Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Natural explanation for the 10 plagues

Complete article

Researchers believe they have found evidence of real natural disasters on which the ten plagues of Egypt, which led to Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, were based.

But rather than explaining them as the wrathful act of a vengeful God, the scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters that happened hundreds of miles away.

Archaeologists now widely believe the plagues occurred at an ancient city of Pi-Rameses on the Nile Delta, which was the capital of Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses the Second, who ruled between 1279BC and 1213BC.

The city appears to have been abandoned around 3,000 years ago and scientists claim the plagues could offer an explanation.

Climatologists studying the ancient climate at the time have discovered a dramatic shift in the climate in the area occurred towards the end of Rameses the Second's reign.

The scientists believe this switch in the climate was the trigger for the first of the plagues...

An Archaeological Mystery in a Half-ton Lead Coffin

In the ruins of a city that was once Rome's neighbor, archaeologists last summer found a 1,000-pound lead coffin.

Who or what is inside is still a mystery, said Nicola Terrenato, the University of Michigan professor of classical studies who leads the project---the largest American dig in Italy in the past 50 years.

The sarcophagus will soon be transported to the American Academy in Rome, where engineers will use heating techniques and tiny cameras in an effort to gain insights about the contents without breaking the coffin itself.

"We're very excited about this find," Terrenato said. "Romans as a rule were not buried in coffins to begin with and when they did use coffins, they were mostly wooden. There are only a handful of other examples from Italy of lead coffins from this age---the second, third or fourth century A.D. We know of virtually no others in this region."

This one is especially unusual because of its size.

"It's a sheet of lead folded onto itself an inch thick," he said. "A thousand pounds of metal is an enormous amount of wealth in this era. To waste so much of it in a burial is pretty unusual."

Was the deceased a soldier? A gladiator? A bishop? All are possibilities, some more remote than others, Terrenato said. Researchers will do their best to examine the bones and any "grave goods" or Christian symbols inside the container in an effort to make a determination.

"It's hard to predict what's inside, because it's the only example of its kind in the area," Terrenato said. "I'm trying to keep my hopes within reason."

Human remains encased in lead coffins tend to be well preserved, if difficult to get to. Researchers want to avoid breaking into the coffin. The amount of force necessary to break through the lead would likely damage the contents. Instead, they will first use thermography and endoscopy. Thermography involves heating the coffin by a few degrees and monitoring the thermal response. Bones and any artifacts buried with them would have different thermal responses, Terrenato said. Endoscopy involves inserting a small camera into the coffin. But how well that works depends on how much dirt has found its way into the container over the centuries.

If these approaches fail, the researchers could turn to an MRI scan---an expensive option that would involve hauling the half-ton casket to a hospital.

The dig that unearthed this find started in summer 2009 and continues through 2013. Each year, around 75 researchers from around the nation and world, including a dozen U-M undergraduate students, spend two months on the project at the ancient city of Gabii (pronounced "gabby").

The site of Gabii, situated on undeveloped land 11 miles east of Rome in modern-day Lazio, was a major city that pre-dates Rome but seems to have waned as the Roman Empire grew.

Studying Gabii gives researchers a glimpse into pre-Roman life and offers clues to how early Italian cities formed. It also allows them broader access to more substantial archaeological layers or strata. In Rome, layers of civilization were built on top of each other, and archaeologists are not able or allowed to disturb them.

"In Rome, so often, there's something in the way, so we have to get lucky," Terrenato said. "In Gabii, they should all be lucky spots because there's nothing in the way."

Indeed, Terrenato and others were surprised to find something as significant as this coffin so soon.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What mineral that might have been the key ingredient in the blue used to decorate "blue painted pottery"?

Pottery decorated in a distinctive pale blue color was in vogue in New Kingdom Egypt, particularly during the reign of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. The pale blue is due to cobalt that may have been derived from a mineral mined at an oasis in the eastern Saharan desert. (Credit: Colin A. Hope/ Monash University)

Jennifer Smith, PhD, associate professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, was belly crawling her way to the end of a long, narrow tunnel carved in the rock at a desert oasis by Egyptians who lived in the time of the pharaohs.

