

Transformative learning experiences

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

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

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

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

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

A week of shieling Life

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

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

Archaeology and experimental reconstructions

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

Past Horizons. 2015. “The Shieling Project: Learning from the past in the Scottish Highlands”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 13, 2015. Available online:

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hidden secrets of 1491 world map revealed via multispectral imaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cummings, Mike. 2015. “Hidden secrets of 1491 world map revealed via multispectral imaging”. Posted: June 12, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Five Reasons You Shouldn't Buy That Ancient Artifact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Five Reasons You Shouldn't Buy That Ancient Artifact”. Forbes. Posted: June 12, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

A complicated history

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaeological arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bone backlash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pappas, Stephanie. 2015. “Burned Bones in Alexander the Great Family Tomb Give Up Few Secrets”. Live Science. Posted: June 11, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bones with names: Long-dead bodies archaeologists have identified

Historians record biographies of the rich and famous: kings, queens, emperors and knights. Archaeologists, more often than not, dig up common people, who remain stubbornly anonymous in death.

Occasionally, however, the written record and the archaeological record collide. In rare situations, researchers are actually able to identify a collection of bones as a person in the historical record. Many of these identifiable, or "individualized," remains belonged to royalty or other high-profile people, the sort who tend to be buried in lavish graves stamped with their names.

The bodies of royalty are not necessarily more important to archaeologists, who can learn much about diet and lifestyle by examining the bones of commoners. But there's something thrilling about uncovering this concrete evidence of the past. Read on for seven skeletons that have regained their rightful names, and three more that are tantalizingly close.

1. Richard III

The last Plantagenet king of England set off an international fervor in 2013, when archaeologists announced the discovery of his bones under a parking lot in Leicester. The king, who died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, had been scrunched into a hastily dug grave. Researchers identified him by his battle wounds, which matched those the king was reported to have sustained during and after his death, and by his DNA, thanks to a pair of living descendants via his sister's line. 

After the analysis of his remains, Richard III finally got a royal burial at Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015 — 530 years after his death.

2. King Tut

The older a skeleton, the less likely historical records survive to identify it. Fortunately, the ancient Egyptians and their carefully prepared mummies provide an exception to this rule. Although the boy king Tutankhamun died in approximately 1323 B.C., his identification was in no doubt after Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered his gold-laden tomb in 1922.

Tut's mummy revealed him to be a slight young man with a clubfoot. Having a positive ID on the young king is enabling researchers to tie together the dynastic family tree using DNA. In 2010, researchers announced they'd identified mummies belonging to Tutankhamun's father, mother and grandmother. 

3. Queen Eadgyth

In 2008, German archaeologists opened a tomb in the Magdeburg Cathedral, expecting it to be empty. To their surprise, they found a lead sarcophagus inscribed with the words "EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHGVS HABET." This translates to: "The remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus."

Slam dunk identification, right? Not so fast. Archaeologists knew that the bones of the Saxon queen Eadgyth, who died in 946 A.D., had been moved at least three times. They could have easily been lost and replaced. 

So scientists set to analyzing the bones. They extracted isotopes, variations of certain molecules, from the skeleton's teeth. Isotopes are integrated into the body through the diet, so they can pinpoint what an individual ate during their lives. 

The tooth isotopes pointed to a childhood in Wessex, England, matching the historical record of Queen Eadgyth. She also ate a high-protein diet and her skeleton bore signs of horseback riding, the archaeologists discovered, befitting her royal status.

4. Xin Zhui

One of the best-preserved bodies ever discovered by archaeologists belonged to Xin Zhui, also known as Lady Dai. Xin Zhui was the wife of the Marquis of Dai during the third century B.C., and when she died around the age of 50 in what is now Hunan, China, she was buried in style. Her tomb was full of her belongings, including cosmetic boxes, musical instruments, painted silk and tablets about health and medicine.

Tucked away in four nested pine boxes, Xin Zhui was so well-preserved upon her discovery in the 1970s that her skin was still moist and her limbs pliable. Her body is now kept in a preserved state at the Hunan Provincial Museum. 

5. Ramesses I

The tomb of the first ruler of Egypt's 19th dynasty, Ramesses I, was discovered in 1817. Unfortunately, Ramesses I wasn't in it.

Years later, in 1881, a family of Egyptian goat-herders-turned-tomb-robbers revealed to archaeologists where they'd been getting the items they'd been selling on the black market for years: a cliff-side tomb above Deir el-Bahri, a mortuary complex across the Nile from the city of Luxor.

The tomb acted as a cache for royal mummiesremoved during the looting of tombs elsewhere, according to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. Inside was a coffin inscribed with the name of Ramesses I — but inside that was nothing but loose bandages. So where was Ramesses?

Canada, as it turned out. Yes, the founder of Egypt's 19th dynasty and grandfather of the famed Ramesses the Great was acting as a sideshow exhibit for tourists at the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame. At the time, purchasing mummies from Egypt was as easy as walking down the right alley to find a street merchant selling looted tomb goods. The body of Ramesses I ended up in this trade. When the Niagara Falls Museum sold off its collections in 1999, Emory raised the money to purchase the suspected Ramesses I mummy in less than two weeks. Researchers there used computed tomography (CT) scans, facial reconstructions and detailed study of the mummification techniques to confirm that the roaming mummy was indeed the lost pharaoh. (The mummy was returned to Egypt in 2003.) 

6. Ramesses III

Talk about a cold case: Ramesses III, the second pharaoh of Egypt's 20th dynasty, died in 1155 B.C. In 2012, researchers solved his murder.

Historical records, penned on papyrus, told of a palace plot to murder Ramesses III, but no one knew if that plot had succeeded. A CT scan of the pharaoh's mummy suggested that it did: Ramesses III's throat had been slit. The cut would have severed the trachea, esophagus and major blood vessels to the head, killing him quickly, the researchers reported in the British Medical Journal.

During his mummification, priests placed a healing amulet in the neck wound and bound it tightly with bandages. 

