www.archaeology.ws/archive

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20040628/mummy.html

Egyptian Mummy Unwrapped in 3D

By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

 

July 5, 2004 — Cutting-edge computer technology and state-of-the-art medical scanning techniques have turned a 2,800-year-old mummy into a fully interactive 3-D experience, London's British Museum has announced.

Resting in a decorated cartonnage, Nesperennub, a priest buried in Thebes in about 800 B.C., was moved from its display at the museum to undergo a CT-scan at a London hospital and a 3-D laser-scan in Scotland.

The resulting 1,500 flat scans were pieced together and turned into 3-D lifelike pictures by software developed by Silicon Graphics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

After two years of work, Nesperennub has been turned into a revolutionary 3-D virtual reality experience.

Wearing 3-D-stereo eyeglasses, visitors of the museum's exhibition "Mummy: The Inside Story" can virtually explore the computer-generated mummy, penetrate his secret layers, and discover objects that were buried under the wrappings.

"We have been able to recreate Nesperennub the man, and recover detailed information such as how old he was and how he was mummified. This experience is really quite unique, where technology meets archaeology and reveals the methods of another advanced technology of its time; that of the ancient Egyptians," said David Hughes, Reality Center solution manager at SGI.

The hologram-like pictures reveal amazing details. Crowned with a ceramic bowl — probably accidentally glued by the embalmers — Nesperennub had an abscess at the base of one of his teeth, and a mysterious small hole, like a bullet hole, near his brain.

Several linen-wrapped protective amulets were recognizable on his chest, while almond-shaped fake glasses were inserted by embalmers so that the mummy could see in the afterlife.

The only other way to see such details is to unwrap the mummy, but this popular 19th century practice disintegrates tissue. Even X-rays do not offer much help, as it is hard to go through the solid resin inside the corpse.

The last time the British Museum dared to unroll one of its mummies was in the 1790s.

"Egyptian mummies were unwrapped at public spectacles, which was invasive and ultimately damaging to the mummy. We are gathering information here without disturbing the casing or cartonnage at all. Through 3-D technology we can reveal so much more than the naked eye can see," John Taylor, assistant keeper of the museum's Ancient Egypt and Sudan department, said.

Nesperennub was chosen for the revolutionary internal exploration because it is one of the best-known mummies in the museum's collection. Hieroglyphic inscriptions reveal he was a priest at the temple of Karnak in Thebes. He was buried near the Valley of the Kings on the banks of the Nile in about 800 B.C. and was brought to the British museum in 1899.

The mummy was X-rayed in the 1960s, but the cloudy images only revealed the likely age at death — the early forties.

CT scanning techniques have been used to analyze mummies for about 15 years, but this is the first mummy that has been explored in 3-D stereo in its entirety. Scientists and historians hope the technology will be applied to other mummies in the near future.

"This non-invasive technology can really open up new perspectives in the research of Egyptian civilization," Emma Rabino Massa, director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the University of Turin, told Discovery News.

 

http://www.hri.org/news/cyprus/tcpr/2004/04-07-06.tcpr.html#05

An archaeological treasure of 26 bronze items dated on the 13 century BC was discovered near the occupied Galinoporni village

 

Turkish Cypriot daily HALKIN SESI newspaper (06.07.04) reports that 26 bronze items were found buried in an earthenware jar in a rocky hill near the occupied Galinoporni village, in the Karpass Peninsula.

According to the paper, the items are 3200 years old, and are dated in the late Bronze Age. The excavations were conducted by the so-called Famagusta branch of the Department of the Antiquities and Museum of the pseudostate. Among the 26 items which were found, were two well preserved censers, one shovel for coals, of which only a few pieces are known to exist in Cyprus and the Middle East, a closed jug with a handle, five pieces of hook and three large bronze kettles. The paper writes that similar items were found in 1970 near the occupied Sinta Village. These items are now in the Saint Varnavas Museum.

 

http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=588&art_id=qw1089008642631B252

Catapult-makers were once ye olde celebrities

 

London - Catapult designers were the celebrity scientists of the ancient world, according to a British expert.

 

Until the discovery of gunpowder, the catapult was the most powerful weapon in existence, said historian Serafina Cuomo. The machines, capable of hurling large projectiles long distances, were in high demand during the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans - and so were their makers.

 

But the construction of catapults was no easy task, requiring great mathematical and engineering skill.

