Earliest 'human footprints' found


The earliest footprints showing evidence of modern human foot anatomy and gait have been unearthed in Kenya.


The 1.5-million-year-old footprints display signs of a pronounced arch and short, aligned toes, in contrast to older footprints.


The size and spacing of the Kenyan markings - attributed to Homo erectus - reflect the height, weight, and walking style of modern humans.


The findings have been published in the journal Science.


The footprints are not the oldest belonging to a member of the human lineage. That title belongs to the 3.7 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis prints found in Laetoli, Tanzania, in 1978.


Those prints, however, showed comparatively flat feet and a significantly higher angle between the big toe and the other toes, representative of a foot still adapted to grasping.


Exactly how that more ape-like foot developed into its modern version has remained unclear.


The fossil record is distinctly lacking in foot and hand bones, according to lead author Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University, UK.


"The reason is that carnivores like to eat hands and feet," Professor Bennett told BBC News.


"Once the flesh is gone there's a lot of little bones that don't get preserved, so we know very little about the evolution of hands and feet on our ancestors."


The footprints were found near Ileret in northern Kenya. The site, on a small hill, is made up of metres of sediment which the researchers carefully cleared away.


What they found was two sets of footprints, one five metres deeper than the other, separated by sand, silt, and volcanic ash.


The team dated the surrounding sediment by comparing it with well-known radioisotope-dated samples from the region, finding that the two layers of prints were made at least 10,000 years apart.


Another critical feature that the series of footprints makes clear is how Homo erectus walked. Map showing location of the footprints' site


There is evidence of a heavy landing on the heel with weight transferred along the outer edge of the foot, progressing to the ball of the foot and lifting off with the toes.


"That's very diagnostic of the modern style of walking, and the Laetoli prints don't give that same character," Professor Bennett said.


The finding is a critical clue for mapping out the evolution of modern humans, both in terms of physiology and also how H. erectus fared in its environment.


H. erectus was a great leap in evolution, showing increased variety of diet and of habitat, and was the first Homo species to make the journey out of Africa.


"There's some suggestion out there that Homo erectus was able to scour the landscape for carcasses and meat...and was able to get there very quickly, had longer limbs and was much more efficient in terms of long distance travel," Professor Bennett added.


"Now we're also saying it had an essentially modern foot anatomy and function, which also adds to that story."



Biodiversity Hotspot Enabled Neanderthals to Survive Longer In South East Of Spain

ScienceDaily (Feb. 2, 2009)


Over 14,000 years ago during the last Pleistocene Ice Age, when a large part of the European continent was covered in ice and snow, Neanderthals in the region of Gibraltar in the south of the Iberian peninsula were able to survive because of the refugium of plant and animal biodiversity. Today, plant fossil remains discovered in Gorham's Cave confirm this unique diversity and wealth of resources available in this area of the planet.


The international team jointly led by Spanish researchers has reconstructed the landscape near Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, by means of paleobotanical data (plant fossil records) located in the geological deposits investigated between 1997 and 2004. The study, which is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews, also re-examines previous findings relating to the glacial refugia for trees during the ice age in the Iberian Peninsula.


"The reconstructed landscape shows a wide diversity of plant formations in the extreme south of the Iberian peninsula from 32,000 to 10,000 years ago," José S. Carrión explains. He is the principal author and researcher from the University of Murcia. The most significant finding amongst the steppe landscape, pine trees, holm oaks, oak trees, deciduous trees, and others, is the presence of "plant elements indicative of a warm environment," states Carrión.


This research shows that the plant diversity discovered in the cave is "unique" in the context of the ice age that affected the entire European continent. The area of Gibraltar and the adjacent mountain ranges made up a "large refugium for plant and animal biodiversity during the coldest periods of the Pleistocene Ice Age" and made it possible for the Neanderthals to survive for 10,000 years longer than the rest of Europe.


The researchers suggest that the caves situated between the coasts of Malaga and Gibraltar "represent an area that favours the survival of a large diversity of environments." The analysis of the refugia in the Peninsula shows that there were many other places where trees provided a refugium, "but this never compared to the diversity of species in the south, south west and south east," emphasizes Carrión.