7. Copernicus

The first astronomer to realize that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, was buried in an unmarked grave in a Polish cathedral in 1543. But in 2009, Swedish and Polish researchers announced in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they'd positively identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus.

The identification took some doing. First, researchers created a facial reconstruction of a skull of a man of the proper age found under the church floor in 2005. The results were promising — a mug that looked quite similar to contemporary paintings of Copernicus.

Next, the researchers turned to a few shed hairs found stuck in the bindings of a calendar owned by Copernicus. DNA testing revealed that two of the hairs matched the suspected Copernicus bones. 

8. A Viking king?

Not everyone in history is considerate enough to leave DNA-bearing hair behind. In most cases, researchers have to take their best guess at an identification.

One such case is the discovery of a young man's skeleton buried near Auldhame in Scotland. The skeleton, which dated back to the 10th century, was found surrounded by expensive goods, including a Viking belt. This suggests that he was a high-status individual — perhaps even the Viking King Olaf Guthfrithsson himself.

King Olaf died in A.D. 941. Shortly before his death, the king attacked Auldhame and the nearby hamlet of Tyninghame. The location of the grave, combined with the goods inside it, suggests that skeleton could be Olaf himself. Unfortunately, archaeologists said, the evidence is only circumstantial, and with no living relatives for DNA comparison, the identification will remain speculative. 

9. An unknown soldier?

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the mass graves of fallen soldiers were raided for bones, which were ground up and used to fertilize fields in what is now Belgium. As a result, few full skeletons from the battle have been found.

But in 2012, a construction crew discovered the complete skeleton of a Waterloo casualty. The musket ball that killed the man was still lodged in his ribcage. Nearby were 20 coins, a spoon and a piece of wood engraved "CB," according to The Independent.

It wasn't enough to identify the man. That is, until archaeologists noticed the traces of an "F" before the "CB" and a military historian named Gareth Glover took up the case. By cross-referencing records of German soldiers who fought in the battle, Glover was able to determine that only one German with those initials had died: a 23 year-old named Friedrich Brandt.  

As of June 2015, the body identified as Brandt was on display at the Lion's Mound Museum & Visitor Centre in Belgium. 

10. Which Philip?

When archaeologists cracked open an ancient Macedonian tomb near Vergina, Greece, in 1977, they also cracked open a mystery that rages to this day. The date of the tomb, and its lavish contents, strongly suggest the male and female skeletons inside were relatives of Alexander the Great. But which relatives? The debate boils down to two camps: those who believe the male tomb occupant to be Philip II, the father of Alexander who set the stage for his son's unprecedented conquests, and those who believe the skeleton belongs to Philip III Arrhidaios, Alexander's less-illustrious half-brother who ruled as a figurehead briefly after Alexander's death. (The female skeleton is presumed to be the wife, or one of the wives, of these men.)

Examinations of the bones have yet to yield any firm proof either way. Archaeologists argue over whether the bodies were cremated right after death, or later — Philip III was buried for more than a year before being exhumed for a royal cremation and funeral. They also bicker over whether the bones show signs of Philip II's known battle wounds. Ultimately, the bodies may not even provide the final clues, said Maria Liston, an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo who studies cremated remains.

"It's going to have to be, in the end, based a little bit at looking at the bones, but honestly on the dates of the pottery [in the tomb] and things like that," Liston told Live Science.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2015. “Bones with names: Long-dead bodies archaeologists have identified”. Live Science. Posted: Available online:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Outdoor forensic anthropology research laboratories are colloquially called “body farms,” a term that many researchers find too sensational but that has stuck following the 1994 publication of Patricia Cornwell’s popular forensic novel “The Body Farm.” We’re going behind the macabre moniker, though, to uncover the real story of how six facilities in the U.S. are quietly conducting pioneering research and working with law enforcement to bring killers to justice.

At these labs, scientists primarily study the process of human decomposition using donated bodies. While the general process of decomp is biologically universal, the rate of it is significantly affected by variables like temperature and humidity, not to mention by the method of disposal of the body.  If a body is found in a car trunk, a house basement, a shallow grave, or a fire pit, how can a forensic anthropologist tell time-since-death? Or discern trauma that happened before death from trauma that happened around the time of death or after death? These questions are being answered by scientists at six “body farms” around the U.S.

The first research facility of this kind was started at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1981 by forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, who found the need to launch a program that studied human decomposition after being called to consult on forensic cases. After 25 years of being the only one in the country, UTK’s groundbreaking facility was followed by similar projects at Western Carolina University (2006), Texas State University (2008), Sam Houston State University (2010), Southern Illinois University, Carbondale(2012), and Colorado Mesa University (2013). These six are currently the only “body farms” that have accepted human donations, although plans are in the works for similar facilities in Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

We asked the directors of the six outdoor forensic anthropology research centers to share with us the most interesting and important work to come out of their centers.

1. Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Dawnie Steadman, Director).

The first of its kind in the world, the original outdoor forensic research center has grown considerably since its founding in 1981. Since it’s been around for decades, research at ARF is varied and copious, as a listing of this year’s publications shows. Law enforcement and medical examiners frequently reach out to UTK anthropologists to assist with case-based research. For example, in a case that involves a body wrapped in plastic in the trunk of a car, investigators might ask how long it takes to reach the stage of decomposition in which the body was found. This type of question can be answered scientifically through ongoing research on decomposition at the ARF.

The facility has also generated the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, which is the largest documented collection of contemporary American skeletons in the world. Researchers come from all over the globe to access it for various studies on biological profile (such as age-at-death, sex, and ancestry studies), pathologies and trauma, and occupation markers.

This collection is also part of the data set used to develop the statistical program FORDISC, which employs measurement data from skulls to help forensic anthropologists figure out sex, height, and ancestry. The most recent project that ARF is undertaking involves the investigation of mass graves, which is a major humanitarian concern in several parts of the world today. Research at the Anthropology Research Facility at UTK has revolutionized how human decomp is studied and paved the way for the development of the five other facilities below.

