The Eldgjá eruption and the Christianisation of Iceland

A series of Earth-shattering volcanic eruptions in Iceland during the Middle Ages may have spurred the people living there to turn away from their pagan gods and convert to Christianity, a new study finds.

The discovery came about thanks to precise dating of the volcanic eruptions, which spewed lava about two generations before the Icelandic people changed religions.

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Codex Regius

But why would volcanic eruptions turn people toward monotheism? The answer has to do with the “Vǫluspá,” a prominent medieval poem that predicted a fiery eruption would help lead to the downfall of the pagan gods, the researchers said.

Historians have long known that the Vikings and Celts settled Iceland in about A.D. 874, but they were less certain about the date of the Eldgjá lava flood, the largest eruption to hit Iceland in the past few millennia. Knowing this date is crucial, because it can tell scientists whether the eruption — a colossal event that unleashed about 4.8 cubic miles (20 cubic kilometers) of lava onto Greenland — impacted the settlement there, the researchers said.

To investigate, the researchers examined ice core records. Their results showed that the eruption took place less than 100 years after people settled the island. The volcano began gushing lava in the spring of A.D. 939 and lasted, at least episodically, until the autumn of 940, the researchers said.

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a) Locations of Eldgjá, the NEEM drill site and medieval documentary evidence referenced in the text covering 939–942 CE. b) Section of the 75-km-long Eldgjá eruption fissure at Ófærufoss. c) The Codex Regius; finger points to beginning of stanza 57 of Vǫluspá

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” study lead researcher Clive Oppenheimer, a professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge, in England, said in a statement. “Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

The finding matches medieval chronicles from Ireland, Germany and Italy that noted the spread of a haze in 939. Moreover, the tree-ring data revealed that in A.D. 940, the Northern Hemisphere had one of its coldest summers in the previous 1,500 years — a cold shift consistent with the release of large amounts of volcanic sulfur into the atmosphere, the researchers said.

“In 940, summer cooling was most pronounced in Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia, with summer average temperatures 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] lower,” co-researcher Markus Stoffel, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said in the statement.

Suffering followed, with hard winters and drought in the spring and summer. Locusts invaded, and livestock died. “Famine did not set in everywhere, but in the early 940s, we read of starvation and vast mortality in parts of Germany, Iraq and China,” said study co-researcher Tim Newfield, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.

However, no texts from that period survive from Iceland, the volcano’s homeland.

A mere two generations after the Eldgjá eruption, in about A.D. 1000, the people of Iceland formally converted to Christianity. And it likely had to do with the “Vǫluspá,” the researchers said.

The “Vǫluspá” was written after the eruptions, in about A.D. 961. It describes how an eruption and meteorological events would mark the end of the pagan gods, who would be replaced by one, singular god, the researchers said.

Part of the poem explains how “the sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky … flame flies high against heaven itself,” according to a translation.

Considering Eldgjá’s eruptions date to before the poem was written, Icelanders who experienced the fiery spectacle likely looked back at the events and wrote the poem, “with the purpose of stimulating Iceland’s Christianization over the latter half of the 10th century,” the researchers wrote in the study, published online in the journal Climate Change.

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Squirrel fur may have helped spread leprosy

Scientists have found evidence that the medieval taste for the beautiful fine fur of red squirrels, traded with Viking Scandinavia, may have been a factor in the spread of leprosy.

The link between human and animal leprosy had already been suggested when the disease was found in modern squirrels in the UK, but the new evidence is from analysis of the skull of a woman who died more than 1,000 years ago in Suffolk, before the Norman invasion.

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She suffered from the same strain of leprosy as other medieval skeletons from along the East Anglian coast, and from skeletons of the period from Denmark and Sweden – and closely related to the type of leprosy still found in modern red squirrels.

The disease was one of the most dreaded of medieval times, with many victims shunned and forced to live apart from society. The unfortunate woman – whose remains were found by chance in a garden in Hoxne in the late 20th century and are now in the collection of the museum in Diss – had disfiguring marks to the skull including the destruction of her nose, hallmarks of leprosy. The damage was so severe it suggests the disease would have had terrible effects on her life, leaving her with extensive facial lesions and probably nerve damage to her hands and feet.

Scientists led by Sarah Inskip, of St John’s College Cambridge, who publish their findings in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, managed to extract ancient DNA from bone shavings from the skull, and also traces of the bacteria M. leprae.