She was seeking an uncontaminated sample of a mineral that might have been the key ingredient in the blue used to decorate "blue painted pottery" popular among the Egyptian elite during the New Kingdom (1550 to 1079 BCE).

Colleague Colin A. Hope, an expert in blue painted pottery, had asked if she wouldn't help him pin down the source of the blue pigment by sampling and analyzing material fromt he mine.

Hope and Smith, together with Paul Kucera, a doctoral student at Monash University who first identified the mines, describe the pottery, the mines and the mineral in a chapter of Beyond the Horizon, a festschrift for the Egyptologist Barry A. Kemp,

'Generic geologist'

In the wastes of the eastern Sahara, nestled against the limestone escarpment that separates the desert from the Nile Valley, lies the Dakhleh Oasis. This fortunate spot, where deep water is able to reach the surface along fractures and faults under its own pressure, has been continuously inhabited for a very long time -- perhaps as long as 400,000 years.

During that period there were roughly four glacial cycles and, although Egypt itself was ice-free, the local climate oscillated from hyperarid to semi-arid as the Earth's orbital position drove changes in the location of the tropical rainfall belts.

Smith studies the impact of these climate fluctuations on ancient oasis dwellers.

But Smith is also the "generic geologist" as she puts it, for the Dakhleh Oasis Project, a long-term study of the oasis that covers the entire stretch of Dakhleh history, from the Neolithic through the Pharaonic, Roman, Islamic and modern settlements, and employs -- off and on -- more than 50 specialists.

"The dig house is open from November until March," Smith says.

As generic geologist, Smith was asked to help with a material-sourcing puzzle that she says was "way outside her period." During the 2007 season, Colin A. Hope, PhD, associate professor and director of the Center for Archaeology and Ancient History at Monash University in Australia, asked her whether a mineral found at the oasis could have been used to color the blue painted pottery.

It was a small question but an intriguing one.

Blue painted pottery

Most Egyptian pottery is undecorated, but during the New Kingdom, the period when Egypt is at the zenith of its power, a variety of pottery was elegantly decorated in a distinctive pale blue.

The pottery has been found at many sites in Egypt, and also in the Middle East and in Sudan.

The largest deposits, however, were found at New Kingdom sites in Egypt, including Malqata (the palace complex of Amenhotep III), Amarna (the remains of the city built by the Akenaten, the famous pharaoh who moved the capital from Thebes and established his own religion), the cemetary at Deir el-Medineh (the village where artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom lived), and the Great Temple of Amun (patron of kingship during the New Kingdom).

"Walking over some sites, it is only a matter of minutes before several shards of blue painted pottery or cobalt blue glass or faience can be collected," Hope, who has written extensively about the pottery, says.

Given the restricted use to which the pigment was put and the archeological sites where remnants were found, Hope believes it was probably available only to artisans associated with major royal residences.

The pale blue is distinguishable at a glance from the brilliant blues and blue-greens of the faience glazes common from the 3000 BC onward. Faience, probably most familiar in the form of the small statue of a hippo nicknamed William that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was made by adding ground copper to ground quartz to create what ceramists today call Egyptian paste.

But it is difficult to create durable patterns with copper pigment on pottery, says Hope. "Copper-based pigments must be applied in thick layers and were added after firing, so they tended to flake off when an object was handled. Instead of copper, the colorant used on most of the blue painted pottery is cobalt, which was fired onto the pots.

Where did the cobalt-bearing mineral come from? Analysis of the paint showed that the cobalt was accompanied by trace amounts of zinc, nickel and manganese, a mixture of elements distinctive enough to serve as a chemical fingerprint.

The mines of Dakhleh

At the height of its power, the Egyptian administration of the Nile Valley sponsored mineral exploitation of the Valley and surrounding desert regions. As early as 1980, it was suggested that the cobalt might have come from the desert oases at Dakhleh and Kharga.

