The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is calling on all sides in the Libya conflict to protect North Africa’s wealth of ancient treasures. Five Libyan sites are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, including the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and the ancient Phoenician trading post of Sabratha, close to the capital Tripoli. In the rebel-held eastern section, the ancient mountain city of Cyrene is vulnerable. (Map of threatened areas. Link to original story.)
Under the Qaddafi regime, the ancient Roman and Greek cities dotting the Mediterranean coast have suffered from neglect. Qaddafi preferred to develop the oil of his country (Libya has about 2% of the world’s reserves) and little money was spent on developing the tourist industry or protecting important archaeological sites. Sheep are penned in the Greek theater at Cyrene and goats roam the ruins. Locals are hoping that tourism will bring some prosperity to their area when hostilities cease. (Link to original story.)
In my last post, I talked about bog bodies. This time I have a great story about a brain preserved for over 2,600 years in a waterlogged pit in the U.K. Found inside the decapitated skull of a man, probably in his late thirties, it’s considered one of the best preserved ancient brains in the world. Because of high fat content, brains tend to putrefy more quickly than other soft tissues, but this one was described as “odorless…with a resilient, tofu-like texture.” (Link to original story.)
In related stories about what the dead can tell us, a team led by cardiologists Adel Allam of Al Azhar Medical School in Cairo and Gregory Thomas of the University of California, Irvine, are studying heart disease in a sample of 44 mummies. Nearly half had evidence of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries that causes both strokes and heart attacks.) Because the risk factors of tobacco smoking and lack of exercise are unlikely in these cases, the scientists are looking at high exposure to bacterial infection and parasitic diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis as contributing factors. (Link to original story.)
These scientists are following in the footsteps of the father of palaeopathology, noted anatomist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith. Over one hundred years ago, Smith joined the Archaeological Survey of Nubia, financed by the Egyptian government, to rescue archaeological material before it was lost under the water behind the Aswan Dam. The team excavated over 20,000 graves and rescued thousands of artifacts. Smith broke new ground by studying the bones for patterns of health and disease–at a time when archaeologists were focusing heavily on the discovery of beautiful artifacts. That work pioneered both the academic discipline of palaeopathology and the methods of modern epidemiology. A new generation of scientists are now looking at the mass of material he collected. (Link to original story.)
Previously exhumed bodies are always telling new tales. In the 1920s and 30s, French archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, excavated Persian siege tunnels under and around the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura-Europos (from the conflict in A. D. 250’s.) Du Mesnil found the bodies of at least 19 Roman soldiers and one lone Persian and speculated that death was due to hand-to-hand combat, after which the Persian’s set fire to the tunnel. Now scientists theorize the Persians used chemical warfare to kill the Romans. It’s possible that the Persians set a trap, built a fire and threw on sulfur and bitumen; which created a black smoke that turned to sulfuric acid in the Roman’s lungs. (Link to original story.)
Agatha Christie is in the news this month, but not for any undiscovered manuscripts. The British Museum purchased a collection of ivories excavated from the Assyrian city of Nimrud by Christie’s second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. In1949, he found thousands of carvings in “the ivory room,” which were divided between the archaeologists and the (now called) British Institute for the Study of Iraq. (Many of the pieces remaining in Iraq were damaged in the invasion.) (Link to original story.) Christie traveled with her husband for twenty years and worked on the digs. She used her experiences in such books as Murder in Mesopotamia. She is known to have handled the ivories, cleaning them with her expensive face cream. (Link to original story.)
The UK, as usual, is all over the news with a variety of interesting stories:
- Two rare Roman altar stones dedicated to the god Mithras were uncovered in the Scottish town of Musselburgh, the furthest north that such dedications have been found.
- Dr. Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University, addressed the legends about the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and comes down on the side of heavy losses in Scotland, which resulted in building Hadrian’s wall.
- It turns out the Roman’s weren’t the only road builders in Britain. An Iron Age road was unearthed at Bayston Hill quarry, near Shrewsbury. It included brushwood, a deep clay foundation and cobbles taken from the river Severn.
- The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England has acquired a blackened fossil (the femur of a Pliocene elephant), known as the Nichoria bone. The fossel was collected by ancient Greeks and may have inspired certain beasts in Greek classical mythology.
And, finally, updates on past stories in the news:
- Dr. Zahi Hawass was in, then out, then in again during the transition in Egypt. You can follow his career on his blog where he posts regular updates on what’s happening with the antiquities in Egypt. One thing is for sure, tourists have stopped visiting. This story talks about the lonely Pyramids.
- Here’s a wrenching story and slide show as the waters rise over the Roman baths at Allianoi, Turkey. There’s still controversy over whether the irrigation benefits outweigh the potential tourism of a site that was comparable to Roman baths in Bath, England and Baden-Baden in Germany.
- Climate change continues to threaten archaeological treasures that have been frozen for thousands of years, according to Edinburgh researchers in this article.
- Worldwide, over 500 heritage sites are under threat due to development, unsustainable tourism, looting and war. Using Google Earth, satellite imagery and social networking; the Global Heritage Fund developed a database to serve as an early warning system for saving endangered sites.
- And a love story in Pompeii: A marble tomb inscription that broke apart during the eruption has been reunited to read: “Lucius Catilius Pamphilus, freedman of Lucius, member of the Collinian tribe, for his wife Servilia, in a loving spirit.” The husband and wife names have been separated for over 2000 years.
- If you’re in the New York City area before September 2011 be sure to check out the largest collection of body casts ever to leave Pompeii.