St.Kilda World Heritage Site faces danger

St-Kilda-001One of Britain’s most prized world heritage sites, the remote islands of St Kilda, will be threatened by vandalism, storm damage and alien species if a missile testing base is closed down, a leading heritage charity has warned.

The National Trust for Scotland said it was dismayed by proposals from the Ministry of Defence to withdraw all 12 staff from its small base on the main island of St Kilda as part of cuts at a missile testing range based in the Outer Hebrides.

Largely uninhabited since the islands’ last 36 residents were evacuated in 1930, after centuries of continuous occupation, St Kilda is now Britain’s only place to have two world heritage site designations from Unesco, for its archaeology dating back to the iron age, and its birdlife.

The NTS said the MoD personnel, who are stationed on the main island of Hirta to monitor missile tests from Benbecula 41 miles away on the Western Isles, played a crucial role in deterring visits from uninvited ships, monitoring storm damage or spotting alien species that could damage its very vulnerable ground-nesting birds.

St Kilda was involved in a significant scare in February 2008 after a trawler ran aground in heavy storms, potentially allowing rats to colonise the islands. The NTS sent over specialist rat catchers to ensure its gannets, fulmars, puffins and guillemot were safe. No rats were found.

The islands, which include dramatic cliffs and sea stacks, are regarded as north-eastern Europe’s most important seabird colony: about half a million birds nest there, including the world’s largest northern gannet population, as well as Manx shearwater, storm petrel and Leach’s petrel.

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If the MoD base is left unmanned, the NTS, now faced with its most severe financial crisis in its history, would have to employ a full-time keeper for the island.

Kate Mavor, the trust’s chief executive, urged the MoD to reconsider its plans. “Without the support of the MoD and the infrastructure that they have in place there, there is no doubt that we would find it very difficult to give St Kilda the level of care and attention that it requires.

“However, of more concern is the risk that this proposal poses to the environmental and cultural treasures which make St Kilda so special.”

The MoD said todayit wants to cut 150 posts from the missile testing range based at Benbecula, South Uist and St Kilda and an underwater submarine testing facility at Raasay near Skye, as part of £50m savings it needs to make.

Quentin Davies, minister for defence equipment, said: “I know that this will be very disappointing news for the staff at our ranges, and I do not underestimate the impact these proposals and job losses will have on the Hebrides community, especially in the recession.”

The area’s MSPs, economic development agency and local authorities attacked the decision. Highland and Islands Enterprise’s chairman Willie Roe said the loss of 150 jobs would be a “devastating blow” to the Hebridean economy.

The sites’ operator, the private defence contractor Qinetiq, was the islands’ largest private employer. “We believe these plans fail to take account of the sites’ value and we will be doing everything in our power to find a way to put pressure on the MoD and its operator QinetiQ to seek another option,” Roe said.

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Aztec royal tomb discovered in Mexico City

moctezuma maskArchaeologists working amid the smog and din of Mexico City may be on the verge of unlocking an extraordinary time capsule.

The leaders of a team exploring a site opened up by earthquake damage believe that they have found the first tomb of an Aztec ruler. If they are right the site may yield one of the great treasures of antiquity, the sort of haul that fires the imagination of people far beyond academic circles.

None of the finds has been put on public display but Britain will get an early preview. Fourteen gold objects from the site will feature in the British Museum’s exhibition on Moctezuma II, the last great Aztec ruler. These could prove to be the early pickings of a much richer harvest. Colin McEwan, head of the British Museum’s Americas section, said: “There is no question that this has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation find”.

The dig is in the middle of what was the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Near by stands the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, which was built from the stones of Moctezuma’s Templo Mayor, which was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The temple’s ruins were subsequently lost for nearly five centuries and discovered only by accident in 1978. Colonial buildings built around it made further exploration difficult but an earthquake in 1985 cleared the way for the present dig.

