New Scientist

Looters riddle ancient Iraqi sites with holes

15:03 12 June 03

NewScientist.com news service


Archaeologists and soldiers examine a fresh looter's pit at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Larsa (Image: Steve McCurry/National Geographic Society)

Looters digging for treasure have riddled ancient sites in southern Iraq with holes, according to the first major survey since the end of war. Tens of thousands of artifacts are feared lost and the destruction has obliterated much of the archaeological value of the sites.

Over 200 men were seen digging at each of three separate sites, says McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, who was part of the US survey team sent by the National Geographic Society in May.

Museum looting made headlines around the world after Baghdad fell, but the devastation at unprotected sites was revealed in the team's report on Wednesday.

The damage is uneven. Northern sites such as the former Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Nimrud were guarded suffered only minor vandalism and a handful of holes dug in search of gold and other valuable artifacts. But Gibson found serious damage at 10 of the 13 southern sites he visited by helicopter.


The worst damage was at sites known to locals but not yet well excavated. Gibson said Umm-al-Hafriyat, where he had excavated in 1977, "looks like a waffle, full of holes and pretty much destroyed".

He saw more than 200 people digging at Adab, where looters appeared to have been working for years. The worst looted site may be Isin, where more than 200 men from local villages greeted him when he landed. They were surprised that US troops objected to their digging, but they left quickly after the soldiers with Gibson fired over their heads.

The looters left uncounted artifacts from some of the world's earliest civilizations strewn on the ground. These included cuneiform tablets, stone tools and copper and bronze implements. Although some were intact, they had lost their context and much of their scientific value.

Eight of 10 southern sites visited by Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook had suffered some looting. The well-studied sites of Babylon, Ur, and Nippur fared better than little-known spots. Both Babylon and Ur are now guarded by US troops occupying nearby bases.

The most extensive signs of looting Stone saw in the south were at Larsa, a large city known for archives of clay tablets. She blames the looting on the illegal antiquities market: "It works like the illegal drug trade, with the same money laundering and corruption."

The survey team made three recommendations to stop the destruction: increased US patrols, strengthening Iraq's own system of local site guards and more support for Iraqi archaeologists.

In Baghdad, curators at the Iraqi National Museum have now confirmed that well over a thousand missing pieces are missing, but the final tally will be much higher. Early reports that thieves had taken only 33 artifacts counted only large objects left in display cases.

Most of the 170,000 objects on the museum's inventory had been hidden in five storerooms, with the most valuable gold items in a vault at the National Bank. Three storerooms were breached by looters and the bank vault door was attacked with a rocket-launched grenade. But while the blast killed the looter, the door held firm.

Jeff Hecht




12:00 - 12 June 2003


The foundations of a house dating back to the Bronze Age was the last thing a golf club expected to find as it prepared the ground for its new green.


The find at Staddon Heights Golf Club, near Plymstock, estimated to be between 3,000 and 3,500 years old, has sent a ripple of excitement through the club as it heads towards its centenary next year.


The discovery was made when an archaeological survey had to be carried out before development of the 17th green.


And since its detection, a team of four archeologists have excavated two trenches, of 15m in diameter and about 80cm deep, to expose the foundations of the round house that once stood there.


Project manager Stephen Reed, of Exeter Archaeology which has been excavating the site, said it was essentially a 'domestic dwelling'.


"This is a very exciting find because it is a rarity in Devon," he said.


"We found a middle Bronze Age house with a circular shallow scoop in the ground, which would have contained the floor and foundations, and it would have had post holes up to the roof and a little ramp leading into it.


"It was probably occupied by ordinary people who are highly likely to have farmed the land.


"We are still sieving through samples of materials found at the site to get a better idea of what they would have been eating."


As well as unearthing the outline of the building, pottery dating back to the era was also discovered at the site, which overlooks Mount Batten, the city centre, and the Citadel across the Sound.


Mr Reed said many fragments of pottery were found.


"It would suggest that when the house was abandoned it was ritually closed with pots being broken and the scoop filled in with materials," he said.


The archaeologists are now overseeing the 'back filling' of the land which will be carried out once a protective plastic, open-mesh membrane has been placed over the find.


It will then be possible to preserve the find in situ.


Since the discovery, the new green has had to be redesigned as the original plan was to dig the area out. Instead, the ground level will now be raised to cover the buried history.


Club secretary Roger Brown said: "It has been very interesting and it has become quite a talking point within the club.


"From the developer's side, this is the last thing they wanted to find because it does delay the work but, fortunately, it wasn't as disastrous as it could have been."


The 220,000 of works to extend the course by adding two new holes has had to be delayed by a few weeks while the excavation has been carried out.


But Mr Brown said it was not a serious problem and still expected to have the works completed in 12 months.


