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Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

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Photo: Diamond Light Source Ltd
Here’s the team taking on the challenge of reading scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Recent technology is making the impossible possible.

In the always-new-angles-in-archaeology department, here’s a recent story about using advanced technology to read ancient scrolls once thought beyond deciphering.

Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, “When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas.

‘But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“ ‘Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,’ said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research.

“The two unopened scrolls that will be probed belong to the Institut de France in Paris and are part of an astonishing collection of about 1,800 scrolls that was first discovered in 1752 during excavations of Herculaneum. Together they make up the only known intact library from antiquity, with the majority of the collection now preserved in a museum in Naples.

The villa in which they were found is thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator who was assassinated in 44BC.

“Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading.

“Seales and his team have previously used high-energy x-rays to ‘virtually unravel’ a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.

“However, while the En-Gedi scroll contained a metal-based ink which shows up in x-ray data, the inks used on the Herculaneum scrolls are thought to be carbon-based, made using charcoal or soot, meaning there is no obvious contrast between the writing and the papyrus in x-ray scans. …

“As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques.

“The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within. …

“As for what the scrolls contain, the researchers say they are excited.

“ ‘For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,’ said Seales. Another possibility is that the scrolls might contain Latin text. While classical libraries are believed to have had a Greek section and a Latin section, only a small proportion of scrolls from Herculaneum have so far been found to be in Latin, with the possibility there is a Latin section within the villa yet to be excavated.

“Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, … is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. ‘I would very much like to be able to read that one,’ he said.”

More here.

Hmmm, the scrolls are from the home of Caesar’s father-in-law? I never heard mention of him, and now all I can think about is he must not have raised his daughter to be “above suspicion.” Or was she falsely accused?

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Photo: Ruben Ortega Martin, Raices de Peraleda
Drought has uncovered a Spanish version of Stonehenge, the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal.

As global warming brings changes to our planet, the permafrost is melting and releasing dangerous bacteria. But sometimes other, less harmful things come to light.

Caroline Goldstein writes at ArtNet, “If there’s even the slightest silver lining to the ravages of climate change, it’s that the warming conditions are revealing some previously unknown archaeological sites and artifacts.

“This past summer, an extreme drought in the Extremadura area of Spain that caused the Valdecañas Reservoir’s water levels to plummet has revealed a series of megalithic stones. Previously submerged underwater, the Dolmen de Guadalperal, often called the Spanish Stonehenge, are now in plain sight.

“Though the Dolmen are 7,000 years old, the last time they were seen in their entirety was around 1963, when the reservoir was built as part of Franco’s push toward modernization. …

“Angel Castaño, who lives near the reservoir and serves as the president of a Spanish cultural group, told the website the Local, ‘We grew up hearing about the legend of the treasure hidden beneath the lake and now we finally get to view them.’

“The approximately 100 menhirs are, like Stonehenge, hulking megalith stones — some standing up to six feet tall — that are arranged in an oval and appear oriented to filter sunlight. Evidence suggests that these stones could actually be 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

“Castaño is working with the group Raices de Peraleda to move the dolmen before rains come and re-submerge them. ‘Whatever we do here needs to be done extremely carefully.’ he said.”

I guess so. I can’t help wondering if it would be better to move the reservoir and leave the stones, which obviously were placed where they are for a reason. But not being an engineer, I suppose moving the reservoir would be even more difficult. And already access to water is becoming a serious problem around the world. (For a heartbreaking story about the difficulty many Navajo people have getting clean water, read this.)

So hard to balance conflicting goods!

More here.

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Greece Enigmatic Islet

Photo: Greek Culture Ministry via AP
A newly discovered stone staircase is seen in the lower terraces of Dhaskalio islet off Keros island in the Aegean Sea, Greece.

I’m a sucker for any story with revelations about Ancient Greece. But the first article I read on excavations on Keros island made wild claims about how they showed the origins of Greek culture and the reasons the ancients thought their gods lived on mountain tops. Worse, in illustrating the story, the newspaper chose a photo of a burial mask that has been around forever. I had a replica of that very mask as a kid, when there was speculation it was Agamemnon’s.

So I looked for a more more factual article.