In Gibraltar, the Neanderthals could have had access to more than 140 caves, which provided them with a wealth of resources. The research mentions a corridor along the coasts of the south east of Spain that the Neanderthals possibly used in order to avoid the steep terrain found in the interior mountain ranges which had inhospitable climatic conditions during this Quaternary Period.


The existence of this biodiversity hotspot with a supply of plant and animal foodstuffs available "would explain the extraordinary endurance of the Neanderthals in the south west of Europe," emphasizes the researcher. On the other hand, the Neanderthals in the south of Europe had become adapted to surroundings that had semi forest vegetation, as well as fishing resources off the coast, which encouraged their survival.


The inhabitants of Gorham's Cave were omnivorous and ate land mammals (mountain goats, rabbits, quails, duck and pigeon) and marine foods (monk seals, dolphin, fish and mussels). They also ate plants and dried fruits such as those found in the cave that date from 40,000 years ago. They adapted easily to their environment and took advantage of what this provided.


The paleobotanical data collected by the researchers from the Museum of Gibraltar, the Catalonian Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, the Laboratory of Archaeobotany (CSIC), the University of Wales (United Kingdom), the University of York (United Kingdom), Pyrenean Institute of Ecology (CSIS) and the University of Murcia, were obtained by studying carbon remains and fossilised pollen grains found in the packed sediment in the cave and in coprolites (fossilised faeces of animals) from hyenas and canids (wolves, jackals, foxes, etc).


Journal reference:


   1. Carrión et al. A coastal reservoir of biodiversity for Upper Pleistocene human populations: palaeoecological investigations in Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) in the context of the Iberian Peninsula. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2008; 27 (23-24): 2118 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2008.08.016


Adapted from materials provided by Plataforma SINC, via AlphaGalileo.



Experts trying to decipher ancient language

The Associated Press

Published: March 1, 2009


ALMODOVAR, Portugal: When archaeologists on a dig in southern Portugal last year flipped over a heavy chunk of slate and saw writing not used for more than 2,500 years, they were elated.


The enigmatic pattern of inscribed symbols curled symmetrically around the upper part of the rough-edged, yellowish stone tablet and coiled into the middle in a decorative style typical of an extinct Iberian language called Southwest Script.


"We didn't break into applause, but almost," says Amilcar Guerra, a University of Lisbon lecturer overseeing the excavation. "It's an extraordinary thing."


For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.


About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.


Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.


The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.


Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.


Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.


"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.


Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.


It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts — one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby — but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.


Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.


Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension.


There's also the problem of figuring out what messages the slate tablets are intended to convey. Even when they can read portions of text, scientists don't really understand what it is saying — like a child mouthing the words of a Shakespeare play.


"We have a lot of doubts," says Guerra, who has written scholarly articles about Southwest Script. "We can read characters and see the phonetics in action ... but when we try to understand what they actually mean we have a lot of problems."


There are clues, however.


The symmetrical, twisting text gives the impression of a decorative flourish. Some stones also feature crudely rendered figures, such as a warrior carrying what appear to be spears. The lower part of the rectangular stones is left blank as if intended to be stuck in the ground.


That has led experts to a supposition: The tablets were gravestones for elite members of local Iron Age society. Repeated sequences of words perhaps mean "Here lies..." or "Son of...," Guerra explains. Since most people probably couldn't read, the ornamental elements lent distinction.


These are educated guesses, says Guerra, as he surveys the hilltop dig by a small river where the big stone was found last year. His team here has excavated through centuries of occupation: Islamic (Almodovar is a corruption of the Arabic word al-mudura, meaning encirclement or enclosure), Roman and pre-Roman. Nowadays, it is within view of a wind farm's turbines.


Last year's find has helped, but it wasn't the breakthrough scientists had hoped for, Guerra says. If all the Southwest Script found so far were transcribed onto paper, it would still barely fill a single sheet. Without an equivalent of the Rosetta stone, which helped unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, efforts to reconstruct the ancient language are doomed to slow progress.


"We have to be patient — and hopeful," Guerra says.