 

It became a science in itself, known as "belopoietics" from the Greek "poietike" meaning "making of" and "belos" meaning "projectile" or "projectile throwing device".

 

Cuomo, from the Centre for the History of Science at Imperial College London, said: "Belopoietics attracted the interest and financial support of governments. It combined geometry, physics, and technology. Ancient engineers saw their knowledge as cumulative and progressive and believed that they were making an important contribution to the welfare of cities and the power of kings and emperors."

 

The first catapults dated back as far as the Ninth Century BC when they were depicted in a relief from Nimrud, in present day Iraq. In the Forth Century BC they spread rapidly around the Mediterranean, said Cuomo, writing in the journal Science.

 

The earliest Greek catapult was the "belly bow" - a large bow mounted on a case, one end of which rested on the belly of the person using it. Later the weapon was enlarged and a winch pull-back system added.

 

The next step was to introduce "springs" - tight bundles of sinews or ropes that were tightly twisted to store enormous power. Eventually trial-and-error gave way to the principle that all parts of a catapult were proportional to the size of the torsion springs. The introduction of proportionality allowed catapult construction to be almost standardised, said Cuomo.

 

"Tables of specifications were compiled for quick and easy reference," she said.

 

Advances in catapult design led to Roman stone-throwers capable of hurling projectiles weighing 27kg a distance of 150m. Legendary engines designed by Archimedes were said to have used stones three times heavier.

 

The engineers saw themselves as an international community and would meet to swap ideas, said Cuomo. She said catapults marked the beginning of a quest for more powerful and accurate ways of firing projectiles against enemies and their cities, "from oversized arrows to Patriot missiles".

 

She added: "Ancient engineers had a role in society and often an ambivalent relationship with political power. The technology they boasted of may now be obsolete, but their anxieties, their curiosity, and their pride in their knowledge are not - perhaps the people behind the machine have not changed that much." - Sapa-dpa

 

Published on the Web by IOL on 2004-07-05 08:24:02

________________________________________

© Independent Online 2004. All rights reserved. IOL publishes this article in good faith but is not liable for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information it contains.

 

http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Science/2004/07/06/527091-ap.html

July 6, 2004

Archaeologists find names of hundreds of masons who built Taj Mahal

 

NEW DELHI (AP) - Indian archaeologists have found more than 670 names of previously unknown masons and labourers who built the 17th century Taj Mahal, the country's greatest architectural marvel, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

The names, written mostly in Arabic and Persian, are etched on the sandstone used in the wall and other peripheral structures on the northern side of the Taj Mahal, the Asian Age newspaper reported.

Some names were also written in Hindi, the report said, quoting D. Dayalan, a senior official at the Archaeological Survey of India.

"We stumbled upon these names while doing our routine documentation of the Taj," Dayalan was quoted as saying. "Most of these masons came from Iran, central Asia and India," he said.

Dayalan and his staff also found tridents, stars, geometrical patterns and flowers carved into some of the sandstone, implying the masons and labourers were drawn from diverse religions.

"Since many of them were illiterates, they denoted symbols as a mark of their identity," Dayalan said.

At least 20,000 people were employed to build the Taj Mahal, which the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan wanted as the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Work on the white marble building began in 1631 and was completed in 1647.

Dayalan said an expert team is working to decipher the epigraphs and names engraved in the stones.

"Our interest lies in the unknown masons who never received publicity for their work," he said.

 

http://www.tallahassee.com/mld/tallahassee/9069432.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp

Posted on Fri, Jul. 02, 2004

Florida State professor hoping to find Roman-era pirate ships

DAVID ROYSE

Associated Press

 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - When the Roman Empire got tired of pirates terrorizing shipping lanes and nearly bringing the known world's trade to a halt, it went after them hard.

It reportedly took the Roman general Pompey just 40 days to locate and wipe out the ships and crews that were preying on shipping.

It has taken much, much longer for modern scientists to again find the pirates of the Mediterranean.

But Cheryl Ward, an anthropology professor at Florida State University, hopes she's on the verge of rediscovering the ships of the pirates, a thorn in the side of the Romans 2,100 years ago who now may help provide a unique window on what the larger world looked like in late antiquity.

Ward is the main investigator in a major archaeological mission that will be trying this month to find evidence of the ships in the shallow waters off the southern coast of Turkey.