The Athens-Macedonian News Agency reports at the National Herald, “An extensive and extremely interesting series of exhibitions has been organised on the Cyclades islands this year by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities. …

“Among these are the exhibitions ‘From the world of Homer. Tinos and the Cyclades in the Mycenaean era’ that runs between July 13 and October 14, which is being held in cooperation with the Piraeus Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) at the its Museum of Marble Craft in the village of Pyrgos, Tinos. A second exhibition [is] to be inaugurated on July 14 at Archaeological Collection of Koufonisia and will run until September 30, 2019.

“ ‘Both exhibitions are extremely important,’ said Dimitris Athanasoulis, Director of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA). ‘On the occasion of the founding of the tomb of Agia Thekla in Tinos, we have a first exhibition for an unknown period of the Cyclades, the Mycenaean period, presenting great and unknown material.’ …

“Four-year excavations and research on the extraordinary architectural findings of Kavos on the island of Keros in the Cycladic Islands group confirmed the existence in Early Cycladic times of a complex, stratified and technically expert society.

“[The research programme under Cambridge University] has ‘revealed impressive architectural remains of a significant Early Cycladic settlement,’ the ministry said.
Under the project, excavations took place on the small islet of Daskalio, originally connected to the nearby site of Kavos on Keros through a narrow strip of land. … The remains of the culture at the time include ‘impressive staircases, drainage pipes and stone buildings that reveal an advanced urban architecture without precedence for the specific period. …

” ‘The complicated, interlinked and multi-level architecture shows the existence of a well-organised and well-built settlement on a steep promontory,’ it added. …

“According to co-excavator professor Colin Renfrew, Daskalio shows that the building techniques that were applied, the existence of huge entrance gates, stone ladders and the drainage pipes throughout the island show that there must have been a specialist architect and a central administration to carry out the building programme. He said the complexity of the construction is only comparable to Knossos on Crete for the same early period, he said. …

“Co-director of the site Michael Boyd added that a unique feature of the site includes the fact that metallurgy played a significant role throughout the life of the settlement. Its extent and scale proves a constant replenishing of raw materials from western Cyclades and Attica, and a social structure that trained and passed skills on to newer generations.”

More here.

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Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
North Sea fishing crews have discovered archaeological artifacts in their nets.

I was saying to my husband the other day that I don’t know why scammers think older people are such a good target. Don’t we know more to watch out for after a lifetime of testing reality? But then I find myself susceptible to stories that for one reason or another I want to believe. So maybe it’s true about old folks.

Those of us who want to believe in things like the Lost City of Atlantis will have fun with this story about human settlements that may be submerged under the North Sea.

Nazia Parveen writes at the Guardian, “Lost at the bottom of the North Sea almost eight millennia ago, a vast land area between England and southern Scandinavia which was home to thousands of stone age settlers is about to be rediscovered.

“Marine experts, scientists and archaeologists have spent the past 15 years meticulously mapping thousands of kilometres under water in the hope of unearthing lost prehistoric tribes.

“[In May] a crew of British and Belgian scientists set off on their voyage across the North Sea to reconstruct the ancient Mesolithic landscape hidden beneath the waves for 7,500 years.

The area was submerged when thousands of cubic miles of sub-Arctic ice started to melt and sea levels began to rise.

“The ancient country, known as Doggerland, which could once have had great plains with rich soils, formed an important land bridge between Britain and northern Europe. It was long believed to have been hit by catastrophic flooding.

“Using seabed mapping data the team plans to produce a 3D chart revealing the rivers, lakes, hills and coastlines of the country. Specialist survey ships will take core sediment samples from selected areas to extract millions of fragments of DNA from the buried plants and animals.

“Prof Vincent Gaffney, from the University of Bradford’s school of archaeological and forensic sciences, said: ‘If this is successful it … would be new knowledge of what is really a lost continent.’ …

” ‘We can’t walk those fields looking for pottery or stone fragments, we can’t dig. We’re going to drop “grabs,” or do very small-scale dredges, to see if we can find these stones or tools, to give us a clue as to what is there. We are talking about an area that is the size of a modern European country. And we know almost nothing about it.’ …

“In previous studies funded by the European Research Council, the Lost Frontiers team mapped the Doggerland region, which is about the size of the Netherlands. The team could identify the location of river valleys, marshlands, hills and even white cliffs, but was unable to find evidence of human activity.

“Gaffney said … ‘Vast areas of the North Sea were dry land and inhabited. Then sea levels rose, and pretty much everything about the world changed in this period. The most pleasant places to live would have been on the great plains – which are now out at sea. This is where they would have wanted to be, not in the hills. But it’s all been lost.’ …

“It is understood the ancient civilisation originally covered about 260,000 sq km (100,000 sq miles). However, after the ice age ended, coastal zones became increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding and entire civilisations would have been lost.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photos: Greek Ministry of Culture
Hellenistic era building foundations, found at Agia Sophia Station, Thessaloniki.

