King Tutankhamun died from broken leg and malaria

Egypt’s famed King Tutankhamun suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, likely forcing him to walk with a cane, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his mummy.

The findings were from two years of DNA testing and CT scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, the team that carried out the study said in an article to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It also established the clearest yet family tree for Tut. The study said his father was most likely Akhenaten, the pharaoh who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion to worship one god — while his mother was a still unidentified sister of Akhenaten.

Tut, who became pharaoh at the age of 10 in 1333 B.C., ruled for just nine years at a pivotal time in Egypt’s history. While a comparatively minor king, the 1922 discovery of his tomb filled with stunning artifacts, including the famed golden funeral mask, made him known the world over.

Speculation had long swirled over why the boy king died at such a young age. A hole in his skull long fueled speculation he was murdered, until a 2005 CAT scan ruled that out, finding the hole was likely from the mummification process. The scan also uncovered the broken leg.

The newest CAT scans and DNA tests revealed a pharaoh weakened by congenital illnesses finally done in by complications from the broken leg aggravated by severe brain malaria. The team said it isolated DNA of the malaria parasite — the oldest such discovery.

“A sudden leg fracture possibly introduced by a fall might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred,” concluded the article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Tutankhamun had multiple disorders… He might be envisioned as a young but frail king who needed canes to walk.”

Like his father, Tutankhamun had a cleft palate. He also had a club foot, like his grandfather, and suffered from Kohler’s disease in which lack of blood flow was slowly destroying the bones of his left foot.

The studies also disproved speculation that Tutankhamun and members of his family suffered from rare disorders that gave them feminine attributes and misshapen bones, including Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can result in elongated limbs.

The theories arose from the artistic style and statues of the period, which showed the royal men with prominent breasts, elongated heads and flared hips.

“It is unlikely that either Tutankhamun or Akhenaten actually displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique,” said the article.



Race is on to save UK’s only Roman chariot racetrack

When the white handkerchief dropped, the Ben Hurs of Colchester would have set off down Circular Road North, past the banked tiers of seats, turning left at Napier Road, their iron tyres gouging a deep rut in the track,and back up past St John’s gatehouse towards the water-spouting dolphin marking the end of the first lap.

Colchester, it seems, was the Formula One track of Roman Britain, with the only chariot racing circus ever found on the island, and the first found in northern Europe for 20 years. Now modern residents have less than a month to raise the money to save a unique monument and create a visitor centre to reveal the site’s history.

Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of Destination Colchester, said a campaign had received a boost with a £30,000 council contribution. “This has really caught the imagination of ordinary local people,” she said.

“We’re doing a fund raiser at the local football ground, where one man said ‘this was like their football to the people of those days’. We’re extraordinarily grateful to the council – but I still don’t think the authorities charged with protecting it really get how important this heritage is to local people..”

The racetrack is still buried under roads, gardens and old army buildings, but campaigners want to buy a large Victorian garden covering the key part of the circuit. Under the grass lies eight stone enclosures, originally with double wooden doors like giant greyhound racing traps. Each would have held a nervous driver standing in a chariot as fragile as a bentwood chair, reins wrapped around his waist so if he crashed he would probably be dragged to his death, and his four horses waiting for the race marshal on the open balcony above to start the race.

The land is the garden of a listed but derelict sergeants mess, which will become an exhibition, and home to community groups, if the campaign succeeds. If it fails the building will become apartments, the garden private land again.

Digs suggest the circus was built in the early 2nd century, and lasted about 150 years before falling out of use, possibly because local grandees could no longer afford the high cost of day-long races – with not only free admission but the crowd expecting gifts.

Nothing remains above ground except stones taken for later building, but for almost 2,000 years the 350m outline has remained remarkably intact, under fields and 19th-century army land. The stable blocks that held up to 2,500 horses for a day’s racing may lie under derelict Victorian cavalry stables and barracks.