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Radiocarbon dating suggests that she lived between 885-1015AD, and analysis of the bacteria showed she had the same strain of leprosy as a man from Great Chesterford who lived centuries earlier. Inskip said the skeletal analysis, together with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the 11th century on, suggested the disease was endemic in the region for centuries, earlier than in other parts of the country. Inskip said the same chalky soil giving good bone preservation is found in other areas including Hampshire and Dorset, but no cases of leprosy have been found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries there.

The authors suggest that North Sea trade links with Scandinavia may explain the prevalence of the disease in East Anglia.

Inskip, who said it was notable that squirrels were sometimes kept as pets, said: “It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive. Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with King’s Lynn and Yarmouth becoming significant ports for fur imports.”

The last case of human leprosy in the British Isles was more than 200 years ago, but a recent study has demonstrated leprosy infection in red squirrels, now an endangered species, in once of their last UK strongholds, on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Red squirrels in Scotland have also been found to carry a different strain of leprosy. It affects the animals as it does humans, leaving them with lesions on their muzzles, ears and paws.

The strain in the squirrels is the same as one found in the nine-banded armadillo, which has been linked to some cases of human leprosy in Florida.

 

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How to Slátur like a viking

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FOOD OF THE VIKINGS The word, slátur, means slaughter and is a term used for blóðmör (left) and lifrarpylsa. Photo/Arnþór Birkisson

Slátur is one of the most popular traditional Icelandic dishes, other traditional delicacies such as fermented shark and sour rams’ testicles are less popular and generally only eaten during the heathen midwinter festival Þorrablót. And understandably so!

Slátur was a common and popular dish among Icelanders well into the 20th century but by the end of the century, slátur had lost the popularity contest to fast food and a more modern cuisine. There are, however, still families that meet religiously over a weekend in autumn to make slátur, not least because it is a nutritious, tasty and very cheap meal.

The word, slátur, means slaughter and is a term used for blóðmör, lifrarpylsa and scorched sheep‘s head. In former times the term was used for everything and anything that was considered edible from the sheep.

According the book Íslensk matarhefð (Traditional Icelandic Cuisine) written by ethnologist Hallgerður Gísladóttir, every autumn the men on the farm performed the bloody task that was slaughtering the sheep that had spent the summer of freely roaming the mountains. Women and children then prepared various foods from the innards and blood. Finally the produce was smoked or preserved in salt or whey.

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A POUCH made from sheep’s stomach being sewn together. Photo/Sara

Blood pudding and the Icelandic “haggis”
Sheep’s blood was amongst other things used to make blood pudding, porridge and bread. Blood porridge was more common amongst Southerners while people in the northern regions of the country preferred blood pudding (hot pudding made from milk, butter, flour and sheep’s blood and served with sugar, cinnamon and cream).

The two most popular dishes made from sheep’s innards are, however, blóðmör and lifrarpylsa. Blóðmör is similar to Irish black pudding and is made from sheep‘s blood, flour and suet. Lifrarpylsa on the other hand resembles Scottish haggis and is made from the innards of sheep mixed with flour and suet and stuffed into little pouches that have been cut from the sheep’s stomach and sewn together. Of the two, the latter is more popular and usually eaten warm with mashed potatoes and turnips.

Other common traditional dishes have long disappeared – among those are salted cow’s udder, mashed sheep’s brain and brain dumplings boiled in the broth from lifrarpylsa. Sheep’s stomachs were solely used as pouches for lifrarpylsa and blóðmör in Iceland, however in Denmark and Norway they were used to make a soup called Kallun suppe.

An Icelandic aphrodisiac
When blóðmör was made the blood was generally mixed with Icelandic moss and different herbs and plants, some would even use chopped kale. Nowadays the blood is mixed in with flour. The mixture was then stuffed into a pouch made from sheep‘s stomach. When full, it was either pinned shut with a wooden needle called „sneis“ or sewn shut (the idiomatic Icelandic term „sneisafullur“, or full to the brim, derives from this). Blood pudding was generally fried with butter and sugar and served with potatoes or turnips.

The first account of lyfrarpylsa, or haggis, dates back to the 18th century. Back then little or no flour was added to the mixture and the produce was generally pickled in whey. The lifrarpylsa was considered to be somewhat of an aphrodisiac and sometimes called „galsapylsa“, which literally translates to the „lively sausage“. It was said that men turned quite frisky soon after eating a lifrarpylsa.

Some trivia: The heathen month of gore, or gormánuður, was the first month of winter and began on a Saturday, usually between the 21st and 27th of October. The name comes from the innards of sheep and cattle that lay scattered around the farmhouses during slaughter season.