Having studied Ancient Greek for five years in school, I retain a soft place in my heart for the culture and history of that part of the world and am always interested in the latest archaeological finds. Here is a story about setting out to build a subway system in the city of Thessaloniki and finding unexpected treasures.

Nick Squires writes at the Telegraph, “The construction of a metro network beneath the Greek city of Thessaloniki has unearthed an extraordinary treasure trove of ancient artefacts, from gold wreaths and rings to statues of the goddess Aphrodite. …

“Archeologists have dug up more than 300,000 artefacts, from coins and jewellery to marble statues, amphorae, oil lamps and perfume vases. They were found in what would have been the thriving commercial centre of the ancient city, which was the second most important conurbation in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople.

“During the construction of the metro network, archeologists found a stone-paved road, the Decumanus Maximus, which would have run through the heart of Thessaloniki in the sixth century AD, as well as the remains of villas, shops, workshops and an early Christian church. More than 5,000 tombs and graves were uncovered, some of them containing exquisite golden wreaths.

“ ‘The excavations are the biggest archaeological project of recent years in Greece,’ Yannis Mylopoulos, the chairman of Attiko Metro, the company building the network, told the Telegraph. …

“ ‘A large number of statues depicting Aphrodite have been found in the city centre, while several more came to light in the area around the Church of the Acheiropoietos (a fifth century AD Byzantine church),” Dr Polyxeni Adam-Veleni, the head of the antiquities department in Thessaloniki, told a recent conference on the discoveries. …

“Work on the new metro system, which is designed to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution in the city, began in 2006. The network of 18 stations was supposed to have been finished in 2012, but progress was stalled by the discovery of so many antiquities. It is now due to be operational next year.

“The 100 yard-long paved road – the Decumanus Maximus – will remain in situ and will be incorporated into one of the network’s stations, Eleftherios Venizelos, named after a prominent politician and national hero from the early 20th century.

“ ‘People will be able to see it when they enter and exit the metro station and can even go down and walk on it if they want,’ said Prof Mylopoulos. …

“Incorporating ancient archeological sites into an underground rail network was a huge challenge in terms of both engineering and expense. … Findings from the metro excavation will be displayed in various museums in Thessaloniki.”

More here.

Gold crown from a burial dating to the late 4th – early 3rd century. BC found at Syntrivani Station, Thessaloniki.

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Image: Casto Vocal
Virtual reconstruction of northernmost section of pre-Incan temple in Bolivia.

Here’s why a general education may equip the workforce of the future better than job-specific training: you never know what skills will be needed. In this example, a new breed of adaptable archaeologist is expanding the use of 3-D technology to reimagine lost worlds.

George Dvorsky writes at Gizmodo, “The 1,500-year-old Pumapunku temple in western Bolivia is considered a crowning achievement of Andean architecture, yet no one knows what the original structure actually looked like. Until now.

“Using historical data, 3D-printed pieces, and architectural software, archaeologist Alexei Vranich from UC Berkeley has created a virtual reconstruction of Pumapunku — an ancient Tiwanaku temple now in ruins. Archaeologists have studied the site for over 150 years, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how all the broken and scattered pieces belonged together. The surprisingly simple approach devised by Vranich is finally providing a glimpse into the structure’s original appearance. Excitingly, the same method could be used to virtually reconstruct similar ruins. The details of this achievement were published [last December] in Heritage Science.

“First, some background on the structure. Pumapunku, which means ‘door of the puma,’ was a temple designed and built by the pre-Incan Tiwanaku culture, who lived and thrived in what is now western Bolivia from 500 AD to 1,000 AD. …

“Pumapunku displayed a level of craftsmanship that was largely unparalleled in the pre-Columbian New World, and it’s often considered the architectural peak of Andean lithic technology prior to the arrival of the Europeans. …

“Unfortunately, the ruins of Tiwanaku, and the Pumapunku temple in particular, have been ransacked repeatedly over the past half-millenium. Archaeologists have virtually no idea what the structure actually looked like. None of the blocks that once comprised the original structure are currently located in their original place, and many of them are badly damaged or decayed. …

“To overcome these difficulties and limitations, Vranich and his colleagues integrated historical archaeological data with modern computer software and 3D-printer technology to reconstruct the ancient temple, and by doing so, devised an entirely new approach to reconstructing and visualizing ancient ruins that would otherwise be impossible to build.