All memory of the circus was long lost, when Colchester Archaeological Trust began excavating after the Ministry of Defence sold most of the barracks for housing. They first hit foundations of a straightbuttressed wall, then an identical wall 75m away – baffling because it was ludicrously wide for either a road or a building.Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, had his eureka moment when a visitor said flippantly it would be more fun if he found a chariot. “It’s a circus!” Crummy roared. “It’s not a road, it’s a Roman circus!”

Since then CAT has traced long stretches of the perimeter, which had banked seats holding up to 15,000 people. In the central reservation they found bases of start and finish posts, and water pipes proving the circus was grand enough to have the elaborate fountain lap markers shown in Roman mosaics.

They also found scraps of beautifully decorated carriage harness right up against the wall – evidence of an F1 style crash when a driver lost control of his team and spun off into the barrier.

All the fragile remains were buried again for protection, but the site is now a scheduled ancient monument. The campaign is backed by historians, archaeologists and celebrities including Tony Benn, Dan Cruickshank, and Tony Robinson, who as Baldrick in the last Blackadder Goes Forth, trained yards away on the Colchester parade ground.

Robinson, presenter of the archaeology series Time Team, called the circus a fantastic find: “I hope local people, politicians and businesses will all play their part in ensuring as much of it as possible, including the starting stalls, is made secure and accessible for future generations.”

The campaigners need £200,000 by the end of February to buy the garden and have the site taken off the market. The building, which they hope will be bought by the archaeology trust and a consortium of community groups and businesses, will cost a further £550,000. Even before the council rowed in, more than £120,000 was raised in a few weeks, almost entirely in small donations from the public. Money came from a couple who asked family and friends to give instead of buying them 60th wedding anniversary presents, and from relatives of a man whose last outing was to the excavation site.

Colchester United flashed up the campaign poster on their giant screens during a recent match. Taylor Wimpey, the house builders, have already changed the layout of the development to protect the underground remains, knocked £10,000 off the asking price – and named the closest development “Quadriga” after the four horse racers.

“This is only the start,” warned Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of the campaign group Destination Colchester. “The fabulous Roman walls of Colchester are falling down. The circus is only the beginning of saving our whole fantastic Roman heritage.”


Radiocarbon dating to achieve its full potential!

It took nearly 30 years and a lot of heated debate, but a team of researchers has finally produced what archaeologists, geologists, and other scientists have long been waiting for: a calibration curve that allows radiocarbon dating to achieve its full potential. The new curve, which now extends back 50,000 years, could help researchers work out key questions in human evolution, such as the effect of climate change on human adaptation and migrations.

The basic principle of radiocarbon dating is fairly simple. Plants and animals absorb trace amounts of radioactive carbon-14 from carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere while they are alive but stop doing so when they die. The steady decay of carbon-14 from archaeological and geological samples ticks away like a clock, and the amount of radioactive carbon left in the sample gives a reproducible indication of how old it is. Most experts consider the technical limit of radiocarbon dating to be about 50,000 years, after which there is too little carbon-14 left to measure accurately.

There is one major glitch in the approach, however: The amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere varies with fluctuations in solar activity and Earth’s magnetic field, and “raw” radiocarbon dates have to be corrected with a calibration curve that takes these fluctuations into account.

Since the early 1980s, an international working group called INTCAL has been developing and perfecting just such a curve, a process that has unfolded in several stages. To calibrate the period extending from the present to about 12,000 years ago, the team has used thousands of overlapping tree-ring segments from the Northern Hemisphere, which provide a very accurate check of raw radiocarbon dates and how much they must be corrected. But for dates older than the available tree-ring record, the researchers had to turn to several other, less-precise data sets on ancient CO2 levels, including fossil foraminifers (single-celled organisms that secrete calcium carbonate) and corals.