The site of Templo Mayor, where archaeologists believe a royal tomb lies waiting to be discovered

The new finds appear to be offerings left at the entrance to a tomb. Among them is a fearsome stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, goddess of the Earth. Dr Lorenzo López Luján, who discovered it, thinks that it is a capstone to a burial chamber. When archaeologists moved the sculpture in 2007 they found four containers filled with more than 3,000 items, including animal skeletons, a fire god sculpture, blocks of incense and wooden masks.

Next to this they detected what looks like an entrance. Electronic checks indicate that there is an anomaly beyond it, which Dr López Luján believes is a royal tomb, although some suggest it may be the equivalent of an ancient Greek bothro, where offerings to the underworld were placed.

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Gold was not especially significant for the Aztecs in religious terms but it was associated with the nobility, another hint that there is a ruler behind the entrance. It won’t be Moctezuma, who was killed in 1520, but it could be his predecessor, Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502.

The archaeologists found several plaster seals, which means that the site has not been looted. Between the seals there are several offerings blocking the entrance, including the skeleton of a dog, an animal that traditionally led the dead to the afterlife. “This is a good signal that under these offerings we will find a royal tomb,” Dr López Luján said. “In more than 30 years of excavating this site this is totally new.”

Just how rich a seam they have hit will become clear over the next year, probably within months.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler runs from September 24 to January 24, 2010 in British Museum

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“Viking ship” discovered in Sweden’s largest lake

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Marine archaeologists in Sweden have discovered what they believe to be the wreck of a Viking ship at the bottom the country’s largest lake.

A team of 50 divers from the Swedish coastguard happened upon the 20-metre long wreck by chance on Wednesday afternoon.

“Never before has a Viking shipwreck been found in Swedish waters,” marine archaeologist Roland Peterson from the Vänern Museum told The Local.

A few Viking boats have previously been discovered in Sweden, but earlier finds were made on dry land, Peterson explained.

One of the ship’s ribs was discovered protruding from the bottom of the lake, while the rest of the boat was filled with a one metre-thick layer of sediment.

A wood sample from the ship, as well as iron samples from a spear and a sword found with the vessel, are to undergo expert analysis over the coming weeks.

“We can’t be sure of anything until we get the dating results back, which could take around a month. But the sword did seem semi-familiar,” said Peterson, referring to the weapon’s apparent similarity to earlier Viking era finds.

The ship’s clinker-built structure also strengthened the hypothesis that the vessel found in the Lurö archipelago, in the middle of Lake Vänern, dates from the Viking era. Vänern is Europe’s third largest lake, with an area measuring 5,648 square kilometres.

The Swedish coastguard and the Vänern Museum are currently involved in a joint project to discover and examine shipwrecks lodged at the bottom the vast lake.

Six other wrecks have also been discovered within a 100 metre radius, three of which were found lying almost on top of each other.

“But it’s too early to say whether these date from the same era,” said Peterson.

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Women get to see Mount Athos treasures for first time in 1000 years

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The legendary treasures of Mount Athos have been out of bounds for woman for almost 1000 years.

But an exhibition that has opened in Paris means the fairer sex can finally lay their eyes on the ancient Byzantine artifacts. Almost 200 works of art from the male-only Orthodox enclave in northern Greece are on show at the Petit Palais until July. Most of the works have never left the peninsula, from which women – and some female animals – have been banned since 1045.

The Mount Athos treasures, housed in 20 monasteries, are one of the largest collections of Christian art in the world, according to the Independent. Direct access to the treasures is notoriously hard to obtain for men, and impossible for women. That was until Paris was granted the privilege of hosting this “world premiere”.

Dora Bakoyannis, Greek minister for foreign affairs, described the exhibition as a “cultural event of the first order”.

“The treasures exhibited here are a part of European culture,” Ms Bakoyannis told the paper. “A large number of these relics are going ‘beyond the walls’ of Mount Athos for public viewing for the first time by men and women.”

