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Sickle-wearing skeletons reveal ancient fear of demons

DIGGING HISTORY

In addition to the sickle placed at her neck, the teenage girl seems to have been buried with a copper headband and a copper coin.

In addition to the sickle placed at her neck, the teenage girl seems to have been buried with a copper headband and a copper coin. (Polcyn et al. Antiquity 2015, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2015.129)

How do you keep a demon from disturbing the living? A blade to the throat should do the trick.

A few skeletons unearthed in a 400-year-old Polish cemetery have been discovered with sickles placed around their necks. Archaeologists believe this strange burial practice is evidence of a belief in magic and a fear of demons.

The sickle burials were found at Drawsko cemetery, a site in northeastern Poland that dates from the 17th to the 18th centuries. Archaeologists, including Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, have excavated more than 250 graves there since 2008.

Among those graves were four skeletons with sickles placed at their throats, and a fifth skeleton with a sickle placed over its hips. Previously, these burials had been described as “vampire” burials, with the sickles interpreted as a way to prevent the dead from reanimating and terrorizing the living. But in a new study detailed in the journal Antiquity, Polcyn and co-author Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, now reject that characterization. (“We deliberately dismiss the interpretation of a revenant (i.e. vampire),” isn’t something you read in an academic paper every day.) [See Photos of the Sickle Burials at Drawsko Cemetery]

Instead, the archaeologists prefer to use the blanket term “anti-demonic” to talk about these burials, partly because vampires weren’t the only kinds of evil incarnations of the dead, according to traditional folk beliefs in the region. But also, the sickle graves were afforded funerary privileges that weren’t usually extended to “vampires” buried elsewhere: They were given Christian burials in sacred ground alongside other members of the community, and their corpses do not appear to have been desecrated or mutilated.

In another sign that the people buried with sickles probably were not outsiders, scientists who studied chemical signatures locked in the teeth of these corpses found that all five individuals were locals. (They published those results in apaper in PLOS ONE last year.)

“The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote, adding, however, that the sickle might have had more than one ritualistic meaning. The tool may have been intended to keep the dead in their graves under the threat of cutting their throat, but it also might have been used to prevent evil forces from tormenting their souls. What’s more, the use of a tool made of iron, which had to undergo a transformation in fire, could symbolize the passage from life to death, the authors wrote. [7 Strange Ways Humans Act Like Vampires]

Even though Christianity was the dominant religion in Poland at the time this cemetery was used, traditions from old Slavic pagan faith and folk belief systems still existed, including a belief in demons. Besides the sickles, there is not much that makes these graves unique, so the scientists aren’t sure exactly what about these people made them demonic. They may have been thought to have supernatural powers in life, or they might have had physical characteristics considered suspicious (which might have included “an exceptionally hairy body,” a unibrow, a large head and a red complexion, the authors said, citing traditional Polish folklore).

These people also might have died in a traumatic fashion, without any time for the appropriate rites and rituals to make for a smooth spiritual transition into death — a concept some archaeologists call a “bad death.” While some of the people buried with sickles may have simply died of old age, one of them, a girl, died as a teenager. The authors speculated that she might have met a violent and untimely end, perhaps through drowning, suicide or murder. Unfortunately for archaeologists, however, this death didn’t leave its mark on the girl’s bones.

Polcyn and Gajda wrote that they hope further scientific tests on the corpses, such as biomolecular analyses, will help them understand more specifically what led the dead in Drawsko to be buried with sickles.

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World’s thinnest light bulb created from graphene

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When a current was run through strips of graphene that were placed across a trench of silicon, the result was light emission. (Young Duck Kim/Columbia Engineering)

Graphene, a form of carbon famous for being stronger than steel and more conductive than copper, can add another wonder to the list: making light.

Researchers have developed a light-emitting graphene transistor that works in the same way as the filament in a light bulb.

“We’ve created what is essentially the world’s thinnest light bulb,” study co-author James Hone, a mechanical engineer at Columbia University in New York, said in a statement.

