Ancient Global Dimming Linked to Volcanic Eruption

Ker Than for National Geographic News

March 19, 2008


A "dry fog" that muted the sun's rays in A.D. 536 and plunged half the world into a famine-inducing chill was triggered by the eruption of a supervolcano, a new study says.


The cause of the sixth-century global dimming has long been a matter of debate, but a team of international researchers recently discovered acidic sulphate molecules, which are signs of an eruption, in Greenland ice.


This is the first physical evidence for the A.D. 536 event, which according to ancient texts from Mesoamerica, Europe, and Asia brought on a cold darkness that withered crops, sparked wars, and helped spread pestilence.


Scientists had suspected the dry fog was caused by a volcanic eruption or a comet strike, but searches had failed to uncover evidence for either catastrophe—until now.


"There is no need at the moment to invoke a large-scale extraterrestrial event as the cause, because the evidence is conclusive enough to say that it is certainly consistent with it being a large volcano," said study team member Keith Briffa of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.


The discovery is detailed in a recent issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


Tests show the Greenland sulphate molecules were deposited sometime between A.D. 533 and 536. This date correlates well with a sulphate peak found in an Antarctic ice core.


The team suspects the eruption occurred near the Equator, since its ash fell on both ends of the globe.


The Greenland evidence is also consistent with tree-ring data from around the Northern Hemisphere that show reduced growth rates lasting more than a decade starting in A.D. 536.


Curiously, the eruption's cooling effect did not extend to the southern hemisphere, the scientists say.


Together, the tree-ring and acid evidence suggest the sixth-century eruption was even bigger than Indonesia's Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, which also dimmed the sun.


Ken Wohletz, a volcanologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said that while the new evidence strongly supports a large volcanic eruption, a space impact can't be ruled out yet.


"Over two-thirds of Earth's surface is covered with water, and because erosion so quickly wipes away evidence of impacts, the knowledge of when large-scale impacts have occurred in the past is still very incomplete," said Wohletz, who was not involved in the study.


To cement their case, volcano advocates will need to find ash layers deposited by the blast, Wohletz said.


William Ryan, an oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, believes it is only a matter of time until ash layers are found.


"I suspect we haven't searched adequately, but this paper will start a hunt," Ryan said.


According to written records, the dry fog lingered for just over a year—leaving an indelible mark on human history.


Chinese historians recorded famine events and summer frosts for years after the event.


It was also around this time that a band of Mongolian nomads called the Avars migrated westward toward Europe, where they would eventually establish an empire.


The group may have left home when grasslands that their horses grazed on withered under the darkened skies, historians say.


More controversially, some historians claim that drought caused by the fog contributed to the decline of the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan.


The spread of bubonic plague throughout Europe and the Middle East, the rise of Islam, and even the fall of the Roman Empire have also been controversially tied to the event.


If a similar volcanic eruption were to occur today, the effects could be just as devastating, experts say.


The reduced sunlight and ashfall would affect agriculture worldwide, and the thick veil of dust and ash could cripple transportation and communication systems.


"Most aircraft cannot fly in [volcanic] dust clouds," Los Alamos's Wohletz said.


"And these dust clouds have a large electrostatic potential that disrupts radio communication."


To make matters worse, there is practically nothing humans can do to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again—or to lessen its effects.


"In today's society, we're no less independent of nature than humankind has ever been," Wohletz said.


"In fact, we might even be more dependent on it."



New Babylonian town found

Azzaman, March 19, 2008


Iraqi archaeologists have discovered a new Babylonian town 180 kilometers south of Baghdad.


The head archaeologist Mohammed Yahya said the town is more than 20,000 square meters in area and includes administrative quarters, temples and other buildings of “magnificent and splendid design”


Yahya, who is the head of the provincial Antiquities Department in the Province of Diwaniya, where the new Babylonian town was discovered, said he still lacks evidence on the town’s ancient name.


The locals call it Shamiya after a provincial district nearby, he said.


“We have dug up a sectional sounding covering more than 20 square meters and have come across fascinating finds,” he said.


Most striking has been a 30-kilogram Babylonian Duck Weight.


“This is a unique find because the duck weights discovered so far are maximum 10 kilograms,” Yahya said.


He added that his team has come across several cuneiform tablets but “there is no one to read the ancient writing because Iraqi experts with the knowledge to decipher Mesopotamian script have fled the country.”


The shape of the finds tells that they belong to the Late Babylonian Period, about 1000 BC, Yahya said, but added that only specialists can give the exact dates.


The scientists have unearthed four graves but the positioning of the bodies has been somewhat perplexing.


Yahya said two of them had half of their bodies buried in the wall of a house and the other half in an urn.


The two others had iron nails in their hands, feet and necks indicating that they might have been executed, he added.


“Ancient Babylonian legislations must have been quite brutal,” he added.


Other finds include cylinder seals which could easily be compared with counterparts discovered in Babylon, 90 kilometers away.


“We have evidence of an intricate and highly developed sewage system in the town which can easily be compared with modern ones,” he said.