Ancient Shipwreck's Stone Cargo Linked to Apollo Temple

Helen Fields

for National Geographic magazine

February 23, 2009


For a few days back in July 2007, it was hard for archaeologist Deborah Carlson to get any work done at her site off the Aegean coast of western Turkey. She was leading an underwater excavation of a 2,000-year-old shipwreck, but the Turkish members of her crew had taken time off to vote in national elections. So things were quiet at her camp on an isolated cape called Kızılburun.


The shipwrecks' main cargo was 50 tons of marble—elements of a huge column sent on an ill-fated journey to a temple, Carlson thought. But she didn't know which temple, so she used all her days off to drive around the area looking at possibilities.


There were a lot—western Turkey, once part of ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire, is home to sites like Ephesus and Troy. But Carlson had narrowed down her choices to a list of nearby temples that were in use in the first century BC—the likely date of the shipwrecks' column.


The Temple of Apollo at Claros, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Kızılburun, was at the top of her list during the July 2007 election holiday. She drove up to the deserted site and knew she was on to something when she looked at the fallen-down marble columns scattered on the marshy land. "I was struck pretty much right away," she recalls. The columns were Doric, the same as the marble on the ship, and looked like the right size. She waded around in the spring water that floods the site, checking chunks of columns with a tape measure. "I thought, wow, this is definitely a candidate."


A year-and-a-half later, it looks like Carlson's first impression was right. Using a variety of techniques, she has linked the column in the Kızılburun shipwreck to its likely intended destination, the Claros temple—as well as to its origin, a marble quarry 200 miles (322 kilometers) away on an island in Turkey's Sea of Marmara.


While there is plenty of ancient marble among the shipwrecks that cover the bottom of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, this is the first time archaeologists have pinpointed both where the marble came from and where it was going. And that is helping them learn new things about how ancient architects built their temples.


The shipwreck was one of five found in Kızılburun in 1993 on a survey of Turkey's Aegean coast by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University, where Carlson works. INA has a research center in Bodrum, Turkey. Carlson excavated this "column wreck" from 2005 to 2008, with support from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council, and work will continue this summer.


Excavating underwater is no small task. Archaeologists must avoid the bends, or decompression sickness, and do their work very quickly. The ship carrying the column sank in 150 feet (46 meters) of water. That's deep for scuba gear. Each dive requires a 15- to 20-minute decompression stop on the way back to the surface. Carlson's team has just 20 minutes of actual work time on each dive—the risk of the bends goes up the longer they're down—and they can only dive twice a day.


Excavating an entire site in tiny spurts like that requires careful planning. "But every now and then there'll be a kink in the system, like a big moray eel sitting in your grid square," Carlson says. Her decision: Let the toothy fish stay and spend that dive on a different part of the site.


The column Carlson is studying doesn't look like a column. It's in the form of eight giant drums of marble, each about five feet (1.5 meters) across. The simple, square-topped crown of the top piece shows that it was a Doric column; the bottom is also in the wreck, and the rest of the drums are plain.


They've been underwater for 2,000 years and they're covered in crusty marine life. They aren't delicately carved, either. Marble chips easily, so the ancients always quarried marble blocks with a couple of extra inches on all sides. The blocks jostled together during their journey in the ship, then masons at the destination finished them.


Carlson believes this marble came from Proconnesus, a site on modern-day Marmara Island in the Sea of Marmara, southwest of Istanbul. In satellite photos, the north side of the island shines white; marble is still quarried there today and covers shower stalls across Europe.


The first clue that the shipwrecks' marble came from there was its distinctive color: white with fine blue veins. Carlson also used stable isotope analysis, a technique that tests stone to see which quarry's chemical signature it most closely matches, to link marble to quarry. And the grains corresponded with Proconnesus marble when examined under a microscope.


To figure out where the marble might have been going, Carlson started by ruling out homes and other small buildings. If the drums were stacked, the column would have been huge—more than 30 feet (9 meters) tall—so Carlson knew it must have been intended for a monument. She narrowed down the list of temples near the shipwreck to those of the right architectural style that were standing or being worked on in the first century BC—the date for the wreck, based on the amphoras (two-handled jars) the ship was also carrying. That's how she ended up at Claros.