In the lower foothills of the oasis escarpment at the western end of Dakhleh, four mine shafts were meticulously hand-cut into the rock. Steps carved along the shafts allowed a safe descent. The shafts provided access to horizontal galleries, some as long as 15 meters, that followed horizontal veins of the mineral alum.

A few centimeters thick, the alum veins are fibrous, pale gray to pink in color and slightly astringent.

Alum is both the term for a specific compound and for a class of compounds, all of which contain two negatively charged sulfate groups and two chemical elements or groups bearing a positive charge. The specific compound is hydrated aluminum potassium sulfate but many other elements or groups can substitute for the aluminum and potassium, and cobalt is one of these.

Alum was probably exploited for a variety of purposes in ancient times, some having nothing to do with color. The Egyptians, for example, used alum both to whiten skins during tanning and to prepare cloth to absorb dye.

Alum is still used today in styptic pencils to stem bleeding and in recipes for pickling cucumbers. More recently, it has been in vogue as a "crystal deodorant" that is sold as more natural than older deodorant products.

Was the Dakhleh Oasis alum used as a general-purpose astringent, or did it have the same chemical fingerprint as the blue paint on the pottery?

Analyzing the alum

To find out, Smith needed to sample the alum and analyze its composition. "I wanted to get relatively unaltered samples," she says, "which is why I was crawling to the end of a gallery. The galleries were small enough you couldn't really crawl on your hand and knees: you had to belly crawl."

Smith brought the samples she collected back to Washington University where she ran them through a variety of sophisticated analytical instruments. "When we characterize a natural mineral," she says, "we want to know two things: its chemical composition and then how the elements that make it up are arranged, or its crystal structure."

In the case of the Dakhleh alum, the crystal structure was of little use because it would have been destroyed in preparing the paint. Only the composition could connect the alum to the pottery.

Smith's results showed that the alum did contain cobalt, although they weren't particularly rich in this element. The cobalt, however, was accompanied by trace amounts of manganese, nickel and zinc, the same mixture of elements found in the blue paint.

Surprised by the low concentration of cobalt, Smith wondered if the ancient artisans hadn't found a way to concentrate it on site. One sample she collected, a crust at the edge of a partially flooded mine shaft, had a higher cobalt content than the others. Because sulphate dissolves easily and the mines were much more likely to have been flooded in the past, she wondered whether the cobalt was mined not by chipping it out of the rock but instead by ladling water out of the mines and collecting the sediment left over when the water evaporated.

"But this is wild arm waving given the amount of data," Smith says.

This small exercise in archeological problem solving left her with a deep respect for the long-vanished miners.

"I look at all these different veins of sulfate and I don't know which are useful for which purposes without doing analyses, but they must have had ways of telling from observable properties which ones to mine. That's impressive," she says.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Did the first 'modern' human beings on the Iberian Peninsula interact with Nanderthals?

They were in the same area at the same time, but no evidence of interaction

Research carried out by a group of archaeologists from the Centre for Prehistoric Archaeological Heritage Studies of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPAP_UAB) at the Cova Gran site (Lleida) has contributed to stirring up scientific debate about the appearance of the first "modern" human beings on the Iberian Peninsula and their possible bearing on the extinction of the Neanderthals. The samples obtained at Cova Gran using Carbon 14 dating refer to a period of between 34,000 and 32,000 years in which this biological replacement in the Western Mediterranean can be located in time, although the study regards as relative the use of Carbon 14 for dating materials from the period of transition of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic period( 40,000 and 30,000). The results also support the hypothesis that there was neither interaction nor coexistence between the two species.

Cova Gran is a large shelter discovered in 2002, located in the area of Les Avellanes-Santa Linya -La Noguera- and is one of the rare European archaeological sites to enable the study of what is known in Paleoanthropology as "transitions" or critical phases in which transformations and remodelling that are essential for reconstructing the history of our species can be detected.