Spa retreat

A rock-hewn cave used by Christians hiding from official church authorities has been found by chance at Hammamat Pharaon on the west Sinai coast

Nevine El-Aref


It was an ordinary morning at Hammamat Pharaon (Pharaoh's bath), the mini-resort south of Ras Sedr on the west coast of Sinai where for centuries locals and travellers have enjoyed the spa waters of the natural hot spring. The water, smelling slightly unpleasantly of sulphur, bubbles from the rock inside a cave and flows down into the sea. In the cave, where the darkness is heavy with steam, clients were enjoying a soak in the rock bath, or else waiting their turn for a therapeutic treatment for rheumatism, skin diseases or other ailments.


Meanwhile, an Egyptian archaeological mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) carrying out a routine cleaning operation in the area near the spring stumbled upon what is believed to be a fourth-century rock-hewn grotto decorated with Christian murals.


Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said last week's discovery was the second cave of its type to be discovered in Hammamat Pharaon and was only 25 metres away from first cave, which was used one to two hundred years later. The entrance to the new cave was blocked by a large amount of sand, stones and rubble. By removing all the dust and debris the team uncovered a one metre high vaulted entrance, which allowed the excavators to surmise that it could contain a church altar similar to the one found at Abu Suwera in Al-Tor, the capital town of South Sinai. However, further excavation revealed that the cave was not a church but may have been used by Christian followers or monks during the fourth and fifth centuries, a time of schism in the Christian doctrine of the Roman Byzantine Empire, when they needed to practise their preferred religious rituals far from the eyes of the leaders of the official church.


Tarek El-Naggar, director-general of South Sinai antiquities, said that the part of the cave so far excavated consisted of a large hall on two levels, the first level bearing some clay fragments and traces of a fireplace that burnt wood, and the second traces of ashes. On cleaning the fireplace the archaeologists uncovered a limestone floor and the remains of a large clay vessel.


The internal walls of the cave are covered with a layer of plaster decorated with red-painted Greek characters similar to those found in the first cave. A number of Byzantine-shaped crosses were also painted on the walls.


The cave found earlier had three adjoining vaulted halls; the first and third halls were plain and empty, but in the central one was a scene depicted in red paint of three notable Christian figures praying; from right to left these were St Mina, the Roman soldier who sacrificed his life to spread Christianity all over the globe, Iowans, the Alexandrian patriarch of the sixth century, and Asnasious, patriarch of the Constantine Church.


These portraits were enclosed within Greek prayer texts along with crosses painted in the style of the sixth and seventh centuries, and were similar to those found on the walls of St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. A three-legged chandelier was painted in black, along with remains of other drawings painted in yellow and red. On the left side of the scene were three niches decorated with old Creek texts painted in brown and black.


Culture Minister Farouk Hosni called last week's find a great discovery. "It will enhance the area of Hammamat Pharaon not only as a therapeutic destination but as an archaeological site rich in Christian monuments," he said.


It will also shed more light on a time when the Christian church was deeply divided by opposing doctrines, and how the various factions managed to retain their beliefs in the face of changing tides in the official religious stance.


Following the discovery, studies are being carried out to spruce up the site and make it accessible to tourists.



Bronze Age burial 'with beer mug'


A 4,000-year-old Bronze Age skeleton has been unearthed by archaeologists working on a site in east Kent.


Canterbury Archaeological Trust said the curled-up skeleton was an example of a "Beaker" burial because of the pottery vessel placed at its feet.


Education officer Marion Green said the "beautifully decorated" pot could have been "a type of beer mug".


She said tests on beakers from other sites suggested Bronze Age man was brewing a type of beer from grain.


The body was in a "crouched" position typical of the period, with knees drawn up to the chest, she added.


Possibly ceremonial objects were found buried with the individual, who could have been a high-status male, she said.


The bones were found in a small grave at the centre of a double ring ditch, made out of two circles.


And Ms Green said soil would have been built up to form a burial mound, known to archaeologists as a "barrow".


The bones, which are expected to end up on display, have been removed for tests to confirm the skeleton's age and gender, and any disease or injury.


"People might think finding skeletons is spooky, but it is really awe inspiring," Ms Green said.


"It's when you literally come face to face with the people from the past.


The 91-acre site near Monkton being excavated by 30 archaeologists will eventually house seven glasshouses for salad producer Thanet Earth.


Ms Green said Bronze Age burials were the oldest remains the archaeologists had found so far, but the history of the site was taking shape, and seemed to have had a "very long farming tradition".


Other burials have been found there, but this was the most elaborate, she added.


Archaeologists are excavating and recording finds on areas to be developed, but the remainder is to be left undisturbed.



Gold cup find led to graves discovery

by Nick Evans

Thanet Extra, 21 March 2008



AN important archaeological find by Broadstairs man Cliff Bradshaw prompted further excavations which uncovered centuries-old Anglo-Saxon graves.


These later finds, thought to be the graves of women from the fifth and sixth centuries, were the subject of an inquest held last week by coroner Rebecca Cobb to decide if the finds should be declared treasure.