The club is looking into having an aerial photograph taken of the excavated site with the aim of possibly using it for postcards to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.


Roman barge excites archaeologists

By Lakshmi Sandhana


A 1,800-year-old barge that once sailed along the borders of the Roman Empire will rise to the surface again this month in the Netherlands.


Normally such vessels were stripped before being sunk

The vessel is currently being excavated by archaeologists from the bottom of Heldammer Stroom, an offshoot of the old course of the River Rhine near the city of Utrecht.

First discovered in 1997, it is said to be beautifully preserved.

"It's very special," said Mr Andre Van Holk, the maritime archaeologist heading the research team.

"Most ships that have been found so far were deliberately stripped and sunk to fortify riverbanks and this is the first one that seems to have sunk due to natural causes."


Although the original riverbed silted up centuries ago, the barge has stayed waterlogged for nearly 2,000 years, preserving the vessel and its contents.


It is 25 metres long and 2.7 m wide, and is the first to be found with a cabin containing an entire inventory of items that have been fully preserved - from the captain's kitchen, bed and chest, down to the contents of his cupboard.

Since previous excavations have revealed the existence of a number of watchtowers and fortresses in the area, the archaeologists believe that this barge will provide insights into how the Romans organised their defence systems.

"We've found indications of military soldiers on board, from the spiked shoes that they normally used, to lance points and axes: standard equipment of the Roman soldier," said Holk.

The archaeologists plan to lift the barge this month and transport it to the National Institute of Maritime Archaeology in Lelystad, where it will be put in a huge tank containing a special solution for a period of about two years.

This will make the wood durable so that the ship can be displayed later.

"It's the most fascinating find of my working career," said Holk.

"When you consider the fact that only four whole Roman planes (used to smooth wood) have been found in the entire world and that we have found the same number of planes already on this one site, you begin to appreciate the significance of this discovery."

The archaeologists working on the project are from Nisa, the Dutch Institute for Maritime Archaeology, and ROB, the state archaeological soil research department of the Netherlands.


Columbus versus the clams

When archaeologists found a soft-shelled clam in 12th-century Viking excavations in Denmark it seemed an unremarkable discovery, just a detail of domestic diet. But when the species, Mya arenaria, was identified it became clear it was of major historical importance. Historians had believed the clam had been brought to Europe by Columbus from the Americas - but this archaeological layer had been deposited three centuries earlier.

"The Viking explorers had brought the clams back from what they called Vinland, and we call North America, a couple of hundred years before Columbus. We can surmise that they must have done it deliberately," said Erkki Leppakoski, an expert on marine invaders at Abo Akademi University in Finland. The clam was probably the first alien species in the Baltic, he added.

"The Vikings probably saw the locals eating them and realised they would make good provisions for the long journey home. They may have piled them in the bottom of the long ships to eat on the way because they would have remained alive and fresh.

"There must have been a few left over when they reached Denmark. Whether they tipped them in the water in the hope that they would breed or whether it was an accident we shall never know. What we do know is that the clams found conditions to their liking and thrived."

The genetic make up of the clams shows they are identical to species that grow in low salinity waters in North American estuaries. It is hard evidence that Columbus, at best, could only be described as the man who rediscovered America.


1,000-year-old coffin opened on live TV

Chinese archaeologists have opened a 1,000-year-old casket live on national television, revealing what they believe to be the body of an ancient tribal nobleman.

The Mystery of the 1,000-year-old Coffin was broadcast across the country on the lunchtime news from a research centre in Inner Mongolia.

The scientists, wearing rubber gloves and face masks and surrounded by police guards, first lifted off the cover of an outer sarcophagus.

They then opened the inner coffin, revealing a body covered in a silk blanket and wearing a necklace, bells around the ankles and a metal-studded mask and helmet.

Both boxes were made of thick slabs of wood with brass handles and decorated with gilt designs of birds, servants and swirling pattern.

The identity of the deceased is unknown, the broadcast said, but the coffin dates to the Liao dynasty, which was established by warriors from the Khitan tribe who seized power in northern China in 907 AD during the decline of the Tang dynasty.

It was found in a treasure-filled grave on the side of Inner Mongolia's Tuerji mountain, the scientists told China Central Television.

The archaeologists will now have to decide whether to clean and study the remains inside the coffin or remove them to a laboratory, they said.

Associated Press

Story filed: 09:39 Thursday 12th June 2003


Shroud of germs

Stephen Mattingly believes the Turin shroud was 'painted' by bacteria from a dying man's body. Laura Spinney meets the Catholic microbiologist challenging the medieval hoax theory

Thursday June 12, 2003

The Guardian


The image of a tall, bearded man bearing the marks of crucifixion that adorn the Turin shroud has never been adequately explained. Those who have attempted to answer the vexed question of the shroud's origins have often found themselves accused of poor science, even vested interests. So it is a brave man who enters the fray with a new and ultimately unprovable theory. But a respected American microbiologist has done just that, and is so convinced he is right, he has lathered himself in germs and put his professional reputation on the line to persuade the rest of us.