The investigators from the UAB have worked on an area of 60 metres squared, excavating a large area which has enabled them to reconstruct the way in which the people who inhabited the shelter lived. This system of working is not usual in archaeology since excavations are generally restricted to smaller earth movements. They have been able to recover archaeological materials from the Middle Palaeolithic attributable to Homo neanderthalensis, and from the Upper Palaeolithic, which corresponds to Homo sapiens, separated by sterile strata of sediment which allows their differentiation.

The exceptional conditions of conservation of these archaeological remains, which have remained unaffected by biological and geological changes, have meant that the materials used by each of these species has been conserved without the need for significant earth movements, contrary to that which has been indicated in other archaeological sites. This detailed analysis of the tool remains recovered allows major differences to be observed in the way in which they were made, implying that they were made by different species.

This is something that has also been recognised in other sites in Western Europe, and it goes to strengthen the hypothesis that the two species neither lived together nor interacted with each other, although they may have lived in the same geographical area during the period from 40,000 to 30,000 years, which is generally referred to as the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic "transition".

Cova Gran was occupied successively by Neanderthals and "modern" humans in small groups of 15 to 20 people with a similar lifestyle: hunting, gathering, making tools for their daily activities and obtaining and processing food for which the use of fire was essential. In spite of this, each species used very different techniques and primary materials.

Among the remains found that are attributable to Homo sapiens are several perforated sea snail shells, generally considered to be an indicator of the distribution of the species throughout Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe. They also denote the existence of a symbolic language and cognitive capacities for which there is no evidence during the Middle Palaeolithic These objects indicate that Homo sapiens travelled widely across lands from the Mediterranean coast to the Pyrenean foothills, a distance of over 150 kilometres, although the researchers do not rule out the existence of social networks which would connect groups separated by large distances and through which these objects would circulate. If this were the case, the ornaments would be a key symbolic element in the social structure of this people and a clue to their identity.

The work also offers new data about the period in which the first representatives of the so-called "modern humans" appeared in the Iberian Peninsula and the extinction of the Neanderthals, a question that has generated some heated debate within the area of Paleoanthropology. The Carbon 14 dated samples in Cova Gran make references to a period of between 34,000 and 32,000 years in which this biological replacement in the Western Mediterranean can be located in time.

Notwithstanding, the study also discusses the validity of C14, the method habitually used to date archaeological remains from that period. Although C14 is a vital tool for dating archaeological sites, one conclusion to emerge from the study is that the period between 40 and 30 thousand years cannot be considered as "historic" years. This observation has rekindled the controversy that has existed for some time in archaeology about whether C14 is a totally reliable timepiece. The radioactive isotope regularly disintegrates but from 30,000 years its presence in samples is residual and, in many cases, the samples have been exposed to processes of change that are difficult to identify. The researchers argue that much of the data that is usually obtained in studies of this period may correspond to samples that have been contaminated or have been treated in laboratories using methods that have failed to detect this type of problem. Currently improvements are being developed which it is hoped will eliminate this uncertainty.

The Cova Gran site covers a total surface area of 2,500 metres squared and contains an important archaeological heritage. Future excavations will enable more profound investigations into how modern humans settled in the Iberian Peninsular and their evolution over the last 40,000 years.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pottery Leads to Discovery of Peace-seeking Women in American Southwest

From the time of the Crusades to the modern day, war refugees have struggled to integrate into their new communities. They are often economically impoverished and socially isolated, which results in increased conflict, systematic violence and warfare, within and between communities as the new immigrants interact with and compete with the previously established inhabitants. Now, University of Missouri researcher Todd VanPool believes pottery found throughout the North American Southwest comes from a religion of peace-seeking women in the violent, 13th-century American Southwest. These women sought to find a way to integrate newly immigrating refugees and prevent the spread of warfare that decimated communities to the north.

