Remains of oldest palace for emperor's accession ceremony found

Jul 1 06:26 AM US/Eastern

KASHIHARA, Japan, July 1 (AP) - (Kyodo)


What appear to be the remains of the oldest building used for an emperor's accession ceremony have been excavated at the site of the Fujiwara palace in the ancient capital of Fujiwara-kyo in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, the Nara National Institute for Cultural Properties said Thursday.


They were partial remnants of buildings and gates of the Fujiwara palace's "daijokyu," a set of buildings used for an imperial accession ceremony. Fujiwara palace was in Fujiwara-kyo, Japan's capital between 694 and 710 before it was moved to Heijo-kyo, located in what are now the cities of Nara and Yamatokoriyama.


Earlier, similar remains were found at the site of the Heijo palace in Heijo-kyo which was Japan's capital for most of the Nara Period (710- 794) before it was moved to Heian-kyo, now Kyoto.


Archaeologists say the latest discovery could provide a key to the origin and transition of the daijokyu.


The state-run archaeological research institute said it will continue studies on the newly found remains, noting that the daijokyu at Fujiwara-kyo could have become a model for daijokyu buildings used in later periods.


Emperor Mommu, who reigned between 697 and 707, and Emperor Gemmei, whose reign lasted from 707 to 715, both ascended the throne at the Fujiwara palace.


But the archaeologists have so far failed to identify which of the two emperors used Fujiwara-kyo's daijokyu, the institute said.


In Japan, an emperor performs a "niinamesai" rite in the fall every year, offering fruits of the year's new harvest to Shinto gods and goddesses.


The first niinamesai ritual an emperor performs after accession to the throne is called "daijosai," which is one of the enthronement-linked ceremonies and is performed at the daijokyu.


Incumbent Emperor Akihito performed the daijosai and enthronement ceremonies in November 1990.




Legends allege that the last queen of Egypt died from a snakebite. But a new study could rewrite history.

By Rossella Lorenzi

Thu Jul 1, 2010 08:07 AM ET




Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, died from swallowing a lethal drug cocktail and not from a snake bite, a new study claims.


According to Christoph Schäfer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, the legendary beauty queen was unlikely to have committed suicide by letting an asp -- an Egyptian cobra -- sink into her flesh.


"There was no cobra in Cleopatra's death," Schäfer told Discovery News.


The author of a best-selling book in Germany, "Cleopatra," Schäfer searched historic writings for evidence to disprove the 2,000-year-old asp legend. His findings are to be featured on the German channel ZDF as part of a program on Cleopatra.


"The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing about 200 years after Cleopatra's demise, stated that she died a quiet and pain-free death, which is not compatible with a cobra bite. Indeed, the snake's venom would have caused a painful and disfiguring death," Schäfer said.


According to German toxicologist Dietrich Mebs, a poison specialist taking part in the study, the symptoms occurring after an asp bite are very unpleasant, and include vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory failure.


"Death may occur within 45 minutes, but it may also be longer with painful edema at the bite site. At the end, the dead body does not look very nice with vomit, diarrhea, a swollen bite site," Mebs told Discovery News.


Ancient texts also record that Cleopatra's two handmaidens died with her -- something very unlikely if she had died of a snake bite, said Schäfer.


The Queen of the Nile committed suicide in August 30 B.C. at the age of 39, following the example of her lover, the Roman leader Marc Antony, who killed himself after losing the Battle of Actium.


At that time, temperatures in Egypt would have been so high that "it was almost impossible for a snake to stay still enough to bite," Schäfer said.


The main problem with any snakebite are the unpredictable effects, because the venom of the snakes is highly variable. The amount they spent for the bite may be too low. Why taking a risk even to survive with such unpleasant symptoms?" Mebs said.


According to the researchers, who traveled to Alexandria where they consulted ancient medical texts, a plant poison mixture which is easily dosed and whose effects are very predictable could have worked much better.


"Ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them," Schaefer said.


Schaefer and Mebs believe that Cleopatra chose a drug cocktail made of opium, aconitum (also known as wolfsbane) and hemlock, a highly poisonous plant from the parsley family that is believed to have been used to poison Socrates.


The drug cocktail, Schäfer claims, was known at the time to cause a rather painless death within a few hours.


"Cleopatra reportedly carried out many toxicological experiments, an imitation of Mithradates VI. In her quest for the most peaceful and painless way to die, she would have observed the deaths of many condemned prisoners by many different poisons and combinations, including snakebite," Adrienne Mayor, author of the Mithridates biography "The Poison King," told Discovery News.