The dream find would be to actually locate one of their vessels, known as hemioliae - rowed ships that were the terror of the 1st century.

We know what they look like from Roman descriptions, but none has ever been discovered.

Ward and her colleagues are hoping to paint a picture of a different class of people from those we know lots about - adding to what we know about the Roman Empire. Much of our knowledge comes from what the educated, wealthy Romans left us in the way of writing and artifacts.

But the pirates were the underclass - the rest of the story.

"These were a bunch of unemployed guys," Ward said Friday, preparing to leave for Turkey next week. "They turned to piracy. It was easy money.

"What's the story of these people from what they left behind?" Ward wants to know.

First, her team has to find some remnants of their lives.

"We would love to find a shipyard," said Ward, who will be exploring nearshore areas of the Turkish coast that used to be dry before erosion shrunk the land.

But she'd settle for parts of just one ship.

Pompey had 120,000 men and 270 ships looking for pirates. Ward has a few graduate students and some fellow researchers from a Turkish university.

But the pirate project has become a big topic in the archaeological world.

Her work is part of a larger project that isn't confined to the sea. Researchers working on land also are studying the area of Turkey known as Cilicia - where many pirates were based.

Aside from the prospect of finding museum artifacts from the Roman era, Ward said modern man can learn a lot by more broadly studying societies of the past, including how people lived.

"Archaeology is telling the story of environmental degradation, of the collapse of civilizations, of the rise of ... new practices," Ward said.

And there may be some parallels to modern global relations as the world's 21st century super power tries to deal with less privileged people, just as Rome was vexed by piracy, said Meredith Marten, a graduate student working with Ward.

"If you can see how these people were subordinated or just kind of kept on the periphery, you can understand why these people would take such drastic measures," Marten said.

ON THE NET

Cilicia Maritime Archaeological project: http://www.anthro.fsu.edu/research/RCWPfrpg.htm

© 2004 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

http://www.tallahassee.com

 

http://en.rian.ru/rian/index.cfm?prd_id=160&msg_id=4545853&startrow=1&date=2004-07-04&do_alert=0

2004-07-04 19:10     * RUSSIA * NOVGOROD * KREMLIN * ARCHEOLOGISTS * EXCAVATION *

ARCHEOLOGISTS EXCAVATE ANCIENT NOVGOROD

VELIKY NOVGOROD, July 4 - RIA Novosti. Excavating the center of Veliky Novgorod's ancient kremlin (fortress -Ed.), Russian archeologists have found artifacts from the 15th century - leather cases of unidentified purpose, an iron knife with a bone handle, fragments of leather footwear, and many ceramic shards.

According to the head of the excavating team chief expert of the Novgorod Museum Sergei Troyanovsky, judging by the abundance of slags and semi-processed bones, they have hit a potter-and-bone-carver area.

At a depth of six meters the diggers found a fragment of an ancient waste disposal system, made of coniferous wood. These wooden pipes looked as if waste had been released through them.

Since mid-April many great discoveries have been made near the Official Area of the Novgorod kremlin - remainders of an ancient pavement and a fence at the Prussian Street, with a noble house likely to have been behind the fence. For it is located very close to the kremlin walls, this house might have accommodated a great noble family.

In addition, some artifacts of the Swedish occupation of 1611-1617 and a 13th to 14th century Slavic burial place were found.

Excavation in the kremlin is not over yet, and the team comes closer to the layers that could contain artifacts from the 10th to 11th centuries.

There is another meter to go, they say, since the "prime rock" as experts call it is located at a depth of seven meters.

 

 

Wreck yields Ming treasure trove

A treasure trove of Ming dynasty porcelain has been recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Malaysia.

About 20% of the salvaged 6,000 blue and white porcelain items are in pristine condition, despite being underwater for about 400 years.

Among the recovered items are bowls bearing the mark of Emperor Chenghua, who ruled China in the 15th Century.

The 21-metre vessel is thought to have been a Portuguese merchant ship which may have been blown up by a rival ship.

A coat of arms found on a bottle on the ship has led marine archaeologists to believe it was built by the Portuguese in the Philippines and used for trading in Chinese porcelain.

It was probably sunk in the early 1600s as it was sailing from China to the Indonesian city of Jakarta (then known as the Dutch outpost of Batavia), according to the director of the Malaysia's Department of Museums and Antiquities, Adi Taha.