2.  Forensic Osteology Research Station at Western Carolina University (Cheryl Johnston, Director).

Researchers active at FOReSt are primarily interested in taphonomy, or what happens to a body after death, in order to gain a better understanding of how decomposition is affected by the environment and how other post-mortem processes such as scavenging affect the body itself. Students are integral to the hands-on research, undertaking projects such as figuring out whether clear or black plastic causes a body to decompose faster (black plastic does, for the curious among you) and participating in the recovery of the remains, both of which are good training opportunities. Daily photographs and videos show researchers exactly which animals contribute to decomposition, and they were surprised to find that even possums were feeding on remains.

WCU may be best known, however, for their twice yearly cadaver dog training, as they are among one of the few forensic programs in the country to offer this. Trained cadaver dogs can aid law enforcement in finding and recovering a body more quickly. Recovered remains from FOReSt are catalogued and curated at the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory, and both facilities hope to draw in visiting scientists living in countries where this sort of forensic decomposition research is illegal.

3. Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University (Daniel Wescott, Director).

The research being done at Texas State is largely focused on estimating post-mortem interval (PMI or time-since-death) and on training law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and cadaver dogs to find remains. Both of these goals are accomplished by a focus on the interaction among species within the ecosystem where a body is found.

Vulture scavenging has therefore been a fruitful research topic, as understanding when they come, how they feed, and how to detect their presence is vital to understanding PMI. Detecting bodies is also being done here using infrared photography and drone technology, techniques that save time and reduce the number of people needed for a search. One application of this is in the search for people who have died crossing the Texas border, which FARF is contributing to along with other legal and humanitarian agencies.

Finally, the skeletonized remains that FARF collects following research are extensively catalogued and meticulously documented in terms of age-at-death, sex, health, and lifestyle to form a collection that aids researchers in both forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. Finally, the skeletonized remains that FARF collects following research are extensively catalogued and meticulously documented in terms of age-at-death, sex, health, and lifestyle to form a collection that aids researchers in both forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology.

5. Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (Gretchen Dabbs, Director).

Since they first accepted a human body donation in January 2012, CFAR has received 26 donations from families after death. Research has included work on vulture scavenging and the effects of freezing on decomposition, and Dabbs has discovered that bodies may naturally mummify in southern Illinois due to constant, low-speed winds.

The facility is best known, though, for a study on the effects of lawnmowers on skeletal remains. When a riding lawnmower operator accidentally ran over two research subjects, the CFAR team turned it into a new study, which they published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Their latest research deals with what happens when a body is encased in concrete; namely, that the concrete may preserve the body so that it looks somewhat fresh. This finding is important because a missing persons search in this case should go back several years rather than several months. Don’t be surprised if an upcoming episode of FOX’s Bones uses these studies for background research!

6. Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa University (Melissa Connor, Director).

This newest forensic research facility is also the one at the highest altitude — 4780 feet above mean sea level — and the one furthest west. Researchers have learned from some of their two dozen donations that two main things affect how fast a body becomes skeletonized: pre-death medical conditions of the donor and microenvironments in the high altitude desert. Even placement just a few yards apart can mean dramatic differences in rate of skeletonization and therefore in estimates of time-since-death. Colorado Mesa researchers work primarily with undergraduate students and also take seriously their role as “post-mortem educators,” talking with living donors who have willed their bodies to the research facility after death.

The forensic anthropologists and their students working at these six outdoor forensic research centers around the U.S. are advancing our ability to identify victims of homicide and to provide details that could help find a killer and bring that person to justice.

When he started the first “body farm” decades ago, Bill Bass never dreamed that so many people around the world would be fascinated by forensic anthropology. But the continued growth of people choosing to donate their remains to these research programs — UTK currently has about 3,500 pre-registered donors! — shows that people see the value of this science and the importance of this work to the community at large.

Crimes”. Fobes. Posted: June 10, 2015. Available online: Solving murder cases and assisting in disappearances will be significantly aided by bringing forensic research centers to a greater variety of geographic and ecological locations around the country. It’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to the idea of decomposing human bodies, though. And the concerns about smell, insects, animals, and, well, gooey stuff are not unfounded. But Bass holds firm against these misgivings. “If you’re going to do things scientifically and put the bad guys away,” he says, “you have to do this kind of research.”

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “These 6 'Body Farms' Help Forensic Anthropologists Learn To Solve Crimes". Forbes. Posted: June 10, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sisters fight to save ancient African language from extinction

Hanna Koper, 95, and her two siblings thought to be last remaining speakers of N|uu and are working with linguists to preserve oldest surviving San language

A 95-year-old woman is helping a last ditch effort to preserve an ancient African language before it goes extinct.

Hanna Koper and her two sisters are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the San language N|uu, rated as critically endangered by Unesco. The San, also known as “bushmen”, were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. N|uu, which has 112 distinct sounds, was passed on orally down the generations but never written down. Now Koper and her siblings have worked with linguists to design alphabet charts with consonants, vowels and 45 different “clicks” that are typical of San languages, as well as rules of spelling and grammar.

Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Centre for African Language Diversity at the University of Cape Town, who is working on the project with British academic Sheena Shah, said: “It’s the most indigenous language of southern Africa.” N|uu and related languages were spoken in most parts of southern Africa, he added, but were wiped out by white settlers, sometimes with the support of locals. “Very often they kept the young girls, but they killed all the men.

Genocide is the major reason for these languages in southern Africa to be extinct now, and then forced assimilation. Farmers were taking their land so there was no subsistence for them any more.”

Brezinger has overseen the teaching of N|uu at a local school, where pupils learn basics such as greetings, body parts, animal names and short sentences. One teenage girl in particular is showing huge promise in the language but “at one stage there will be no fluent speaker any more”, he said.

That does not mean N|uu will necessarily be doomed to the archives, however. “With these languages, you never know,” said Brezinger. “Hawaiian was extinct basically, and then there was a movement 35 years ago and you have 2,000 mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian.

“This is why it’s very important now for us to record as much as possible with the speakers so we have material, spoken language on video tape and so on.”