By 2004, the INTCAL group was able to agree on a curve that stretched to 26,000 years ago, because the foraminifer and coral data were in reasonably close agreement up to that point. That curve, called INTCAL04, was published the same year. But hopes to extend the curve all the way to 50,000 years ago were dashed. The data sets diverged from each other by up to several thousand years after 26,000 years ago, and researchers could not agree on which ones were most accurate and how to combine the several data sets.

More recently, however, thanks to new and more accurate data from foraminifers, corals, and other sources–plus some fancy statistical treatments that help predict which way data gaps bend the curve–the INTCAL group has been able to resolve most of the discrepancies. “It took the group quite a while to come together and agree,” says INTCAL team leader Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. But the new data, combined with what Reimer calls a “real sense of necessity” among team members to resolve the debates, won the day.

The new curve, called INTCAL09 and published this week in the journal Radiocarbon, not only extends radiocarbon calibration to 50,000 years ago but also considerably improves the earlier parts of the curve, researchers say.

Getting those dates right is critical to understanding such questions as whether humans began painting caves when the climate was colder or warmer, says Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of London, Royal Holloway. For example, the raw radiocarbon dates for the spectacular paintings of horses, lions, bison, and other animals at Chauvet Cave in southern France, the oldest known cave art, come out at 32,000 years ago, right after a major cold spell hit Europe; but the new calibration curve makes the earliest paintings at Chauvet 36,500 years old, a period of relative warmth.

And John Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says that the data sets behind the new curve will allow a more-precise correlation between radiocarbon dates and prehistoric climate reconstructions based on Greenland ice cores and other proxy indicators of ancient weather. Even before the adoption of the new curve, Hoffecker says, those data sets were suggesting that modern humans had moved into Europe about 45,000 calibrated years ago, much earlier than previously thought–and early enough for them to have had substantial contact with Neandertals over thousands of years.

Although the new curve is a major landmark, it is “definitely not the last word” in radiocarbon calibration, Reimer says. Her team is already planning an update for 2011, “as we learn more about the Earth’s carbon reservoirs and how they changed over time.”


Vatican reveals Secret Archives

The Holy See’s archives contain scrolls, parchments and leather-bound volumes with correspondence dating back more than 1,000 years.

High-quality reproductions of 105 documents, 19 of which have never been seen before in public, have now been published in a book. The Vatican Secret Archives features a papal letter to Hitler, an entreaty to Rome written on birch bark by a tribe of North American Indians, and a plea from Mary Queen of Scots.

The book documents the Roman Catholic Church’s often hostile dealings with the world of science and the arts, including documents from the heresy trial against Galileo and correspondence exchanged with Erasmus, Voltaire and Mozart. It also reveals the Church’s relations with princes and potentates in countries far beyond its dominion.

In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”.

Another formal letter in the archive highlights the papacy’s political role. In 1863 Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, wrote to Pope Pius IX claiming that the civil war raging across America was entirely due to “Northern aggression”.

“We desire no evil to our enemies, nor do we covet any of their possessions; but are only struggling to the end that they shall cease to devastate our land and inflict useless and cruel slaughter upon our people.”

Other letters in the archive are more personal. In a 1550 note, Michelangelo demands payment from the papacy which was three months late, and complains that a papal conclave had interrupted his work on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

A yellowed parchment covered in neat black script reveals details of the 14th century trials of the Knights Templar on suspicion of heresy, after which members of the warrior-monk order were pardoned by Pope Clement V.

Some of the documents are already well-known, including a parchment letter written by English peers to Pope Clement VII in 1530, calling for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled.

An entreaty written to Rome by another British monarch, but in very different circumstances, is also reproduced in exquisite detail. In 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from Fotheringay in Northants to Pope Sixtus V, a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, pledging her eternal allegiance to Rome.

The document includes letters written to Hitler by Pope Pius XI in 1934 and one received by his controversial successor, Pius XII, from Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.