First discovered in 1930’s Arizona, Salado pottery created a debate among archaeologists. According to VanPool, the Salado tradition is a grassroots movement against violence. The mystery of the pottery’s origin and significance was known as “the Salado problem.” This southwestern pottery was found among three major cultural areas of the ancient southwest: the ancestral Puebloan in northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Mogollon of southern New Mexico and the Hohokam of central and southern Arizona, all with different religious traditions. Even though the pottery was found in three different cultural areas, the pottery communicated the same, specific set of religious messages. It was buried with both the elite and non-elite and painted with complex, geometric motifs and animals, such as horned serpents. Instead of celebrating local elites, the symbols in Salado pottery emphasized fertility and cooperation.

“In my view, the fact that the new religion is reflected solely in pottery, a craft not usually practiced by men, suggests that it was a movement that helped bring women together and decreased competition among females,” said VanPool, who is an assistant professor of anthropology in the MU College of Arts and Science. “Women across the region may have been ethnically diverse, but their participation in the same religious system would have helped decrease conflict and provided a means of connecting different ethnic groups.”

Salado pottery dates from the 13th to 15th centuries in which there was major political and cultural conflict in the American Southwest. Brutal executions and possible cannibalism forced thousands of people to abandon their native regions and move to areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Another source of conflict appeared after the female refugees and their children arrived in their new homelands.

“Conflict was defused through the direct action of women who sought to decrease the tensions that threatened to destroy their communities,” VanPool said. “The rise of the Salado tradition allowed threatened communities to stabilize over much of modern-day Arizona and new Mexico, altering the course of Southwestern prehistory. Given that the Salado system lasted from 1275 to around 1450, it was most certainly successful.”

VanPool’s research has been published in Archaeology magazine. A more extended version has been published as a chapter in Innovations in Cultural Systems: Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology, published by MIT Press (2010).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cuneiform documents date from the fifth and sixth centuries BCE: the "Al-Yahuda texts"


Saint Joseph's University Ancient Studies program is sponsoring a conference focusing on a collection of recently discovered documents that shed light on a Jewish settlement in ancient Mesopotamia. "Jerusalem in Babylonia: New Discoveries from the Exilic Period," will be held March 21-22 in the University's Campion Student Center.

The cuneiform documents date from the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, and are referred to as the "Al-Yahuda texts," based on the name of the place where the documents themselves say they were drawn up.

More info

"The phrase 'Al-Yahuda' means 'city of Judah,' which in the Bible refers to Jerusalem," said Bruce Wells, Ph.D., director of the Ancient Studies program and an assistant professor of theology.

What makes the documents so noteworthy, however, is that they weren't discovered in Jerusalem. They were found in modern day Iraq, in the territory that was known as Babylonia at the time they were written. That time was the so-called "exilic period" when a number of people from Judah (the southern part of modern day Israel) were taken as captives to Babylonia.

"The use of the phrase 'Al-Yahuda' tells us that there were enough people in exile that they formed their own town," Wells said, likening it to "Little Italy" communities found in major cities throughout the country.

The tablets are records of normal business matters of the time, including marriage contracts and slavery transactions. They were written by Babylonian scribes and include many Hebrew names, which add weight to the theory that there was a fairly large Jewish population in Babylonia at the time.

"There has been debate over just how many Jews were forced into exile at the time," Wells said. "These tablets provide the first ever substantial evidence for common people from Judah living in Babylon during the exilic period."

Among the conference's six lecturers is Laurie Pearce, Ph.D., of the University of California-Berkeley, and Cornelia Wunsch, Ph.D., of the University of London. Both scholars are currently working to translate and publish many of the texts.

"Once published, they will become an important object of study for Biblical studies, the history of Babylon and early Jewish history," Wells said.

The conference is free and open to the public. It will be held on March 21 from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and March 22 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, e-mail Wells at bwells@sju.edu, or access www.sju.edu/academics/cas/resources/ancientstudies/ .

