Leicester's winter made glorious by Richard III

16:27 04 February 2013 by Mark Horton


The announcement that King Richard III's remains have been identified will not end debate over their scientific, historical and cultural significance, says an archaeologist


So the remains found beneath a car park in Leicester, UK, are indeed those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. At a well-orchestrated press conference today, the University of Leicester team examining the bones presented overwhelming, if circumstantial, evidence that the remains are his. They had battle scars consistent with the historical account of his death and the subsequent stripping of his body; the radiocarbon dates fell into the correct range; the slightly built individual with a spinal deformity that the remains point to fits historical descriptions; and the DNA evidence is consistent with genealogically traced descendants.


It would be churlish to pick holes in the conclusions. What's interesting, however, is that the results have not been through any kind of peer-review process. The funding seems to have been largely privately sourced, with a tranche from the British commercial TV station Channel 4, which is airing a special programme tonight about the project and its findings.


It is possible the archaeologists were forced down this route, with intense media pressure to get results and make them public as soon as possible (the DNA results were apparently finalised only yesterday night). Our sclerotic research councils are simply too slow to respond to this kind of research, while the journals work to their own timescale as well.


No smoking gun


Before we get carried away, there was no "smoking gun" in the announcement, no single piece of evidence that made it absolutely certain that this was Richard III. The DNA results were impressive, but they were from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) alone. They showed that the two known maternal-line descendants of Richard III shared sequences of mtDNA in common with the excavated remains.


What was missing from the announcement was any indication of how common such mtDNA sequences might be in western European populations. The failure to take such considerations into account can lead to basic errors such as what happened several years ago, when it was claimed that Mesolithic Cheddar Man had a descendant in the person of a history teacher living near where the remains were found. The public (and the media) are easily persuaded by DNA evidence, so these are the remains of Richard III.


Soon the bones will go into a special tomb in Leicester cathedral, and the story of Richard III will have been rewritten. But there will still be controversy. Was Richard blackened by Tudor propaganda as an evil, deformed king (in the days when the royal personage had to be physically perfect), or did he, as the archaeological evidence apparently shows, suffer from a mild spinal sclerosis? Should the Royal Shakespeare Company now portray the king not as a hunchback with a withered arm, but as a slightly lopsided figure?


Perhaps the best bit of the whole business is that Richard III was found in Leicester, one of the UK's most multicultural cities. Here is British history that can be embraced by the people of Leicester, whatever their ethnic background. The remains will stay in the city, providing local excitement and a heritage buzz for years to come. Our history lessons will return to focusing on the kings and queens of England. Maybe the real winner will be Michael Gove, the education secretary, who champions the teaching of British history.


Mark Horton is professor in archaeology at the University of Bristol and contributor to factual TV shows including BBC2’s Coast. In 2010 he was part the team that identified the remains of Queen Eadgyth, the grand-daughter of Alfred the Great



Project objectives


·         Find the remains of the Franciscan friary.

·         Identify clues to the position/orientation of the buildings.

·         Within the friary, locate the church.

·         Within the church, locate the choir.

·         Within the choir, locate the mortal remains of Richard III.

·         Choosing where to dig


Since Christian churches traditionally run East-West, a North-South slice through the location stood the best chance of picking up the church walls. Trench 1 was dug from the North end, Trench 2 from the South end. The exact position of the trenches and direction of digging was determined by, among other things, modern underground utilities identified by the GPR survey, space for spoil heaps, access to get the digger off-site, leaving sufficient support for existing walls, and fire exits from nearby buildings. Given the relatively confined nature of the site, the choice of precisely where to dig was therefore fairly limited.



March 2011

Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society commissions ULAS (University of Leicester Archaeological Services) to conduct a desk-based assessment of the Greyfriars area, using old maps and documents to trace the development and use of the land. This identifies two potential areas for excavation: the Leicester City Council Social Services staff car park and the adjacent playground of the former Alderman Newton’s School. A third area, a public car park on New Street, is also potentially available.


1741 - Thomas Roberts Map Modern OS Map Car Parks


Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley of University of Leicester Archaeological Services explains the background to the Greyfriars dig.


August 2011


Before digging begins, a ground penetrating radar survey (GPR) is carried out in the car park


A ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the three areas reveals modern utilities such as water and gas mains, plus a number of ambiguous shapes. A layer of demolition-related rubble underneath the asphalt is probably disguising archaeological features. A ‘Written Scheme of Investigation’ is produced by Richard Buckley of ULAS with details of the size and position of two trial trenches to be excavated in the Social Services car park and a third in reserve to be opened in the playground.


Friday 24 August 2012


A road cutter is used to cut through the asphalt of the car park.


The Greyfriars Project, a collaboration between the University of Leicester, Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, led by Richard Buckley of ULAS, is formally launched with a press conference and media opportunities including medieval re-enactors and a direct descendant of Richard’s sister who has kindly agreed to provide mitochondrial DNA. Site director Mathew Morris and archaeologist Leon Hunt lay out the first two trenches and supervise the cutting of the car park surface with a road cutter.


Saturday 25 August 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1ABCD

The project begins with the digging of Trench 1, which is 1.6m wide and runs for 30m approximately north-south in the Social Services car park. Before digging begins, a CAT scanner is used to identify any live electrical cables under the ground so they can be avoided. At first, ground beneath the car park appears to be very disturbed. Brick and concrete wall footings for buildings dating back over the last 100 years have to be removed to reach the medieval archaeology underneath.



Archaeologists begin to carefully remove the remains of modern buildings to reach medieval archaeology beneath (A).


The first noteworthy discovery is a human left leg bone at the edge of the trench – a good find but not particularly surprising when excavating around a church. This is found approximately 5m from the north end of the trench, about 1.5m below modern ground level. Careful examination reveals a parallel right leg, indicating an undisturbed burial (pleasing but again only to be expected). The remains (A) are noted and covered to protect them from the weather until more is known about where they are located in the friary.



Site director Mathew Morris finds human remains in Trench 1 (A).


Trench 1 is incomplete at the end of the day due to a two-hour delay when the digger throws a track; however results are promising. The archaeologists have uncovered a patch of disturbed ground (B), an east-west robbed wall (C) with possibly part of a low stone wall still surviving alongside it and large quantities of medieval building rubble alongside that, all suggesting the presence of an important medieval building in the vicinity, most likely the friary. Objective 1 achieved


Saturday 26 August 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1Trench 2ABCDEF

Trench 1 is completed, revealing a second, parallel robbed wall (D). Unfortunately, the presence of a live electrical or telephone cable makes it impossible to investigate further with the digger.