Stephen Mattingly of the University of Texas Health Science Centre in San Antonio believes the image on the Turin shroud was created not by human hands or any mystical power, as has been suggested, but by bacteria. The humble microbes, he says, multiplied in the wounds of a person who died very slowly, and whose corpse was then washed and wrapped in a linen sheet in readiness for burial. Washing the body made the wounds sticky, so the cloth stuck fast and became impregnated with bacteria. Finally, says Mattingly, the bacteria died, shedding proteins that gradually oxidised, causing a stain in the cloth that turned yellow and darkened, like a slow developing photograph.

The theory may be simple, but persuading people he is right will not be easy. In 1989, three separate scientific teams published a study of the shroud in the journal Nature. Using radiocarbon dating, they claimed the shroud must have come into being some time between 1260 and 1390 -suggesting that it was a medieval hoax rather than the genuine article. Their paper spawned much speculation as to who might have created the image, including one theory that it was the handiwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Mattingly thinks the three teams got it wrong. Modern bacteria on the linen could have messed up the dating technique, producing a date that was far too recent. He doesn't claim that the individual wrapped in the linen shroud was necessarily Jesus, but he does think microbes, not Leonardo, were the real artists behind the image.

If he is right, his theory could clear up some long-standing mysteries about the image: its striking three-dimensional quality, which he accounts for by varying densities of bacteria accumulating in the nooks and crannies of the dying man's body; the fact that it only appears on one side of the cloth; and, perhaps most damning of all for the artist hypothesis, the complete absence of brushstrokes. "Bacteria do not need a paintbrush," he says.

Mattingly is a Catholic and believes the biblical account of Jesus' death. But he insists the Turin shroud is not the basis for his belief. His experiments are nevertheless based on a set of assumptions gleaned from the Bible and what is known historically about crucifixion. It was the preferred means of dispatching criminals in the first century AD and took as long as 72 hours to kill a man.

Mattingly realised that during those three days, the unfortunate would bleed and lose other body fluids, all of which would encourage bacteria to multiply to unusually high levels.

One of the most common types of bacteria found on the human skin is Staphylococcus epidermidis, usually present in harmless concentrations of around 10m clumps, known as "colony forming units", per square centimetre. Estimating that during crucifixion, this number might increase by up to a hundredfold, Mattingly took swabs of Staphylococcus epidermidis from his skin and grew them, forming a "biofilm", a sugary matrix of microbes which can absorb water, becoming extremely sticky. He then killed the bacteria with heat to avoid infection, and smeared the biofilm back on to his hands and face. Sure enough, Mattingly found that his skin became very sticky where he had smeared on the mixture.

Having lathered on the bacteria, Mattingly applied a damp linen cloth to his hands and face, allowed it to dry, and peeled it off - with no little difficulty. He found the linen bore a straw-yellow imprint of the matching body part that became bolder over subsequent weeks. The bacterial imprint revealed fingernails, a ring and facial features, very similar in quality to the image on the Turin shroud.

Mattingly's findings have yet to be published in a scientific journal, but have already sparked controversy - including a difference of opinion with his collaborator, Barrie Schwortz. Schwortz was the official documenting photographer for the Shroud of Turin Research Project (Sturp), set up by a group of US scientists in the late 1970s.

Schwortz cautions that there seem to be discrepancies between Mattingly's image and the shroud. For instance, the image of Mattingly's face is distorted by the wrap-around effect of the cloth, but the image on the shroud is not. Mattingly is defiant though: "I am convinced that bacteria painted the image," he says. "They would have to have, based on the conditions thatexisted during the crucifixion."

Having examined the shroud, Sturp concluded in 1981 that it contained no pigments, paints, dyes or stains, and that the image was probably created by oxidation and dehydration of the cellulose fibres of the linen itself. That is still the prevailing view, but according to Mattingly, there was not a single microbiologist on the Sturp team, and they only failed to find bacterial pigments because they did not look for them.

Even more contentious, however, is Mattingly's claim that microbes skewed the shroud's radiocarbon date - the claim on which his theory depends. The fragments of the shroud he has seen, he says, are "completely coated" with bacteria, just like any piece of dirty old linen might be. If the radiocarbon dating could be repeated on purified fragments, it might prove to have come from the first century AD, he says.

Robert Hedges at the University of Oxford's research laboratory for archaeology, who was part of the British effort to date the shroud, dismisses that as highly unlikely. "If the shroud was originally 2,000 years old, but is contaminated by modern material to give a date of AD1250, the labs must have measured material contaminated by 60% modern, 20th-century biofilm," he says. "I find this incredible. It would be more biofilm than cellulose."