“An aura of mystery has always surrounded this important cultural institution of the Holy See due to the allusions to inaccessible secrets thanks to its very name, as well as to the publicity it has always enjoyed in literature and in the media,” Cardinal Raffaele Farina, a Vatican archivist, writes in the preface to the book, which was produced by a Belgian publisher, VdH Books.

One of the most unusual documents is a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII. The letter, written in May but datelined “where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers”, addresses the pontiff as “the Great Master of Prayer” and offers thanks to the Vatican for having sent a “custodian of prayer” (a bishop) to preach to them.

Although scholars have had access to the secret archives since 1881, they remain closed to the general public.


Gazprom skyscraper threatens cultural heritage in St.Petersburg

“… the scandalous case with the monuments of ancient St. Petersburg on the place of which the Government plans to build a big (400 m high) skyscraper of Gazprom. This is in the very centre of the city, some 600 m from Smolny, and from the beautiful Smolny cathedral, the baroque creation of Rastrelli. The cathedral will be reduced to nil [I take it the cathedral will be physically dwarfed by the Gazprom skyscraper, not torn down]. UNESCO has warned that if the tower will be beginning to be built, Petersburg will be officially excluded from the World Heritage list. Nevertheless the building has begun: the chiefs of the city want to have the capital of Gazprom here because then the big money streams will be flow through Petersburg and through their hands.

The situation is aggravated due to the fact that under the planned tower extremely important archaeological monuments have been discovered: two Swedish citadels (Nienschantz and Landscrona) with retained on 1 m high bastions, and under them a great Neolithic settlement, the largest in the whole North-European region including Finland, with preserved wooden details allowing dendrochronology for many thousand years.

The head of the excavations Peter Sorokin forbade further building activity. He suggested to build a museum instead. Gazprom has pressed the chiefs of the archaeological institutions (depending on Gazprom financially), and the Petersburg Institute for the History of Material Culture (headed by Evgeniy Nosov) these days has replaced Sorokin by another archaeologist (Solovyeva) ready to destroy Landscrona and Nienschantz before April, and the Neolithic settlement has in general dropped out from the agreement. It is non-existent now. And the Moscow Institute of archaeology (headed by Makarov) received from Gazprom money for works in other places and has promised to set up a Commission ready to judge if the museum is necessary. The decision will be without doubts negative and good for Gazprom.

The builders began to hammer big piles into the body of the multi-layer monument, and there are precious few days left before the full annihilation of the important monuments we are all responsible for. The days are numbered.

The minister of culture Avdeev has advanced against the building, but the chiefs of the state are silent. The only hope is on the international community of scholars…”


Throitsky Variant, no. 21 (40) October 27, 2009, pp. 14-15.

German excavation reveals signs of mass cannibalism (update)

Was it mass cannibalism, ritual slaughter or both? Archaeologists who unearthed the remains of 500 Stone Age corpses in the German town of Herxheim say the meat was cut off their bones as if they were livestock. One conclusion is that the people were eaten — after volunteering to be sacrificed.

How do you carve up a cow? First you cut the meat off the bones. You start by severing the muscles from the joints with a sharp knife. The fibrous meat can then easily be scraped off, from top to bottom. After you’ve removed the flesh there’s still a lot of goodness left. Deep in the long bones and vertebrae lies the marrow. To get at this delicacy you smash the bones and scrape out the marrow or simply boil it out in water. What’s left is a pile of naked bones with traces of scratching and scraping as well as the small debris of bone that contained marrow.