Trench 2 is dug, also 30m long, broadly parallel to Trench 1 and overlapping it by a short distance (Trench 2 takes less time as the depth of the modern rubble layer has already been determined). At the southern end are the remains of a stone wall (E); at the northern end is a north-south robbed wall (F) joined at right angles to a continuation of wall D. The space between E and F is relatively narrow, possibly indicating a corridor or two buildings built close to each other. More building rubble masks the medieval archaeology, leaving it unclear which idea is correct until the rubble can be removed.


Monday 27 to Friday 31 August 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1Trench 2ABCDEF

Throughout the week, the archaeologists carefully remove dumps of building rubble left behind when the friary was demolished, exposing the medieval buildings beneath. These remains are carefully planned, recorded and photographed and features of particular interest are excavated to learn more about the friary.



Site director Mathew Morris removes rubble from the cloister walk in Trench 2 (E-F).


In Trench 2, rubble is removed from between walls E and F exposing mortar bedding for a tile floor which steps down from south to north. Tile impressions can still be seen on the mortar, providing clues to how the floor would have once looked. Part of a stone step also survives. At the southern end of the trench, wall E is found to survive partially intact above floor level, a rare discovery in Leicester. The remains of a doorway are found leading through it from west to east.


It appears, by chance, that Trench 2 has been dug along a long north-south corridor. Could the space between E and F represent one of the friary’s cloister walks? And if so, is it on the western or eastern side of the square courtyard or ‘cloister garth’.



Back in Trench 1, archaeologists discover that the surviving low stone wall at C has a flat top with a curving ‘lip’ over one side and no foundation. It looks like a bench built up against the north (robbed) wall of the room. Careful key-hole investigation of robbed wall D – avoiding the live cable! – finds a second ‘bench’. Between the two is evidence of floor tiling.



Tile impressions can still be seen on the mortar floor bedding inside the cloister walk (E-F).



Part of a stone step is found inside the cloister walk (E-F)



Part of a stone wall and floor still survived in Trench 2 (E). The remains of a doorway can still be seen on the right side of the photo.


The benches are a major breakthrough, providing an important clue to which part of the friary has been found: this is a place where people could sit facing each other and talk. In a medieval friary, that would be the chapter house, which normally projected from the eastern side of a square cloister, making the corridor joining it in Trench 2 the eastern cloister walk. Objective 2 achieved


To the north of the chapter house, the ground between C and B appears to be outside the friary buildings. However, the patch of disturbed ground at B has large quantities of loose building rubble and may be a large robbed wall, possibly the southern wall of the church. Unfortunately damage from modern cellars makes it difficult to interpret the archaeology.



Archaeologist Jon Coward excavates an area of disturbed ground (B), possibly the south wall of the church.



A stone bench in the chapter house (C) with a curved ‘bullnose’ lip to the seat.


Friday 31 August 2012

ULAS applies to the Ministry of Justice, under the 1857 Burials Act, for permission to exhume up to six sets of human remains. The plan is to investigate only those burials which are potential candidates to be Richard III: males in their 30s, buried within the church, ideally with potentially fatal battle injuries.


Saturday 1 September 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1Trench 2Trench 3ABCDEFGHI

Trench 3, also 30m long, is dug in the school playground (separated from the car park by a Victorian wall) to look for a continuation of B and confirmation of whether it might be the south wall of the church. Broadly parallel to, and overlapping with, Trench 1, this new trench will hopefully be much shallower and less disturbed than the other two. Two substantial east-west robbed walls (G and H) are found, about 7.4m apart, of a thickness and separation consistent with a church, along with large areas of flooring and the hint of further graves. Objective 3 achieved. The trench also reveals an area of paving made from medieval tiles (I).


Walls B and G match up, meaning that the human remains found on the first day (at A) lie inside the eastern half of the church, quite possibly the choir – where Richard III was reputedly buried. For this reason, those remains will be among those exhumed when the licence is granted.


Sunday 2 to Tuesday 4 September 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1Trench 2Trench 3ABCDEFGHI

Sunday 2 September 2012

The archaeologists uncover more of the medieval tile pavement in Trench 3. It appears to have been made re-using medieval tiles from the friary and is perhaps a path in the garden of Robert Herrick’s mansion which occupied the site after the friary was demolished.



Archaeologist Kim Sidwell uncovers paving (I), which appears to be made from re-used medieval floor tiles and might be part of a path in Robert Herrick’s garden.


Monday 3 September 2012

The Ministry of Justice grants a licence for the removal of human remains.


Tuesday 4 September 2012

A small area above the human remains in Trench 1 is carefully widened with a digger to give archaeologists better access to the burial. Jo Appleby and Turi King begin to carefully remove the grave soil by hand. Work is slow to avoid damage to the skeleton and by mid-afternoon it is clear that the skeleton will not be exhumed before nightfall. Work is halted for the day.



Archaeologists excavate a small group of disarticulated human bones in Trench 3 (G-H)



Site director Mathew Morris widens trench 1 around the human remains (A).


Meanwhile, archaeologists begin to widen Trench 3 between walls G and H, hoping to uncover more of the church floor and determine whether the burial is indeed in the church’s choir. While removing rubble from this area, a small group of disarticulated human (female) bones is discovered, apparently disturbed when the church was demolished and then reburied in a small pit.


Wednesday 5 September 2012

Alderman Newton's School PlaygroundSocial Services

Car ParkTrench 1Trench 2Trench 3ABCDEFGHI

In the school playground, archaeologist Leon Hunt and colleagues continue to expand the section of Trench 3 between the two robbed walls. They find large quantities of broken decorated floor tiles, a sizeable pile of discarded pieces of tracery from a large stone window and a piece of elaborate stone frieze.


Over in the car park, Jo Appleby, assisted by site director Mathew Morris, begins to carefully uncover the skeleton in Trench 1, initially revealing the legs and the pelvis. There is no sign of the feet. Jo wears a special suit to prevent DNA contamination of the remains.



Dr Jo Appleby carefully excavates human remains in Trench 1 (A)


Back in the playground, two distinct spaces become evident in the church, represented by different patterns of floor tiling, still visible as impressions on the mortar bedding even though the tiles no longer survived. There is a step up from the lower western floor to the higher eastern floor. Built into the lower floor is a narrow stone wall running parallel with the church’s southern wall – perhaps the remains of the base of a choir stall. That would make the lower floor part of the church’s choir (and hence the higher floor part of the presbytery). Objective 4 achieved



Trench 3 (G-H) fully excavated, looking west. A medieval stone coffin and tile impressions in the presbytery can be seen in the foreground and the remains of a choir stall can be seen behind them.


Wednesday 5 September 2012 (continued)


Richard III’s skull was propped up awkwardly in the grave because it had been dug too short for him (A)


While Leon Hunt and his colleagues uncover the church floor underneath the playground, back in the car park, Jo Appleby and Mathew Morris find that the grave in Trench 1 is not a neat rectangle but a rough, lozenge-shaped hole with untidy sloping sides. It looks like it was dug quickly without great care.