The wreck was discovered last year by fishermen operating in the South China Sea, off the coast of Malaysia's Terengganu state.

The cargo was salvaged during a two-month expedition.

Some of the plates and vases carry the mark of Emperor Chenghua, who ruled from 1465 to 1487. Others show the mark of Emperor Chia-ching, who ruled from 1522 to 1566, Mr Adi said.

A long kris - a traditional Malay dagger said to be invested with magical powers to protect the wearer - was also salvaged from the wreck.

Historians hope the wreck will shed more light on the period when European powers fought for control of the lucrative trades in spices and porcelain.

"This is a rare discovery that will help us learn more about our region's heritage and history," Mr Adi told the Associated Press.

The Museums department will retain 30% of the artefacts for exhibition. The rest will probably be auctioned by the archaeological company which financed the salvage operation.

Story from BBC NEWS:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/3864517.stm

Published: 2004/07/04 12:25:55 GMT

© BBC MMIV

 

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-07/nsae-ayf070504.php

PUBLIC RELEASE DATE: 5-JUL-2004

Contact: Georges Beaudoin

beaudoin@ggl.ulaval.ca

418-656-3141

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

Arctic yields fresh evidence for Elizabethan gold swindle

Canadian scientists say they've found conclusive proof that a tiny, barren Arctic island was the site of Canada's first, and perhaps greatest, mining fraud.

In 1577 and 1578, Kodlunarn Island, in what is now Frobisher Bay, was the site of British mariner Martin Frobisher's infamous Arctic Eldorado turned New World financial nightmare. Now two Laval University scientists say there's solid evidence that Frobisher and his chemists were in on a massive fraud that was an Elizabethan-era "prelude to Bre-X."

Since the scandal broke more than 400 years ago that the tons of black rock Frobisher brought back to London from the Canadian Arctic near present-day Iqaluit were worthless, there's been speculation about what happened. Was this a massive con job on Elizabeth I and her court, or did Frobisher's assayers mistakenly dupe themselves into believing they'd found gold?

One intriguing hypothesis, put forward by now retired University of Ottawa mineralogist Dr. Donald Hogarth, argued that Frobisher's assayers inadvertently contaminated their samples with gold from the lead used in the assay process.

Now, for the first time, lead samples from the assay workshops on Kondlunarn Island have been analyzed using a combination of age-old and high-tech methods in order to test the contamination hypothesis.

"We find there's not a trace of gold contamination in the lead used by Frobisher's assayers at the Kodlunarn Island site," says Dr. Georges Beaudoin, a geologist at Laval University. The results of his NSERC-funded research appear in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

The five, tarnished, grey beads of lead – the largest about the diameter of a toonie – were discovered and collected on Kodlunarn Island during an archeaological excavation of the site in 1993-4 led by Laval University archaeologist Dr. Réginald Auger.

"With these results we've now discarded the possibility that the lead was contaminated with precious metals," says Dr. Auger, co-author of the article. "So how is it that in 1578 Frobisher went so far as to load 12 ships with tons of black ore and sail it back to London? The chemists at the site must have known the ore was worthless. We have to conclude that there was a fraud."

Sixteenth century assayers knew that it was possible to contaminate their ore samples with gold and silver. The assay process, still used today, involves melting a small sample of ore in a ceramic bowl. Powdered lead is then sprinkled onto the molten rock. As the lead mixes and sinks to the bottom of the bowl it binds with other metals by a geochemical affinity. The lead bead, or button, that forms at the bottom of the ceramic bowl is then collected and any precious metals chemically separated from the lead.

However, the same geochemical affinity that causes the precious metals to bind with the lead in the assay process means that the lead being used can already be naturally contaminated with these metals.

"European lead was notorious for containing silver," says Dr. Auger, whose research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Quebec's Fond de recherche sur la société et la culture.

Using lead isotope analysis, Dr. Beaudoin determined that there were two sources of the lead used at the Kodlunarn Island site. Through electron probe and mass spectrometry analysis, Dr. Beaudoin determined that neither of the lead types had detectable levels of gold.

Frobisher's Kodlunarn Island site was re-discovered in 1860 by the American journalist and Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, who was searching for the missing Franklin expedition.

In the early 1990s, the University of Ottawa's Dr. Hogarth used modern analytical techniques to determine that there were only minute traces of gold in the black rocks that so many in the court of Elizabeth I believed were a New World treasure trove.