 

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An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

In the year of the Lord 1347, the Black Death arrived in Europe. Introduced by merchants coming from Asia, the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread quickly. Following trading routes, in just six years this incurable disease killed 25 million people, one-third of the population on the continent. Entire villages were wiped out, some cities lost 80% of their citizens. The plague was followed by famine. Thomas Basinus (1412-1491), bishop of Èvreux and later historian, notes that ‘many peasants fled or died so that many fields remained uncultivated or there was nobody left to care.’ In the cities, overpopulation and poor hygiene helped to spread the plague, rivers were used to dispose of the many corpses, contaminating the water. Riots of desperate people were common, like in 1323 in Flanders and in 1358 in France. Many believed, as one witness testified, that the end of the world had arrived.

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The Triumph of Death is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 it was inspired by the waves of the Black Death plaguing the 14th century.

The dramatically reduced population had, however, a surprisingly beneficial effect on the environment. The pollution of the air dropped to a historic low.

Analyzing a 236 feet long ice core recovered from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a team of scientists from Harvard University was able to reconstruct the concentration of lead in the air over Europe for the last 2,000 years. The research with the title ‘Next-generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,’ was published in the open access journal GeoHealth.

Atmospheric circulation transported the lead from the lowlands into the Alps, where it was washed out from the atmosphere by rain and snow. The snow, accumulating mostly during winter, partially melts and changes over the summer into ice, forming single layers, as found in a glacier. By analyzing the concentration of elements in the single layers, it is possible to create an annual record of the atmospheric deposition. One significant spike can be found around 1349-1353 when the measured concentration of lead dropped far below the average value of 10^2 nanogram of lead per liter air. Even today, after the introduction of unleaded fuel in the 1980s, the concentration of lead in the air is still 10 times higher as in 1350.

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Reconstructed lead concentration in the last 2,000 years and most important mining districts. Image Source & Credit MORE et al. 2017. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In medieval times, lead was used for roofing of large buildings such as cathedrals, water pipes, but especially for dishes and glazed pottery valued by the rich. The most important lead ore is galena. As galena also contains silver, it was widely mined (silver, lead, and copper were the most important metals in medieval Europa). The most productive mines were found on the British island, South Italy, the Harz mountains with Freiberg in Saxony and Kutna Hora in Bohemia. We know of contemporary records of the silver medieval monarchs received as royalties, that the mines of  Freiberg and Kutna Hora alone provided 20 tons of silver and 100 tons of lead per year. To get this amount,  it was necessary to mine and process an almost 2,000 times larger quantity of rocks and ore. The Black Death impacted mining in two ways. The miners and workers died in great number, and many mines were abandoned. As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped.

The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment. As the atmosphere became cleaner, the concentration of lead deposited in the glaciers of the Alps dropped.

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Entrance to a medieval mine in the Alps, dated around 1530.

The Black Death had a disastrous impact and yet helped to create modern Europe. Plagued previously by overpopulation and poverty, Europe could reinvent itself after the Black Death made the old political system obsolete. Many peasants at the time were virtually slaves, owned by the rich landlords. As the landlords were gone, many people were free to choose where and when to settle. The surviving landlords, in desperate need of somebody to take care of their properties,  agreed to lower the taxes and more privileges were granted to farmers. Wages everywhere increased, as healthy workers were rare, and the land became cheaper. Many previously poor people managed to achieve some wealth. Authorities even tried to forbid the use of fur in clothing, a privilege reserved only to the aristocracy in former times, but now common. Political and social independence was now possible and a new class rose from the ashes of the old society — the free citizen. A new human being for a new epoch, as the Renaissance was later seen by historians. However, even after 1353, the Black Death didn’t completely disappear. Almost once in a decade, a smaller outbreak was reported, but improved hygiene in the cities, quarantine procedures, and an acquired genetic immunity of the survivors reduced the risk of infection significantly.

This societal development can also be seen in the studied ice core. Just some years after the plague of 1347-1353, the concentration of lead significantly increased, approaching values seen before the Black Death. The European mining industry experienced a boom in the 15th and 16th century, testified also by many active mines found now also in the Alps. Only recently the concentration of lead started to drop again, in response to efforts to ban this toxic element from daily use and improved environmental regulations. However, it is still an important metal, mostly used for batteries in the automobile industry.

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New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

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The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

hsr_nec_200617church_1

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

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It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

Bamburgh castle

The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

Lindisfarne Priory

It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

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Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

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The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

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