Jo is surprised to suddenly uncover the skull, which is much higher in the grave than the rest of the skeleton, bent forward and to the left at an awkward angle to fit the body into a grave that is slightly too small. There are obvious battle wounds on the cranium. Jo and Mathew realise that, whatever else is found, this skeleton is going be both interesting and important.


In the afternoon, project manager Richard Buckley arrives with Deirdre O'Sullivan (an expert on urban friaries from the University's School of Archaeology and Ancient History) and an external friary specialist who confirm the choir/presbytery theory and identify the pieces of stone tracery as coming from an early 15th century perpendicular window. Richard realises that the skeleton on the other side of the wall – the first find on the very first day of the dig – is actually buried within the choir.


In the car park, Jo uncovers the arms and ribcage. The body has all the hallmarks of a hurried burial: there is no coffin, it has not been laid out carefully and the posture suggests it probably wasn’t even wrapped in a shroud.


Clearing away the earth from around the rib cage, Jo uncovers the base of the spine. Working along it, she finds a distinct bend to one side. As the rest of the spine is revealed, Jo and Mathew are somewhat shocked to see an unmistakable S-shape...


Mathew goes round to the playground to tell Richard that Jo has found something unexpected. Richard tells Mathew that he’s quite busy with his guests but Mathew assures him, as calmly as he can and mindful of the crowd of bystanders peering through the playground gates, that he really needs to come and see what Jo has found.


Some time later…


…Long after everyone else has gone home, Jo and Mathew continue to carefully remove the skeleton, bagging and labelling each bone. As the last bones are lifted, one final discovery is made: a piece of rusted iron, possibly part of a weapon, beneath two of the vertebrae. The skull, lower jaw and right femur, which will be used for DNA sampling, are wrapped in baking foil. Finally, with the sun setting, everything is loaded into the van, the gates are locked, and the mortal remains of Richard III bid farewell to the Church of the Grey Friars after 527 undisturbed years.


Unbelievably, Objective 5 achieved!



Who was Richard III?

A Plantagenet primer on the last English king to die in battle.


Although he only ruled for two years – from 1483 to 1485 – Richard III stands out among his peers as one of the most famous (or infamous) Kings of England. But who was he? And why does he continue to inspire such interest?


Richard was born in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452 – about 30 miles from Leicester and only about 50 miles (two days’ ride) from Bosworth where he met his end a third of a century later. Richard and his older brother Edward were the great-great-grandchildren of Edward III, a line of descent which was used to justify the claim to the throne by the House of York during the Wars of the Roses (the House of Lancaster was also descended from Edward III, via a different route).


The Princes in the Tower

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878.


Edward ruled as King Edward IV from 1471 until his death in April 1483, when his 12-year-old son succeeded as Edward V, with Richard named Lord Protector. Young Edward and his brother moved into the Tower of London (which was then a royal palace, not a prison) but in June their parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making the princes illegitimate and hence their uncle became the heir apparent. Richard lost no time in being crowned King Richard III and the two boys were not seen again.


Thus began the legend of ‘the Princes in the Tower’ and a long-standing popular belief that Richard had his nephews murdered in order to remove any competing claim to the throne. This has been widely debated for many years, with passionate arguments made both for and against Richard.


Death and disappearance

After defeating an unsuccessful rebellion in October 1483, Richard led his army to Bosworth in Leicestershire two years later to face Henry Tudor (whose somewhat tenuous claim to the throne was also through descent from Edward III). On 22 August 1485, Richard was killed at Bosworth Field, the last English King to die in battle, thereby bringing to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.


Richard’s body was brought back to Leicester, publicly displayed and then given for burial to a group of Franciscan friars. An alabaster tomb monument was constructed over the grave in 1495, paid for by the new King. With the dissolution of the monasteries (by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII) that friary disappeared and along with it any clear record of Richard’s grave. Stories and rumours about where Richard’s mortal remains lie – or what happened to them – have circulated over the ensuing centuries, but most of these have subsequently been shown to be tall tales.


Re-evaluating Richard


Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520 (approximate date from tree-rings on panel), after a lost original, for the Paston family, now owned by the Society of Antiquaries, London.


History, they say, is written by the victors. Tudor writers and artists had no qualms about depicting Richard III as an evil tyrant and child-murderer, as well as a crippled hunchback. Shakespeare’s eponymous play, written 106 years after Richard’s death, cemented the King’s bad reputation (and appearance) among the general public for centuries, although scholars including Francis Bacon and Horace Walpole sought to re-evaluate his reign.


In 1924 the Richard III Society was founded, aiming to challenge accepted beliefs and assumptions about ‘the last Plantagenet’, not least the accusation of murder and the popular depiction of Richard as having a crooked spine. Among the inarguably good works of this popular King, they pointed out, were a number of significant changes to English law, including the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and a reformation of the jury system.


With a controversial claim to the throne, accusations of blood on his hands, a violent and gory death, and a bad press (largely derived from a classic of English literature) – not forgetting serious debate about his physical appearance – it is no wonder that Richard III continues to fascinate historians, scholars and the public in the 21st century.



Extraction and analysis of DNA

The University of Leicester’s Department of Genetics is famous as the birthplace of DNA fingerprinting, discovered here by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1984 and widely used by governments and law enforcement since then. However, a different approach was required when the Department of Genetics’ Dr Turi King set out to investigate possible connections between two people born five centuries – and 18 generations – apart.


Mitochondrial DNA

Most of our DNA exists within the cell nucleus but a small amount exists within mitochondria, small organelles whose function is to convert chemical energy (from food) into a form that the body can use. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a small loop of DNA which is transmitted from mother to child and is therefore very useful in tracing female lines of descent.


The mitochondria in sperm cells are destroyed as part of the fertilisation process so there is no combination and mtDNA is transmitted unchanged from mother to child. As long as the female line remains unbroken, the mtDNA remains constant, barring small naturally occurring mutations. This means that Richard III, Edward IV and Anne of York all had the same mtDNA – from their mother, Cecily Neville – and as long as Anne’s daughters continued to produce daughters of their own (highly likely in an age when eight to ten children was common!), the mtDNA will have been passed down those lines of descent.


Another advantage of mtDNA is that there are many mitochondria within each cell. DNA starts to degrade after death but with so many copies of the mtDNA, there is a good chance of being able to sequence it – even after 527 years.


Consequently, if the remains found at Greyfriars are indeed Cecily Neville’s son Richard III, the mtDNA present should match that of her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Michael Ibsen – because there are no males in the line of descent from Cecily to Michael.


Testing the ancient DNA

The survival of usable DNA depends less on the age of the remains than on the quality of the soil in which they lie (eg.acidity).