Like the famous Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Claros temple featured an oracle. When visitors came, the oracle, a priest, drank water from a sacred spring and made cryptic pronouncements on behalf of the god, who was associated with truth and prophecy.


Construction on the temple probably started in the third century BC and continued for five centuries. The column in the shipwreck, Carlson says, could have been a donation from a satisfied pilgrim. The temple was never finished, though not for lack of that column. It's possible the builders ran out of money. Ultimately it may have been destroyed by an earthquake or even dismantled by invaders.


"The fascinating aspect of the Kızılburun shipwreck project is the snapshot of building processes the cargo provides," says William Aylward, a classical archaeologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who specializes in marble architecture. He's helping Carlson learn the column's story.


For example, unlike column parts that are found in place at temples, this stone doesn't have any marks from being attached to a crane. That means rock at the quarry was moved without being lifted—instead, it was moved along the ground. Once at the temple, the pieces were stacked using a crane, except for the bottom.


Aylward was able to identify the columns' bottom drum among the Kızılburun marbles because of four protuberances jutting out that would have been used to maneuver it into place at the temple, and later lopped off.


"Shipwrecks are great because they're in the middle of a real commercial or architectural operation when suddenly they go down," says Clayton Fant, an archaeologist and historian at the University of Akron, in Ohio. He says wrecks like the one at Kızılburun are the only way to catch marble at the point where it was traveling from one place to another. Loose marble blocks left on land get used for other purposes before archaeologists can study them.


The fact that these column pieces were cut to the right size for the Temple of Apollo at Claros suggests that the ancient Marmara quarry was filling custom orders. That's something archaeologists hadn't previously had evidence of in ancient temples.


"I would say there's a good chance the architects had gone to the quarry and talked to the workmen there," Fant says. "Or even sent a crew to shape the blocks. That's why this is really neat."


So the masons in Claros knew just what they were getting, and what they were planning to do with it. But they didn't know their stones would never arrive. Perhaps bad weather doomed the ship; perhaps something else. Some 2,000 years later, the stones are still at the bottom of the sea off Kızılburun cape, just 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the temple for which they were intended. "I don't think you could actually see Kızılburun from Claros, but it's close," Carlson says. For the builders waiting at the site, "That must have been a real heartbreak."



Wooden sarcophaguses found in Egypt tomb

Thu Feb 26, 2009 11:58am EST


CAIRO (Reuters) - Japanese archaeologists working in Egypt have found four wooden sarcophaguses and associated grave goods which could date back up to 3,300 years, the Egyptian government said on Thursday.


The team from Waseda University in Tokyo discovered the anthropomorphic sarcophaguses in a tomb in the Sakkara necropolis, about 25 km (15 miles) south of Cairo, the Supreme Council for Antiquities said in a statement.


Sakkara, the burial ground for the ancient city of Memphis, remains one of the richest sources of Egyptian antiquities. Archaeologists say much remains buried in the sands.


The tomb also contained three wooden Canopic jars, in which ancient Egyptians tried to preserve internal organs, and four boxes for ushabti figures, the miniature statues of servants to serve the dead person in the afterlife, the statement said.


The sarcophaguses did not contain mummies because the tomb was robbed in ancient times but have the original black and yellow paintwork showing ancient Egyptian gods, it said.


One of the ushabti boxes is in excellent condition and was unopened but most of the 38 wooden figurines inside were broken. It belonged to a man by the name of Tut Bashu, who was the original owner of one of the coffins.


Another sarcophagus belonged to someone called Ari Saraa. The statement gave no further details of the dead people but said the burials dated from the Ramesside period or the Late Dynastic Period -- anywhere between about 1300 and 330 BC.


(Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Louise Ireland)



100 Archaeological Sites Identified in Saveh

28 February 2009


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Archaeologists have identified over 100 archaeological sites dated back from Neolithic to Safavid dynasty in the East of the city of Saveh, reported the Persian service of CHN on Thursday February 26.


