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.

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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.

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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: Lettuce, an ancient Egyptian sex symbol?

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

Can this key ingredient to salads actually be considered a sex symbol? Well Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist from the American University of Cairo, has claimed that lettuce was viewed as an aphrodisiac by ancient Egyptians, where they also used it as a phallic symbol.

Image

Min – the Egyptian god of fertility and lover of lettuce.

So how did a distant species of our modern day lettuce become a sexy vegetable? On numerous tomb walls, dating back to 2,000BC, there are images of lettuce which have been connected to the Egyptian god of fertility – Min, who can be found depicted with an erect penis on numerous hieroglyphs. It is thought that lettuce was Min’s favourite food, and this vegetable helped him perform sexual acts without becoming tired. Many ancient Egyptians wouldn’t have utilised lettuce in meals like we commonly do, but often as an aphrodisiac.

References:

Daily Mail. 2013. The land where LETTUCE was a sex symbol: Leafy vegetables were taken as an aphrodisiac in ancient Egypt and considered a delicacy of the god of fertility. Daily Mail Online. Click here for the article!

Ikram, S. 2012. Food, drink, and feasting (Egypt). The Encyclopaedia of Ancient History. Blackwell Publishing. Can be viewed here in .pdf– if you have a Wiley Online account.

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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.

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