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Unusual-ology: Unexpected Items in the Bagging Area…

Unusual-ology is a new post type which focuses on weird new articles/science areas that have cropped up and caught my eye.

Archaeologists have made a very peculiar discovery in a churchyard near the St Pancras train station in London. The researchers, led by Phil Emery from Ramboll Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, have stumbled upon a coffin dating back between 1822 and 1858.  What has made the coffin so strange is that it had a large selection of bones from many different animals mixed among human remains. Within the coffin were nine bones from a Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), eight mixed sets of human remains – including three skulls, and a tortoise.

Image

Top: Collection of the walrus bones. Bottom Left: The walrus’ back right leg. Bottom Right: The skull showing visible signs consistent with craniotomy.

The coffin was originally discovered in 2003 during excavations of the horizontal burial trench underneath the station, when the Eurostar terminal moved from Waterloo to St Pancras. Emery & Wooldridge (2011) have noted that the bones discovered have marks which are consistent to dissection, which was legalised by the Anatomy Act of 1832, with one skull showing evidence of craniotomy (drilling a hole in the skull to gain access to the brain). As the animal bones were found alongside human remains, Emery believes that the bones were used as a teaching collection from a research institute and has said that:

“The animal bone consisted of a small, moderately-preserved group of eight bones derived from a walrus of a very large size and robust build.’The sample includes bones from a lower fore-limb, a fore-foot, first and second metacarpal, the lower hind limbs, fibula, calcaneum, astragalus and first cuneiform. These bones are significantly larger than their reference equivalents held at the Natural History Museum. Microscopic examination revealed that all the St Pancras walrus bones show some degree of surface erosion and butchery marks. Three clear superficial transverse knife cuts were noted.”

The walrus bones have now been moved to the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre in Hackney, East London.

If you’ve enjoyed this new ‘Unsual-ology’ post feature – leave a comment or a like!

If you want to read more unusual science posts click here, or to read the Unusual-ology post on the Ancient Egyptian use of lettuce as an aphrodisiac, click here. Or to read about the newly discovered ‘Entrance to Hell’ click here!

 

References:

Daily Mail. 2013. The ongoing mystery around how a Pacific walrus ended up buried in a human coffin beneath London’s St Pancras station. Daily Mail News. Article available here.

Emery, P., Wooldridge, K. 2011. St Pancras burial ground: excavations for St Pancras International, the London terminus of High Speed 1, 2002–3. Gifford, London. This book can be found here. 

Telegraph. 2013. Walrus remains found buried under St Pancras station in London. Telegraph News. Available from here.

Unusual-ology: Male Spiders Self Sacrifice for Better Offspring.

Unusual-ology is a new post type which focuses on weird new articles/science areas that have cropped up and caught my eye.

The practice of monogyny is found throughout the insect kingdom, especially arachnids. One such arachnid is the make dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus). A recent study in Biology Letters has discovered that the male arachnid willingly sacrifices itself to the female to ensure that the resulting offspring is healthy; by providing itself as a meal for the female.

Video of the mating rituals and cannibalism from the experiment – Royal Society of Journals

Schwartz et al (2013) think that this practice of sexual cannibalism may provide an ‘evolutionary advantage’, because a better fed female is more likely to provide healthy descendants. But there are certain drawbacks to this practice; if a male dark fishing spider accidentally prematurely triggers one of their pedipalps, their two feeler-like appendages near the mouth where sperm is stored, they can die. Schwartz has encountered many problems during his experiment while catching the wild male specimens; they would accidentally snag their pedipalps on a piece of cotton which would cause them to die before the experiment could take place.

References:

National Geographic. 2013. Male Spiders Self-Sacrifice, Lose Genitals. National Geographic News. Click here for the article.

Schwartz, S.K., Wagner Jr, W.E., Hebets, E., A. 2013. Spontaneous male death and monogyny in the dark fishing spider. Biology Letters. 9, 4. Click here for the journal.

If you’ve enjoyed this new ‘Unsual-ology’ post feature – leave a comment or a like!

If you want to read more unusual science posts click here, or to read the Unusual-ology post on the Ancient Egyptian use of lettuce as an aphrodisiac, click here. Or to read about the newly discovered ‘Entrance to Hell’ click here!

Unusual-ology: Ancient Greek and Roman “Entrance to Hell” discovered.

Unusual-ology is a new post type which focuses on weird new articles/science areas that have cropped up and caught my eye.

Italian archaeologists from the University of Salento, led by Francesco D’Andria, working at a Greco-Roman site of ancient have discovered the ‘Entrance to Hell’.

ImageHieropolis, known today as Pamukkale, Turkey – where the “Entrance of Hell” has been located.