These identifications are part of a nearly completed survey of eastern section of city of Saveh by Iran’s Archaeological Research Centre. The Western section has already been surveyed in the previous season.


 This seasona number of dried aqueducts, potsherds and broken glasses dated back from post-Sasanian period of Safavid dynasty are being identified, according to ‘Pouriya Khadish’ director of archaeological survey team at the city of Saveh.


A number of fortresses dating back from Safavid to Qajar dynasties have also been identified, concluded Khadish.


Saveh (Sāvé - ancient Sāvag) is a small city in the Markazi Province of Iran. It is located around 100 km southwest of Tehran.


The history of Saveh goes back to the first Iranian dynasty, the Medes (728-550 BCE), as it was one of their centers. According to Tabari, Saveh was initially part of Maydan and later the Greater Ray, and contained a number of fortresses and caravan-stations mainly dating back to Parthian (248 BCE – 224 CE) and Sasanian (224-651 CE) dynasties. Number of Tappeh (archaeological mounds) near the city, including Asiyā-Ābād, Harisān, Khorram- Ābād are dated back to The Sasanian dynasty.


The city housed one of the largest libraries in Iran which was destroyed by Mongol invasion in 13th Century.



Discovery of 6000-Years-Old Artefacts in Miyan-Rud

28 February 2009


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Archaeologists reported the conclusion of the season of archaeological survey at Mīyān-Rūd Tappeh in Iraj area, of Rāmjerd, in the town of Marvdasht (Fārs Province) These are some of the number of discoveries reported the Persian service of CHN on Thursday.


This survey was conducted for demarcation of The Miyan-Rud archaeological site,


Miyan-Rud Tappeh, with an area of 2.5 hectare, contains remains of Bakun period (late 5th to early 4th millennium BCE) mainly The Bakun I and II periods, Also a little habitation evidence of The Lapuee period in the area, which was possibly used as their burial site, according to Musa Zar’a, head of archaeological team at Miyan-Rud site.


According to Zar’a, archaeologists have prepared a plan of the site and have carried out ten test trenches witch resulted in discovery of number of artefacts.


“Number of stone pestle and mortar, necklace beads made of mother of pearl and Azurite, stone tools, stone weights and potsherds”, said Zar’a.


A report by Iran’s Archaeological Research Centre, reveals that there is evidence of a melting pot and kiln also identified at the Tappeh’s centre.  


Zar’a added “Samples of ash also were taken for geophysical studies”.


Zar’a expressed his hope for next Iranian year that the first season of archaeological excavation to be commenced.



Stone Age finds delay Carlisle bypass again

Exclusive by Matthew Legg Business editor

Last updated 09:30, Friday, 27 February 2009


Carlisle's proposed western bypass faces yet another delay after Stone Age artefacts were found on the route.


A potentially significant find from the Mesolithic age was unearthed during surveying work for the road, known as the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR).


It has not been revealed what was found and where it was dug up, but it was on what is described as “a small plot”.


Archaeologists have now requested further exploratory work be carried out.


If the find is deemed important enough, a full-scale archaeological excavation would be launched, potentially stalling the problem-hit project for months.


It is not anticipated the route would need to be altered to avoid the site.


A Cumbria County Council spokesman said: “The archaeological surveying work which has been carried out along the length of the route for the new road has identified one small plot where there is the potential for findings from the Mesolithic age.


“Archaeologists believe further exploratory work should be carried out.


“This will involve surveys and sample boring to identify whether specific areas require archaeological excavation.


“We don’t anticipate it having any impact on the agreed design of the new road and will plan it into the overall road-building programme once it’s clearer what work is necessary. We have already made considerable progress on clearing trees and carrying out preparatory work such as the ecological surveys which affirms the county council’s commitment to building the CNDR.”


Much pre-development work for the scheme has already taken place on the outskirts of Carlisle. Contractors have removed scores of trees and five miles of hedgerow from the route of the five-mile road that will run between the A595 at Newby West and junction 44 of the M6.