Previously, only two very small exhibitions have been held of Mount Athos artefacts, both in Greece.

Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais, said the exhibition would be “hugely significant”.

The original ruling banning women, and female animals (except cats, which help control the rat population), from the enclave was issued by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1045. Under Greek law, a breach of the ban by a woman can still lead to a jail sentence.

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Knights Templar worshipped the Turin Shroud

Turin shroudA Vatican researcher has uncovered evidence that the order, which was brutally suppressed in 1305 by King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V, guarded and venerated the Shroud.

In an article published by the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, a historian, Barbara Frale, said she had uncovered “missing clues” to both the mysterious fate of the Templars and the Shroud.

Vatican documents included an account of a Templar initiation rite in 1287 of a young Frenchman, Arnaut Sabbatier.

“(I was) shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times,” said the document.

The shroud, a long piece of cloth bearing the image of a man’s face and body, is kept in Turin is dated from at least 1357 when it was first displayed by the widow of a French knight.

A similar relic is known to have been worshipped in Byzantium, now Istanbul and to have disappeared from there during the sack of the city by Crusaders, including Knights Templar, in 1204.

The Templar order, whose full name was “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon”, were founded in 1119 by knights sworn to protecting Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099.

The order amassed enormous wealth and helped finance wars of medieval European monarchs, over 700 years later legends of their hidden treasures, secret rituals and power have fascinated millions and dominated the bestseller lists with books such as “The Da Vinci Code”.

Rumours about the secret initiation ceremonies of the Templar order and the allegation of idolatry, specifically the worship of images of bearded men, were crucial in 1307 when hundreds of knights were arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and then burned at the stake.

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Fake Viking swords revealed

viking-sword-ulfberht-inscription-leiden1It must have been an appalling moment when a Viking realised he had paid two cows for a fake designer sword; a clash of blade on blade in battle would have led to his sword, still sharp enough to slice through bone, shattering like glass.

“You really didn’t want to have that happen,” said Dr Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection, the London museum which has one of the best assemblies of ancient weapons in the world. He and Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, have solved a riddle that the Viking swordsmiths may have sensed but didn’t quite understand.

Some Viking swords were among the best ever made, still fearsome weapons after a millennium. The legendary swords found at Viking sites across northern Europe bear the maker’s name, Ulfberht, in raised letters at the hilt end. Puzzlingly, so do the worst ones, found in fragments on battle sites or in graves.

The Vikings would have found it impossible to tell the difference when they bought a newly forged sword: both would have looked identical, and had razor sharp blades. The difference would have only emerged in use, often fatally.

Williams began to test the Ulfberht blades when a private collector brought one into the Wallace, and found they varied wildly. The tests at the NPL have proved that the inferior swords were forged in northern Europe from locally worked iron. But the genuine ones were made from ingots of crucible steel, which the Vikings brought back from furnaces thousands of miles away in modern Afghanistan and Iran. The tests at Teddington proved the genuine Ulfberht swords had a phenomenally high carbon content, three times that of the fakes, and half again that of modern carbon steel.

The contemporary fake Ulfberhts used the best northern metal working techniques, which hardened the metal by quenching – plunging the red-hot blade into cold water. It enabled them to give the blade a keen edge, but made it fatally brittle.

In the 11th century the Russians blocked the trade route, and the supply of crucible steel ended. Evidence is emerging that the swords from burials are the fakes, or the work of less prestigious makers. The genuine Ulfberhts have mostly been found in rivers. “I don’t think these were ritual offerings,” Williams said. “They are mostly from rivers near settlement sites, and I think what you have almost certainly is some poor chap staggering home drunk, falling into the river and losing his sword. An expensive mistake.”

Their work has also proved that many of the Ulfberht swords in some of the most famous weapons collections in the world are fakes. The Wallace’s is the real McCoy, but the one brought in by the private collector which started the hunt turned out to be fake.

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