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      A Victorian naturalist traded aboriginal remains in a scientific quid pro quo / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 29 November - 00:01 · 1 minute

    Sepia-toned photograph showing seated Victorian gentleman in bowtie

    Enlarge / Nineteenth-century naturalist and solicitor Morton Allport, based in Hobart, built a scientific reputation by exchanging the remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Tasmanian tigers for honors from elite societies. (credit: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)

    When Australian naturalist and solicitor Morton Allport died in 1878, one obituary lauded the man as "the most foremost scientist in the colony," as evidenced by his position as vice president of the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST) at the time of his death, among many other international honors. But according to a new paper published in the journal Archives of Natural History, Allport's stellar reputation was based less on his scholarly merit than on his practice of sending valuable specimens of Tasmanian tigers (thylacines) and aboriginal remains to European collectors in exchange for scientific accolades. Allport admits as much in his own letters, preserved in the State Library of Tasmania, as well as to directing grave-robbing efforts to obtain those human remains.

    “Early British settlers considered both thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people to be a hindrance to colonial development, and the response was institutionalised violence with the intended goal of eradicating both,” said the paper's author, Jack Ashby , assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge in England. “Allport’s letters show he invested heavily in developing his scientific reputation—particularly in gaining recognition from scientific societies—by supplying human and animal remains from Tasmania in a quid pro quo arrangement, rather than through his own scientific endeavors.”

    Thylacines have been extinct since 1936, but they were once the largest marsupial carnivores of the modern era. Europeans first settled in Tasmania in 1803 and viewed the tigers as a threat, blaming the animals for killing their sheep. The settlers didn't view the Aboriginal population much more favorably, and there were inevitable conflicts from the settlers displacing the aborigines and from the increased competition for food.  In 1830, a farming corporation placed the first bounties on thylacines, with the government instituting its own bounty in 1888. (Ashby writes that the true sheep killers were the dogs the settlers bred to hunt kangaroos.).

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      Scent of the afterlife? Scientists recreate recipe for Egyptian mummification balm / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 6 September, 2023 - 20:27 · 1 minute

    Limestone Canopic Jar of the Egyptian lady Senetnay (c. 1450 BCE)

    Enlarge / One of the limestone canopic jars that once held mummified organs of the Egyptian noblewoman Senetnay (c. 1450 BCE). (credit: Museum August Kestner, Hannover/Christian Tepper)

    Trying to recreate the scents and smells of the past is a daunting challenge, given the ephemeral nature of these olfactory cues. Now scientists have identified the compounds in the balms used to mummify the organs of an ancient Egyptian noblewoman, according to a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggesting that the recipes were unusually complex and used ingredients not native to the region. The authors also partnered with a perfumer to recreate what co-author Barbara Huber calls "the scent of eternity."

    “'The scent of eternity’ represents more than just the aroma of the mummification process,” said Huber , an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany. “It embodies the rich cultural, historical, and spiritual significance of Ancient Egyptian mortuary practices. Our methods were also able to provide crucial insights into balm ingredients for which there is limited information in contemporary ancient Egyptian textual sources.”

    As previously reported , Egyptian embalming is thought to have started in the Predynastic Period or even earlier, when people noticed that the arid heat of the sand tended to dry and preserve bodies buried in the desert. Eventually, the idea of preserving the body after death worked its way into Egyptian religious beliefs. When people began to bury the dead in rock tombs, away from the desiccating sand, they used chemicals like natron salt and plant-based resins for embalming.

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      Vlad the Impaler may have shed tears of blood, study finds / ArsTechnica · Monday, 21 August, 2023 - 21:58 · 1 minute

    This letter written by Vlad the Impaler in 1475 contains proteins that suggest he suffered from respiratory problems and bloodied tears.

    Enlarge / This 1475 letter written by Vlad the Impaler contains proteins suggesting he suffered from respiratory problems, bloodied tears. (credit: Adapted from M.G.G. Pittala et al., 2023/CC BY )

    The eponymous villain of Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel Dracula was partly inspired by a real historical person: Vlad III, a 15th century prince of Wallachia (now southern Romania), known by the moniker Vlad the Impaler because of his preferred method of execution: impaling his victims on spikes. Much of what we know about Vlad III comes from historical documents, but scientists have now applied cutting-edge proteomic analysis to three of the prince's surviving letters, according to a recent paper published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. Among their findings: the Romanian prince was not a vampire, but he may have wept tears of blood, consistent with certain legends about Vlad III.

    Vlad III was the second son of Vlad Dracul ("the Dragon"), who became the voivode of Wallachia in 1436. Vlad III was also known as Vlad Dracula ("son of the Dragon"), and it was this name that Stoker used for his fictional vampire— dracul means "the devil" in modern Romanian—along with a few historical details he was able to glean about Wallachia. This was a brutal, bloody period of political instability. Vlad spent several years as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, along with his younger brother Radu, and his father and older brother, Mircea, were murdered in 1447. Eventually, Vlad became voivode of Wallachia himself—three times, in fact, interrupted by periods of exile or captivity.