At least six assays performed on the rocks in London in 1577 and 1578 reported levels of gold concentration more than 100,000 times that actually in the rock.

"We can only conclude that the gold was added by the assayers in London," write Drs. Beaudoin and Auger.

This is the first time Beaudoin has applied his geochemical savvy to an archaeological mystery. He says there are remarkable similarities between this 426-year-old mining swindle and the Bre-X scandal of the 1990s. In that case a junior Canadian mining company claimed to have found a gigantic gold deposit in an Indonesian jungle. The news sent the company's penny stock skyrocketing to $280, only to collapse when it was revealed that the ore samples had been tampered with.

Beaudoin estimates that it took only about two ounces of gold, costing about $800 at today's prices, to "salt" the Frobisher samples and launch an investment frenzy.

Says Beaudoin, "In Bre-X they were probably using the same low-level of sophistication in the salting of the ore. It was fascinating to see how the story repeated itself."

###

Additional contact information: Réginald Auger is on holidays but can be reached via e-mail at reginald.auger@celat.ulaval.ca. His office number is 418-656-2952

The article "Implications of the mineralogy and chemical composition of lead beads from Frobisher's assay site, Kodlunarn Island, Canada: prelude to BRE-X?" in the June issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences is available on-line for free download @ http://cjes.nrc.ca

The NSERC Newsbureau Bulletin is a window on the latest developments in Canadian science and engineering.

 

http://www.theledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040705/APN/407050668

Published Monday, July 5, 2004

Wreck of mysterious polar ship to become state preserve

By BILL KACZOR

Associated Press Writer

 

PENSACOLA, Fla. The wreck of a tramp steamer that helped Adm. Richard Byrd explore the Antarctic but later sank under mysterious circumstances off the Florida Panhandle is the state's newest underwater archaeological preserve.

 

"It's got a really fascinating history," said Della Scott, a state underwater archaeologist in Tallahassee. "The local people are still absolutely convinced it was sabotaged."

 

Divers salvaged its cargo of lumber, but the ship, then known as the Vamar, has remained at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico since sinking during World War II in 1942. In the 62 years since then, it has attracted a wide range of sea life in about 25 feet of water.

 

That makes it easily accessible to scuba divers and even snorkelers when seas are calm, as they had been when it inexplicably sank, Scott said.

 

A dedication ceremony is set Friday at Mexico Beach, a small resort community about 125 miles southeast of Pensacola, for a monument describing the ship's colorful history. That history includes stints as a British warship and American rumrunner before it wound up as a tramp steamer - a ship without a regular route but available for hire anywhere cargo awaits.

 

Within a few days, weather permitting, the monument will join the wreck 3.7 miles off Mexico Beach to mark it as Florida's ninth underwater preserve, Scott said.

 

The 170-foot, 598-gross ton ship was built in 1919, at the close of World War I, as the patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock by Smiths Dock Co. in Middleboro, England.

 

The Royal Navy sold it during the 1920s to a private company that converted it into a freighter and renamed it Chelsea. Byrd purchased the vessel for $34,000 from the U.S. government in 1928 after it had been confiscated for Prohibition-era liquor smuggling, according to a ship's history compiled by the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

 

The vessel underwent $76,000 in repairs and upgrades, including a reinforced bow to withstand floating ice. Byrd renamed it Eleanor Bolling after his mother, Eleanor Bolling Byrd.

 

The crew jokingly referred to it as the "Evermore Rolling" because of its instability in high seas, Scott said.

 

The first metal-hulled ship used in Antarctic waters, it transported crates containing two airplanes to Little America, Byrd's Antarctic base. Holds aboard his primary expedition ship, the City of New York, were too small for the crates although a third plane had been lashed to the wooden-hulled sailing vessel's deck.

 

Byrd made the world's the first flight over the South Pole on Nov. 29, 1929 in one of the planes that had been carried aboard the Eleanor Bolling. It was a Ford Trimotor named Floyd Bennett after Byrd's closest friend.

 

Bennett had flown with Byrd over the North Pole in 1926 and was to have gone on the Antarctic expedition, but he died of pneumonia before it began.

 

The Eleanor Bolling made several more trips between New Zealand and Little America to keep the Antarctic expedition supplied. Both vessels were greeted with fanfare when they arrived in New York's harbor after it ended in 1930.