This ‘Entrance to Hell’ has been discovered in Hierapolis, known today as Pamukkale, in Turkey.  Francessco and the fellow archaeologists were able to stumble upon the entrance of the temple by tracing the path of the hot springs through the ancient site. The temple, identified as the Ploutonion, has been linked to Hades and correctly identified due to an ‘engraved dedication’ to Pluto above the gate. The temple was built over a cave and underground in the thermally active area. Ploutonion was the worship ground for many ancient pilgrims who would travel to celebrate their gods and bathe within the hot springs that surround the area.

The reason why the Ploutonion has been called the ‘Entrance to Hell’ is due to the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo. Strabo mentions about the “opening of sufficient size to admit a man, but there is a descent to a great depth… The space is filled with a cloudy and dark vapour, so dense that the bottom can be scarcely be discerned.” These documents explain that the cloudy, dark vapour has caused many animals that enter to die instantly. Strabo wrote that Bulls which had entered the Ploutonion “fell down and were taken out dead” and sparrows which were thrown inside “immediately fell down lifeless.” The Ploutonion’s poisonous vapour still survives today as many dead birds have been found on this site during modern excavations. The presence of the dead birds has helped convince the archaeological team that this is in fact Ploutonion’s true ‘entrance to hell’.

If you’ve enjoyed this new ‘Unsual-ology’ post feature – leave a comment or a like!

If you want to read more unusual science posts click here, or to read the Unusual-ology post on the Ancient Egyptian use of lettuce as an aphrodisiac, click here!

References:

Biblical Archaeology Society. 2013. Hierapolis and the Gateway to Hell. Bible History Daily News. Click here for the article, and to read more of Strabo’s writing on the Ploutonion.

Daily Mail. 2013. Is this the Gate of Hell? Archaeologists say temple doorway belching noxious gas matches ancient accounts of ‘portal to the underworld’. Daily Mail News. Click here for the article.

National Geographic. 2013. Archaeologists Find a Classic Entrance to Hell. National Geographic Daily News. Click here for the article.

New Evidence Supports Conflict is Not Innate.

In a previous post – which can be found by clicking here – I had examined whether conflict was innate for humans after a lecture in University, which I concluded was true by analysing different theories but stressed that conflict only becomes active due to a stimulus. That stimulus could either be biological, seen in aggressive mating, or environmental, such as intraspecific/intrespecific competition. But a recent study, noticed by the BBC has put a spanner in the works, as the leading researcher – Patrik Soderberg – says that conflict isn’t actually innate.

Soderberg’s research based its findings by studying isolated tribes from numerous places around the world which had been studied over the last century. By using modern primitive isolated tribes they were able to have a sample which was cut off from the modern day life and utilising the wild plants and animals that inhibit their environment, surviving like the much older hunter-gatherers.

Ancient hunter-gatherer cave art.

Ancient hunter-gatherer cave art.

Using these modern day tribes as an analogy for the earlier societies that ruled the lands, they assessed and analysed any violent deaths. They found that in their sample populations there were 148 violent deaths, but very few were caused by widespread war. Most of the violent deaths were caused by personal motives ranging from family feuds or adultery.

Soderberg has admitted that these modern tribes were not a ‘perfect model’ for the ancient civilisations but said that due to vast significant similarities they did allow for an insight into the past. From this study he concluded that war may have developed later as the hunter gathers became more agriculture orientated and territorial with a complex social structure. “As humans settled down, then war becomes more dominant and present. For these primitive societies, war has not yet entered the picture,”.

References:

BBC. 2013. Primitive human society ‘not driven by war’. BBC News. Available here.

Soderberg, P., Fry, D. 2013. Latest Skirmish Over Ancestral Violence Strikes Blow for Peace. Science. 341, 6143. P224. Here is a link to view the .pdf of this very interesting article.

Tsunami in Japan claims lives of many endangered species.

The recent 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan delivered mass destruction across the Japanese mainland and notably the capital Tokyo. The tsunami claimed many lives of the population residing on the coast and caused millions of pounds worth of damaged.

A recent BBC (2011a) news story has highlighted that humans were not the only species of animal affected by this natural disaster. Thousands of albatrosses were killed when the destructive waves hit a wildlife sanctuary north-west of Hawaii. The sanctuary based on the Midway Island, which is the home of the vulnerable Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), was first created after US Naval Air facility was shut down in 1993.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 1,000 adult and adolescent Laysan albatross were killed when the 1.5metre high waves hit the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Along with the 1,000 adults approximately tens of thousands of chicks were killed when nearly 60% of the island was covered by the huge waves.