    Vlad was constantly at war, and it was his brutal treatment of his enemies that led to his reputation as a monster, particularly in German-speaking territories, where books detailing his atrocities became bestsellers. These accounts described how Vlad executed men, women, and children taken prisoner from a Saxon village and impaled them. The more accurate, eye-witness-based accounts also included details about the churches Vlad's army destroyed during plundering raids in Transylvania. Other stories (many likely exaggerated) claimed he burned the lazy and the poor, and had women impaled along with their nursing babies. A well-known woodcut shows Vlad dining while surrounded by impaled people on poles. He died in battle in January 1477, having killed an estimated 80,000 people in his lifetime.

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      “Smoke archaeology” reveals early humans were visiting Nerja Caves 41,000 years ago / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 10 May, 2023 - 16:41 · 1 minute

    María Medina of the University of Cordoba working in the Navarro Cave, Malaga, Spain

    Enlarge / María Medina of the University of Cordoba working in the Navarro Cave, Malaga, Spain. (credit: University of Cordoba)

    For over a decade, Maria Medina, an archaeologist affiliated with the University of Cordoba, has been conducting research on what she terms "smoke archaeology": trying to reconstruct Europe's prehistoric past by analyzing the remnants of torches, fire, and smoke in French and Spanish caves. Her latest discovery is that humans regularly visited the Caves of Nerja as far back as 41,000 years ago, a good 10,000 years earlier than previously believed, according to a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

    As we've reported previously , there are nearly 350 prehistoric caves in France and Spain alone, and they include the oldest cave painting yet known: a red hand stencil in Maltravieso Cave in Caceres, Spain, likely drawn by a Neanderthal some 64,000 years ago. The Caves of Nerja are located in Malaga, Spain, and boast their own paintings believed to date back 42,000 years.

    The caves were discovered in 1959 by a group of five friends who gained access via a narrow sinkhole dubbed "La Mina"—one of two natural entrances, with a third created the following year to enable better access for tourists.

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      Gruesome cache of severed hands is evidence of trophy-taking in ancient Egypt / ArsTechnica · Friday, 7 April, 2023 - 13:10 · 1 minute

    close up of a severed skeletal hand

    Enlarge / Archaeologists have discovered the first physical evidence of the so-called "gold of honor" ceremony in Ancient Egypt, in which the severed hands of defeated foes were presented to the Pharaoh in exchange for a collar of golden beads. (credit: J. Gresky et al., 2023/CC BY 4.0 )

    There is evidence that ancient Egyptian soldiers would sever the right hands of foes and present them to the Pharaoh. That evidence comes in the form of tomb inscriptions of prominent warriors, as well as inscriptions and iconography on temple reliefs. Archaeologists have now discovered the first physical evidence of such a trophy-taking practice, according to a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The severed right hands of 12 individuals were excavated from pits within a courtyard of a 15th Dynasty palace in northeastern Egypt.

    The 15th Dynasty (circa 1640-1530 BCE) rulers were known as Hyksos ("rulers of foreign lands"), although they did not control all of Egypt from their seat of power in the city of Avaris—the pharaohs of the 16th and 17th Dynasties ruled from Thebes during the same time period. Historians disagree about whether the Hyksos came to Egypt as invaders or gradually settled in the Nile delta before rising to power. But by the late 17th Dynasty, the Hyksos and the pharaohs were at war, leading to the former's defeat by Ahmose I, who founded the 18th Dynasty.

    But the Hyksos nonetheless left their mark on Egyptian culture in the form of certain technological advances and customs, including the practice of presenting the severed right hands of defeated foes in a so-called "gold of honor" ceremony in exchange for a collar of golden beads. Per the authors, the Egyptians seem to have adopted the custom during Ahmose I's reign at the latest, based on a relief showing a pile of hands in his temple in Abydos. Tomb inscriptions and temple reliefs from the 18th to the 20th Dynasties "consistently depict hand counts on the battlefield following major battles," the authors wrote. However, there was no physical evidence of the custom beyond iconographic and literary sources—until now.

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      Remember that ancient Roman “dildo”? It might just be an old Roman drop spindle / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 8 March, 2023 - 19:40 · 1 minute

    The phallus-shaped object

    Enlarge / This phallus-shaped object went viral last month, but it might not be an ancient Roman dildo after all. (credit: Vindolanda Trust)

    Odds are good you read at least one of the umpteen media stories last month about a possible 2,000-year-old "dildo" unearthed near the remains of a Roman auxiliary fort in the UK called Vindolanda. Well, it's either a dildo; a pestle used for grinding cooking, cosmetic, or medicinal ingredients; or something meant to be inserted into a statue and rubbed for good fortune (a common Roman practice). That's what the authors of a February paper in Antiquity concluded, anyway. But now we have another possible explanation to consider: The phallus-shaped artifact might be a drop spindle used for spinning yarn.

    As we've reported previously , the Vindolanda site is located south of the defense fortification known as Hadrian's Wall . An antiquarian named William Camden recorded the existence of the ruins in a 1586 treatise. Over the next 200 years, many people visited the site, discovering a military bathhouse in 1702 and an altar in 1715. The Rev. Anthony Hedley began excavating the site in 1814, but he died before he could record what he found for posterity. Another altar found in 1914 confirmed that the fort had been called Vindolanda.