Scientists have long wanted to create a teensy “light bulb” to place on a chip, enabling what is called photonic circuits, which run on light rather than electric current. The problem has been one of size and temperature — incandescent filaments must get extremely hot before they can produce visible light. This new graphene device, however, is so efficient and tiny, the resulting technology could offer new ways to make displays or study high-temperature phenomena at small scales, the researchers said.

Making light

When electric current is passed through an incandescent light bulb’s filament — usually made of tungsten — the filament heats up and glows. Electrons moving through the material knock against electrons in the filament’s atoms, giving them energy. Those electrons return to their former energy levels and emit photons (light) in the process. Crank up the current and voltage enough and the filament in the light bulb hits temperatures of about 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit for an incandescent. This is one reason light bulbs either have no air in them or are filled with an inert gas like argon: At those temperatures tungsten would react with the oxygen in air and simply burn.

In the new study, the scientists used strips of graphene a few microns across and from 6.5 to 14 microns in length, each spanning a trench of silicon like a bridge. (A micron is one-millionth of a meter, where a hair is about 90 microns thick.) An electrode was attached to the ends of each graphene strip. Just like tungsten, run a current through graphene and the material will light up. But there is an added twist, as graphene conducts heat less efficiently as temperature increases, which means the heat stays in a spot in the center, rather than being relatively evenly distributed as in a tungsten filament.

Myung-Ho Bae, one of the study’s authors, told Live Science trapping the heat in one region makes the lighting more efficient. “The temperature of hot electrons at the center of the graphene is about 3,000 K [4,940 F], while the graphene lattice temperature is still about 2,000 K [3,140 F],” he said. “It results in a hotspot at the center and the light emission region is focused at the center of the graphene, which also makes for better efficiency.” It’s also the reason the electrodes at either end of the graphene don’t melt.

As for why this is the first time light has been made from graphene, study co-leader Yun Daniel Park, a professor of physics at Seoul National University, noted that graphene is usually embedded in or in contact with a substrate.

“Physically suspending graphene essentially eliminates pathways in which heat can escape,” Park said. “If the graphene is on a substrate, much of the heat will be dissipated to the substrate. Before us, other groups had only reported inefficient radiation emission in the infrared from graphene.”

The light emitted from the graphene also reflected off the silicon that each piece was suspended in front of. The reflected light interferes with the emitted light, producing a pattern of emission with peaks at different wavelengths. That opened up another possibility: tuning the light by varying the distance to the silicon.

The principle of the graphene is simple, Park said, but it took a long time to discover.

“It took us nearly five years to figure out the exact mechanism but everything (all the physics) fit. And, the project has turned out to be some kind of a Columbus’ Egg,” he said, referring to a legend in which Christopher Columbus challenged a group of men to make an egg stand on its end; they all failed and Columbus solved the problem by just cracking the shell at one end so that it had a flat bottom.

The research is detailed in the June 15 issue of Nature Nantechnology.

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Origins of human alcohol consumption revealed

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File photo (GERMANY-BEER/ REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

Human ancestors may have begun evolving the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began brewing booze, researchers say.

The ability to break down alcohol likely helped human ancestors make the most out of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor, the researchers said. Therefore, knowing when this ability developed could help researchers figure out when these human ancestors began moving to life on the ground, as opposed to mostly in trees, as earlier human ancestors had lived.

“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar and fat goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan, a paleogeneticist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol,” he said, referring to the kind of alcohol found in rotting fruit and that’s also used in liquor and fuel.

To learn more about how human ancestors evolved the ability to break down alcohol, scientists focused on the genes that code for a group of digestive enzymes called the ADH4 family. ADH4 enzymes are found in the stomach, throat and tongue of primates, and are the first alcohol-metabolizing enzymes to encounter ethanol after it is imbibed.

The researchers investigated the ADH4 genes from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates. They collected the sequences of these genes from either genetic databanks or well-preserved tissue samples. [Holiday Drinking: How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol]

The scientists looked at the family trees of these 28 species, to investigate how closely related they were and find out when their ancestors diverged. In total, they explored nearly 70 million years of primate evolution. The scientists then used this knowledge to investigate how the ADH4 genes evolved over time and what the ADH4 genes of their ancestors might have been like.

Then, Carrigan and his colleagues took the genes for ADH4 from these 28 species, as well as the ancestral genes they modeled, and plugged them into bacteria, which read the genes and manufactured the ADH4 enzymes. Next, they tested how well those enzymes broke down ethanol and other alcohols.

This method of using bacteria to read ancestral genes is “a new way to observe changes that happened a long time ago that didn’t fossilize into bones,” Carrigan said.

The results suggested there was a single genetic mutation 10 million years ago that endowed human ancestors with an enhanced ability to break down ethanol. “I remember seeing this huge difference in effects with this mutation and being really surprised,” Carrigan said.

The scientists noted that the timing of this mutation coincided with a shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. The ability to consume ethanol may have helped human ancestors dine on rotting, fermenting fruit that fell on the forest floor when other food was scarce.

“I suspect ethanol was a second-choice item,” Carrigan said. “If the ancestors of humans, chimps and gorillas had a choice between rotten and normal fruit, they would go for the normal fruit. Just because they were adapted to be able to ingest it doesn’t mean ethanol was their first choice, nor that they were perfectly adapted to metabolize it. They might have benefited from small quantities, but not to excessive consumption.”

In people today, drinking in moderation can have benefits, but drinking in excess can definitely cause health problems, experts agree. Scientists have suggested that problems people have with drinking, such as heart disease, liver disease, and mental health problems, result because humans have not evolved genes to sufficiently process ethanol. Similarly, humans have not evolved genes to handle large amounts of sugar, fat and salt, which, in turn, have given way to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and many other health problems.

One model for the evolution of alcohol consumption suggests that ethanol only entered the human diet after people began to store extra food, potentially after the advent of agriculture, and that humans subsequently developed ways to intentionally direct the fermentation of food about 9,000 years ago. Therefore, the theory goes, alcoholism as a disease resulted because the human genome has not had enough time to fully adapt to alcohol.

Another model suggests that human ancestors began consuming alcohol as early as 80 million years ago, when early primates occasionally ate rotting fermented fruit rich in ethanol. This model suggests that the attraction to alcohol started becoming a problem once modern humans began intentionally fermenting food because it generated far more ethanol than was normally found in nature. The new findings support this model.

In the future, Carrigan and his colleagues want to investigate what the ethanol content of fallen fruit might be, and find out whether apes, such as chimpanzees or gorillas, are willing to consume fermented fruit with varying levels of ethanol.

“We also want to look at other enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism, to see if they’re co-evolving with ADH4 at the same time,” Carrigan said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 1 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Ancient Celtic Prince’s grave and chariot unearthed

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This aerial view shows the funerary complex where archaeologists discovered a Celtic prince’s tomb dating to the fifth century B.C. (Copyright Denis Gliksman/Inrap)

The 2,500-year-old lavish tomb and chariot of an ancient Celtic prince have been unearthed in France.

The ancient princely tomb, which was discovered in a large burial mound, was filled with stunning grave goods, including gorgeous pottery and a gold-tipped drinking vessel. The giant jug was decorated with images of the Greek god of wine and revelry, and was probably made by Greek or Etruscan artists.

The stunning new finds “are evidence of the exchanges that happened between  the Mediterranean and the Celts,” Dominique Garcia, president of France’s National institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), told journalists at a field visit, according to France 24. [See Photos of the Ancient Celtic Prince’s Tomb]

Ancient trade routes

Though the heartland of the Greek  city-states was clustered in Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the economic powerhouses later expanded their reach throughout the Mediterranean. At their peak, the Greek and Western Etruscan city-states had settlements dotting coastlines all the way to modern-day southern Spain to the south and to the Black Sea, near modern-day Russia, to the north.

One of the key trading centers for this region was Massilia, in what is now modern-day Marseille, France. Merchants from the East came to the region seeking slaves, metals and amber, according to an INRAP statement about the find.

Many of the Mediterranean merchants bestowed impressive goods from Greek and Etruscan cultures as diplomatic gifts, in hopes of opening new trade channels. As a result, the Celts who ruled centrally located inland regions in the central river valleys amassed great wealth. The most elite of these ancient rulers were buried in impressive burial mounds, some of which can be found in Hochdorf, Germany, and Bourges, France.

Long burial tradition

The current site — located in the little village of Lavau, France, just a few hours’ drive south of Paris — served as an ancient burial place for centuries. In 1300 B.C., the ancient inhabitants left burial mounds with bodies and the cremated remains of people, archaeologists have found. Another burial at the site, dating to about 800 B.C., holds the body of an ancient warrior bearing a sword, along with a woman bedecked in solid-bronze bracelets.

The current tomb was part of a set of four burial mounds that were grouped together, dating to about 500 B.C., though the tomb itself is likely younger than the rest of the burials. People continued to use the ancient cemetery during the Roman period, when some of the graves were emptied and replaced by newer graves.

The newly discovered funeral chamber was found in a giant mound about 130 feet wide — one of the largest found from that time period. Inside lies the body of an ancient prince in his chariot. In a corner of the tomb, someone had placed several basins; a bronze bucket; a fluted piece of pottery; and a large, sheathed knife.

The most striking find was a stunning bronze cauldron, about 3.3 feet in diameter, that may have been made by the Greeks or the Etruscans.

The giant jug has four handles, with images of the Greek god Achelous, a Greek river deity. In this depiction, Achelous is shown with horns and bulls’ ears, as well as a beard and three moustaches. The stunningly worked cauldron also depicts eight lion heads, and the interior contains an image of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of winemaking, lying under a vine and looking at a woman.

“This appears to be a banquet scene, a recurrent theme in Greek iconography,” researchers from INRAP, which is overseeing the excavations at the site, said in a statement.

The cauldron, which was likely used by the ancient Celtic aristocrats in feasts, is also covered in gold at the top and the base.

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‘Vicious’ new praying mantis discovered in Rwanda

female-bush-tiger-mantis

The female wingless “bush tiger mantis” (Dystacta tigrifrutex) from Nyungwe National Park in southwestern Rwanda. (Gavin Svenson)

On a cool and rainy night in a dense, mountainous forest in Rwanda, insect-surveying scientists discovered a new species of praying mantis, one whose wingless females are “vicious hunters” that prowl for prey as if they were marauding tigers.

The researchers have named the newfound praying mantis species which was discovered in Nyungwe National Park Dystacta tigrifrutex, or “bush tiger mantis.”

“The new species is amazing, because the fairly small female prowls through the underbrush searching for prey, while the male flies appear to live higher in the vegetation,” stated Riley Tedrow, a Case Western Reserve University evolutionary biology student who led the research.

Researchers found out about the species after a winged male was attracted to a light trap the scientists had set up to study the local insects. After fortuitously trapping a female from the leaf litter, the scientists got another lucky break: She laid an egg case (called an ootheca). This allowed the scientists to study the nymphs and adults in one three-week field session, which is a rarity in insect science for one field trip.

The researchers compared the new specimens with those found in museums and described in scientific papers; the scientists also looked at various measurements of the bush tiger mantis’ bodies, such as color and length. Through these analyses, the researchers concluded the species belongs to the genus Dystacta; until now, this genus had consisted of just one species, D. alticeps, which is spread all over Africa.

One feature could have provided a big help in identifying the species, the male genitalia. This, however, was missing, as ants had gobbled up these vital parts while the male dried up in the Rwandan heat, the researchers noted.

The scientists also tracked down a dozen species that were previously not known to live in Rwanda, and urged that conservation authorities place the park under protection so as not to endanger the new finds. A follow-up expedition is planned in June to gauge the size of the bush tiger’s habitat.

A study based on the research will be published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

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Blackbeard’s Booty: Pirate ship yields medical supplies

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File photo – A one-ton cannon which was recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site, is pulled from the water near Beaufort, North Carolina, Oct. 26, 2011. (REUTERS/Karen Browning/N.C. Department of Cultural Resources)

Archaeologists are excavating the vessel that served as the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard, and the medical equipment they have recovered from the shipwreck suggests the notorious buccaneer had to toil to keep his crew healthy.

Blackbeard is the most famous pirate who ever lived. His real name was Edward Teach (or possibly Thatch), and his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was formerly a French slave vessel named La Concorde de Nantes that Blackbeard captured in November 1717. Blackbeard was able to capture this ship easily because much of its crew was either sick or dead due to disease.

A few months into 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on a sandbar at Topsail Inlet in North Carolina. Blackbeard abandoned much of his crew at that point, leaving the site with a select group of men and most of the plunder. He was killed in battle later that year.

The wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was rediscovered in 1996 and has been under excavation by the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project. Archaeologists have recovered many artifacts, including a number of medical instruments. These artifacts, combined with historical records, paint a picture of a pirate captain who tried to keep his crew in fighting shape.

“Treating the sick and injured of a sea-bound community on shipboard was challenging in the best of times,” Linda Carnes-McNaughton, an archaeologist and curator with the Department of Defense who volunteers her time on the excavation project, wrote in a paper she presented recently at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting. [Photos: The Medical Instruments Found on Blackbeard’s Ship]

The people on a ship like Blackbeard’s would have had to contend with many conditions, including “chronic and periodic illnesses, wounds, amputations, toothaches, burns and other indescribable maladies,” Carnes-McNaughton said.

Blackbeard’s surgeons

In fact, maintaining the crew’s health was so important that when Blackbeard turned the Queen Anne’s Revenge into his flagship, he released most of the French crew members he had captured, but he forced the ship’s three surgeons to stay, along with a few other specialized workers like carpenters and the cook, Carnes-McNaughton said.

She noted, however, that “The Sea-Man’s Vade Mecum” of 1707,which contained the rules that seafarers were supposed to follow, had a provision stating that surgeons could not leave their ship until its voyage was complete.

Carnes-McNaughton investigated both the La Concorde de Nantes’ crew muster, which is the document that lists crew members’ names and salaries, as well as court records to learn more about the surgeons Blackbeard captured.

The ship’s muster indicates that La Concorde de Nantes’ surgeon major was a man named Jean Dubou (or Dubois), from St. Etienne. Before he was captured by Blackbeard, Dubou was being paid 50 livres for his work on the ship’s voyage. The second surgeon was Marc Bourgneuf of La Rochelle, who was paid 30 livres for the voyage.

The third surgeon was Claude Deshayes, who was listed as a gunsmith on the muster and paid 22 livres for his work. The muster also names a surgeon’s aide,  Nicholas Gautrain, who was paid 12 livres. Although he is named on the muster, Gautrain is not mentioned in court records.

Medical equipment

When archaeologists excavated the Queen Anne’s Revenge they found a number of medical instruments, some with marks that indicate they were manufactured in France. Carnes-McNaughton said that Dubou and his aides were required to supply their own medical equipment, and Blackbeard likely captured this equipment when he captured the surgeons. [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

Among the finds was a urethral syringe that chemical analysis indicates originally contained mercury. Carnes-McNaughton told Live Science that this would have been used to treat syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. “Eventually the mercury kills you,” she said, explaining that the patient could suffer mercury poisoning.

Archaeologists also found the remains of two pump clysters. These would have been used to pump fluid into the rectum, allowing it to be absorbed quickly, Carnes-McNaughton said. It’s not clear exactly why this would have been done, but there are plans to analyze the clysters to find out what material they contained before the ship was wrecked.

An instrument called a porringer was also found, which may have been used in bloodletting treatments, Carnes-McNaughton said. People in the early 18thcentury believed that bloodletting could cure some conditions and a modern-day form of the treatment is still used for a few conditions.

Archaeologists also found a cast brass mortar and pestle and two sets of nesting weights, devices that would have been used in preparing medicine. The remains of galley pots were also found that would have been used to store balms, salves and other potions.

Some items were found that could have been used medically or non-medically, Carnes-McNaughton said, including a silver needle and the remains of scissors, which could have been handy during surgeries. Two pairs of brass set screws were also found that may have been used in a tourniquet, a device that limits bleeding during amputations.

Carnes-McNaughton said she is going to compare the medical equipment from Queen Anne’s Revenge to those found on other wrecks.

Getting medicine

But although the captured surgeons had medical equipment, Blackbeard would have still needed a supply of medicine to treat his crew. He got some in 1718, after he spent a week blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Blackbeard captured ships that tried to get past him, holding their crew and passengers hostage.

When it came time to parley with the governor of South Carolina, a chest of medicine was demanded. Blackbeard threatened that he “would murder all their prisoners, send up their heads to the governor, and set the ships they had taken on fire,” if the governor didn’t deliver the medicine chest, writes Capt. Charles Johnson, who published an account of Blackbeard in 1724. The governor promptly complied and the prisoners were released.

In the end, Blackbeard’s efforts to keep up his crew’s health didn’t change the pirate’s own fate when he was hunted down in November 1718 by the Royal Navy.

Blackbeard was in good enough shape that he is said to have put up a terrific final fight while trying to board an enemy ship. “He stood his ground and fought with great fury, till he received five and 20 wounds, and five of them by shot,” Johnson wrote. “At length, as he was cocking another pistol, having fired several before, [when] he fell down dead.”

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Mummy mask papyrus may reveal oldest-known gospel

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File photo. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

A team of researchers made a surprising find when examining a papyrus-wrapped mummy mask — they found what they believe to be the oldest-known copy of a gospel in existence. The researchers found a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that dates back to about 90 A.D., Live Science reports. Previously, the oldest surviving copies of Biblical gospel texts date back to 101 to 200 A.D.

The text was written on a papyrus sheet that was later reused for the mummy mask. While the stereotypical image of ancient mummies involves bejeweled golden masks, that level of finery was only reserved for the wealthy. The mummy mask for the average person would have been made out of recycled material like papyrus, according to SmithsonianMag.com.

In order to retrieve the text without damaging it, the research team applied a method of ungluing the papyrus without obscuring the paper’s ink. About three-dozen researchers are using this technique to analyze hundreds of texts from mummy masks.

“We’re recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries,” Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, told Live Science.

Evans is part of a large team of researchers working on the project, which is based in Oklahoma City. “The scholars involved are from all over the world,” he told FoxNews.com.

The academic said that the team has uncovered documents from a range of eras. These include not just Christian texts, but classical Greek texts like copies of stories by Homer and even personal letters.

Some of the personal documents and business papers found within the masks have dates on them, Evans said. This particular gospel was dated partly by looking at the other documents found within the same mask.

This technique is not without controversy. The ancient masks are destroyed in order to retrieve the documents. However, Evans asserted that “we’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece.”

Roberta Mazza, lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Manchester, wrote a blog post critical of the work of Evans and his research team. In reference to a speech Evans made about the gospel text discovery, Mazza wrote that “the audience who attend their talks are told fantasy stories on the retrieval of papyrus fragments and their date … apologists’ speeches are not only misinformed, but can even encourage more people to buy mummy masks on the antiquities market and dissolve them in Palmolive soap.”

Last year Mazza found a 1,500-year old piece of papyrus in the university’s John Rylands library that contains some of the earliest documented references to the Last Supper and ‘manna from heaven.’

For the researchers examining the mummy mask, the text’s discovery marks a significant achievement. Evans said that the text could offer clues about how the Gospel of Mark might have changed over time.

A first volume of the various texts found on the mummies will be published by the researchers later this year.

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