After careful excavation from the Greyfriars site, the skull, the lower jaw and one femur (thigh bone) from the skeleton were placed for safe-keeping in the clean room in the University’s Space Research Centre – normally used for the construction of spacecraft components. Due to their preservation, the teeth offered the best hope of intact mtDNA but the femur was kept as a back-up source.



Results of the DNA analysis

While DNA from living people can be studied in our Department of Genetics, unfortunately the University of Leicester does not currently have an ‘ancient DNA’ laboratory. The study of ancient DNA requires special facilities, not least a completely clean environment since the slightest trace of modern DNA can irretrievably contaminate a specimen.


Consequently, Dr King travelled to two world-leading laboratories specialising in the study of ancient DNA. At the University of York, Turi carried out the work in the lab of Professor Michael Hofreiter with Gloria Gonzales Fortes; at the Universite Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, Turi worked with Dr Patricia Balaresque and Laure Tunasso, where the work was independently verified. In each of these ultra-clean labs, Dr King manalysed the skeleton’s mtDNA in order to compare it with Mr Ibsen’s mtDNA and also that of a second female-line descendant.



Radiocarbon dating and analysis

How old are the bones found under the Greyfriars church? Clearly they can’t be any more recent than the Dissolution of 1538. But if they are earlier than 1485, then they can’t be Richard’s remains.


The process

Radiocarbon dating is a commonly used technique which relies on the fact that, although 99% of carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons (carbon-12), about 1% have an extra neutron (carbon-13) and about one atom in a trillion has two extra neutrons (carbon-14). C-12 and C-13 are stable but C-14 decays at a known rate, with a half-life of 5,568 years.


University of Leicester archaeologists took four small samples from one of the ribs of the Greyfriars skeleton and sent them to two specialist units with the facilities to analyse them: the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) at the University of Glasgow, and the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, part of the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.


The small pieces of bone were combusted to produce carbon dioxide which was then put through a mass spectrometer. Testing two pieces each at two different facilities should provide consistent results – and indeed it did.


The results


Caliboration of mean Greyfriars 2012 shown against the IntCal09 terrestrial calibration curve.


The SUERC results showed a 95% probability that the bone samples dated from around AD1430-1460, and over in Oxford the results both came out at around AD1412-1449, again with a 95% confidence.


Oh dear.


However, all was not lost. The proportion of C-14 in the atmosphere, and hence in living things, is not constant but varies over the centuries, and it also varies between the atmosphere and the oceans. Radiocarbon dating of marine organisms can be out by up to several hundred years, and this effect can occur to a lesser degree in terrestrial life where sea-food forms part of the diet.


The mass spectrometry of the Greyfriars bone samples reveals that the individual in question had a high-protein diet including a significant proportion of seafood. This would seem reasonable for a medieval nobleman, and certainly for a member of the royal family.


The real results


Futher refined modelled date of mean Greyfriars 2012, after the application of Bayesian statistics to constrain the date of the burial to pre-Dissolution, before AD 1538 in this instance.


Allowing for this factor, and bearing in mind that the results cannot be later than 1538, a Bayesian statistic modelling technique gives the approximate date as AD1475-1530 (with a 69% confidence).


This does not, of course, prove that the bones are those of Richard III. What it does is remove one possibility which could have proved that these are not Richard’s remains. (And it also tells us something about what he had for supper.)




The skeleton found at Greyfriars is almost complete but is missing both feet and one lower leg bone (left fibula) which were removed long after the burial, probably due to Victorian disturbance. Otherwise, apart from a few small hand bones and a few teeth, the remains are complete.


No evidence was found for a coffin, clothing or artefacts in the grave. If there was a shroud, it has long since rotted away. A curious anomaly is the position of the hands, crossed over the right hip. This is unusual in English burials of this period and could indicate that the wrists were tied, but it is not possible to prove this beyond doubt.


After excavation, the bones were carefully cleaned with water and soft brushes. After cleaning, it became clear that there were significant injuries on the skeleton. Some of these were visible when the remains were first uncovered, but others were only identified during the analysis.


The complete skeleton showing the curve of the spine.


The skeleton being excavated, showing the curve in the spine and the way the head had been squashed into the grave. The hands may have been tied.



Forensic analysis using micro-CT

The forensic analysis of the Greyfriars bones by micro-computer X-ray tomography (micro-CT) is the first time that this advanced technique has been applied to an archaeological investigation.


Computed X-ray tomography (CT) has routinely been used for medical applications since the early 1970s, and we are all familiar with the image of a patient sliding through a doughnut-shaped ‘CAT scanner’. An X-ray source is located on one side of the ring, an X-ray detector on the other, and the whole affair rotates around the patient. Sophisticated software is then used to turn the succession of radiographs into a 3D image.



This micro-CT image shows two potentially fatal injuries near to the point where the skull meets the spine (A). B is probably a cut from a sword, while C is a massive slice taken out by something like a halberd. The interior of the skull is visible through all three holes; this becomes clearer when the 3D image is rotated.


Micro-CT is a much higher-resolution technique in which the X-ray source (an electron gun in a vacuum tube, not dissimilar to the cathode ray tube in an old television) and the detector remain static while the sample rotates. The East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit, part of the University of Leicester located on the Leicester Royal Infirmary site, and the University’s Department of Engineering are together leading in the use of micro-CT for forensic applications.


Applying the micro-CT technique to the bones found underneath the Greyfriars church allows us to study them in great detail, in particular the visible wounds and the effect of the scoliosis. The work was led by Professor Guy Rutty, Chief Forensic Pathologist and Professor Sarah Hainsworth, Professor of Materials Engineering.



One of the most commonly asked questions about X-ray tomography is: ‘What is the resolution?’ The not terribly helpful answer is: it depends. Among other things, it depends on the size of the pixel matrix employed and the spacing of volume elements or ‘voxels’. It also depends on the resolution of the X-ray detector itself, the focal spot size, the geometric magnification, the stability of the rotation mechanism and the filtering algorithm used to reconstruct the images.


In practice, for micro-CT (and clinical CT), the geometric magnification is important, determined by how close the sample is to the X-ray emitter and the detector, always bearing in mind that the scanned object must be able to rotate through 360 degrees. Resolution is also affected by how much the object moves between each slice, with parts further away from the centre of rotation moving further.


Finally, to improve signal-to-noise ratio, long scan times may be necessary. Each bone of the Greyfriars skeleton was imaged for six to eight hours to give the highest possible resolution.



Ice Age Lion Man is world’s earliest figurative sculpture

Work carved from mammoth ivory has been redated and 1,000 new fragments discovered—but it won’t make it to British Museum show

By Martin Bailey. Web only

Published online: 31 January 2013


The star exhibit initially promised for the British Museum’s “Ice Age Art” show will not be coming—but for a good reason. New pieces of Ulm’s Lion Man sculpture have been discovered and it has been found to be much older than originally thought, at around 40,000 years. This makes it the world’s earliest figurative sculpture. At the London exhibition, which opens on 7 February, a replica from the Ulm Museum will instead go on display.