    Serious archaeological excavation at the site began in the 1930s under the leadership of Eric Birley , whose sons and grandson continued the work after his death, right up to the present day. The oxygen-deprived conditions of the deposits (some of which extend 6 meters, or 19 feet, into the earth) mean that the recovered artifacts are remarkably well-preserved. These include wooden writing tablets and over 100 boxwood combs, which would have disintegrated long ago in more oxygen-rich conditions.

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      Scientists have found Lake Huron wreck of 19th century ship that sank in 1894 / ArsTechnica · Monday, 6 March, 2023 - 21:51 · 1 minute

    Ironton , a late 19th century shipwreck, has been located in NOAA's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

    In 1894, a schooner barge called Ironton collided with a Great Lakes freighter called Ohio in Lake Huron's infamous "Shipwreck Alley." Ohio 's wreck was found in 2017 by an expedition organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Now the same team has announced its discovery of the wreck of the 191-foot Ironton nearly 130 years after its sinking, so well-preserved in the frigid waters of the Great Lakes that its three masts are still standing, and its rigging is still attached. Its discovery could help resolve unanswered questions about the ship's final hours.

    Schooner barges like Ironton were part of a fleet that helped transport wheat, coal, corn, lumber, and iron ore across the Great Lakes region, towed by steamers. At 12:30 am on September 26, 1984, Ironton and another schooner, Moonlight , were being towed unladen across Lake Huron by the steamer Charles J. Kershaw when the steamer's engine failed. The weather was rough, and strong winds pushed the two schooners perilously close to the disabled steamer. Fearing a collision, Moonlight 's crew cut Ironton 's tow line, setting Ironton adrift.

    Captain Peter Girard and his crew tried to regain control of the ship, but the wind blew them onto a head-on collision course with the Ohio , which was carrying 1,000 tons of grain. According to the account of surviving crew member William Wooley, it was too dark to spot the Ohio until it was too late, and Ironton struck the steamer with its starboard bow, tearing a 12-foot wide hole in Ohio 's hull.

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      Were bones of Waterloo soldiers sold as fertilizer? It’s not yet case closed / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 10 August, 2022 - 20:00 · 1 minute

    <em>The Morning after the Battle of Waterloo</em>, by John Heaviside Clark, 1816.

    Enlarge / The Morning after the Battle of Waterloo , by John Heaviside Clark, 1816. (credit: Public domain )

    When Napoleon was infamously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the conflict left a battlefield littered with thousands of corpses and the inevitable detritus of war. But what happened to all those dead bodies? Only one full skeleton has been found at the site, much to the bewilderment of archaeologists. Contemporary accounts tell of French bodies being burned by local peasants, with other bodies being dumped into mass graves. And some accounts describe how scattered bones were collected and ground up into meal to use as fertilizer.

    It's that last claim that particularly interests Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. He has examined historical source materials like memoirs and journals of early visitors, as well as artworks, to map the missing grave sites on the Waterloo battlefield in hopes of finding a definitive answer. He recently provided an update on his efforts thus far in a recent paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.

    Napoleon had initially been defeated and deposed as emperor of France in 1813, ending up in exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. He briefly returned to power in March 1815 for what is now known as the Hundred Days . Several states opposed to his rule formed the Seventh Coalition, including a British-led multinational army led by the Duke of Wellington, and a larger Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal von Blücher. Those were the armies that clashed with Napoleon's Armée du Nord at Waterloo.

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      Pompeii tomb reveals formerly enslaved man’s rise to wealth and power

      Kiona N. Smith · / ArsTechnica · Monday, 30 August, 2021 - 19:00 · 1 minute

    Pompeii tomb reveals formerly enslaved man’s rise to wealth and power

    Enlarge (credit: Pompeii Archaeological Park)

    Archaeologists working in Pompeii recently unearthed the tomb and partially mummified remains of a man who died a few decades before the eruption. The man, Marcus Venerius Secundio, according to his epitaph, had once been enslaved, but by the end of his life he’d obtained enough wealth and status to sponsor four days of theater performances in Pompeii.

    Rags to riches in Imperial Rome

    Archaeologists rediscovered Marcus Venerius Secundio’s tomb in the ancient cemetery, or necropolis, of Porta Sarno in the eastern part of Pompeii, where tourists aren’t allowed. His tomb was large and imposing, with a colorfully painted facade depicting green plants on a blue background; traces of the paint still cling to the stone even after 2,000 years. It was also sealed so well that its occupant’s remains had partially mummified, preserving some soft tissue and a few tufts of white hair, along with some scraps of fabric.

    Because Pompeii is both amazingly well-preserved and extensively studied, archaeologists were able to match the name inscribed over the tomb’s entrance to a name on wax tablets in the house of a banker named Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, across the city from the necropolis. The banker’s tablets recorded Marcus as a “public slave” who worked as a custodian in the Temple of Venus, which once stood at the western end of town (that’s almost certainly where the second part of his name, Venerius, comes from). But at some point he became a libertus, or freedman, and began to build a new life for himself.

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