"In my opinion, Cleopatra would have taken a high dose of opium as a sedative and then succumb to a cobra bite within a half hour," Mayor said. "She would be sedated and calm, feeling no pain, as the cobra venom slows her respiration, and she breathes her last and dies."


According to Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., the drug cocktail would have technically worked well.


"A mixture of opium, aconitum and hemlock would have been a very intelligent combination. Opium and hemlock would have contributed to a painless death, easing the action of aconite, believed in antiquity to have deadly effects on the gastro-intestinal system. However, it wasn't common at all to mix vegetable poisons at Cleopatra's time," Touwaide told Discovery News.


"Cleopatra is a constant source of legends and theories, and is often credited with the writing of treatises on poisons, cosmetics and medicines," Touwaide said. "I believe finding her body and applying forensic methods of analysis would be the only way to solve the mystery of her death."





(ANSAmed) - PALERMO - The wreck of a Roman ship from the first century AD which is still whole and has over 500 wide-mouthed amphorae onboard has been discovered to the south of the island of Panarea. The discovery, which was made by the Sea Superintendence together with the American Foundation 'Aurora Trust' and the support of the Environment Ministry, was illustrated in a press conference this morning in Palermo by the Regional Councillor for Cultural Heritage, Gaetano Armao, and by the Superintendent, Sebastiano Tusa. ''From the first surveys,'' said Tusa, ''we can establish that it is a merchant shipping measuring around 25 metres, in perfect condition, which transported fruit and vegetables from Sicily to the markets in the north. The style of the amphorae is in fact typical of the 'workshops' of the island and of southern Italy. The merchant ship was identified with the use of a wire-controlled 'Rov' video camera. Now the campaign in the Aeolian islands will proceed with ''research carried out,'' explains Tusa, ''with particularly sophisticated robots which will allow us to better contextualise the wreck in time and space.'' The ship might not be the only one: on the seabed of Panarea there is believed to be another ship. ''Traces have been found,'' concluded Tusa, ''of a second wreck that has not yet been identified. Research will be carried out in this direction.'' The amphorae are the Dressel 21-22 type, datable to the first century AD, made in Lazio and used for the transport of Garum (a popular sauce in Roman times), fresh and dried fruit, as well as various types of cereals. The amphorae were found placed in a slightly different position to their original one on the ship. They are in fact lying on one side. This would indicate that the ship, sliding along the seabed, came to rest leaning on one side. (ANSAmed).



Roman Ships and Amphorae Found off Sardinia and Panarea

Submitted by bija on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 16:45


Roman ship-discovery season is in full flow, with several finds and explorations announced in the past week.


Yesterday Ansa ran a story about the discovery of a 25-metre merchant ship from the first century AD with its cargo of 500 amphorae containing fruit and vegetables still on board. The ship is said to be in perfect condition and was found south of Panarea, in the group of Aeolian/Lipari islands north of Sicily. The news agency reported that Italy's Maritime Superintendency and the Aurora Trust, an American foundation, were responsible for the find.


Aurora Trust found five wrecks off the Italian island of Ventotene last year, and in fact finding Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean is not a rare occurrence. Several discoveries from 2009, at Ventotene and Cyprus, were reported on Heritage Key, while another company searching off the coast of Campania (Capo Palinuro) earlier this year also found a Roman ship carrying amphorae.


Last week two discoveries were announced off the coast of Sardinia. A Roman merchant ship, dating from around 100 BC, was found off the coast of La Maddalena, an island off the north-eastern coast of Sardinia, while another wreck site has been detected off the north-western coast, near Costa Paradiso.


Fragments of amphorae and bronze nails have been found on the surface and it is archaeologically interesting. However, it's a very well documented type of archaeological discovery. According to a local newspaper, La Nuova Sardegna, the ships are from between the second century BC and the first century AD.


However, the 'normality' of coming across a 2,000-year-old ship in the Med is reiterated by Dr Rubens D'Oriano, an expert in under water archaeology at the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage for the provinces of  Sassari and Nuoro, in Sardinia.


Speaking earlier this week about the discovery of the ancient shipwreck near La Maddalena, he said: “Traces of a Roman sailing vessel have been found, which is to say that there are traces on the surface of the sea bed, showing that part of a Roman ship is buried under the sand.”


