Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum
The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.

Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.

Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.

“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”

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The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.

The exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.

Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.

The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”

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Black Death victims unearthed in London

Source.

Skeletons unearthed during excavations for London’s Crossrail project are those of Black Death victims who were buried during the 14th and 15th Century pandemics, DNA analysis has revealed.

The skeletons of 13 men, three women and two children, along with seven other unidentifiable remains, were found under Charterhouse Square in Farringdon during excavation work for the £14.8 billion project.

It is thought that the area near the Barbican Centre, which was just outside the city boundary at the time, may be the location the location of the second emergency burial ground referenced in historical documents but until now it had never found.

Set up in the capital to cater for the masses of bodies, it means that thousands more could have been buried in a mass grave in the area. A ‘community excavation project’ is set to take place in July to try to determine the extent of the cemetery.

Carbon dating techniques on 10 of the skeletons conducted by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast indicated three separate “phases” of burials – coinciding with known separate outbreaks of the plague in the capital.

The Black Death spread from Europe to England in 1348 and the layer of bodies found at the bottom of the excavation site are estimated to have been buried between 1348 and 1349, while a second layer were dated to coincide with a second outbreak of the plague in 1361, the researchers said.

The final layer of bodies were laid to rest between 1433 and 1435 – when another devastating event of plague swept through London. Four of the skeletons had remnants of the Yersinia pestis bacterium – which causes plague – on their teeth, DNA analysis showed.

The findings will be featured in a new Channel 4 programme, Return Of The Black Death, during which scientists from Public Health England in Porton Down will argue that the DNA evidence shows that the plague must have been spread by coughs and sneezes rather than fleas on rats – as has been popular belief for many years.

The team led by Dr Tim Brooks argue that the infection spread so fast that it must have got into the lungs of already malnourished victims, meaning the outbreaks were in fact pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague.

Many of the bodies showed signs of poor health and of having jobs that involved heavy manual labour, the Queen’s University researchers said, noting a high rate of back damage and strain.

Four out of the 10 remains analysed are from people that grew up outside the capital, as far north as Scotland, showing that, just as today, London drew people from across the country.

Osteologist Don Walker, from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), said he was “amazed” how much information could be gleaned about each person.

“The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death,” he said.

“We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What’s more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, added: “This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well.

“Historical documents suggest the burial ground was established for poor strangers. There is no doubt from the osteological work that the individuals buried here were not the wealthy classes, and they are representing the typical Londoner.”

Around 1.5 million Britons – more than a third of the population – died as a result of the Black Death, while about 25 million perished across Europe. More than 10,000 items of archaeological interest have been uncovered since the Crossrail project began.

What wiped out almost a third of Londoners in 1258?

From The Guardian:

When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.

Spitalfields Market in east London where 10,500 medieval skeletons were found.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth’s surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

The Icelandic volcano of 2010, which spewed out ash which disrupted flights for a few days, was miniscule in comparison.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: “The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain… Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.”

There does not seem to have been any explanation at the time; it was probably assumed to be a punishment from God. London’s population at the time was around 50,000, so the loss of 15,000 would have radically changed the city.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano’s exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to volcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.

Some 10,500 medieval skeletons were found at Spitalfields market, the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and the remains suggest there may have been as many as 18,000. The excavation between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) was the largest ever archaeological investigation in the capital. It was a member of that team, osteologist Don Walker, who discovered the link with a volcano. The findings will be revealed in Mola’s report, to be published on Monday.

“That was a eureka moment,” he told the Observer. “These people living in medieval London would have had no idea that this global event – one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene, which is the last 10,000 years, and certainly the largest of the last millennium – was causing the problems.”

He now believes that mass burials in medieval pits across Britain and Europe might also have been caused by the same disaster.

When the skeletons were found, he said: “People immediately thought Black Death, or battle graves, but there wasn’t enough evidence of injuries.” Radiocarbon dating revealed dates around 1250. “So we thought ‘what could it be’?”

Delving into documentary evidence he found references in 1257-58 to “heavy rains” and “a failure of the crops; …a famine ensued… many thousand persons perished”. Specific diseases of malnutrition – scurvy and rickets – were also found among some skeletons, although malnutrition would not have been the sole cause of death during famine. Many would have suffered hunger-induced diseases, such as dysentery, and diseases which are more a product of social disruption caused by famine, such as typhoid fever.

In exploring the cause of such devastation, he discovered that volcanologists had been trying to locate the site of this massive volcano. He said: “What is new is linking the cause of the deaths of so many thousands to this volcano. No-one has linked it to archaeological evidence – and specifically to these mass burial pits. Documentary evidence is not necessarily reliable, whereas now we’ve got physical evidence.”

Mass burial pit in east London – next to Spitalfields Market

Volcanologist Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant, on how climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, said: “Volcanoes have a very long reach because they can impact climate…They don’t just affect people nearby.”
He cited an Icelandic eruption in 1783 which produced a sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for nearly a year, affecting air quality and causing thousands of deaths.

The 13th-century eruption was far bigger, he said. “This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that’s big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil.”

McGuire is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Asked whether another such volcanic eruption is due, he said: “It’s been pretty quiet for a while. I’m looking forward to something big.” Only a volcanologist would take that view.

Romans left London because of the weather?