N|uu has one of the biggest speech sound inventories in the world, he added, including more than 45 click phonemes, 30 non-click consonants and 37 vowels. “Language is the most important cultural asset, so if you lose your language, you lose your culture. In Canada, there is a clear link between those indigenous people who lose their language and suicide rates. In this globalised world, local identity is essential,” Brezinger.

Koper, who lives near Upington in Northern Cape province, told South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper that when she was a girl in the days of white minority rule, she and her siblings were told their language was ugly. “We were told not to make noise and the baas [a Dutch word for supervisor] would shout at us if we spoke the language because they believed we were gossiping,” she was quoted as saying.

“This is my language. This is my bread. This is my milk. I didn’t learn it, but I ate it and this is how it is my language.”

Koper’s sister Katrina Esau, 82, who has received an award from President Jacob Zuma for her work to preserve San language and culture, added: “Other people have their own languages. Why must my language be allowed to die? It must go on. As long as there are people, the language must go on.”

Smith, David. 2015. “Sisters fight to save ancient African language from extinction”. The Guardian. Posted: June 9, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The shape of a perfect fire

From ancient Egyptians roasting a dripping cut of beef next to the Great Pyramid of Giza to a Boy Scout learning to build a log cabin fire in his backyard, everyone builds fires with the same general shape.

And now we know why.

In a study published in Nature Scientific Reports on June 8, Adrian Bejan, the J.A. Jones professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, shows that, all other variables being equal, the best fires are roughly as tall as they are wide. This is why, he argues, everyone has built fires that basically look the same since the dawn of time.

'Humans from all eras have been relying on this design,' said Bejan. 'The reason is that this shape is the most efficient for air and heat flow. Our success in building fires in turn made it possible for humans to migrate and spread across the globe heat flow from fire facilitates the movement and spreading of human mass on the globe, which is a direct prediction of the Constructal Law.'

In 1996, Bejan penned the Constructal Law that postulates that movement -- or 'flow' -- systems such as trees, rivers or air currents evolve into configurations that provide easier and easier access to flows. Now internationally recognized, the law is increasingly finding applications in improving design and maximizing efficiency of humanmade systems.

Bejan continued, 'Our bonfires are shaped as cones and pyramids, as tall as they are wide at the base. They look the same in all sizes, from the firewood in the chimney, to the tree logs and wooden benches in the center of the university campus after the big game. They look the same as the pile of charcoal we make to grill meat. And now we know why.'

So the next time you're out camping and want to build the perfect fire, now you know what general shape it should take.

But you already knew that, didn't you?

Science Daily. 2015. “The shape of a perfect fire”. Science Daily. Posted: June 8, 2015. Available online:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mapela: archaeologists re-visit a forgotten urban site in Zimbabwe

Near the border with Botswana in the Shashi-Limpopo region lies Mapela, which is now an excavation site. The ruins of what is believed to have been a flourishing urban community for a long period of time were first examined in the early 1960s. As a result of political developments in the country, which was known as Rhodesia at the time, the site was abandoned and forgotten by the archaeologists.

Until June 2013, that is. Then, new excavations started under the leadership of Dr Chirikure from the University of Cape Town. Chirikure and his team discovered a large area with massive stone walls, huge piles of fossilised animal excrement, pottery, spinning wheels and thousands of glass beads that testify to thriving trade with other countries, probably India and China. Carbon dating indicates that Mapela was as a flourishing community that existed continuously from the early 8th century until well into the 18th.

People and environment

Mapela lies virtually untouched in a rather inaccessible area, and is unique in several respects,’ says Per Ditlef Fredriksen, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Oslo. Since June 2014 he has been Dr Chirikure’s collaboration partner and head of the research project that will dig deeper into the ecological history of Mapela to find out more about how people and the environment mutually affected each other in the Shashi-Limpopo region.

Ecological history studies the complex interplay between people and the environment through the centuries. ‘In other words, the question is not only how people have adapted to climate change;  it’s also a fact that urban societies generate climate change,’ Fredriksen points out.

Understanding the relationship between sites

The forgotten stonewalled site at Mapela Hill will be used as a case study in the project, but this is only one of a number of urban, historical communities that have been discovered in the Shashi-Limpopo region. The more famous ruined cities of Khami and Great Zimbabwe, both on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, are also located in this part of Southern Africa.

‘We are undertaking excavations in several locations in the area to obtain a better understanding of the development of all these world heritage sites, since the relationship between them remains unclarified.’

Until now, researchers have been mostly concerned with the elite and the elite culture that has been uncovered in places such as Great Zimbabwe and other well-known historical sites in the region. The common folk, on the other hand, were not deemed to be of equal interest.

‘We wish to learn more about the relationship between the common population and the elite. Part of Mapela’s uniqueness is that this site shows traces of all the three elite cultures in the area. The material culture testifies to this fact,’ Fredriksen explains.

‘Especially the jewellery, but even the fantastically constructed stone walls are extremely rich in symbols. Our findings in Mapela include traces of the stone walls of Khami.’

‘Climate and the environment have previously been topics raised in the debate over the urbanisation of Southern Africa. However, this new interdisciplinary project proceeds several steps further in the direction of natural science,’ Fredriksen says.

‘We include climate data at an early stage when establishing research questions. Our objective is to obtain a deeper insight into the associations between climate, environment and socioeconomic and political strategies.’

New findings

Today, Mapela is located in an underdeveloped and marginal agricultural area, and researchers have assumed that this was an arid region earlier as well, and that Mapela was a regional centre of little importance. New findings, however, indicate the opposite.

Mapela must have been larger than the known locality of Mapungubwe, where the elite is thought to have lived. Perhaps even the climate was quite different in earlier times.

‘Was Mapela a community that existed against all odds?’

‘That is an extremely interesting question. After all, Mapela continued to exist for centuries, while other communities, such as Mapungubwe, perished. Why? This is one of the questions we will attempt to answer.’

‘Could this project provide new knowledge about the ways in which societies have adapted to climate change?’

‘It’s very complex, but hopefully we will be able to contribute to this,’ says Fredriksen. He refers to the achievements of the University of Cape Town in the field of climate research.