She heard the excavations followed the discovery in 2001 by Cliff Bradshaw of what has since become known as the Ringlemere Cup, which was later declared a national treasure and is on show in the British Museum, London.


The Ringlemere Cup is thought to be one of only a handful found in Europe. Dating from 1700-1500BC and made of beaten gold, it emphasised the intricate craftsmanship of the early Bronze Age.


Mr Bradshaw was convinced more discoveries were buried in the field at Ringlemere near Sandwich, and the Canterbury Archaeological Trust organised a series of digs in 2005 and 2006.


Dr Andrew Richardson, finds liaison officer for Kent County Council, said: "It is a large cemetery with very deep graves."


The inquest was told that eventually the Anglo-Saxon cemetery was found and part of the contents, as well as chunks of earth, were sent to the British Museum for investigation.


Keith Parfitt, co-director of excavations at the trust, said he believed there were more Saxon graves yet to be discovered in the field. Beads, glass beakers, brooches, a toilet set and ring fragments were among the items catalogued from the excavations and the coroner decided the list of finds qualified as treasure.


The contents of the graves will be considered by a special committee at the British Museum, and their worth will then be assessed.



Ancient Roman gate discovered

5:27pm Wednesday 19th March 2008

By Wendy Brading


PART of Colchester's ancient Roman wall has been uncovered.


Parts of the South Gate were discovered while gas mains were being laid by Morrisons in Queen Street, Colchester.


Philip Crummy, director and chief archaeologist of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, said the remains found showed the original Roman gate had been remodelled in medieval times.


Mr Crummy said: "We have been monitoring the gas works and came across the South Gate in the town.


"We know that was pulled down in 1818, so this is the first time anyone has seen it since then.


"It is quite interesting and gives us more information. It looks like when they rebuilt it in medieval times it must have had towers. We can see the foundations with the peg tiles so we can tell it is not Roman. We would have liked to have seen a Roman gate but this is just as interesting."


The gates into Colchester were torn down about 200 years ago to allow the roads to be widened.


Parts of the East Gate fell down before the rest was removed. The Head Gate was taken down in 1760 and the South Gate in 1818.


Mr Crummy added: "There were also some Roman remains at the South Gate which were probably used in the remodelling in the 13th century, if not later."



Cave sculptures go on display for first time in 15,000 years

By John Lichfield in Paris

Friday, 21 March 2008


Prehistoric cave sculptures never seen by the public will be revealed today thanks to the most advanced, computerised techniques of laser-copying and visual display.


A museum to open near Poitiers, in western France, will span one-a-half millenniums of human image-making, from stone chisels to computers. The star of the show, at Angles-sur-L'Anglin, in the départementof Vienne, will be a 60ft-long frieze of bison, horses, cats, goats and erotic female figures, carved into the limestone of western France 15,000 years ago.


The caverns containing the frieze were discovered by French and British archaeologists in 1950 but have never been opened to the public. The Roc-aux-Sorciers (witches' rock) caves are the only site of their kind in Europe: a two-dimensional, carved equivalent of the celebrated cave paintings at Lascaux in Dordogne, 120 miles farther south, which were created 1,000 years earlier.


From today, the public will be able to visit a €2.7m (£2.1m) visitor centre where the original sculptures, and the contours of the cavern sides, have been precisely recreated to full size by computerised, laser-copying techniques. At intervals a half-hour son-et-lumière display will be projected on to the frieze, suggesting how the carvings may have been created and how they were discovered 58 years ago.


Oscar Fuentes, the director of the centre, says the intention is to go beyond the full-size replica – Lascaux II – built in 1983 to preserve the Lascaux caves from exposure to human breath and body heat.


"We want to make the frieze into a place of scientific discovery in which the visitors are doing their own discovering," he said. "We want them to reach their own conclusions and understand that their interpretation is as good as that of anyone else."


The Roc-aux-Sorciers caves were first explored by a French archaeologist, Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin, and her British assistant, Dorothy Garrod. They found one cave in which the roof had collapsed, dislodging the sculpted animals and human figures from the cavern sides. Fifty of these images are now on display at the national archaeology museum at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris.


In another cave, thought to have been occupied in the Magdalene period, 15,000 years ago, the archaeologists found a 20-metre frieze of beautifully finished, bas-relief, wall sculptures. They include human silhouettes, horses, bison, wild cats, goats and three explicit images of the lower part of the female anatomy. The cave was never opened to the public, to preserve the works of pre-historic art and to allow exploration to continue.


The Lascaux caves, and other similar sites, are thought to have been sanctuaries, visited only for religious purposes. The Roc-aux-Sorciers cave seems to have been a dwelling place.


Geneviève Pinçon, the chief archaeologist at the site, points out that the south-facing cavern was exposed to the sun for large parts of the day in pre-historic times. France had a Siberian climate 15,000 years ago. The cavern would have had a pleasant micro-climate, ideal to live in.


"But what do all these carvings mean?" she asks. "What is the meaning of the human profile which seems to smile down on us? What is the symbolic significance of the three women, with realistically carved sexual parts, beside a sitting bison? Do they represent life and death?"


For more information see www.roc-aux-sorciers.com