Dr D'Oriano added: “Fragments of amphorae and bronze nails have been found on the surface and it is archaeologically interesting. However, it's a very well documented type of archaeological discovery.” He emphasises that the discovery off La Maddalena is nothing out of the ordinary and describes it as “completely normal”.


When asked if the site may be investigated further or excavated, he is highly sceptical, noting that there is absolutely no funding at all from the Italian state for this type of archaeological site in Sardinia.


The sites were first noticed by amateur divers and were then investigated by archaeologists accompanied by a team of underwater experts from the Carabinieri's cultural heritage guards in the province of Sassari.


The site off Costa Paradiso is near the town of Trinità d'Agultu e Vignola. Large Roman ceramic vases, known as dolia, from the first century AD have been found at a depth of 50 metres.



Archaeological mystery solved

Published by Editor at 10:49 am under Press Releases


A 3,200-year-old round bronze tablet with a carved face of a woman, found at the El-ahwat excavation site near Katzir in central Israel, is part of a linchpin that held the wheel of a battle chariot in place. This was revealed by scientist Oren Cohen of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “Such an identification reinforces the claim that a high-ranking Egyptian or local ruler was based at this location, and is likely to support the theory that the site is Harosheth Haggoyim, the home town of Sisera, as mentioned in Judges 4-5,” says Prof. Zertal.


The El-ahwat site, near Nahal ‘Iron, was exposed by a cooperative delegation excavating there during 1993-2000 from the Universities of Haifa and Cagliari (Sardinia), headed by Prof. Zertal. The excavated city has been dated back to the end of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age (13th-12th centuries B.C.E.). The city’s uniqueness - its fortifications, passageways in the walls, and rounded huts - made it foreign amidst the Canaanite landscape. Prof. Zertal has proposed that based on these unusual features, the site may have been home to the Shardana tribe of the Sea-Peoples, who, according to some researchers, lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, Sisera’s capital city. The city is mentioned in the Bible’s narratives as Sisera’s capital, and it was from there that the army of chariots set out to fight the Israelites, who were being led by Deborah the prophetess and Barak, son of Avinoam. The full excavation and its conclusions have been summarized in Prof. Zertal’s book “Sisera’s Secret, A Journey following the Sea-Peoples and the Song of Deborah” (Dvir, Tel Aviv, 2010 [Hebrew]).


One of the objects uncovered at the site remained masked in mystery. The round, bronze tablet, about 2 cm. in diameter and 5 mm. thick, was found in a structure identified as the “Governor’s House”. The object features a carved face of a woman wearing a cap and earrings shaped as chariot wheels. When uncovered in 1997, it was already clear that the tablet was the broken end of an elongated object, but Mr. Cohen, who included the tablet in the final report of the excavations, did not manage to find its parallel in any other archaeological discoveries.


Now, 13 years later, the mystery has been solved. When carrying out a scrutinizing study of ancient Egyptian reliefs depicting chariot battles, Mr. Cohen discerned a unique decoration: the bronze linchpins fastening the chariot wheels were decorated with people’s faces - of captives, foreigners and enemies of Egypt. He also noticed that these decorations characterized those chariots that were used by royalty and distinguished people.


“This identification enhances the historical and archaeological value of the site and proves that chariots belonging to high-ranking individuals were found there. It provides support for the possibility, which has not yet been definitively established, that this was Sisera’s city of residence and that it was from there that the chariots set out on their way to the battle against the Israelite tribes, located between the ancient sites of Taanach and Megiddo,” Prof. Zertal concludes.



Roman Mystery Woman Discovered Near Hereford: Not a Female Gladiator

Submitted by bija on Fri, 07/02/2010 - 13:21


An unusual Roman burial has been uncovered at a site near Hereford. The female, buried in the first or second century AD, was unusually strong and is buried in a well made coffin.


Robin Jackson, senior project manager from Worcestershire council's Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, was excavating at the site. He said: “We've been working on the site for three months now and four burials have been found under a building. One of these is slightly unusual, in that it contains the remains of a woman who was very strongly built. She had obviously done hard physical work during her life, suggesting possibly a peasant labourer, but the anomaly is that she is buried in a slightly higher status coffin.”


The explanation for this intriguing set of circumstances is not yet clear.  At first it was thought the individual was male due to the long thigh bones. However, according to an archaeological osteologist at the site, the pelvis and skull show female characteristics, suggesting that the individual was in fact a tall female.


The experts were able to tell that she had been physically strong due to ridges and puckering on the bones where the muscles and tendons had been attached and had exerted pressure on the bone.