New tests on purified linen would help to ascertain the truth, says Mattingly, but no further tests are planned. For now, the controversy is set to rage on. "Is this the burial linen of Jesus of Nazareth?" asks Mattingly. "We will never know for certain


Dig brings some excitement to Dull village


DULL by name but not by nature. The sleepy Perthshire hamlet of Dull may be a collection of cottages with an unfortunate name that makes it the butt of many jokes, but an archaeological excavation is uncovering that it was once one of the most important places in Scotland.

The Dull Dig, which will be open to the public from Saturday until June 27, is a rare chance to view an archaeological excavation uncovering aspects of Scotland's most distant past.

Alan Graham, director of operations at Perthshire Tourist Board, said: "The dig is one of the focal points of Perthshire Archaeology Week, a programme of exhibitions, guided walks, lectures and activities that will highlight the rich and varied history of the heart of Scotland.

"During the week, visitors will be able to sample underwater archaeology, explore one of Europe's best-preserved Roman forts, walk to Dunsinnan - best known for its association with Macbeth's castle of Dunsinane - visit a 5000-year-old axe factory, join a landscape survey and much more."

The area around Dull has been inhabited for at least 5000 years. In the 7th century, it became a place of solitude and retreat for St Adamnan, the biographer of St Columba, who is attributed with halting the plague in the area by the miracle of casting the evil spirits of the disease into a rock.

In the Dark Ages from the 7th century onwards, Dull was the foremost centre of ecclesiastical learning in Scotland with an early Christian monastic complex and a thriving community with paved streets devoted to different trades.

Dull's influence waned as it was superseded by Dunkeld and St Andrews, but as late as the 12th century it housed a Trionensian priory established by King David I of Scotland.

Now much of the history of Dull is being uncovered through the archaeological dig at Dull parish church, which is thought to occupy the site of the original monastery. Excavations last year uncovered the remains of an earlier building below the church as well as pottery and human remains.

-           June 11th


Divers begin mapping Lake Erie shipwrecks

June 11, 2003


When they scuttled the 268-foot steamer Canobie in Lake Erie 80 years ago, everyone assumed her useful life was over. They were wrong.

The Canobie and four other shipwrecks, all in a 20-square-mile area in Lake Erie, are the focus of a program announced Wednesday by Mercyhurst College's Archaeological Institute and Erie's Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies to map and record the wrecks.


By doing so, researchers want to draw attention to underwater preservation efforts, develop a history curricula for students, attract new divers and inventory items to prevent looting.

Twenty-five years ago, looting wasn't as much of a problem in Lake Erie, which Mercyhurst officials say is the final resting ground of more wrecks than any other freshwater location in the world.

There are thousands of them _ wooden package freighters, three-masted barkentines and schooners _ that became victims of the lake's fast-changing weather, shallow waters and once-crowded channels.

The problem was getting to them. Pollution had made the wrecks, most of which date from the 1800s and 1900s, hard to get to and difficult to see.

Lake Erie has been cleaned up considerably over the last two decades in part because of the powerful filtering mechanism of the invasive zebra mussel and the actions of state and federal regulators.

Now, on a good day, a person can see the Canobie in 15 feet of water from the deck of a boat, said James Stewart, executive director of the Bayfront Center.

"It's fabulous diving," he said.

Part of the problem with good diving, however, is the potential for looting.

That potential is one reason for the research being done this summer by Mercyhurst and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, said Kurt Carr, chief of the division of archaeology and protection for the state Historical and Museum Commission.

By drawing recreation divers to the sites and perhaps even creating a kind of underwater museum at some wrecks, scavengers could be thwarted.

Smaller, more fragile items may even be removed and placed under glass in Erie's Maritime Museum.

"To protect them, we need to know where they are," Carr said, explaining that other states, notably Michigan and Vermont, have had similar programs that are successful.

Researchers hope to secure additional funding that would expand the project beyond the initial 20-mile area.

While some of the Lake Erie wrecks have been mapped before, Carr said little has been done with that information since the 1980s.

Paid for in part with a grant from the state Coastal Zone Management program, the effort will see researchers use sonar devices to map the area. Divers, including three Erie-area teenagers currently getting lessons, will then explore the wrecks, using underwater cameras to get an image of what is below the surface.

"A shipwreck is an instant picture of culture, of industry," said Jim Zurn, a trustee at Mercyhurst who approached the INA about the project.

"At the instant that ship went down it entered a microcosm of society at that instant," Zurn said.

The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, which was founded in 1972 as a nonprofit institute, has already excavated some of the most significant underwater archaeological sites in the world, including numerous shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

Institute researcher James Coombs will oversee a staff of seven Mercyhurst students who will map, research and record the shipwrecks.

The project's initial phase will last 12 months.