‘We are in this project to learn from the South Africans, and we have a lot to learn from them,’ he concludes.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Mapela: archaeologists re-visit a forgotten urban site in Zimbabwe”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 8, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Supernatural beliefs gain strength in natural disasters, says anthropologist

Supernatural beliefs gain strength when seemingly inexplicable natural disasters occur, says a Universiti Malaysia Sabah anthropologist.

Dr Paul Porodong said despite there being no proof the Sabah earthquake was due to Mount Kinabalu climbers who stripped for a photo recently, they are being blamed because the incident "fits well with local belief".

The Humanities, Arts and Heritage Faculty senior lecturer said photographs of the nearly nude mountaineers, which caused anger when shared online earlier this week, came just days before the deadly Friday earthquake.

Mount Kinabalu is one of the most revered "temples" to the Kadazandusun community, he said, and acts of disrespect were long linked to accidents.

"The blame on the nudists is a deduction on what is the previous or existing belief. Belief systems are about explaining unexplainable or unscientific phenomenon’s. Mount Kinabalu to the local community is sacred, not a tourism product. To them, the mountain belongs to the spirit of their ancestors," Porodong said.

The Sabah Government had given credence to belief by adopting local wishes, he added.

For the last three years, an annual ceremony called the "Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran" has been held. It is a ritual to make offerings to the Kadazan-Dusun's ancestors, and on the day, Sabah Parks stops foreigners from climbing.

Porodong said the ritual bore similarity to Chinese religious ceremonies for the dead.

"You pay your respects no matter what. This is Dusunic belief. No matter where they are, in the city or having become Christians, they still have deep belief. It's not to say they still belief in paganism, it's more like they fall back to old explanations, whether it's right or wrong, when they want explanations."

The beliefs were reinforced by the native courts. Penalties meted out can include fines for angering spirit.

"It's endorsed by the Native Court. Angering spirits is taken very seriously as part of the justice system. The basis of local belief is moral."

Had it not been for the nude photo, Porodong added, other acts of disrespect might have been blamed for the earthquake.

A Universiti Malaysia Sarawak academic cautioned against superstition when, "clearly, earthquakes are seismic events".

Social Sciences Faculty Associate Professor Dr Andrew Aeria criticised Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Pairin Kitigan for telling the media yesterday that a flock of swallows circling his home on Thursday was a premonition.

"The earthquake has nothing to do with swallows and nothing to do with offensive tourists taking their clothes off. What on earth is he talking about? It was an earthquake," Aeria said.

"The fact that so many people believe what Pairin said shows us that our education system has failed. Instead of teaching science and rational thinking, society is reinforcing superstition and feudalism.

“And we talk about being developed? We are one of the most backward countries in south east Asia now," he added.

Ji, Yu. 2015. “Supernatural beliefs gain strength in natural disasters, says anthropologist”. The Star. Posted: June 8, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Jordan's black desert may hold key to Earth's first farmers

A team of archaeologists in Jordan who have been working for a few years in the Black Desert has made a discovery that could shed light on how early humans made the leap to agriculture.

The team found 14,000-year-old evidence that could lead to a new understanding of culture and the environment at the dawn of human civilization in the region. At that time, this area used to get much more rain and was able to sustain human settlement.

“It’s really startling new evidence that we didn’t expect to find in this particular part of southwest Asia. And it changes the way in which we think about these hunter-gatherer communities at the end of the last ice age, who were on the brink of developing these new technologies of agriculture, these new ways of life that are influencing us still today,” says archeologist Tobias Richter from the University of Copenhagen. Underneath the volcanic basalt on the windswept, arid and rocky plain, within sight of the Syrian border, the bones of a child and adult are slowly coming to the surface after at least 14,000 years entombed in the desert.

By analysing bones, seeds and other remains scientists hope to discover that in this area, 14.000 years ago, humans began farming, settling and forming large social groups.

“We can then identify different species of plants, which in turn will tell us what sorts of things were growing out here. It’s hard to imagine right now because it’s all desert, but back many, many years ago, it was actually really nice and very, very green, and we can tell that from these plant remains,” says finds co-ordinator Erin Estrup.

The team hopes that further discoveries in the desert will help them to build a clearer picture of how the environment and climate changed over time, and the impact this had on the development of human civilization in the area.

euronews. 2015. “Jordan's black desert may hold key to Earth's first farmers”. Euronews. Posted: June 8, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric gold trade route

Archaeologists at the University of Southampton have found evidence of an ancient gold trade route between the south-west of the UK and Ireland. A study suggests people were trading gold between the two countries as far back as the early Bronze Age (2500BC).

The research, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, used a new technique to measure the chemical composition of some of the earliest gold artefacts in Ireland. Findings show the objects were actually made from imported gold, rather than Irish. Furthermore, this gold is most likely to have come from Cornwall. Lead author Dr Chris Standish says: "This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result as it suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally.

"It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn't exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an 'exotic' origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production."

The researchers used an advanced technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry to sample gold from 50 early Bronze Age artefacts in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, such as; basket ornaments, discs and lunula (necklaces). They measured isotopes of lead in tiny fragments and made a comparison with the composition of gold deposits found in a variety of locations. After further analysis, the archaeologists concluded that the gold in the objects most likely originates from Cornwall, rather than Ireland -- possibly extracted and traded as part of the tin mining industry.

Dr Standish says: "Perhaps what is most interesting is that during this time, compared to Ireland, there appears to be much less gold circulating in Cornwall and southern Britain. This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other 'desirable' goods -- rather than keep it."

Today, gold is intrinsically linked with economic wealth, is universally exchangeable and underpins currencies and economies across much of the globe. However, gold may not always have had this value -- in some societies, gold was seen to embody supernatural or magical powers, playing a major role in belief systems rather than economic ones. The value and significance placed on gold may have varied from region to region.

Dr Alistair Pike, a co-author from the University of Southampton, adds: "The results of this study are a fascinating finding. They show that there was no universal value of gold, at least until perhaps the first gold coins started to appear nearly two thousand years later. Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities -- belief systems clearly played a major role."