The story of the discovery of the Lion Man goes back to August 1939, when fragments of mammoth ivory were excavated at the back of the Stadel Cave in the Swabian Alps, south-west Germany. This was a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War. When it was eventually reassembled in 1970, it was regarded as a standing bear or big cat, but with human characteristics.


The ivory from which the figure had been carved had broken into myriad fragments. When first reconstructed, around 200 pieces were incorporated into the 30cm-tall sculpture, with about 30% of its volume missing.


Further fragments were later found among the previously excavated material and these were added to the figure in 1989. At this point, the sculpture was recognised as representing a lion. Most specialists have regarded it as male, although paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid controversially argued that it was female, suggesting that early society might have been matriarchal.


The latest news is that almost 1,000 further fragments of the statue have been found, following recent excavations in the Stadel Cave by Claus-Joachim Kind. Most of these are minute, but a few are several centimetres long. Some of the larger pieces are now being reintegrated into the figure.


Conservators have removed the 20th-century glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction, and are now painstakingly reassembling the Lion Man, using computer-imaging techniques. “It is an enormous 3D puzzle”, says the British Museum curator Jill Cook.


The new reconstruction will give a much better idea of the original. In particular, the back of the neck will be more accurate, the right arm will be more complete and the figure will be a few centimetres taller.


An imaginative sculptor


Even more exciting than the discovery of new pieces, the sculpture’s age has been refined using radio-carbon dating of other bones found in the strata. This reveals a date of 40,000 years ago, while until recently it was thought to be 32,000 years old. Once reconstruction is completed, several tiny, unused fragments of the mammoth ivory are likely to be carbon dated, and this is expected to confirm the result.


This revised dating pushes the Lion Man right back to the oldest sculptures, which have been found in two other caves in the Swabian Alps. These rare finds are dated at 35,000 to 40,000 years, but the Lion Man is by far the largest and most complex piece. A few carved items have been found in other regions which are slightly older, but these have simple patterns, not figuration.


What was striking about the sculptor of the Lion Man sculptor is that he or she had a mind capable of imagination rather than simply representing real forms. As Cook says, it is “not necessary to have a brain with a complex pre-frontal cortex to form the mental image of a human or a lion—but it is to make the figure of a lion-man”. The Ulm sculpture therefore sheds further light on the evolution of homo sapiens.


Conservators experimented by making a replica of Lion Man, calculating that it would take a highly skilled carver at least 400 hours using flint tools (two months’ work in daylight). This means that the carver would have had to be looked after by hunter-gatherers, which presupposes a degree of social organisation. There is an ongoing debate on what the Lion Man represents, and whether it is linked to shamanism and the spirit world.


Initially, it was hoped that the original of the Lion Manwould be presented at the British Museum’s exhibition, but this has not proved possible because conservators need further time to get the figure reconstructed as accurately as possible. The Ulm Museum now plans to unveil it in November.


"Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind", British Museum, London, 7 February-26 May and “The Return of the Lion Man: History, Myth, Magic”, 16 November-9 June 2014, Ulmer Museum, Ulm.



Prehistoric humans not wiped out by comet, says researchers

30 January 2013 Royal Holloway, University of London


Comet explosions did not end the prehistoric human culture, known as Clovis, in North America 13,000 years ago, according to research published in the journal Geophysical Monograph Series.


Researchers from Royal Holloway University, together with Sandia National Laboratories and 13 other universities across the United States and Europe, have found evidence which rebuts the belief that a large impact or airburst caused a significant and abrupt change to the Earth’s climate and terminated the Clovis culture. They argue that other explanations must be found for the apparent disappearance.


Clovis is the name archaeologists have given to the earliest well-established human culture in the North American continent. It is named after the town in New Mexico, where distinct stone tools were found in the 1920s and 1930s.


Researchers argue that no appropriately sized impact craters from that time period have been discovered, and no shocked material or any other features of impact have been found in sediments. They also found that samples presented in support of the impact hypothesis were contaminated with modern material and that no physics model can support the theory.


“The theory has reached zombie status,” said Professor Andrew Scott from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway. “Whenever we are able to show flaws and think it is dead, it reappears with new, equally unsatisfactory, arguments.


“Hopefully new versions of the theory will be more carefully examined before they are published”.



Attached files


Full bibliographic information

American Geophysical Union monograph, first available in January,


Boslough, M., Nicoll, K., Holliday, V., Daulton, T.L., Meltzer, D., Pinter, N., Scott, A.C., Surovell, T., Claeys, Ph., Gill, J., Paquay, F., Marlon, J., Bartlein, P., Whitlock, C., Grayson, D. and Jull, T. 2012. Arguments and Evidence against a Younger Dryas Impact Event. In: Giosan, L.; D.Q. Fuller; K. Nicoll; R. Flad and P.D. Clift. (editors) Climates Landscapes and Civilizations. GEOPHYSICAL MONOGRAPH SERIES, VOL. 198, PP. 13-26, 2012 (first available in January 2013)



Study Rebuts Hypothesis That Comet Attacks Ended 9,000-Year-Old Clovis Culture

Jan. 30, 2013


Rebutting a speculative hypothesis that comet explosions changed Earth's climate sufficiently to end the Clovis culture in North America about 13,000 years ago, Sandia lead author Mark Boslough and researchers from 14 academic institutions assert that other explanations must be found for the apparent disappearance.


"There's no plausible mechanism to get airbursts over an entire continent," said Boslough, a physicist. "For this and other reasons, we conclude that the impact hypothesis is, unfortunately, bogus."

In a December 2012 American Geophysical Union monograph, first available in January, the researchers point out that no appropriately sized impact craters from that time period have been discovered, nor have any unambiguously "shocked" materials been found.

In addition, proposed fragmentation and explosion mechanisms "do not conserve energy or momentum," a basic law of physics that must be satisfied for impact-caused climate change to have validity, the authors write.

Also absent are physics-based models that support the impact hypothesis. Models that do exist, write the authors, contradict the asteroid-impact hypothesizers.

The authors also charge that "several independent researchers have been unable to reproduce reported results" and that samples presented in support of the asteroid impact hypothesis were later discovered by carbon dating to be contaminated with modern material.

The Boslough trail

Boslough has a decades-long history of successfully interpreting the effects of comet and asteroid collisions.

His credibility was on the line on in July 1994 when Eos, the widely read newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, ran a front-page prediction by a Sandia National Laboratories team, led by Boslough, that under certain conditions plumes from the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with the planet Jupiter would be visible from Earth.

The Sandia team -- Boslough, Dave Crawford, Allen Robinson and Tim Trucano -- were alone among the world's scientists in offering that possibility.