Work has been carried out at both ends of the £142m route along a corridor close to the city’s Asda store at Kingstown and at the site of what will be a roundabout at the junction of Wigton Road and Moorhouse Road.


The CNDR has been dogged by setbacks since its inception, including the near collapse of its original financial backer Franco-Belgian bank Dexia.


That prompted Connect CNDR, the Balfour Beatty-run company behind the scheme, to open talks with other potential lenders.


And the problem appeared to have been solved when it was announced a consortium of four banks were ready to step in with a £142.8m bail-out.


The news raised hopes the contract to build the road could finally be signed next month.


However, final agreements are not yet in place, and that timescale has been described as “challenging”.


Once the deal is signed, construction work proper should start immediately. It is still hoped the road will be open by 2011.


The project was originally due to begin in earnest this spring, before stricken Dexia had to be bailed out as a result of the credit crunch.


The Government then stepped in with a £4.2m advance to allow preparatory works for the project to continue.


The private finance initiative deal for the road covers its construction and maintenance for 30 years, along with maintenance of 93 miles of the A7, A6071, A689, A594, A595 and A596 in north Cumbria.



Surprise find as gun fortification is unearthed

By Tauria Raynor


A recent discovery has caused researchers to re-evaluate their historical accounts.


Last Friday during excavation work on the widening of Pender Road at Dockyard, an original gun emplacement was found under a later one at the extreme southern end of the land front fortifications.


Executive director of the Bermuda Maritime Museum, archaeologist Edward Harris was on hand to record the find.


He said: "The gun emplacement of the 1830s was centered on an old cannon that had been placed upright between two massive carved stones, in order to take the recoil from gun and carriage when it was fired.


"The operational cannon would have been on a carriage that was itself on a slide. The slide could be moved from side to side on circular metal rails, now missing, that were set into blocks of hard limestone quarried in the dockyard.


"This discovery will cause us to re-evaluate other gun emplacements in the Dockyard, which were thought to be originals from the 1830s, but are now probably from the rearmament of the Dockyard in the 1870s."


Archaeological work has been taking place on the weekends by Bermuda Maritime Museum volunteers to restore parts of Dockyard to its original state in hopes of opening it as a heritage and tourism site.



Civil War era shipwreck discovered during search for Ike debris


February, 23, 2009


Like a toy surprise in a box of Cracker Jacks - er, slightly water-logged Cracker Jacks, that is - a Civil War era shipwreck turned up among Hurricane Ike debris.


The discovery, thought to be previously uncharted, was made by crews last week scanning the bays around Galveston to chart debris.


While the find came as a kind of fun surprise to the contractors doing the work, State Marine Archeologist Steve Hoyt was pleased - but not terribly surprised.


"There have been nearly 2,000 ship wrecks (in Texas coastal waters), with a lot of those concentrated around the Galveston area," Hoyt said.


A surprising amount of Texas history is underwater.


With many immigrants arriving here by ship, along with the goods and supplies they needed for frontier life, traveling by water was common.


The bays of the Galveston area were particularly busy.


"Much of the history of Texas is maritime history," Hoyt said.


Hoyt added it's possible the shipwreck had been buried in mud and Ike's surge might have uncovered it. Or, it could just be that it had simply been overlooked until now.


The post-Ike sonar operation is likely the most extensive ever undertaken in the Galveston Bay area.


In the past, smaller areas have been surveyed for different projects, such as pipelines, to ensure that the work won't disturb any significant sites, Hoyt said.


"This is the first time I know there's been such widespread coverage," he added.


When the Texas Historic Commission finds out about a "new" historic ship wreck site, personnel begin to comb through a database of thousands of shipwrecks known to have occurred in the region.


"Most wrecks in the database, we don't know where they are - we only know of them through historic records," he said.


Hoyt wouldn't say what ships he thought the sonar scanners' find might be.


"We're looking at several," he said. "It wouldn't be appropriate to say till we have a better idea."


The next step for the Texas Historic Commission is to assess the site.


"We will get a crew together and try to dive on it," Hoyt said, adding that weather would play a role in scheduling the dive.


Diving in the bay will be challenging.