Science Daily. 2015. “Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric gold trade route”. Science Daily. Posted: June 5, 2015. Available online:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Feature: From deep in Peru’s rainforests, isolated people emerge

Villagers along the muddy banks of the Curanja River in the remote Peruvian Amazon are reporting frequent sightings and even raids by a mysterious, isolated tribe that lives deep in the rainforest. These isolated people rely on their deep knowledge of the ecosystem for food, medicines, and goods; now, pressures on the forest may be pushing them into the outside world. The events along the Curanja are the last, lingering echoes of the collision of cultures that began in 1492, in which an estimated 50 million to 100 million native people perished, and entire cultures vanished. Anthropologists and officials wonder if they can minimize the human toll of this final act. Lacking immunity to common pathogens and requiring large tracts of intact forest for their way of life, the isolated tribes are some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Lawler, Andrew. 2015. “Feature: From deep in Peru’s rainforests, isolated people emerge”. Science. Posted: June 4, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

35,000 years ago Aurignacians were first modern humans to occupy Mas d’Azil

A team of archaeologists and geoarchaeologists from Inrap and the Traces Laboratory (CNRS – Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès) have been working since 2011 in the cave-tunnel of Mas d’Azil, in the Ariège region of France.

This rescue and research operation is part of a vast project to better understand this site and improve its presentation to the public. The multiple rescue operations are linked to various tourist installations in the cave (visitor’s pathway and welcome centre, etc.) and to renovating the road running through it to make it safer.

This work is accompanied by a complete archaeological and geological study of the cave, consisting of a meticulous look at its prehistoric occupations during the last great glaciation (between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago). The cave also provides useful climatic information, attesting to alternating periods of hostile cold and more temperate phases, during which prehistoric humans ventured inside the cave.

New scenario for the history of the cave

The researchers have thus revealed a new history of human presence at the foot of the Pyrenees. The unearthing of an Aurignacian occupation linked to the first arrival of modern humans in this part of Europe is a major discovery. The Prehistory of Mas d’Azil now begins at 35,000 BC, with the first Upper Palaeolithic populations (called the Aurignacians, and the artists of Chauvet Cave). They were followed much later by Magdalenian people who ventured into the cave during a milder climatic period. In this immense cavern, they left numerous and world famous portable art objects, as well as artistic depictions on the cave walls. At the end of the Pleistocene, when the climate became warmer, a new civilisation emerged, the Azilian, which was named after this cave.

All of the Upper Palaeolithic is present in the Mas d’Azil Cave

Extensively explored since 1860, the right bank of the Mas d’Azil Cave largely suffered from its early discovery. Until recently, it was thought that only a bit of spoil from the early excavations remained, but the recent rescue archaeology operations have now revealed a long stratigraphy several metres deep. During the glacial periods of the Quaternary, the Arize River deposited sedimentary layers (pebbles, sands and silt) that nearly filled in the cave. These previously unknown periods of flooding in the cave are very important for understanding the history of its formation, as well as for the evolution of the Pyrenean valleys.

Most of the oldest layers, which were sealed by these river deposits, can be attributed to the Aurignacian period (35,000-33,000 BC). When the climate later became warmer, the Arize River regained its erosive power and re-cut through its own deposits, making the cave accessible to humans once again.

Aurignacian discovery

The later layers date to 14,700 BC and lie directly above the river deposits: the Magdalenian occupation thus followed this flooding and filling phase in the cave. Another important element has now been revealed at Mas d’Azil: it was previously thought that Aurignacians did not live deep in caves, but their occupations have now been found. This is a major discovery.

Modern prehistoric archaeology techniques now enable researchers to place some of the old artefact collections, kept in museums, into their proper context. The discovery of a complex stratigraphic sequence, with many Aurignacian artefacts at its base, contributes important new elements to our knowledge of Prehistory. The study of this new stratigraphy, an understanding of its formation processes, and the extension of this archaeological and geoarchaeological study throughout the cave, are all very promising. This research sheds new light on the Aurignacian period in the French Central Pyrenees. The prehistoric human occupations in this vast valley bottom could have been very different from, or complementary to, those found in the “small” caves often perched high above the landscape, and which until now were almost the only ones known.

Research began in the 19th century

The Mas d’Azil Cave and Prehistory research began at this palaeontological and prehistoric site as early as the 1840’s by Father Pouech when it was planned to construct a road through the cave. Félix Garrigou described its general stratigraphy in 1867. During these years, thousands of flint tools and hundreds of portable art objects were excavated. In 1901-1902, Henri Breuil defined the chronology of the Magdalenian culture based on the excavations at Mas d’Azil, and discovered the first remains of parietal art in the cavern (depictions of bison, horse, felines, fish, etc.). From 1936 to 1958, Joseph Mandement discovered numerous galleries until then unknown. But it was Marthe and Saint-Just Péquart who, from 1935 to 1942, excavated deep in the cave and uncovered one of the rare “deep-cave dwellings”, along with some Magdalenian artistic masterpieces: spearthrowers, pierced batons, cut-out figures, etc.

Since this date, only occasional research has been conducted in the cave. The right bank, where the decorated galleries are located, was since considered sterile. The Mas d’Azil Cave is the eponymous site of the last culture of the Upper Palaeolithic before the start of a new era, the Azilian, defined by Edourd Piette in 1887-1889 based on his work in the vast site on the left bank of the cave. This Epipalaeolithic culture, meaning between the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic, followed by the Neolithic, is characterized by perforated red deer harpoons; very short end-scrapers and more or less geometric weapon armatures (Azilian points). Art is represented by painted or engraved pebbles.

Unique in the world, Mas d’Azil is also open to the public. Visitors are invited to discover the galleries on the right bank of the Arize. Beginning in the middle of the cave, this underground system is a complex succession of chambers and galleries that are deep and obscure. The entire section that is open to the public was renovated in 2013.