 

Byrd sold the Eleanor Bolling later that year to an Arctic sealing company and in 1933 it was purchased by Vamar Shipping Co., giving the vessel its final name.

 

The ship was under Panamanian registry and owned by Bolivar-Atlantic Navigation Co. when it sank on March 21, 1942, after leaving Port St. Joe, about 10 miles southeast of Mexico Beach, bound for Cuba with its load of lumber.

 

The 18 crew members from Yugoslavia, Spain and Cuba abandoned ship and returned to Port St. Joe. The foreigners' free-spending ways the next few days aroused suspicion that they had sabotaged the Vamar to block the shipping channel. Harbor pilot J. Melvin Beck, however, had been able to get it out of the channel before it sank.

 

Townspeople alerted the Coast Guard, which investigated but was unable to substantiate the rumors or determine exactly why the Vamar listed to left and then went down stern first.

 

One theory was that it was overloaded and top-heavy, but Scott said that didn't make sense because the Vamar had made two sharp turns in the channel without difficulty before it started sinking while on a straight course.

 

"It was a clear, calm day," she said. "It just sank - sat right down."

 

On the Net:

Vamar Underwater Archaeological Preserve:

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/07/03/nhare03.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/07/03/ixhome.html

Caves hold clue to the riddle of the three hares

(Filed: 03/07/2004)

A research team led by a British archaeologist is to travel to China in search of the origins and meaning of a mysterious ancient symbol identified in sacred sites across Britain, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.

Striking depictions of three hares joined at the ears have been found in roof bosses of medieval parish churches in Devon, 13th century Mongol metal work from Iran and cave temples from the Chinese Sui dynasty of 589-618.

Academics are intrigued at the motif's apparent prominence in Christian, Islamic and Buddhist holy contexts separated by 5,000 miles and almost 1,000 years.

The symbol shows the hares chasing each other in a circle. Each of the ears in the image is shared between two animals so that there are only three ears shown.

Four researchers will travel from Britain to Dunhuang in China next month to examine paintings in 16 caves and meet experts in an attempt to shed light on the mystery.

Dr Tom Greeves, a landscape archaeologist, has suggested the motif was brought to the West along the Silk Road. Dr Greeves, from Tavistock, Devon, said: "It is a very beautiful and stirring image which has an intrinsic power which is quite lovely.

"We can deduce from the motif's use in holy places in different religions and cultures, and the prominence it was given, that the symbol had a special significance.

"Until recently there has been little awareness of its wide distribution. We are uncovering new examples all the time.

"If we can open a window on something that in the past had relevance and meaning to people separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, it could benefit our present day understanding of the things we share with different cultures and religions."

 

The symbol's meaning remains obscure but the hare has long had divine and mystical associations in the East and the West. Legends often give the animal magical qualities. It has also been associated in stories with fertility, feminity and the lunar cycle.

 

In Britain the motif is most common in Devon where 17 parish churches contain roof bosses depicting the hares.

On Dartmoor, it is known locally as "The Tinners' Rabbits", but there are no known associations with tin mining.

There are examples elsewhere in Britain in a chapel in Cotehele, Cornwall, in medieval stained glass in the Holy Trinity church in Long Melford, Suffolk, in a plaster ceiling in Scarborough, North Yorks, and on floor tiles from Chester Cathedral and in the parish church in Long Crendon, Bucks.

The first known literary reference is from A Survey of the Cathedral of St Davids published in 1717 by Browne Willis. It says: "In one key stone near the west end are three rabbits plac'd triangularly, with the backsides of their heads turn'd inwards, and so contriv'd that the three ears supply the place of six so that every head seems to have its full quota of ears. This is constantly shewn to strangers as a curiosity worth regarding."

The three hares are depicted in churches, chapels and cathedrals in France and Germany. The symbol has been found in Iran on a copper coin minted in 1281 and on a brass tray, both from the time of the Mongol Empire.

The earliest known examples of the three hares are in representations of textile canopies painted on the ceilings of Buddhist cave temples in Dunhuang, an important staging post on the Silk Road.

Sue Andrew, an art historian who is part of the group going to China, said: "We don't know how for sure the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments."

Chris Chapman, a documentary photographer, and David Singmaster, a retired professor of mathematics, will also be part of the research team. The group is seeking funding to continue their work.