Archaeologists found just such a pile — a huge one — when they were excavating a Stone Age settlement in the small town of Herxheim in south-western Germany. The only difference is that the bones aren’t from cattle. Researchers found the carefully scraped remains of some 500 humans, and they haven’t even excavated half the site. “We expect the number of dead to be twice as high,” said Andrea Zeeb-Lanz, project leader of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

That’s a lot of corpses for a tiny Stone Age village. There were 10 buildings at most here in the last phase of the Linear Pottery culture of the European Neolithic Age around 5,000 to 4,950 years BC. The corpses weren’t native to this area, researchers have discovered. They came from all over Europe — from the area of what is now Paris, from the Moselle River 100 kilometers to the northwest and even from the Elbe River valley some 400 kilometers away. The broken bits of pottery lying between their ribs reveal their origin. It’s the so-called Linear Pottery that gave the entire population group its name: decorated with linear patterns pressed into the moist clay while it was being made.

Butchered by Experts

The strangers brought only the finest pottery from their home regions — in many cases even more beautiful than the pottery they placed inside the graves of their own dead at home. But the pottery was smashed to pieces and scattered over the bones, along with brand new millstones and stone blades. Everything was hacked to pieces, broken up, mixed together and poured into pits.

The anthropolgist Bruno Boulestin conducted a close examination of the bone fragments. He published his findings from one pit eight meters long in the latest edition of Antiquity magazine. The pit contained a total of 1,906 bone fragments from at least 10 people. Two of them were infants or still-born children, one was a fetus in the 34th to 36th week of pregnancy, there were two children aged six and 15 and six adults, at least one of whom was male.

All of them — babies, children, adults — were butchered by expert hands while the bones were still fresh, as the breaks and cuts show. Boulestin concluded that the human bones bore the same marks as those of slaughtered livestock, and that the dead of Herxheim were prepared as meals. He believes that marks on the bones indicate that body parts were cooked on skewers. His conclusions contradict other researchers who believe the meat was taken off the bones as part of a burial ritual, and wasn’t eaten.

No Signs of Battle Wounds

Who were the dead? Conquered enemies perhaps? Probably not, because the bones showed no signs of battle wounds. None of the skulls found was smashed, and there were no arrow heads between the ribs. The dead of Herxheim appear to have been in good health when they died. Their joints weren’t worn down, their teech were in exceptionally good condition and there was no sign of malnutrition.

The theory of conquered enemies also seems unlikely given that the small group of Herxheim villagers is unlikely to have vanquished people hundreds of kilometers away and dragged 1,000 of them back to their little hamlet in the space of just 50 years. “One could also imagine that people volunteered to come here and be ritually sacrificed,” Zeeb-Lanz told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

So what happed in Herxheim at the start of the fifth millennium BC? It’s clear that the hamlet quickly came to fame. It had been a sleepy, uneventful place since the so-called Flomborn Phase around 5,300 years BC. But around the turn of the millennium something happened that caused people from all over Europe to make pilgrimages to this place — a sensational feat of logistics and communication for that age.

Only 50 Years of Fame

But it didn’t last long. By 4,950 BC everything was over. After that there were no more deaths in Herxheim because the settlement ceased to exist. It’s a puzzling phenomenon for archaeologists because 50 years is an extremely short time for a place of such significance. “And 50 year is the maximum,” says Zeeb-Lanz. “It could all have happened in just two years or even five weeks.”

It’s clear that it wasn’t hunger that drove the inhabitants of this mysterious hamlet to carve up humans. What they did with their victims was part of a ritual, a religious ceremony. This includes the mysterious treatment of human skulls. First the skin was peeled off them. All it took was a cut across the length of the head and the skin could be peeled off the sides. Then a blow to the face at the front and the base of the neck at the back, and two blows each at the sides — the result looks like a drinking vessel.

“But probably nobody drank from them. The edges are still so sharp today that one would cut one’s lips on them,” says Zeeb-Lanz. Archeologists found these prepared skulls piled together in one place. “The more research conduct, the more mysterious this place becomes.”

But did the Herxheimers really devour the dead? It’s impossible to prove that archaeologically. Boulestin is sure they did, but not all members of the excavation team agree with him. Project leader Zeeb-Lanz is careful too: “We mustn’t forget that this was no giant settlement. Who is supposed to have eaten all this?”