“The team created miniature 3D-printed models, at 4 percent actual size, of the temple’s 140 known pieces, which were based on measurements compiled by archaeologists over the past 150 years and Vranich’s own on-site observations of the ruins. … The researchers could have performed this work exclusively in the virtual realm, but they had better luck with tangible, physical pieces they could freely move around.

“ ‘It was much easier to use the 3D-printed models,’ Vranich told Gizmodo. ‘You can quickly manipulate them in your hand and try position after position. It is much slower and less intuitive on the computer.’ …

“Satisfied with their Lego-like configurations, the researchers keyed their creations into an architectural modeling program, culminating in a single hypothetical model of the temple complex. This wasn’t terribly difficult, as the construction methods used by the Tiwanaku people, and how they formed their incredibly geometric stones, are well documented, explained Vranich. But the exercise yielded some new findings.

“ ‘What we found out is that it appears they were making prototypes for each type of stone type, and then would have copied one after the other. It’s almost like it was a pre-Columbian version of Ikea.’ …

“Another interesting finding was that the gateways scattered around the site were lined up in a way to create a mirror effect. That is, ‘one big gateway, then another smaller one in line, then another,’ he said. ‘It would create an effect as if you were looking into infinity in the confines of a single room.’ ”

Read more here.

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Photos: Ciro Fusco / Pompeii Parco Archeologico
Frescoes in Pompeii’s newly discovered “Enchanted Garden” room. The ashes of Mount Vesuvius left the ancient city remarkably intact after the volcano erupted in 79 AD.

When my younger grandson told me about a volcano in Guadalupe, where Suzanne’s family spent the holiday, he hastened to reassure me that it didn’t erupt. He’s six, and a stickler for fact.

Whether young or old, we are all fascinated by the extraordinary power of volcanoes and the way they change the world very suddenly, sometimes with no warning at all.

The complete destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in Italy is one of the reasons eruptions have such a hold over the collective imagination.

Interestingly, Pompeii continues to yield previously unseen beauty to archaeologists even after all these years.

As Sarah Cascone reported in October at ArtNetNews, “Pompeii is the city that keeps on giving. More than two hundred and fifty years after the ancient Roman town was discovered buried under a heap of volcanic ash, the archeological finds show no sign of abating. Now, archaeologists for the Great Pompei Project have uncovered yet another impressive discovery: an ancient shrine, or lararium, covered in gorgeously preserved frescoes, in a 16-by-12-foot room containing an altar, a garden, and a small pool.

“The Italian media has dubbed the new room, which would have been partially covered by a tile roof, ‘the Enchanted Garden.’ The figures in the paintings include two serpents, a wild boar fighting unidentified creatures against a blood-red backdrop, and a mysterious man with the head of a dog that may have been inspired by the Egyptian god Anubis. In front of a painted peacock, strolling through the plants, there would have been a planted flower bed, extending the illusionistic decorative design into the real world.

“ ‘It is the first time that such complex decoration has been found in a space dedicated to worship inside a house,’ Massimo Osanna, the director of the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, told the Wall Street Journal, praising the find as exceptional.

“ ‘Every house had a lararium of some kind,’ Ingrid Rowland, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, told the New York Times. But ‘only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.’

“After clearing out the volcanic rock fragments, or lapili, that had buried the room for almost two millennia, archaeologists found an altar decorated with eggs, a symbol of fertility. There are burnt remains, which archaeologists believe may have contained food offerings, such as eggs, figs, or nuts, to fertility deities. The altar is flanked by paintings of the Roman gods of household rituals. …

“New excavations are much more careful than the original explorations of the site, which began in 1748. Without modern technology and techniques to aid their excavations, early archaeologists could be quite destructive. The new discovery helps provide a better understanding of what the early excavations would have looked like when first uncovered. …

“Since 2011, Italy has been carrying out much-needed preservation and restoration work to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Great Pompeii Project, an initiative aimed at stemming the deterioration of the ancient structures, had an initial budget of €105 million ($140 million). … The discovery of the ‘Enchanted Garden’ represents perhaps the project’s greatest success thus far.”

More here.

In Pompeii, a recently uncovered household shrine, or lararium, features two serpents among its beautifully preserved frescoes.

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