From Dailymail:

Their huge empire stretched all the way from northern Britain to the Egyptian desert.

But it seems the all-conquering Romans had an unexpected Achilles’ Heel in the grim British weather.

Settlers suffered from poor health due to a lack of sunlight and a poor diet after they established Londinium in the 1st century AD, according to scientists.

Researchers at the Museum Of London are carrying out forensic tests on some of their 22,000 carefully-preserved skeletons of Londoners through the ages.

Lead scientist Dr Jelena Bekvalac said her team is focusing on the declining health of settlers during the 400 years of the Roman occupation.

She told the Times: ‘You’d think in civilised Roman society, there would be buffers to aid you, but the climate is still going to have an effect and we see some signs of that.

‘There may also have been illnesses that they were more susceptible to than the local population.’

The Romans’ advanced standard of living has been well-chronicled and included building cities next to waterways, under-housing heating and public baths.

But settlers succumbed to malnourishment, due to a lack of fruit in London at the time, and illnesses caused by their damp environment, such as the flu.

The Romans buried their dead outside Londinium’s city walls in the Western Cemetery, located under St Bartholomew’s Hospital near St Paul’s, and the Southern Cemetery, along the south side of the Thames in Borough.

Archaeologists at these sites unearthed skeletons buried next to personal items including coins, toys and jewellery.

The Museum Of London researchers found that 18 per cent of men buried in the Southern Cemetery suffered from gout, brought about by a lack of Vitamin C, as well as excessive consumption of alcohol and meat.

Eighty per cent of the remains at the Western Cemetery showed pits and furrows in tooth enamel.

The condition occurs when the natural process of tooth growth is interrupted, leading scientists to the conclusion that growing up in Londinium left settlers malnourished and suffering from general ill-health.

The Museum Of London’s skeleton collection is the largest in the world for one city.

Earlier this year, scientists revealed how climate change could have been responsible for bringing down the Roman Empire.

Researchers studied ancient tree growth rings to show links between climate change and major events in human history such as migrations, plagues and the rise and fall of empires.

They discovered that periods of warm, wet weather coincided with period of prosperity, while droughts or varying conditions occurred at times of political upheaval such as the demise of the Roman Empire.

To match the environmental record with the historical one, researchers looked at more than 7,200 tree fossils from the past 2,500 years.

The study, published in the journal Science, said: ‘Increased climate variability from AD 250 to 600 coincided with the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Migration Period.

‘Distinct drying in the third century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman Empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces in Gaul.’

The Black Death came from China

From NYTimes:

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.

And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.

 

Triumph of death by Peter Breughel

The Black Death began in Europe in 1347 and carried off an estimated 30 percent or more of the population of Europe. For centuries the epidemic continued to strike every 10 years or so, its last major outbreak being the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. The disease is spread by rats and transmitted to people by fleas or, in some cases, directly by breathing.

One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.

Dr. Bramanti’s team was able to distinguish two strains of the Black Death plague bacterium, which differ both from each other and from the three principal strains in the world today. They infer that medieval Europe must have been invaded by two different sources of Yersinia pestis. One strain reached the port of Marseilles on France’s southern coast in 1347, spread rapidly across France and by 1349 had reached Hereford, a busy English market town and pilgrimage center near the Welsh border.

 

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

The strain of bacterium analyzed from the bones and teeth of a Hereford plague pit dug in 1349 is identical to that from a plague pit of 1348 in southern France, suggesting a direct route of travel. But a plague pit in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom has bacteria of a different strain, which the researchers infer arrived from Norway.

The Black Death is the middle of three great waves of plague that have hit in historical times. The first appeared in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, reaching his capital, Constantinople, on grain ships from Egypt. The Justinian plague, as historians call it, is thought to have killed perhaps half the population of Europe and to have eased the Arab takeover of Byzantine provinces in the Near East and Africa.

The third great wave of plague began in China’s Yunnan province in 1894, emerged in Hong Kong and then spread via shipping routes throughout the world. It reached the United States through a plague ship from Hong Kong that docked at Hawaii, where plague broke out in December 1899, and then San Francisco, whose plague epidemic began in March 1900.

The three plague waves have now been tied together in common family tree by a team of medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland. By looking at genetic variations in living strains of Yersinia pestis, Dr. Achtman’s team has reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium. By counting the number of genetic changes, which clock up at a generally steady rate, they have dated the branch points of the tree, which enables the major branches to be correlated with historical events.

In the issue of Nature Genetics published online Sunday, they conclude that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China, where the root of their tree is situated. Plague would have reached Europe across the Silk Road, they say. An epidemic of plague that reached East Africa was probably spread by the voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who led a fleet of 300 ships to Africa in 1409.

“What’s exciting is that we are able to reconstruct the historical routes of bacterial disease over centuries,” Dr. Achtman said.

Lester K. Little, an expert on the Justinian plague at Smith College, said in an interview from Bergamo, Italy, that the epidemic was first reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius in 541 A.D. from the ancient port of Pelusium, near Suez in Egypt. Historians had assumed it arrived there from the Red Sea or Africa, but the Chinese origin now suggested by the geneticists is possible, Dr. Little said.

The geneticists’ work is “immensely impressive,” Dr. Little said, and adds a third leg to the studies of plague by historians and by archaeologists.

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.

From NYTimes.