Monday, March 8, 2010

Khirbet Qeiyafa is “Neta’im”, mentioned in the book of Chronicles

Has another mystery in the history of Israel been solved? Prof. Gershon Galil of the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa has identified Khirbet Qeiyafa as “Neta’im”, which is mentioned in the book of Chronicles. “The inhabitants of Neta’im were potters who worked in the king’s service and inhabited an important administrative center near the border with the Philistines,” explains Prof. Galil.

Khirbet Qeiyafa is a provincial town in the Elah Valley region. Archaeological excavations carried out at Khirbet Qeiyafa by a team headed by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Mr. Saar Ganor have dated the site to the beginning of the 10th century BCE, namely the time of King David’s rule. A Hebrew inscription on a pottery shard found at the site, also dating back to the 10th century, has recently been deciphered by Prof. Galil and indicates the presence of scribes and a high level of culture in the town.

The genealogy of the Tribe of Judah dated to the same period is recorded in 1 Chronicles. The last verse of this genealogy, 1 Chronicles 4:23, mentions two important cites: Gederah and Neta’im, both of which were administrative centers, since they were inhabited by people who work “in the king’s service”: “These were the potters, the inhabitants of Neta’im and Gederah, they dwelt there in the King’s service.” Gederah has been identified by A. Alt with Khirbet Ğudraya, near the Elah Valley, but Neta’im, which is mentioned only once in the Bible, remained unidentified.

American scholar Prof. William Albright, a leading archaeologist, proposed associating Neta’im with Khirbet En-Nuweiti’, which is also located near the Elah Valley, based on the phonological similarity between the two names. Archaeological surveys at Khirbet En-Nuweiti’, however, revealed that it was only inhabited during Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine times, and not during the Iron Age.

Prof. Galil’s identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa with Neta’im is based on the proximity of Khirbet Qeiyafa to biblical Gederah/Khirbet Ğudraya; on the archaeological findings - including impressive fortifications - dating from the time of King David’s rule and indicating that this was an administrative center; and on the preserved name of nearby Khirbet En-Nuweiti’.

“The archeological findings at this site, the discovery of the earliest and most important Hebrew inscription to be found to date, and the understanding, based on the biblical text, that members of the Tribe of Judah inhabited the town and worked in the king’s service, testify to Khirbet Qeiyafa - Neta’im - being an important administrative center in the border region of the Kingdom of Israel during the time of King David’s reign. The existence of this fortified administrative center relatively far from the center of the kingdom testifies to a conflict that broke out between the Israelites the Philistines after David was victorious over the House of Saul and all of the Tribes of Israel were unified under his leadership. It is further proof of a large and powerful kingdom during the days of King David,” Prof. Galil concludes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, says international scientific panel

The Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs and more than half of species on Earth, was caused by an asteroid colliding with Earth

The Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs and more than half of species on Earth, was caused by an asteroid colliding with Earth and not massive volcanic activity, according to a comprehensive review of all the available evidence, published today in the journal Science.

A panel of 41 international experts, including UK researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the Open University, reviewed 20 years' worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous–Tertiary (KT) extinction, which happened around 65 million years ago. The extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, bird-like pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth.

Today's review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid slamming into Earth at Chicxulub (pronounced chick- shoo-loob) in Mexico. The asteroid, which was around 15 kilometres wide, is believed to have hit Earth with a force one billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. It would have blasted material at high velocity into the atmosphere, triggering a chain of events that caused a global winter, wiping out much of life on Earth in a matter of days.

Scientists have previously argued about whether the extinction was caused by the asteroid or by volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps in India, where there were a series of super volcanic eruptions that lasted approximately 1.5 million years. These eruptions spewed 1,100,000 km3 of basalt lava across the Deccan Traps, which would have been enough to fill the Black Sea twice, and were thought to have caused a cooling of the atmosphere and acid rain on a global scale.

In the new study, scientists analysed the work of palaeontologists, geochemists, climate modellers, geophysicists and sedimentologists who have been collecting evidence about the KT extinction over the last 20 years. Geological records show that the event that triggered the extinction destroyed marine and land ecosystems rapidly, according to the researchers, who conclude that the Chicxulub asteroid impact is the only plausible explanation for this.