The bones need to be analysed at a laboratory to establish a more exact date of burial, the age of the woman and other information such as height, health and race or provenance. This process will take up to a year.


The site being excavated is on the outskirts of Credenhill about 6km north-west of Hereford. It's at the site of the Roman town of Kenchester, known as Magnis to the Romans, which was an important market town for the Dobunni tribe. It's also near a Roman road built in the first century AD, which today runs between Stretton Sugwas and Burcott.


The excavations are being carried out in preparation for the Yazor Brook Flood Alleviation Scheme, which is diverting a local river in order to avert flooding at Hereford. The excavation is being carried out by Amey Consulting and Herefordshire Council's archaeology team.


The woman is laid out in a foetal position and the remains of three metal straps and bronze decorative bindings suggest that the coffin may have been large and similar to a sea chest in shape.


A much more likely explanation is that she was born into a peasant family in Roman-occupied Britain, but then made a good marriage and was buried in a well made coffinBurial traditions during the four centuries of Roman occupation of Britain varied. Cremations, burial in pots, coffins and shrouds were all used. Robin Jackson said: “It was common to be buried in a coffin in Roman times, but it would indicate someone who had a bit of money.”

Pottery and a cow bone have also been found in the grave, suggesting that the woman was buried with an offering of beef – not uncommon, according to the site's excavators.


The Female Gladiator?


The BBC reported yesterday that the burial could possibly be that of a female gladiator.


This is highly unlikely, according to Robin Jackson. He said: “There are no weapons buried in the grave with her, nor are there any icons that gladiators often had buried with them. There isn't even any evidence of an arena at Kenchester, so there is no evidence suggesting this was a female gladiator.”


So there are few similarities between the strong woman buried near Hereford and the grave of the female gladiator excavated in London near the Roman arena.


Is there a more rational explanation for this female burial near Hereford?


At this stage, very little can be said with certainty but Mr Jackson would bet money on her not being a female gladiator: “That is very unlikely,” he said. “A much more likely explanation is that she was born into a peasant family in Roman-occupied Britain, but then made a good marriage and was buried in a well made coffin.”



Herefordshire council released a statement late this afternoon, which made plain that they refute the BBC story suggesting that this burial could have been that of a female gladiator. The statement said:

Archaeologists excavating fields near Hereford have poured cold water on a BBC report that the remains of a female gladiator had been unearthed.

The excavations in fields south of Credenhill, seven miles west of Hereford, are taking place prior to the construction of a flood alleviation scheme. The area contains the well-preserved remains of Roman buildings and rubbish pits situated to either side of a major Roman road.

Among the items uncovered were the remains of a coffin and a female body – these are routine finds in such a location. Archaeologists are clear that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this could be the body of a female gladiator as presented this morning by a local BBC radio station.

“There were no weapons buried in the grave with her nor are there any other objects which might be indicative of this having been a gladiator”, said a spokesperson for Herefordshire Council. “There is no evidence for an arena or amphitheatre in the area, and there is no evidence to support the idea that she was a female gladiator”.



Crannóg site revealed after lake's level drops

LORNA SIGGINS, Western Correspondent


THE RECENT prolonged dry weather spell which put pressure on water supplies in the west has proven to be good news for archaeologists.


The low water table on the western lakes and rivers has yielded a number of significant finds in Connemara, according to archaeologist Michael Gibbons.


Among them has been a new crannóg site which is part of a complex in the south Connemara area. It was located by Co Galway silversmith and archaeological student Ruairí O’Neill and a friend, John Foley, while exploring Lough Dhúleitir, north of Carna. Mr Gibbons, who lectures on Mr O’Neill’s course, said that it was a “fine example” of a small crannóg. The lake is overlooked by an abandoned 19th-century settlement.


“This is one of a wonderful group of six sites between Carna and Cill Chiaráin,” Mr Gibbons said. The distribution extends from Doon Loughan to Lough na Tulaí near Indreabhán in south Connemara. Crannógs, derived from “crann”, the Irish word for tree, were artificial islands built as dwellings in prehistoric and medieval times on lakes and in estuaries.


“Similar groups of stone crannógs are found in parts of Mayo, west Donegal and throughout the outer Hebrides in western Scotland and they range in date from the neolithic down to the 17th century, with the O’Flaherty’s castle built on top of one such lake dwelling,” Mr Gibbons said.


“They are part of the hidden heritage of the glacially scoured granite lands of south and west Connemara,” he added.