Past Horizons. 2015. “35,000 years ago Aurignacians were first modern humans to occupy Mas d’Azil”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 3, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Archaeologists restore early Islamic caliph's palace on the shores of the Sea of Galilee

The Department of Ancient Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is to receive EUR 30,000 through the Cultural Preservation Program of the German Federal Foreign Office to help with the restoration of a caliph's palace on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The palace complex covers a site of about 5,000 square meters and was uncovered from 1932 to 1939 by German archaeologists from the Catholic Görres Society and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. It sits on land that today still belongs to the German Holy Land Association (DVHL) and is managed by the Israel National Parks Authority.

The palace was constructed from white limestone on a lower course of black basalt and includes one of the oldest mosques in the Holy Land. It was built by Caliph Walid I (705 to 715 A.D.) of the Umayyaden dynasty, which established the first caliphate in the Holy Land from 661 to 750 AD. A few years after construction started, a severe earthquake rocked the palace and caused a fissure right through the center of the mosque and the entire east wing of the building, and this probably put a stop to the work before the structure was fully completed. In the Middle Ages, a sugar cane oven was set up on the site. This brought considerable wealth for the crusaders who owned it but resulted in lasting damage to the environment thanks to the vast amounts of water and wood needed to operate it. Since being excavated in the 1930s, the ruins have been exposed and threatened by vegetation growth and weather effects.

The restoration project sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office highlights the importance of this year's anniversary of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. "This project has been initiated just in the nick of time - there is no more time to waste", emphasized archaeologist PD Dr. Hans-Peter Kuhnen, Chief Academic Director of the JGU Department of Ancient Studies and project manager, who has been involved in archaeological research at the Khirbat al-Minya site together with students from Mainz University since 2009. "Every year we have been witness to the gradual deterioration of the palace. By backing the project financially, Germany is assuming responsibility for an important archaeological site that would not have been excavated without the German initiative in the 1930s. At the same time, we are supporting the work of the Israel National Parks management, our students have the chance to gather practical experience in archaeological conservation, and we are also setting an example within the archaeological community for a dialog with Islam," added Kuhnen who, together with Franziska Bloch of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), authored a guide to the palace in 2014.

Since 1981, Germany has been supporting the preservation of cultural heritage across the globe as part of the Cultural Preservation Program of its Federal Foreign Office. The aim has been to foster an independent national awareness in the partner countries and a collaborative approach to dealing with the world's cultural treasures. The Cultural Preservation Program is also an effective instrument of Germany's international cultural relations and educational policy. This strategy of cultural conservation as a means of promoting stability in crisis states and contributing to crisis prevention has become ever more important in recent years.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Archaeologists restore early Islamic caliph's palace on the shores of the Sea of Galilee”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 2, 2015. Available online:

Friday, August 14, 2015

Archaeologist resurfaces stories from a sunken slave ship

A Portuguese ship carrying more than 400 enslaved people left Mozambique on Dec. 3, 1794, and set sail for Brazil, where the growing sugar economy demanded cheap labor. Shackled and packed like cargo beneath the ship's deck, the slaves endured a cruel journey filled with sweat, blood and vomit.

An estimated 400,000 East Africans made the same trip between 1800 and 1865. But more than half of this ship's occupants would never reach their final destination.

Violent winds and treacherous swells rocked the vessel as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope off the coast of South Africa. The ship, called the São José, struck submerged rocks and wrecked between two reefs. A rescue attempt saved the captain, the crew and around 200 slaves. The remaining Mozambican captives sank to the bottom of the ocean.

For more than two centuries, this account of the wreckage from the ship's captain was the only evidence of the São José's victims that prevailed above water. Now, a George Washington University professor and a team of archaeologists have brought their stories to the surface.

The researchers unveiled two artifacts from the shipwreck during a press conference in South Africa on Tuesday: an iron ballast used to weigh down the ship (since human cargo could die and tip the vessel off balance) and a wooden pulley block. Both items will be loaned to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture for an exhibit set to open next year called "Slavery and Freedom."

This is the first time archaeological evidence has been recovered from a slaving ship that went down with slaves aboard, according to the researchers. The São José is all the more significant, they say, because it represents one of the earliest experimental voyages that brought East Africans into the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

These findings will help to tell the slave trade narrative from a new perspective, said Stephen Lubkemann, an associate professor of anthropology and international affairs at GW. Dr. Lubkemann is a maritime archaeologist and part of the international research team that uncovered the items.

"It is, in the most literal sense, as close as we will ever get to the experience of the Middle Passage," he said. "The slave trade is one of the most important stories in modern history. It's a social process that has had ramifying impacts across the globe."

The discovery is a result of the Slave Wrecks Project—an ongoing collaboration between GW, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Iziko Museums and a group of international partners. The project's mission is to locate, document and preserve artifacts from the global slave trade.

"They are disseminating knowledge that is really unparalleled," said Roy Richard Grinker, chair of the Department of Anthropology. "We can find objects that tell us about how people lived and what they ate. But this is a case where we're really getting a sense of this incredible, transformative experience—the hardships that these people faced, their strength and their endurance."

The project began in 2009 when new interest began developing around the São José. The ship had previously been identified as the wreck of a Dutch vessel that sank in 1756, but new archeological evidence suggested otherwise. Copper fastenings and sheathing found at the site was not commonly used until later in the 18th century. Intrigued, maritime archaeologist Jaco Boshoff began searching through archival records hoping he might find clues about the true identity of the mysterious sunken ship. In 2011, he hit the jackpot, a captain's account of the 1794 São José wrecking. The detailed document led researchers to Portugal, Brazil and South Africa where they poured through more archives. "Those kind of references provide you with ways to narrow down the search," Dr. Lubkemann said. "But then as you start to work on the site, you start to find artifacts that confirm you are on the site that you think you are."

While diving in 2012, Dr. Boshoff and his colleagues uncovered the iron ballasts that had been buried in the ocean floor at the São José site. Further archival investigations and findings using CT scanning technology over the next three years affirmed the location of the São José wreck.

"Any one of those things by itself is not sufficient," he added. "But when you start to add six, seven, eight different lines of evidence, and they all are consistent, that's how an archaeologist narrows down a search, and our confidence increases." Matching archival records with found treasures can be a long, sometimes tedious process. Recovering the objects from the depths of the ocean proved to be even more challenging.