Despite evidence for relatively active volcanism in Deccan Traps at the time, marine and land ecosystems showed only minor changes within the 500,000 years before the time of the KT extinction. Furthermore, computer models and observational data suggest that the release of gases such as sulphur into the atmosphere after each volcanic eruption in the Deccan Traps would have had a short lived effect on the planet. These would not cause enough damage to create a rapid mass extinction of land and marine species.

Dr Joanna Morgan, co-author of the review from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: "We now have great confidence that an asteroid was the cause of the KT extinction. This triggered large-scale fires, earthquakes measuring more than 10 on the Richter scale, and continental landslides, which created tsunamis. However, the final nail in the coffin for the dinosaurs happened when blasted material was ejected at high velocity into the atmosphere. This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn't adapt to this hellish environment."

Dr Gareth Collins, Natural Environment Research Council Fellow and another co-author from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, added: "The asteroid was about the size of the Isle of Wight and hit Earth 20 times faster than a speeding bullet. The explosion of hot rock and gas would have looked like a huge ball of fire on the horizon, grilling any living creature in the immediate vicinity that couldn't find shelter. Ironically, while this hellish day signalled the end of the 160 million year reign of the dinosaurs, it turned out to be a great day for mammals, who had lived in the shadow of the dinosaurs prior to this event. The KT extinction was a pivotal moment in Earth's history, which ultimately paved the way for humans to become the dominant species on Earth."

In the review, the panel sifted through past studies to analyse the evidence that linked the asteroid impact and volcanic activity with the KT extinction. One key piece of evidence was the abundance of iridium in geological samples around the world from the time of the extinction. Iridium is very rare in Earth's crust and very common in asteroids. Immediately after the iridium layer, there is a dramatic decline in fossil abundance and species, indicating that the KT extinction followed very soon after the asteroid hit.

Another direct link between the asteroid impact and the extinction is evidence of 'shocked' quartz in geological records. Quartz is shocked when hit very quickly by a massive force and these minerals are only found at nuclear explosion sites and at meteorite impacts sites. The team say that an abundance of shocked quartz in rock layers all around the world at the KT boundary lends further weight to their conclusions that a massive meteorite impact happened at the time of the mass extinction.

The panel was able to discount previous studies that suggested that the Chicxulub impact occurred 300,000 years prior to the KT extinction. The researchers say that these studies had misinterpreted geological data that was gathered close to the Chicxulub impact site. This is because the rocks close to the impact zone underwent complex geological processes after the initial asteroid collision, which made it difficult to interpret the data correctly.

"The Chicxulub Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary",

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ancient Hebrew Manuscripts


Complete article

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is renowned for its collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Although it houses one of the most extensive collections in the world, few people have the chance to see what lies beneath in the library’s vaults.

However, some idea of what treasures there are may be gleaned from the library’s current exhibition, Crossing Borders, in which a selection of precious documents from the 13th to the 15th centuries has been chosen to show how Jews, Christians and Muslims contributed to the development of the book.

Among the jewels on show in the Exhibition Room are scrolls, manuscripts and codices including the lavish Kennicott Bible, fragments from Maimonides’ draft of his legal code Mishneh Torah with the author’s corrections and the richly illustrated prayer book, the Oppenheimer Siddur.

What emerges from this small yet fascinating show is that regional influence plays a larger part in the creation of a text than might be expected.

At this point in history the Jewish diaspora was mainly in Spain, Italy and Northern Europe. Hebrew manuscripts were, therefore, being produced across a larger territorial range than their Greek, Latin or Arabic counterparts. Hebrew manuscripts often bore more similarities to non-Hebrew books produced in the same region than to each other, and such similarities are manifest in the distinctive decorative patterns and script and writing styles the manuscripts’ makers adopt.

During the medieval period the majority of Hebrew manuscripts were copied by scholars and students for their own use, but towards the middle of the 13th and 14th centuries many of the elaborately decorated prayer books were used in public, often as status symbols. Wealthy patrons would enhance their status by employing the most sought-after professionals to complete their works, and often the illuminators would be Christian artists...