"It was a gamble and could have been embarrassing if we were wrong," said Boslough. "But I had been watching while Shoemaker-Levy 9 made its way across the heavens and realized it would be close enough to the horizon of Jupiter that the plumes would show." His reasoning was backed by simulations from the world's first massively parallel processing supercomputer, Sandia's Intel Paragon.

On the one hand, it was a chance to check the new Paragon's logic against real events, a shakedown run for the defense-oriented machine. On the other, it was a hold-your-breath prediction, a kind of Babe Ruth moment when the Babe is reputed to have pointed to the spot in the center field bleachers he intended to hit the next ball. No other scientists were willing to point the same way, partly due to previous failures in predicting the behavior of comets Kohoutek and Halley, and partly because most astronomers believed the plumes would be hidden behind Jupiter's bulk.

That the plumes indeed proved visible started Boslough on his own trajectory as a media touchstone for things asteroidal and meteoritic.

It didn't hurt that, when he stands before television cameras to discuss celestial impacts, his earnest manner, expressive gestures and extraterrestrial subject matter make him seem a combination of Carl Sagan and Luke Skywalker, or perhaps Tom Sawyer and Indiana Jones.

Standing in jeans, work shirt and hiking boots for the Discovery Channel at the site in Siberia where a mysterious explosion occurred 105 years ago, or discussing it at Sandia with his supercomputer simulations in bold colors on a big screen behind him, the rangy, 6-foot-3 Sandia researcher vividly and accurately explained why the mysterious explosion at Tunguska that decimated hundreds of square miles of trees and whose ejected debris was seen as far away as London most probably was caused neither by flying saucers drunkenly ramming a hillside (a proposed hypothesis) nor by an asteroid striking the Earth's surface, but rather by the fireball of an asteroid airburst -- an asteroid exploding high above ground, like a nuclear bomb, compressed to implosion as it plunged deeper into Earth's thickening, increasingly resistive atmosphere. The governing physics, he said, was precisely the same as for the airburst on Jupiter.

Among later triumphs, Boslough was the Sandia component of a National Geographic team flown to the Libyan Desert to make sense of strange yellow-green glass worn as jewelry by pharaohs in days past. Boslough's take: It was the result of heat on desert sands from a hypervelocity impact caused by an even bigger asteroid burst.

In the present case

In the Clovis case, Boslough felt that his ideas were taken further than he could accept when other researchers claimed that the purported demise of Clovis civilization in North America was the result of climate change produced by a cluster of comet fragments striking Earth.

In a widely reported press conference announcing the Clovis comet hypothesis in 2007, proponents showed a National Geographic animation based on one of Boslough's simulations as inspiration for their idea.

Indiana Jones-style, Boslough responded. Confronted by apparently hard asteroid evidence, as well as a Nova documentary and an article in the journal Science, all purportedly showing his error in rebutting the comet hypothesis, Boslough ordered carbon dating of the major evidence provided by the opposition: nanodiamond-bearing carbon spherules associated with the shock of an asteroid's impact. The tests found the alleged 13,000-year-old carbon to be of very recent formation.

While this raised red flags to those already critical of the impact hypothesis, "I never said the samples were salted," Boslough said carefully. "I said they were contaminated."

That find, along with irregularities reported in the background of one member of the opposing team, was enough for Nova to remove the entire episode from its list of science shows available for streaming, Boslough said.

"Just because a culture changed from Clovis to Folsom spear points didn't mean their civilization collapsed," he said. "They probably just used another technology. It's like saying the phonograph culture collapsed and was replaced by the iPod culture."


Modern mummification sheds light on Ramses II

February 1, 2013

by Adela Talbot


Some millennia ago, Yes might have been the object of worship in ancient Egypt. Today, Yes – a modern, domestic house cat – is helping shed light on the practice of mummification and the lives of ancients, such as Ramses II, the most celebrated pharaoh of Egypt.

Emerging from a study looking to determine whether Ramses II had ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a chronic inflammatory disease of the spine which makes vertebrae look dense in radiographs, the study of Yes started when a graduate student asked Western professor Andrew Nelson to mummify his pet, who passed away from pancreatitis. Since, Nelson, associate dean of research and operations in Western's Department of Anthropology, and associate dean in the Faculty of Social Science, has led the Yes investigation, looking to determine whether changes that happen to tissues are part of the pathological process or related to mummification. In other words, is the density of the vertebrae, observed in radiographs of Ramses II, indicative of him having suffered from AS? Or, is the density a result of the mummification process? "We're looking at the osteobiography of a mummy. We're trying to tell the story of that person's life through the analysis of bones and tissues; we want to get as accurate a picture of their life as we can, that we can properly diagnose the disease process and properly differentiate from (the mummification process)," Nelson explained. Enter Yes, an interdisciplinary case study that was featured last week on the Discovery Channel's The Daily Planet. Enlarge In what is the first long-term study of tissue changes during mummification using multimodal imaging techniques, Nelson and his research team started the process of mummifying Yes in 2004. The goal was to see what changes can be observed in tissues and how long it takes for such changes to occur. Once mummification was complete, researchers examined Yes with MR (magnetic resonance) scans and clinical CT (computerized tomography) imaging, in order to see beneath the wrappings and observe changes to tissues over time. The use of a microCT scanner allowed Nelson's research team to non-invasively examine the remains of Yes in the afterlife.

The results of the scans showed a rapid shrinking and a decrease in tissue density, Nelson said, noting the expectation was that tissues would increase in density, not get softer. What this means, Nelson said, is that if we observe increased density in tissue of a mummy, researchers can be confident that it represents real physiological issues, ones not part of the mummification process. "If we see something that is markedly more dense in a mummy, we can be sure it is pathology," he said. So, in this way, Yes has helped shed light on the life of Ramses II. While difficult to know for certain, it is possible the pharaoh had AS. But that's not the cat's only contribution to researchers' understanding of the mummification process. While the team left Yes' heart and brain intact, it was difficult to see any trace of the brain in the initial scans. The heart was, however, visible. "The brain shrunk a lot and lobbed to the side of the cranial cavity," Nelson said, noting it looked as if the brain was not actually there. "Why we care about that is that brain removal was something the Egyptians did (in humans), though not all the time. The Egyptians mummified a lot of different animals. In (scans of animals where the brain is not visible), it could be that the brain is actually still there and you have to do more detailed imaging," he continued. "There's a lot of discussion, whether Egyptians were treating animals differently. It appears that animals were not eviscerated in the same way – the brain was not removed. The few examples where (animals) have been held up and treated the same way as people, it's important to look at them and ask is this some exception or are we mistaken in terms of that conclusion?" Provided by University of Western Ontario


Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-02-modern-mummification-ramses-ii.html#jCp



ICHHTO to Deliver One Last Blow to the Already Suffered Sasanian City of Gundeshapur

02 February 2013


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Permission for the construction of a housing complex over the Sasanian city of Jondi Shapur (Gundeshapur) has been issued by the city of Dezful Cultural heritage authority.