Meanwhile, a team of Irish and US archaeologists hosted an open day in Co Clare last weekend on their work at Lios an Rú, a 19th-century deserted village on a hill above Newtown Castle, Co Clare.


The archaeologists from NUI Galway (NUIG) and the State Museum of the University of New York State are investigating the daily lives and work of families in the Burren before, during and after the Great Famine.


Co-directors are NUIG archaeologist Maggie Ronayne and Prof Charles Orser, professor emeritus at Illinois State University, curator of historical archaeology at the New York State Museum and an adjunct professor at NUIG.


Prof Orser applies both anthropology and archaeology to investigate the lives of men and women ignored by official historical accounts. He will will give a public lecture at NUIG’s summer school programme on “The Archaeology of the Irish Famine” in the D’Arcy Thompson lecture theatre, NUIG on Monday, July 5th, at 6pm.



Pillar of Eliseg: Archaeologists dig beneath 9th Century monument


Archaeologists are to start excavations on a suspected ancient burial site to try to understand the significance of a Llangollen landmark.

But the team will have to work carefully because the 9th Century Pillar of Eliseg, a CADW-protected ancient monument, stands directly on top of the barrow - burial mound - and the archaeologists can't disturb it.

Medieval archaeology Professor, Nancy Edwards, from Bangor University says it is the first time the site has been dug since 1773 when, it is believed, a skeleton was unearthed.

"We are trying to date the barrow in its broader archaeological context," she said, as the site could date back to the Bronze Age.

The history behind the monument and why it was erected on the mound in the late 1700s by Trevor Lloyd of Trevor Hall, who then owned the land, is not yet understood.


However, separate work has been carried out to try to decipher original and additional faded inscriptions by experts from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW).

Originally a cross, it was first erected at nearby Valle Crucis Abbey to commemorate an early medieval leader, Eliseg (or Elisedd).

Today, only the shaft of the cross remains and its inscription, which was already almost illegible when the antiquary Edward Lhuyd tried to transcribe it in 1696, has disappeared.

Some of the 18th Century inscription describing the re-erection of the cross on the barrow has since been discerned by the experts, but nothing that reveals why it was relocated.

Joining Prof Edwards on-site for the dig will be colleagues from the University of Chester and with help from Llangollen Museum.

The plan is to open one small trench within the barrow and three others in close proximity within the field which is owned by a private landowner.

Dai Morgan Evans, visiting professor in archaeology at Chester University, has his own ideas as to why the monument was relocated to the mound.


He told the Leader newspaper that Trevor Lloyd could have been implying he was related to the Welsh king named on the inscription and those in the burial below.

During the dig, David Crane from Llangollen Museum plans to blog regularly via the museum website to give people updates.

And the public will be allowed on-site during an open day (31 July), between 11am-3pm.



Archaeologists Unearth 17th Century Horse Burial Site

Posted on: Thursday, 1 July 2010, 05:25 CDT


Archaeologists have unearthed a grave containing the complete skeletons of 51 horses buried together, possibly the equine victims of a 17th century battle that took place over a strategic Dutch river.


The mass grave is the largest known equine burial site in Europe, although archaeologist Angela Simons said Wednesday that more sites may have existed and have probably been plowed up over the centuries by farmers not knowing what lay beneath.


The team of archaeologists were looking for evidence of prehistoric human settlements in the area when they came across the site unexpectedly.


“From the first shovel, it was horses, horses and more horses,” said Angela Simons, of the Hazenberg Archaeology, which was employed by the Dutch government to survey the ground ahead of a construction project.


The horses showed signs of a quick burial. The bodies were not carefully arranged and the skeletons overlapped each other. “It's easy to imagine this is how cavalry men might dispose of dead mounts in war time,” Simons told The Associated Press.


Although the mass burial may have occurred after an important 17th century battle, disease or a plague could not be ruled out for the deaths. It is not known if the horses were buried out of respect, or because of the fear of contamination from so many decomposing corpses.


The site is located in a field near the Maas River in Borgharen, about 2 miles north of the Dutch border city of Maastricht.


Preliminary carbon testing dated the bones to the 1600s, when the Netherlands was still struggling to emerge as a nation.


If the horses died during battle, the most likely candidates include a battle in 1632 during the Eight Years’ War, when Dutch rebels quartered in Borgharen repelled a surprise charge by the Spanish cavalry. They may have also been killed during the 1673 siege of Maastricht by soldiers of French "Sun King" Louis XIV.