New route, much earlier migration to America?

U.S. anthropologists hypothesize that ancestors of aboriginal people in South and North America followed High Arctic route

Complete article

Two U.S. scientists have published a radical new theory about when, where and how humans migrated to the New World, arguing that the peopling of the Americas may have begun via Canada's High Arctic islands and the Northwest Passage -- much farther north and at least 10,000 years earlier than generally believed...

The idea of an ancient Arctic migration as early as 25,000 years ago, proposed by University of Utah anthropologists Dennis O'Rourke and Jennifer Raff, would address several major gaps in prevailing theories about how the distant ancestors of to-day's aboriginal people in North and South America arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

The most glaring of those gaps is the anomalous existence of a 14,500-year-old archeological site in Chile, near the southern extreme of the Americas, that clearly predates the time when East Asian hunters are thought to have first crossed from Siberia to Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last ice age some 13,000 years ago.

The new theory also may have implications for a lingering Canadian archeological mystery. For decades, the Canadian Museum of Civilization has stood largely alone in defending its view that the Yukon's Bluefish Caves hold evidence of a human presence in the Americas -- tool flakes and butchered mammoth bones -- going back about 20,000 years...

Using skin boats and hunting along glacier-free refuges while the last ice age was still underway, the prehistoric travellers could have moved quickly along the northern Siberian coast to northern Alaska, Canada's Arctic Islands and beyond to eastern and southern parts of the Americas, they say...

In recent years, the routes and timing of New World migration have been among the most contentious issues in science.

The Siberia-to-Alaska pathway for early hunter-gatherers, followed by a southward migration down a mid-continental "ice-free corridor" in present-day Northwest Territories and Alberta, is widely accepted and backed up by numerous archeological findings.

But a growing number of scientists, troubled by the age of the Chilean site and other wrinkles in the conventional migration story, have recently touted the likelihood of an earlier migration by seafaring people along the Pacific Coast..

Equally puzzling is the fact that eastern North America has generated far more artifacts from the continent's first-known civilization, the Clovis people, than archeological sites in the West, where more relics would be expected.

Finally, DNA studies of current aboriginal populations -- which can provide evidence of the geographic origins and migration patterns of ancient ancestors -- have been at odds with the conventional migration models...

In an interview, O'Rourke said the possibility of a very early northern migration is supported by recent research in Russia. In January 2004, a team of Russian scientists reported the remains of a 30,000-year-old human settlement near the Arctic Ocean outlet of Siberia's Yana River, the most convincing evidence ever found for such an early, northerly human presence near the Bering gateway to the New World...

Pieces of rare biblical manuscript reunited

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Two parts of an ancient biblical manuscript separated across centuries and continents were reunited for the first time in a joint display Friday, thanks to an accidental discovery that is helping illuminate a dark period in the history of the Hebrew Bible.

The 1,300-year-old fragments, which are among only a handful of Hebrew biblical manuscripts known to have survived the era in which they were written, existed separately and with their relationship unknown...

Together, they make up the text of the Song of the Sea, sung by jubilant Israelites after fleeing slavery in Egypt and witnessing the destruction of the pharaoh's armies in the Red Sea.

"The enemy said: 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil. My lust shall be satisfied upon them, I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them,'" reads the song, which appears in the Book of Exodus. "Thou didst blow thy wind, the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters..."

Scholars believe the scroll was written around the seventh century somewhere in the Middle East, possibly in Egypt. It is not known how the two parts were separated or what happened to the rest of the manuscript...

The reunification of the two pieces adds an important link in the chain, showing how the writing of the Hebrew Bible evolved through the so-called "silent" period - between the third and 10th centuries - from which nearly no Biblical texts survived. While in the Dead Sea Scrolls the song is arranged like prose, for example, in the newly reunited manuscript it is written like a poem, the same way it appears in the Hebrew Bible today...