The Laysan albatross weren’t the only species of animals that was damaged by the effects of the tsunami. The population of Bonin petrels (Pterodroma hypoleuca) took a damaging blow when they were buried alive. Bonin petrels are ground nesting so live in burrows underground so scientists are uncertain about how many were affected. Scientists at the NWR were hoping that they were out foraging for food as they feed at night when the tsunami’s waves washed over the island at dawn (Yahoo, 2011). The impact of the tsunami on other species such as the Laysan ducks and monk seals are currently unknown by wildlife conservationists (BBC, 2011a).

Along the survivors of the killer waves was a 60 year old Laysan albatross named Wisdom who recently hit the news headlines as the ‘Oldest bird in the US’ after she was found mothering a chick (NYTimes, 2011). The US Geological Survey (USGS) first ring tagged Wisdom in 1956 when she was incubating an egg. It is estimated that over the past 54 years she has mothered over 30-35 chicks (BBC, 2011b).

This demonstrations that natural disasters not only damage the human race but they also put other species, which are already close to being endangered, even closer to extinction.

References:

BBC. 2011a. Japan tsunami: Thousands of seabirds killed near Hawaii. BBC News.

BBC. 2011b. ‘Oldest bird in US’ raises chick. BBC News.

NYTimes. 2011. Albatross Is a Mother at 60. The New York Times.

Yahoo. 2011. Tsunami killed thousands of seabirds at Midway. Yahoo News.

Unusual-ology: ‘Vampiric Burials’ – The archaeological evidence that supports the supernatural myths.

Unusual-ology is a new post type which focuses on weird new articles/science areas that have cropped up and caught my eye.

A recent news story, which can be viewed here, has brought to the attention of the public the topic of ‘vampiric burials’, due to the discovery of a 16th/17th century ‘vampiric burial’ in Poland.  These burials have been linked to vampire activity due to the unconventional layout of the skeletal remains – the occupants of the graves had been decapitated with their head placed between their legs. This activity of decapitating a suspected vampire had evolved from the European folk belief that decapitation is the only way to ‘keep the undead dead’. But this is not the first instance of the discovery of these superstitious burials.

Vampire Burials - Decap

The occupants of the graves had been decapitated with their head placed between their legs.

Another ‘vampiric burial’ was found in Venice during a research project on mass graves located in Nuovo Lazzaretto, where the corpses were from numerous plague deaths. One skeletal remains that stood out was that of a woman. The peculiar thing about this corpse was that a brick of moderate size was placed within her oral cavity, keeping her mandible wide open (Nuzzolese & Borrini, 2010).

Positioning of the piece of brick placed in the skeleton's oral cavity.

Position of the piece of brick placed in the skeleton’s oral cavity.

The positon of the brick was ruled out to be accidental, it wasn’t a piece of sediment that just happened to have fallen into place – it had been purposely placed there, but why? Nuzzolese & Borrini (2010) hypothesise that this is part of a symbolic burial ritual of which the gravediggers practice when there was a suspected vampire – who they thought could have been the cause for the plague ravishing their village.

Europe isn’t the only place to have encounters with ‘vampire graves’. A journal dating back ten years addressed America’s, more specifically New England, vampire folk beliefs using bioarchaeological and biocultural evidence. Sledzik & Bellantoni (1994) examined how folk beliefs associated with death and disease can impact archaeological records from their use of unusual post-mortem actions. In this study Sledzik and Bellantoni focused on a single 18/19th century male skeleton, known as J.B, aged between 50 to 55 years old. They chose J.B due to his skeletal remains being rearranged; the bones of his chest disrupted and his skull femoral placed in a “skull and crossbones” position.  J.B had died from either tuberculosis or a pulmonary infection – which was interpreted as tuberculosis, also known as consumption at the time of death.  It’s hypothesised that fellow family members, seven years later, contracted tuberculosis. The family assumed that the deceased male had returned from the dead and had ‘fed’ on them. From this notion, the family exhumed the corpse of J.B to kill the ‘undead’, keeping with the New England belief of killing a vampire by burning their heart. When they exhumed J.B. and found his body decomposed and missing his heart – which could then not be burnt – they decided the best course of action was to disrupt his corpse to stop reanimation.

So the discovery of the Polish vampire graves may have shot vampire burials into the limelight, but this isn’t the first archaeological case of superstitious vampire burial rituals, and it won’t be the last.

References:

Daily Mail. 2013. Archaeologists unearth ‘vampire graves’ containing decapitated skeletons with skulls placed between their legs on Polish building site. Daily Mail News.

Nuzzolese, E., Borrini, M. 2010. Forensic Apporach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice: Ondontological and Anthropological Prospectus. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 55, 6. p1634-1637.

Sledzik, P., Bellantoni, N. 1994. Brief Communication: Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 94, 2. p269-274.

If you’ve enjoyed this new ‘Unsual-ology’ post feature – leave a comment or a like!

If you want to read more unusual science posts click here!