The grave showed no signs of bridles or saddles, suggesting they were removed. The archaeologists did find one stirrup and several horseshoes. One horse had a bullet in its skull just behind the eye-socket, which suggests an injured horse may have been shot to prevent further suffering, Simons said.


The horses appeared to be around 4 years old, and their size and bone structure suggests they were for riding -- possibly cavalry horses -- not draft horses.


It is possible that the horses had some connection with several French soldiers whose skeletons were found on a riverbank in Borgharen in 2004, according to Simons. The human skeletons were identified as French from their coat buttons.



Sinking oil threatens historic Gulf shipwrecks

By Cain Burdeau

Associated Press Writer / July 4, 2010



Not just flora and fauna are getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico's barnacled history of pirates, sea battles and World War II shipwrecks.

The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds, World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker's dream is threatened by BP PLC's deepwater well blowout.


Within 20 miles of the well, there are several significant shipwrecks -- ironically, discovered by oil companies' underwater robots working the depths -- and oil is most likely beginning to cascade on them.


"People think of them as being lost, but with the deepsea diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily accessible," said Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.


"If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for scuba divers to go down there and explore," Anthony said. "The spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on (underwater) operations."


The wrecks include two 19th-century wooden ships known as the "Mica Wreck" and the "Mardi Gras Wreck." The German submarine U-166 and ships sunk by other German submarines during World War II are within the spill's footprint.


The Mica was a 200-year-old, two-masted schooner that sank sometime before 1850, according to a report by the Minerals Management Service. It was discovered about 2,500 feet deep in the Mississippi Canyon during work to lay a pipeline.


In 2002, the Mardi Gras wreck was discovered by oilfield workers in even deeper waters: About 4,000 feet down about 35 miles off the Louisiana coast. The wreck got its name from the pipeline project where the wreck was found: the Mardi Gras Gas Transmission System, a huge deepwater pipeline system.


Researchers with Texas A&M University believe the sunken ship may have been a gun runner or British trader during the War of 1812.


BP played a part in finding the U-166, a German U-boat sunk in World War II off the Louisiana coast. Then, as now, the Mississippi River was an important corridor for merchant shipping.


Crews surveying a pipeline project for BP and Shell in the Mississippi Canyon region came across U-166 in 2001. On July 30, 1942, the German submarine torpedoed the passenger-freighter Robert E. Lee, and then itself was sunk by depth charges from the Navy escort PC-566.


This week, oil washed ashore in the Florida Panhandle, where the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier lies off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. The Navy sank it in May 2006 to make an artificial reef. Sen. John McCain once flew bombing runs off the ship's deck.


The tedious task of examining the wrecks for damage is beginning, though it's uncertain whether BP will be held responsible for ruining underwater sites.


Dave McMahan, Alaska's state archaeologist and an Exxon Valdez oil spill veteran, said federal environmental surveys and the courts would likely decide the matter.


"I would say for the folks working on cultural resources -- or any resource -- document everything," McMahan advised.


Archaeologists are fanning out to assess the spill's effect. The Gulf shoreline is chock full of history and to a trained eye, the bounty springs out.


"This is like Christmas Day for me," said Courtney Cloy, an archaeologist mapping the Timbalier Islands, a barrier island chain on Louisiana's central coast. "I am finding ceramics all over the surface out here."


The origin of the ceramics was unclear. Perhaps they washed in from a shipwreck just offshore. Or they might have come from a hotel or home that once stood on the badly eroded barrier islands.


For now, the Timbalier islands are safe: Oil contamination has been modest and cleanup crews are being kept at bay.


But archaeologists have grave concerns for other locations.


Oil has begun washing up on Pensacola's beaches, where in 1886, Geronimo, the Apache warrior, was imprisoned in Fort Pickens, the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay.


On the Mississippi coast, Ship Island was the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River for 300 years; thousands of Europeans first set foot in North America there, earning the nickname Plymouth Rock of the Gulf Coast.


During the Civil War, Ship Island was Union Adm. David Farragut's base of operations, where he successfully launched an attack on New Orleans in April 1862.


On Grand Terre Island, just west of the Mississippi River, archaeologists have found remnants of a colony set up by Jean Lafitte, the pirate who helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans.


Archaeologist hope to avoid the mistakes made during the Exxon Valdez cleanup.


"We learned from Exxon Valdez that there were incidents of looting by cleanup workers, equipment being brought in, destroying the ground," said John Rawls, marine archaeologist with Earth Search Inc., a firm hired by BP to do archaeological surveys.


In one incident, cleanup workers stumbled across a prehistoric Chugachmiut burial cave containing wooden artifacts.


"Cleanup workers found the cave, which was unknown to archaeologists, and removed some of the bones and then called a supervisor," McMahan said. He said Exxon security collected more of the bones and state troopers raked remains into a body bag and carted them away. "The site was pretty much trashed," he said.


McMahan said cleanup workers need to be trained to be aware of their surroundings and to tread lightly on the landscape.


Archaeologists worry the push to clean the BP spill as fast as possible is causing damage. Bulldozers and dredges are being used to build barrier islands and erect sand dams, and thousands of workers are raking tar balls and crude off beaches.


"Avoidance is No. 1," Cloy said. "We want to keep our footprint on these sites as minimal as possible."


On The Web:


Minerals Management Service's Web site for Gulf shipwrecks:



Alaska Office of History & Archaeology Web site on Exxon Valdez: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/oilspill.htm



Discovery of U-boat wrecks rewrites the history books

Newly identified sites show far more submarines were sunk by mines than previously thought

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

Sunday, 4 July 2010


The final resting places of six German U-boats sunk in the final months of the Second World War's greatest naval conflict have finally been identified. After years of research, maritime experts say their discoveries will force historians to re-evaluate the battle for control of the Atlantic.


Evidence from the wrecks suggests many U-boats were sunk by mines rather than attacks by Allied air and naval forces, as had previously been believed. The findings show coastal minefields were around three times more effective than British naval intelligence gave them credit for. Experts believe their view was distorted, unintentionally, by reports from over-enthusiastic airmen and escort ship commanders who sometimes claimed they had sunk U-boats with depth charges or anti-submarine mortars.


One submarine, the U-400, previously believed sunk by Royal Navy depth charges south of Cork in Ireland, has now been identified off the coast of north Cornwall. The German sub was on its very first patrol in December 1944 when it hit a mine, underwater photography suggests.


Another, the U-1021, also identified off the north Cornish coast, was on its first patrol in March 1945 when sunk by mines. Previously, it was thought the Royal Navy had sunk it with depth charges hundreds of miles away, off the west coast of Scotland. The U-326, also on its first patrol when it was destroyed by a US aerial depth charge attack in April 1945, has been identified 100 miles off the coast of Brittany. The U-325, sunk on its second patrol in May 1945, was thought to have been destroyed by Royal Navy depth charges in the Irish Sea. Now marine archaeology and underwater photography have identified it on the seabed 230 miles away – off Lizard Point, south Cornwall.


Other U-boats, sunk far from British coastal minefields, have also been identified. The U-1208, on its first patrol, was identified off the Scilly Isles after being sunk by Royal Navy depth charges in February 1945. The U-650, recently identified through underwater photography near Land's End, was sunk by a direct hit from a hedgehog anti-submarine missile in January 1945.


From 1939 to early 1943, the Germans were very successful in their U-boat operations – sinking 2,500 Allied merchant ships and around 50 Allied warships, with the loss of around 25,000 lives. The tide turned in May 1943 when, with new equipment and a fresh strategy, the Allies got the upper hand.


The discoveries came from a survey of the western English Channel and adjacent areas, undertaken by the US firm Odyssey Marine Exploration. Dr Axel Niestlé, a German U-boat historian involved in the project, said: "It is a fine example of successful teamwork between marine archaeologists and historians rewriting naval history. The underwater photography gave us an unparalleled opportunity to learn how different types of Second World War anti-submarine weaponry worked."


From 1939-45, the Germans built 1,167 U-boats, 863 of which were deployed in the Battle of the Atlantic; 648 were sunk – with a loss of around 25,000 submariners. The locations of 40 U-boats remain a mystery. Thirty disappeared in deep water in the Atlantic, and it is unlikely they will be found. The remainder lie in a variety of suspected locations in the eastern part of the English Channel, where the team hopes to find them.


A paper by Dr Niestlé on the findings is to be published by Odyssey.



Computer automatically deciphers ancient language

A new system that took a couple hours to decipher much of the ancient language Ugaritic could help improve online translation software.

Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

June 30, 2010


In his 2002 book Lost Languages, Andrew Robinson, then the literary editor of the London Times’ higher-education supplement, declared that “successful archaeological decipherment has turned out to require a synthesis of logic and intuition … that computers do not (and presumably cannot) possess.”


Regina Barzilay, an associate professor in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Ben Snyder, a grad student in her lab, and the University of Southern California’s Kevin Knight took that claim personally. At the Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Sweden next month, they will present a paper on a new computer system that, in a matter of hours, deciphered much of the ancient Semitic language Ugaritic. In addition to helping archeologists decipher the eight or so ancient languages that have so far resisted their efforts, the work could also help expand the number of languages that automated translation systems like Google Translate can handle.


To duplicate the “intuition” that Robinson believed would elude computers, the researchers’ software makes several assumptions. The first is that the language being deciphered is closely related to some other language: In the case of Ugaritic, the researchers chose Hebrew. The next is that there’s a systematic way to map the alphabet of one language on to the alphabet of the other, and that correlated symbols will occur with similar frequencies in the two languages.


The system makes a similar assumption at the level of the word: The languages should have at least some cognates, or words with shared roots, like main and mano in French and Spanish, or homme and hombre. And finally, the system assumes a similar mapping for parts of words. A word like “overloading,” for instance, has both a prefix — “over” — and a suffix — “ing.” The system would anticipate that other words in the language will feature the prefix “over” or the suffix “ing” or both, and that a cognate of “overloading” in another language — say, “surchargeant” in French — would have a similar three-part structure.


The system plays these different levels of correspondence off of each other. It might begin, for instance, with a few competing hypotheses for alphabetical mappings, based entirely on symbol frequency — mapping symbols that occur frequently in one language onto those that occur frequently in the other. Using a type of probabilistic modeling common in artificial-intelligence research, it would then determine which of those mappings seems to have identified a set of consistent suffixes and prefixes. On that basis, it could look for correspondences at the level of the word, and those, in turn, could help it refine its alphabetical mapping. “We iterate through the data hundreds of times, thousands of times,” says Snyder, “and each time, our guesses have higher probability, because we’re actually coming closer to a solution where we get more consistency.” Finally, the system arrives at a point where altering its mappings no longer improves consistency.


Ugaritic has already been deciphered: Otherwise, the researchers would have had no way to gauge their system’s performance. The Ugaritic alphabet has 30 letters, and the system correctly mapped 29 of them to their Hebrew counterparts. Roughly one-third of the words in Ugaritic have Hebrew cognates, and of those, the system correctly identified 60 percent. “Of those that are incorrect, often they’re incorrect only by a single letter, so they’re often very good guesses,” Snyder says.


Furthermore, he points out, the system doesn’t currently use any contextual information to resolve ambiguities. For instance, the Ugaritic words for “house” and “daughter” are spelled the same way, but their Hebrew counterparts are not. While the system might occasionally get them mixed up, a human decipherer could easily tell from context which was intended.


Nonetheless, Andrew Robinson remains skeptical. “If the authors believe that their approach will eventually lead to the computerised ‘automatic’ decipherment of currently undeciphered scripts,” he writes in an e-mail, “then I am afraid I am not at all persuaded by their paper.” The researchers’ approach, he says, presupposes that the language to be deciphered has an alphabet that can be mapped onto the alphabet of a known language — “which is almost certainly not the case with any of the important remaining undeciphered scripts,” Robinson writes. It also assumes, he argues, that it’s clear where one character or word ends and another begins, which is not true of many deciphered and undeciphered scripts.


“Each language has its own challenges,” Barzilay agrees. “Most likely, a successful decipherment would require one to adjust the method for the peculiarities of a language.” But, she points out, the decipherment of Ugaritic took years and relied on some happy coincidences — such as the discovery of an axe that had the word “axe” written on it in Ugaritic. “The output of our system would have made the process orders of magnitude shorter,” she says.


Indeed, Snyder and Barzilay don’t suppose that a system like the one they designed with Knight would ever replace human decipherers. “But it is a powerful tool that can aid the human decipherment process,” Barzilay says. Moreover, a variation of it could also help expand the versatility of translation software. Many online translators rely on the analysis of parallel texts to determine word correspondences: They might, for instance, go through the collected works of Voltaire, Balzac, Proust and a host of other writers, in both English and French, looking for consistent mappings between words. “That’s the way statistical translation systems have worked for the last 25 years,” Knight says.


But not all languages have such exhaustively translated literatures: At present, Snyder points out, Google Translate works for only 57 languages. The techniques used in the decipherment system could be adapted to help build lexicons for thousands of other languages. “The technology is very similar,” says Knight, who works on machine translation. “They feed off each other.”