The provincial brunch of Iran Cultural Heritage and Handcraft Organisation (ICHHTO), in a damaging move has issued a license for the construction of houses, coving 40,000 square meters over the protected national heritage site of the Sasanian city of Jondi Shapur.


For the last three decades the ancient city has severely been damaged by constant illegal excavations, agriculture and unnecessary civil projects caused mainly by the authorities’ negligence as well as malice acts, towards the pre-Islamic Iranian heritage site by the ruling regime. The construction of new houses over the ancient city would ensure its total destruction.


ICHHTO, under a false pretence of being the protector of Iranian heritage, in fact has caused more damage to the Iranian Heritage, particularly to those of the pre-Islamic era, than any other governmental organisation since the rise of the Islamic regime to power in 1979.


The executives and key management personnel which are appointed by the regime are chosen based on their devotion to the regime rather than expertise. As a result of the lack of expertise, in addition to corruption to the highest level, Iran has witnessed these sorts of construction permits over her ancient sites. Of course, the policy of the destruction of pre-Islamic sites is also in accordance with the regime’s policy of de-Iranianisation (de-Persianisation) of the country.


Before 1979, there were 50 archaeological mounds visible over the Gunde Shaur landscape, in which none has survived today, as they have been flattened, manily by the Islamic Republic’s Jihad for Agriculture. If the permission for the new construction is not revoked, the destruction of Gunde Shapour is ensured.



The Historical Background

The ancient city of Jondi-Shapur (also Jondishapur – Middle-Persian Gondêšâpur), situated in Khuzestan province, southern Iran. The city was founded by the Sasanian emperor Shapur I (r. 241-272 CE) after the victory over the Romans which resulted in capturing Valerian. It has been argued that Jondi-Shapur might have had an Arsacid dynastic (248 BCE-224 CE) antecedent, which was rebuilt by Shapur II (r. 309-379). This argument is based on the mention in two Greek inscriptions from Susa of the term Gondeisos as the name of a waterway. The name would seem to represent an Iranian gund-dêz "military fortress," which led to pose the hypothesis that Gond-dez was the original Iranian name of the place; later gund-dêz-ī Šāpūr, hence the military fortress of Shapur.



The ancient city became the world’s capital of knowledge and culture during the Sasanian dynasty (224-637 CE). Its university, as the oldest university in world was renowned for science, astronomy and philosophy, while its medical centre has been credited with establishing the modern hospital system. It is known that the origin of Academic dress dates back to that university, which evidence suggests that both the faculty and the student body of this university wore special apparel more than 1700 years ago to indicate institutional deference. The tradition was largely revived in 12th century Europe, where universities as we know them today, were taking form.


Jondi-Shapur became the capital city of Emperor Shāpur II, and it gained its claim to fame during the reign of Khosrow I Anushirvan (Anūšakrūwān - the immortal soul), and her university, continued as an important centre of science, philosophy, and medicine in the ancient world. It is recorded that the Emperor had a keen interest in the sciences and gathered a large group of scholars in his city. It was by his decree that the famous physician Borzuyeh was sent off to India to gather the best minds and sources of knowledge of the day. Borzuyeh is famous for having translated the ancient text “Panchatantra” from Sanskrit into Persian, renaming it as “Kalilah and Dimnah.


The city finally was captured and plundered by the Arab Muslims, and its library either burnt down or dumped in the rivers. The destruction of the Persian libraries throughout the Sasanian realm came directly from Umar.


After the fall of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sasanian Empire, when the Arab commander Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas was faced with thousands of literary works, at the Ctesiphon Library, asked Umar, what he should do with them. He ordered him: “The blasphemous books are not needed, as for us only Quran is sufficient.” Thus, the generations of the Persian scientific and scholarly works were burned or thrown into the Euphrates. Despite that, the city's academy survived and persisted for several centuries as a Muslim institute of higher learning.


The most prominent feature of Jondishapur from the 9th century onwards was the tomb of the founder of Saffarid dynasty, Ya'qub b. Layth. A little shrine located on the outskirts of the Shahabad village has long been the focus of attention. Today, the identification of this shrine as the tomb of Ya'qub is so widely believed that some refer to it as "Emamzada Ya'qub b. Layth".


Yaqub-e Layth (r. 867-79), was a Persian nationalist from Sistan, who by uniting Iranians against the Arab invaders, formed the Saffarid Dynasty. He is considered to be the "Father of the New-Persian Language" (pedar-e zabān-e Pārsī) as he declared New-Persian (Pārsī) as the official language of his empire. He banned the use of the invaders’ language and had the court poets composing Persian verses for the first time since the fall of Sasanian Empire in 651 CE. Soon, the plebeian Saffarids were also equipped with an Imperial Iranian genealogy. Yaqub indeed, pioneered the renaissance of a specifically Irano-Islamic culture based on the 'national' aspirations of the Islamised Iranians, who had continued to be aware of their pre-Islamic Iranian identity and culture during two centuries of Arab domination.


Yaqub ended his days reigning over a vast swathe of territory stretching from today's Iraq to the borders of India and China.



Roman settlement uncovered by builders in Flintshire

2 February 2013 Last updated at 11:07


A substantial Roman settlement has been uncovered during work on a major building development in Flintshire.


The find at the Croes Atti project near Flint has unearthed a section of Roman road, pottery and evidence of an industrial complex processing lead and silver mined at nearby Halkyn Mountain.


The discoveries were made as groundwork began on an 180-house scheme.


A three-week exploration of the site is now under way, funded by construction firm Anwyl and the heritage body Cadw.


Andy Davies, Anwyl's technical director, said his workforce had discovered the proof that had eluded archaeologists.


"We uncovered the Roman remains quite early in the work," he said.


"We stripped the top soil away and found something straight away and we and have been working with local archaeologists since then.


"They believed there were Roman settlements in the area and archaeological work had been done here before but nothing had been found."


Metal detectors have been used on the site, turning up large quantities of lead, while other finds included high quality Samian ware pottery, made France, and exported all over the Roman Empire.


The pottery is believed to date back some 1,800 years.


Will Walker, of Earthworks Archaeology, said: "It's a fabulous find and it's on our doorstep.


"We have a remarkably well-preserved Roman road in good condition and the site is throwing up all manner of interesting things including a lot of lead, which suggests it was connected with the lead workings on Halkyn Mountain.


"The lead - and silver - would have been processed at this site, converted into lead ingots, known as pigs, and probably transported to Chester by barge and would have been used in the building trade for pipes and roofing."


As well as pottery and a section of road, archaeologists have also also found what is likely to have been a Roman building, with a corner structure and pebble-clay floor, burnt beams and post holes.


A lead-rivet repaired 'orangeware' vessel was also found in the structure.


Leigh Dodds, principal archaeologist with Earthworks Archaeology, added: "A large building was excavated further down the road back in the 1970s and that may have been the home of the procurator, the Roman official in charge of this settlement.


"Nothing had been found in this area but there is clear evidence of a settlement with buildings either side of the Roman road."



Excavation gives up all the dirt on ancient earthen mound

Enormous structure built on Mississippi River bayou 3,200 years ago an impressive feat

By Megan Gannon

News editor

updated 2/1/2013 3:43:39 PM ET


The enormous earthen monument Poverty Point, built on a Mississippi River bayou some 3,200 years ago, is an impressive feat of engineering. Hunter-gatherers moved more than 26.5 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of dirt to create concentric ridges and several large mounds in what is today northern Louisiana.

Now researchers say one of the most impressive earthworks at the site likely took shape in fewer than 90 days, built by thousands of Native American laborers using a "bucket brigade" system.

Archaeologists excavating parts of Poverty Point, which is now in the running to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, analyzed core samplings and sediments from one of the massive earthen features known as Mound A. Curiously, they found no traces of rainfall or erosion during the construction phase of the mound.


"We're talking about an area of northern Louisiana that now tends to receive a great deal of rainfall," said researcher T.R. Kidder, an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Even in a very dry year, it would seem very unlikely that this location could go more than 90 days without experiencing some significant level of rainfall. Yet, the soil in these mounds shows no sign of erosion taking place during the construction period. There is no evidence from the region of an epic drought at this time, either." [ In Photos: Earthly Mounds Shaped Like Animals ]

Mound A, which stretches across 538,000 square feet (50,000 square meters) at its base and rises 72 feet (22 m) above the Mississippi River, is thought to be the last addition to Poverty Point's altered landscape. If it were built today, it would take a 10-wheel dump truck more than 30,000 loads to move the estimated 8.4 million cubic feet (238,500 cubic m) of dirt that make up the mound, Kidder and his colleagues said. But hunter-gatherers likely did it with bushel baskets.

"The Poverty Point mounds were built by people who had no access to domesticated draft animals, no wheelbarrows, no sophisticated tools for moving earth," Kidder explained in a statement. "It's likely that these mounds were built using a simple 'bucket brigade' system, with thousands of people passing soil along from one to another using some form of crude container, such as a woven basket, a hide sack or a wooden platter."

The researchers believe to complete such a feat in such a short amount of time would have required about 3,000 laborers. This suggests that as many as 9,000 archaic Native Americans might have flocked to Poverty Point for the huge construction project, assuming that many of the workers were accompanied by their wives and children, the team said.

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"Given that a band of 25-30 people is considered quite large for most hunter-gatherer communities, it's truly amazing that this ancient society could bring together a group of nearly 10,000 people, find some way to feed them and get this mound built in a matter of months," Kidder said.

"These results contradict the popular notion that pre-agricultural people were socially, politically and economically simple and unable to organize themselves into large groups that could build elaborate architecture or engage in so-called complex social behavior."


Poverty Point was recently nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cultural significance. Artifacts excavated at the site come from as far away as the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys and the Appalachians of Alabama and Georgia, indicating the Poverty Point civilization was heavily involved in trade, the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development's Division of Archaeology noted in its UNESCO application.

The new research was detailed online last month in the journal Geoarchaeology.



Timbuktu Update

30 January 2013

13.00, Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tombouctou Manuscripts Project


Huma (Institute for humanities in Africa)

University of Cape Town


Since the start of this week there are reports about the destruction of library buildings and book collections in Timbuktu. It sounds as if the written heritage of the town went up in flames. According to our information this is not the case at all. The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials. A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the Ahmad Baba Institute library looted but from all our local sources – all intimately connected with the public and private collections in the town - there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.


By Sunday January 27 the Ansar Dine rebels had fled Timbuktu.  The French army and its Malian partners entered the town on that day.


One of the first reports on Monday morning out of the town was that a library and books had been set alight.  A Sky News journalist, Alex Crawford, embedded with the French forces, reported in the evening from inside the new Ahmad Baba building, which is opposite the Sankore mosque.  This building was officially opened in 2009 and is the product of a partnership between South Africa and Mali.  It is meant to be a state-of-the-art archival, conservation, and research facility. Images showed empty manuscript enclosures strewn on the floor, some burnt leather pouches, and a small pile of ashes.  She reported that over 25,000 mss had been burned or disappeared. Additional images showed her going down to the vault of the archives and looking at empty display cabinets. No signs of fire could be seen.


The mayor of Timbuktu, Hallè Ousmane, based around 800 km away, in Bamako, was quoted in various media reports that a library building and manuscripts were torched by fleeing rebels. There is no other evidence but the word of the mayor. News spread to international media and the mayor’s words were reported as hard fact.


We tried all of Monday, since these reports appeared, to contact colleagues in Timbuktu but without success. The town was in a communications and electricity blackout since around January 20, we were told by Malian colleagues; no eyewitness reports had been coming out of the town for more than a week at this point.


Sources from Bamako in the evening reported that Mohamed Ibrahim Cissé, President of the Chairman of the Board of the Cercle of Timbuktu still confirmed, on France 24, that the new Ahmed Baba Institute building had been burned by the Ansar Dine before fleeing.


By Monday night we finally managed to contact our colleague, Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institute, now based in Bamako. He heard much the same reports that we heard. However, he added that the majority of the mss. of the Institute was still stored in the old building – opened in 1974 and on the other side of the town, from the new building.  He told us that the latest news about the new building, as of eight days before the flight of the Ansar Dine, was that the building had not been destroyed. He said that around 10,000 mss had been stored in the new building since there was no more space for the mss in the old building.  They were placed in trunks in the vaults of the new building.  Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place and boxes were made there were only a few mss.  After seeing Sky News footage, he says that the images were of the few mss upstairs waiting to be worked on by the conservators.


However, by Tuesday morning, Dr. Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs and founding director of the Ahmad Baba Institute, told Time, that before the rebel take-over the manuscripts: “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”


Finally, the journalist Markus M. Haeflinger, writing in Neue Zuercher Zeitung this morning, reports on his interview with the previous and present directors of the Ahmad Baba Institute in Bamako, on how the larger part of the Ahmad Baba collection was hidden and even transported out of Timbuktu during the crisis.


The protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region needs to be enhanced and promoted. The abandonment of the security of Timbuktu nine months ago, the flight of archivists and researchers, and the closure of libraries should not be repeated. We remain in contact with our colleagues in Mali and are keen to establish precisely which manuscripts were damaged, destroyed, or stolen.