The waters off the coast of Cape Town are cold and unpredictable. Dangerous storm surges leave trails of destruction in their paths. Currents from Antarctica can create waves that are three stories high. Sometimes four-week long archaeological expeditions are cut down to a single day due to heavy winds and low temperatures. v "It's like diving into a washing machine," Dr. Lubkemann said. "This is one of the hardest sites I've ever worked on." But the payoff is well worth the effort, he said. While the Middle Passage is a heavily studied area of scholarship, the voices of the slaves themselves often go unheard.

"The historical record tells a story of those who have the ability to write, which is usually people in power. And it's heavily managed. It certainly doesn't reflect the experience of those who didn't have a voice," said Dr. Lubkemann. "That's where archaeology steps in and provides a different perspective that may, in certain instances, be quite different from that of what's been written."

The story of the Mozambicans who sank onboard the São José remains unfinished. Dr. Lubkemann and his team will continue their work at this and other shipwreck sites for years to come, as they attempt to piece together a full picture of their horrific journeys and tragic ends.

In the meantime, Dr. Lubkemann hopes that the São José relics will give the public the opportunity to engage with history in a unique and meaningful way once the objects are on display at the Smithsonian museum next year.

"We speak about the slave trade, and we often use numbers—10 million or 12 million, of whom 8 or 9 million survived on the ships," he said. "But seeing those artifacts in front of you is an enormously powerful experience. It brings home that this was real. It is not something simply in the history books."

Ingeno, Lauren. 2015. “Archaeologist resurfaces stories from a sunken slave ship”. Posted: June 10, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Phablets and fauxhawks: the linguistic secrets of a good blended word

A brilliant word like omnishambles makes blending look easy, but there’s more to it than just jamming words together and cutting off the bits that stick out

I’ve been getting increasingly irascible tweets from a friend. Her latest just read, “BREXIT?!?!” She’s also sent me wob (a wavy bob), bacne (acne on your back), consumity (a community of consumers), phygital (digital data made physical), and phablet (a combination of a phone and a tablet).

Lewis Carroll is sometimes blamed for introducing portmanteau words to the language, but he only gave them a name. Linguists call them blends, and they’ve been around for a while in English; words like twiddle (twist + fiddle) go back to the 16th century. “Yes, yes,” says my friend. “But this doesn’t explain why they’re so irritating.”

Perhaps it’s their refusal to play the syntactic game. Other neologisms make use of familiar processes. In English these include compounding, which sticks two existing words together without altering them (photobomb, smartphone, fangirl); derivation, which adds a prefix or suffix to an existing word (tweetable, touchless, forumite, unfollow); and conversion, which borrows an existing word and changes its grammatical class (the noun geek becomes a verb, to geek out; on Facebook, another noun, friend, becomes a verb, to friend someone). You don’t always need to construct a new word at all: hat tip, group hug, date night, first world problem, while still being written separately, function as single lexical items (and warrant dictionary entries of their own).

Words like phablet, jeggings, frenemy and mansplaining bypass all these routes. They’re essentially constructed by jamming two words together and cutting off the bits that stick out. This is related to clipping, where new words are produced by pruning an existing word (nightmare = mare, details = deets). But clippings usually remove entire syllables at a time. Blends aren’t always this principled.

There is some method in their madness. Some blends combine clipping and compounding (jazz + exercise = jazzercise; wedding + admin = wedmin). Others overlap sounds or syllables the two words have in common (alcohol + holiday = alcoholiday; him + bimbo = himbo). And some chop sounds off one or both words and stitch the results together (phone + tablet = phablet, British + exit = Brexit). But it’s quite hard to formulate hard-and-fast rules for them.

Is it this structural unpredictability that makes us trip up over blends? They’re not always infuriating: sometimes we notice them because they’re brilliant. If you’d coined omnishambles, you could probably die happy. So here are some features of the best blends.

1. They’re semantically transparent. It’s pretty easy to work out what a serviceable blend means. Himbo? Yes. Wob? No.

2. They fill lexical gaps in the language. We might not have realised we needed them, but we definitely do. Mansplaining, sexting, chugger? Yes. Phablet? No. (Sometimes a blend gives a name to something so subtle, you need a sizeable circumlocution to define it. I love how people who are obsessed with their Blackberry jokingly call it a Crackberry.)

3. They’re phonologically clever. Anecdata? Yes. What a gorgeous meld of the two words. Stegotortoise? Yes. The vowels in “tortoise” and “-saurus” match perfectly (in my accent, at least). Mompreneur? No. The vowels are different, and it’s not even the right number of syllables. Sexcapade? It squashes a word containing the sounds /ks/ (sex) into one containing /sk/. No wonder I can’t say it.

4. They’re funny. This feature can trump the others. Mankini isn’t phonologically clever, but it neatly encapsulates the abject wrongness of the garment. Sodcasting isn’t semantically transparent (it means playing your music in public so loudly that others can hear it), but it made me laugh out loud; in this case, having to explain it is part of the fun. Bacne? Gosh, no. Spots are not jokes. Please.

5. They give the language more than just a single word. A creative language user divides alcoholic into alc + oholic and bingo, a whole new suffix is born. It’s quite a productive one, too: the Oxford English Dictionary now gives 17 examples of different words ending in –oholic.

In fact, this final process (called backformation) combines many of the above features. It’s semantically transparent. New words like workaholic fill genuine lexical gaps. The phonology of the best examples is pleasing (think about the repeated “o” sounds in shopaholic, chocoholic, and shockaholic). Franken- works in the same way (Frankenfood, Frankenbike), with the added bonus of being funny. And I’m watching the rise of man- as a prefix with a grin: we’ve gone from mansplaining to manspreading and manterrupting.

If nothing else, this list might explain why I shun webinars and go to bed every night hoping for a sleepiphany. And the people I know on Twitter are my friends. Don’t even think about calling them tweeple.

Crutchley, Alison. 2015. “Phablets and fauxhawks: the linguistic secrets of a good blended word”. The Guardian. Posted: May 29, 2015. Available online: