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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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New discovery fills gap in ancient Jerusalem history

hasmonean-walls

Archaeologists think construction on this ancient building started in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period. (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists have discovered the first ruins of a building from the Hasmonean period in Jerusalem, filling a gap in the ancient city’s history, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced.

The building’s remains were uncovered during an extensive dig at the Givati Parking Lot, located in Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhood, the City of David. Excavations over several years at the site have turned up some remarkable finds, including a building from the Second Temple period that may have belonged to Queen Helene, a trove of coins from the Byzantine period, and recently, a 1,700-year-old curse tablet in the ruins of a Roman mansion.

Despite extensive excavations in Jerusalem, IAA archaeologists Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said there has been an absence of buildings from the Hasmonean period in the city’s archaeological record. Simon Maccabeus founded the Hasmonean dynasty in 140 B.C. This group ruled Judea until 37 B.C., when Herod the Great came into power. [In Photos: The Controversial ‘Tomb of Herod the Great’]

“Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence,” excavators Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said in a statement. “The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression.”

Flavius Josephus recounted Jewish history and the Jewish revolt against the Romans in his first century A.D. books “The Jewish War” and “Antiquities of the Jews.” Some archaeologists have used his texts to guide their work and interpretations. For example, excavators who recently found cooking pots and a lamp in an underground chamber in Jerusalem think these objects could be material evidence of Josephus’ account of famine during the Roman siege of the city.

IAA officials said the Hasmonean building has only come to light in recent months, adding that the structure boasts quite impressive dimensions. It rises 13 feet (4 meters) and covers 688 square feet (64 square meters) with limestone walls more than 3 feet (1 m) thick.

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Shipwrecks spotted in crystal-clear waters of Lake Michigan

rising-sun-wreck

The wreck of the Rising Sun rests in 6-12 feet of water. (Mitch Brown/U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City)

Early spring is apparently a good time to look for shipwrecks in Lake Michigan.

Earlier this month, a helicopter from the Coast Guard’s Air Station in Traverse City, Michigan, was out on a routine patrol over the lake, looking for boats in distress or anything out of the ordinary. It was a calm day; the ice that covered the lake had recently melted, and the water was still very cold, just 38 degrees Fahrenheit — a perfect combination for good visibility.

When Petty Officer Mitch Brown looked out the window of the helicopter, he could spot several century-old shipwrecks in the crystal-blue waters. [See photos of the wrecks from above]

“We usually look for boats that are in the process of sinking,” Lt. Dan Schrader told Live Science. “We try to keep them keep from getting to that point.”

Brown snapped several pictures of the Lake Michigan wrecks with his iPhone. The Coast Guard posted the photos to Facebook, and they quickly went viral.

“We didn’t expect these photos to catch on like they did,” Schrader said. In the last week, he’s gotten calls from reporters as far away as Norway and China.

The photos didn’t reveal any new shipwrecks, but they did offer new views of vessels that sank up to 150 years ago.

For example, the aircrew captured a shot of a 133-foot-long wooden steamer named Rising Sun that ran aground in shallow water just north of Pyramid Point on October 29, 1917, during an early season snowstorm.

Some of Brown’s photos also revealed the 121-foot-long brig James McBride, which was stranded near Sleeping Bear Point during a storm on October 19, 1857, while carrying wood to Chicago.

Both of those ships are located in the Manitou Passage, which was a major shipping area in the heyday of Michigan lumbering, according to the Michigan Underwater Preserve Council (MUPC). Ships sought safety in the waters around the Manitou islands during storms, but clearly not all of them were successful.

The historic wrecks are protected under state law, and divers should know that it is a felony to remove or tamper with artifacts in Michigan’s Great Lakes, according to the MUPC. Anyone who tries to take a porthole, anchor or other object from a wreck could face two years in prison and hefty fines.

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Sophisticated 600-year-old canoe discovered in New Zealand

auckland-canoe

This turtle was carved on the hull of a 600-year-old canoe found in New Zealand. Turtles are rare in pre-European Maori art. The engraving might be a nod to the Maori’s Polynesian ancestors, who revered the seafaring reptiles. (Tim Mackrell, Conservation Laboratory, The University of Auckland)

Sophisticated oceangoing canoes and favorable winds may have helped early human settlers colonize New Zealand, a pair of new studies shows.

The remote archipelagos of East Polynesia were among the last habitable places on Earth that humans were able to colonize. In New Zealand, human history only began around 1200-1300, when intrepid voyagers arrived by boat through several journeys over some generations.

A piece of that early heritage was recently revealed on a beach in New Zealand, when a 600-year-old canoe with a turtle carved on its hull emerged from a sand dune after a harsh storm. The researchers who examined the shipwreck say the vessel is more impressive than any other canoe previously linked to this period in New Zealand. [The 9 Craziest Ocean Voyages]

Separately, another group of scientists discovered a climate anomaly in the South Pacific during this era that would have eased sailing from central East Polynesia southwest to New Zealand. Both findings were detailed Sept. 29 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Canoe on the coast

The canoe was revealed near the sheltered Anaweka estuary, on the northwestern end of New Zealand’s South Island.

“It kind of took my breath away, really, because it was so carefully constructed and so big,” said Dilys Johns, a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The hull measured about 20 feet long and it was made from matai, or black pine, found in New Zealand. The boat had carved interior ribs and clear evidence of repair and reuse. Carbon dating tests showed that the vessel was last caulked with wads of bark in 1400.

Johns and colleagues say it’s likely that the hull once had a twin, and together, these vessels formed a double canoe (though the researchers haven’t ruled out the possibility that the find could have been a single canoe with an outrigger). If the ship was a double canoe, it probably had a deck, a shelter and a sail that was pitched forward, much like the historic canoes of the Society Islands (a group that includes Bora Bora and Tahiti) and the Southern Cook Islands. These island chains have been identified as likely Polynesian homelands of the Maori, the group of indigenous people who settled New Zealand.

The boat was surprisingly more sophisticated than the canoes described centuries later by the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand, Johns told Live Science. At the time of European contact, the Maori were using dugout canoes, which were hollowed out from single, big trees with no internal frames. In the smaller islands of Polynesia, boat builders didn’t have access to trees that were big enough to make an entire canoe; to build a vessel, therefore, they had to create an elaborate arrangement of smaller wooden planks.

The newly described canoe seems to represent a mix of that ancestral plank technology and an adaptation to the new resources on New Zealand, since the boat has some big, hollowed-out portions but also sophisticated internal ribs, Johns and colleagues wrote.

The turtle carving on the boat also seems to link back to the settlers’ homeland. Turtle designs are rare in pre-European carvings in New Zealand, but widespread in Polynesia, where turtles were important in mythology and could represent humans or even gods in artwork. In many traditional Polynesian societies, only the elite were allowed to eat turtles, the study’s authors noted.

Shifty winds

A separate recent study examined the climate conditions that may have made possible the long journeys between the central East Polynesian islands and New Zealand. Scientists looked at the region’s ice cores and tree rings, which can act like prehistoric weather stations, recording everything from precipitation to wind patterns to atmospheric pressure and circulation strength. [10 Surprising Ways Weather Changed History]

Because of today’s wind patterns, scholars had assumed that early settlers of New Zealand would have had to sail thousands of miles from East Polynesia against the wind. But when the researchers reconstructed climate patterns in the South Pacific from the year 800 to 1600, they found several windows during the so-called Medieval Climate Anomaly when trade winds toward New Zealand were strengthened.(That anomaly occurred between the years 800 and 1300.)

“There are these persistent 20-year periods where there are extreme shifts in climate system,” the study’s head author, Ian Goodwin, a marine climatologist and marine geologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, told Live Science. “We show that the sailing canoe in its basic form would have been able to make these voyages purely through downwind sailing.”

Goodwin added that a downwind journey from an island in central East Polynesia might take about two weeks in a sailing canoe. But the trip would take four times that if the voyagers had to travel upwind.

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Hidden paintings revealed at ancient temple of Angkor Wat

elephants-after

A technique called decorrelation stretch analysis, which exaggerates subtle color differences, revealed images like this one showing two elephants facing each other.Antiquity, Tan et al.

Each year, millions of visitors flock to Angkor Wat, an ancient temple in modern-day Cambodia. There, they marvel at the 900-year-old towers, a giant moat and the shallow relief sculptures of Hindu gods. But what they can’t see are 200 hidden paintings on the temple walls.

New, digitally enhanced images reveal detailed murals at Angkor Wat showing elephants, deities, boats, orchestral ensembles and people riding horses all invisible to the naked eye.

Many of the faded markings could be graffiti left behind by pilgrims after Angkor Wat was abandoned in the 15th century. But the more elaborate paintings may be relics of the earliest attempts to restore the temple, researchers said. [See Photos of Angkor Wat’s Secret Paintings]

Painting discovery
Subtle traces of paint caught the eye of Noel Hidalgo Tan, a rock-art researcher at Australian National University in Canberra, while he was working on an excavation at Angkor Wat in 2010.

‘Another set of paintings discovered from this study are so schematic and elaborate that they are likely not random graffiti, but an attempt to decorate the walls of the temple.’- Rock-art researcher Noel Hidalgo Tan

Built between A.D. 1113 and 1150, Angkor Wat stood at the center of Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire. The 500-acre complex, one of the largest religious monuments ever erected, originally served as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, but was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century.

Tan said he kept spotting traces of red pigment all over the walls when he was taking a stroll through the temple on his lunch break one day. He took a few pictures and planned to digitally enhance them later.

“I didn’t realize that the images would be so detailed, so I was naturally taken aback,” Tan told Live Science in an email.

The digitally enhanced pictures revealed paintings of elephants, lions, the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, boats and buildings perhaps even images of Angkor Wat itself. Tan went back to the site to conduct a more methodical survey in 2012 with his Cambodian colleagues from APSARA (which stands for the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

Invisible images
“Some of the most detailed paintings, the ones located at the top of the temple, are passed by literally thousands of visitors every day, but the most elaborate scenes are effectively invisible to the naked eye,” Tan said in an email.

To make these paintings visible, Tan used a technique called decorrelation stretch analysis, which exaggerates subtle color differences. This method has become a valuable tool in rock-art research, as it can help distinguish faint images from the underlying rock. It has even been used to enhance images taken of the Martian surface by NASA’s Opportunity rover.

One chamber in the highest tier of Angkor Wat’s central tower, known as the Bakan, contains an elaborate scene of a traditional Khmer musical ensemble known as the pinpeat, which is made up of different gongs, xylophones, wind instruments and other percussion instruments. In the same chamber, there’s an intricate scene featuring people riding horses between two structures, which might be temples. [Image Gallery: How Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasures]

“A lot of the visible paintings on the walls have been previously discounted as graffiti, and I certainly agree with this interpretation, but there are another set of paintings discovered from this study that are so schematic and elaborate that they are likely not random graffiti, but an attempt to decorate the walls of the temple,” Tan said.

Christophe Pottier, an archaeologist and co-director of the Greater Angkor Project who was not involved in the new study, agreed that these more complex murals show deliberate intention and can’t be interpreted as mere graffiti.

Pottier, however, added that the discovery of hidden paintings isn’t all that surprising. Though they haven’t been studied systematically before now, several traces of paintings have been found at the temple during the last 15 years.

“But I am very pleased, because the traces identified are quite diverse,lively and original,” Pottier said. Most of the paintings that were previously known depicted boats and floral and geometric designs, Pottier told Live Science in an email.

Though researchers don’t know exactly when the paintings were created, Tan speculated that the most elaborate artworks may have been commissioned by Cambodia’s King Ang Chan, who made an effort to restore the temple during his reign between 1528 and 1566. During this time, unfinished carvings were completed and Angkor Wat began its transformation into a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Some of the newly revealed paintings have Buddhist iconography, such as a painting of a temple that looks like a Buddhist mound-like monument known as a stupa.

The findings were detailed in the journal Antiquity this week.

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Ancient puppy paw prints found on Roman tiles

Ancient puppy paw prints found on Roman tiles

A dog pushed its paws into this ancient Roman tile before it could dry.Adam Slater, Wardell Armstrong Archaeology

The paw prints and hoof prints of a few meddlesome animals have been preserved for posterity on ancient Roman tiles recently discovered by archaeologists in England.

“They are beautiful finds, as they represent a snapshot, a single moment in history,” said Nick Daffern, a senior project manager with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology. “It is lovely to imagine some irate person chasing a dog or some other animal away from their freshly made tiles.”

 The artifacts, which could be nearly 2,000 years old,were found in the Blackfriars area of Leicester, the English city where the long-lost bones of King Richard III were discovered under a parking lot in 2012. Wardell Armstrong Archaeology was brought in to dig at a site where a construction company plans to build student housing.

Photos: Animal prints on ancient Roman tiles

At least one of the tiles is tainted with dog paw prints, and one is marked with the hoof prints of a sheep or a goat that trampled on the clay before it was dry.

“My initial thought was that it must have been very difficult being a Roman tile manufacturer with these animal incursions going on all the time,” Philip Briggs, another Wardell Armstrong archaeologist, told Live Science in an email.

The tiles were found in layers of rubble that had been laid down as a hard base for subsequent floors, but the artifacts’ original context is unclear, Daffern said.

“We don’t know if the tiles were originally part of an earlier building or were bought in from elsewhere specifically to raise and stabilize ground,” Daffern told Live Science in an email.

Leicester was the stronghold of an Iron Age group known as the Corieltauvi tribe, and it remained an important city after the Roman conquest of Britain in the first century A.D., as it was located along the Fosse Way, a Roman road that connected southwestern England with the East Midlands.

The excavators say that, in addition to the animal-printed tiles, they’ve uncovered Roman tweezers, brooches, coins and painted wall plaster. They’ve also unearthed traces of a large Roman building perhaps a basilica, with a peristyle, or columned porch that was largely robbed of its masonry during the medieval era for other construction projects.

The archaeologists even discovered late Iron Age artifacts, such as several fragments of clay molds that the Corieltauvi tribe likely used to make coins before the Roman rule. Daffern said it’s rare to find sites with coin molds, given how closely managed coin production would have been during the Iron Age.

“I think the excavation thus far has significantly multiplied the number of coin mold fragments recovered from Leicester, probably by approximately tenfold,” Daffern said in an email.

The excavation is funded by construction company Watkin Jones. The archaeologists are providing updates on Wardell Armstrong Archaeology’s blog.

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Reptile death match: Snake devours crocodile

Reptile death match: Snake devours crocodile

By Megan Gannon

Published March 05, 2014

  • snake-eating-croc

    A python was caught on camera as it swallowed a crocodile whole in northern Australia in March 2014. (YouTube | Barcroft TV)

A python was caught on camera devouring a crocodile after an epic battle on the shores of an Australian lake.

Amazing footage of the incident shows the snake constricting its prey and slowly stretching its mouth over the crocodile’s scaly body during the course of five hours.The reptile death match captured the attention of people at Lake Moondarra, near Mount Isa in the state of Queensland, over the weekend.

“You could see the crocodile in the snake’s belly which I think was probably the more remarkable thing,” local resident Tiffany Corlis told Australia’s ABC News.”You could actually see its legs and see its scales and everything, it was just amazing.” [Beastly Feasts: See Other Amazing Animals Devouring Prey]

Though the stomach-turning meal may look incredible, some animal experts say the incident isn’t all that uncommon.

‘You could see the crocodile in the snake’s belly, which I think was probably the more remarkable thing.’

– local resident Tiffany Corlis

“The big eat the smaller,” Lindsey Hord, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), wrote in an email to Live Science, noting that big snakes regularly eat crocodile relatives known as caiman in South America.

The combatants in this case are thought to be an olive python and a freshwater Johnston’s crocodile, both native to northern Australia. Terry Phillip, of South Dakota’s Reptile Gardens, told National Geographic that olive snakes are “known for being phenomenally powerful, pound for pound, and for feeding on large food items.”

Phillip added that snakes regularly swallow prey 75 to 100 percent their size. But footage of their amazing eating abilities continues to astound.

A sensational YouTube video from 2012 showed an anaconda regurgitating the carcass of a goat. And an engorged Burmese python was picked up in the Florida Everglades in 2011 after it had swallowed a 76-lb. deer. But sometimes snakes can bite off more than they can chew. Back in 2005, pictures circulated of another python that burst after it apparently tried to eat an American alligator in Florida.

Snakes don’t “unhinge” their jaw to eat; rather their two lower jaws are not actually connected so they can move independently of one another while the snakes eat their large prey. Scientists recently decoded the genome of Burmese pythons and found the snakes’ impressive snacking skills arise from a genetic capacity to alter their metabolism and their organs (which sometimes double in size) after a meal. That research was published in December in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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