"Visibility is not good - it can be quite dangerous," he said. "You do get the occasional day when diving conditions are nice and you can get several feet of visibility."


Otherwise, divers will assess the site by "Braille work," Hoyt said, meaning they'll literally have to feel for it.


The wreck, thought to be from the Civil War era, could yield a treasure trove of historic artifacts.


An iron-hulled ship would withstand the long immersion better than one of wood, but even a wood ship would contain many iron or ceramic parts and fixtures that could have survived.


Door hinges, drawer pulls, engines, anchors, mast and rigging paraphernalia are typical items to be found.


"It's amazing how much can still be left on a large ship," Hoyt said, adding that even a small, wooden hull ship yielded more than 1 million artifacts.


The sonar crews will soon begin work in Sabine Lake.


Hoyt said there's no telling what might be found there.


"At Sabine Pass there were a number of wrecks, but once you get into the lake, there were fewer," he said.


The location of the wreck is undisclosed, in accordance with Texas administrative code. Hoyt said this is to protect the historic sites from plunder.



Skeleton of village 'witch' to be re-buried

by Keyan Milanian


The medieval remains of a teenage girl who may have been suspected of witchcraft are to be given a Christian burial and funeral.


The skeleton, found by Faversham-based archaeologist Dr Paul Wilkinson, is thought to be from the 14th or 15th century.


It was found in unconsecrated ground under a holly tree, next to Hoo St Werburgh parish church, near Rochester.


The remains would normally be left in archives for future archaeological reference, but the vicar of Hoo, the Rev Andy Harding, has asked for the body to be returned so she can be re-buried in the church grounds.


Dr Wilkinson found the remains about six years ago after a dig requested by Simon Wright Homes, which they were obliged to perform before starting their development.


When they found the remains, the girl’s skull had been removed from the body and placed carefully beside it, meaning she may have either committed suicide or was suspected of being a witch or a criminal.


He said he had taken part in one other excavation, in Thanet, where discovered skeletons were "different".


He said: "The male and female there had been buried and their heads had been switched. She was buried facing east with her head very carefully placed beside her body."


Pottery found in the area dates back to medieval times and so it is suspected the body, which is currently being held at the University of Kent, was from the same period.


The bone structure of the skeleton indicates the remains are probably that of a female.


Mr Harding said: "We believe she was an executed criminal and so was not given the rights everyone else is. One of the things she could have been executed for is being a witch.


"We just want to give her a funeral that was denied to her at the time. At the end of the day, God will be our judge. She obviously came from Hoo so she will probably be buried close to the rest of her family."


Dr Wilkinson added: "It’s interesting that she will be rescued from a cardboard box and her journey will be finished in a manner that was not allowed her when she was first buried.


"I actually think it is rather wonderful."


The public funeral will be held at noon on Saturday, March 14.



'Oldest English words' identified


Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.


Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.


Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage.


The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct - citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first casualties.


"We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly these words evolve," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.


"We fit a wide range, so there's a lot of computation involved; and that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time."


Across the Indo-European languages - which include most of the languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent - the vocal sound made to express a given concept can be similar.


New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilising different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word's relative age in the language.


At the root of the Reading University effort is a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia.


"We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word," said Professor Pagel.


We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language," he added.


The researchers used the university's IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.


They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.


"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future," Professor Pagel told BBC News.


"From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."


That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror.


Words that have not diverged since then would comprise similar sounds to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably be recognisable on sound alone.


However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were. It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings.


What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.


For example, the words "I" and "who" are among the oldest, along with the words "two", "three", and "five". The word "one" is only slightly younger.


The word "four" experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages.


Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.


For example, "dirty" is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with "stick" and "guts".


Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so "push", "turn", "wipe" and "stab" appear to be heading for the lexicographer's chopping block.


Again, the model cannot predict what words may change to; those linguistic changes are according to Professor Pagel "anybody's guess".


"We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history," Professor Pagel said.


"Here's a sound that has been connected to a meaning - and it's a mostly arbitrary connection - yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years."


The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words.


"If you've ever played 'Chinese whispers', what comes out the end is usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity."