Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Canada Finds Evidence of Failed 1845 Arctic Expedition

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment
File:John Franklin.jpg

Sir John Franklin

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition, led by John Franklin, set sail from England looking for the Northwest Passage.

Unfortunately, the expedition became stuck in the Arctic ice near King William Island and the entire expedition (128 people) was lost.

Just yesterday, Parks Canada announced that an archeological project in the Canadian arctic had found evidence of Franklin’s two lost ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (now THAT’S a name for a ship!)

While they have not yet found the ships themselves, they did find evidence of the expedition,

“We found bottle glass — possibly from wine or spirit bottles — copper nails, tent canvas, twine, rope … we found some pieces of clay tobacco smoking pipes,” said Jonathan Moore of Parks Canada.

Finding the actual ships of the Franklin Expedition will be quite challenging, as detailed in the Parks Canada news release,

The search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is made more challenging by the vastness of the Canadian Arctic and the harsh conditions that are frequently encountered in northern waters. It is also complicated by differing accounts of the fate of Franklin’s ships as preserved in Inuit traditional knowledge, and the many interpretations given to these accounts on the possible resting place of the wrecks.

The survey team uses a particularly cool technique called LiDaR (Light Detection and Ranging) to map the seabed to try to find the wrecks of these two ships.

LIDAR is often used in meteorological surveys to detect temperature and pressure changes in the atmosphere. It can also be applied to mapping the underwater landscape of an area, drastically increasing the efficiency of a search such as this one.


This animation shows a LIDAR (appearance based on SICK LMS 219) with a single beam scanned in one axis. The top image shows the scanning mechanism; the middle image shows the laser's path through a basic scene; the bottom image shows the sensor's output, after conversion from polar to Cartesian coordinates.


Just another example of sweet tools that physicists use that can be applied in other fields of science, like archaeology.

Ancient Humans Ate Eachother Then Took The Day Off

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Several examples of bent ends of bones chewed by Koi people. From the Journal of Human Evolution

The results of this study, to be published in January in the Journal of Human Evolution, were derived from experiment to identify patterns in teeth marks on bones after chewing.

The authors actually had 4 groups of people chew and gnaw the bones of barbecued short ribs and boiled sheep, as well as some raw pork rib bones and sheep leg bones. They also studied the chewing patterns of Koi people from an experiment done in the 1960s, and studied the patterns of the bite marks on the bones.

The study claims that there are several types of markings left on bones after chewing. A certain combination of markings is indicative of human chewing. The results of the study state:

The main traits that characterize a pattern of human chewed bones from this experimental study are ends of bone bent, crenulated edges of bone or chewed ends, and punctures and linear marks on the bone surfaces.

The results from these experiments, i.e. the pattern of chewing thought to belong to humans, was then compared to fossils to determine if the bite marks are human, or if they belong to some other animal. And in a couple of cases, they were a match.

So why would ancient humans want to eat each other? From Discovery News,

“Think that a member of your group dies,” Fernandez-Jalvo told Discovery News. “The body can give one day off from hunting, which was always dangerous at that time, and what to do with the dead body that may attract other dangerous carnivores that may attack the group.”

“This could be a good solution,” she added, reminding that cannibalism does not always mean the cannibal killed the consumed individual.

So this was more about an efficient means of getting nutrition and disposing of a body that could potentially attract predators, than any kind of ritualistic killing of fellow tribe members.

The Physics of Carbon Dating

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hockey player. Then a doctor. Then a paleontologist. Then I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and I wanted to be an archeaologist.

Well one thing led to another, and I ended up getting a Physics degree instead. Luckily for me though, studying physics gave me the tools and experience to understand all kinds of stuff from other scientific fields.

Take archeology and geology for example. One of the primary tools in this field for determining the age of a specimen is radio-carbon dating. But how does it work, and why do we place so much stock in its results?

Lets start at the beginning. Carbon is atomic element #6. The most abundant form of Carbon is Carbon-12, which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons in its nucleus (6 + 6 = Carbon-12).

We are Carbon-based life forms. Carbon has the ability to form huge molecules making our existence possible. (Silicon also has the ability to form big molecules, which Star Trek has taken advantage of to create some crazy looking Silicon-based aliens).

But there is another form of Carbon out there: Carbon-14 (C14 for short), which has 6 protons and 8 neutrons.

C14 is unstable. That extra neutrons cause problems in the nucleus so eventually Carbon-14 will decay into the happy and stable Nitrogen-14 (which actually makes up 78% of the air we breathe).

So how does this help us with dating stuff? Well C14 is naturally created in the atmosphere. So at any given time, there is a certain amount of C14 in the atmosphere. So when plants undergo photosynthesis, which is when plants take in Carbon dioxide and sunlight to make energy, they absorb some C14 at the same time. After this happens, animals will eat these plants and absorb some C14  themselves.


Long story short, all living things will have a certain amount of C14 in their systems while they are alive.

But when plants or animals die, they stop taking in C14 from the environment. And since C14 is unstable, it will start to decay.

C14 has a half-life of 5730 years. This means that one half of C14 in a sample will decay after one half-life. For example, if you had 10 grams C14 atoms and waited 5730 years, 5 grams will have decayed, and you would have 5 grams of C14 left. If you waited another 5730 years, 2.5 grams will have decayed and you would have 2.5 grams left, and so on.

So scientists can take a fossilized sample of bone or plant, compare the amount of C14 in the sample to what should be in living tissue, and they can calculate how old the sample must be.

Granted, this is a simplified explanation I have given here, and there are other factors to consider. But calibration of the technique is very good, and we can get an accuracy of the age of a sample to with +/-16 years for a sample younger than 6000 years, and within 160 years for samples less than 50,000 years old.

After 50,000 years, C14 dating doesn’t work so well, because there just isn’t enough C14 to make an accurate measurement. But there are other elements with long half-lives that we can use to date much older stuff, and they all work on the same general principle as what I’ve explained here.

Many Intelligent Design proponents and Young Earth theorists will try and disprove these techniques. They may give arguments about how concentration of C14 has not been constant over the past 50,000 years. This is actually true, but we can account for it in our measurement.

So sorry IDers, the Earth was not created 6000 years ago. It was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago which, I think, is much more awesome.

Remains of John the Baptist Found? Unlikely…

August 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A little less than a week ago, Bozhidar Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s minister without portfolio and a former director of the country’s National History Museum, announced that the remains of St. John the Baptist (JTB) have been found in monastery in Bulgaria.

St. John is a prolific figure in Christian history. He foretold the coming of Jesus and even baptised Jesus himself, according to scriptures.

John the Baptist

St. John was beheaded at the hands of King Herod shortly before Jesus is said to have died on the cross. His head supposedly served on a plate to Herod’s stepdaughter Salome.

So why do these Bulgarians think these bones, which include parts of a skull, jaw, arm and tooth, belong to THE John the Baptist?

Evidently, the urn in which the bones were found has the date June 24 inscribed on it, which is the day John was supposedly born and has been celebrated in the Mediterranean and Quebec.

Urn in which the supposed remains of John the Baptist are contained

That’s about it.

No carbon dating has been performed to determine the age of the bones, and no explanation as to how the urn came to the monastery has been given.

I personally find it interesting that the remains include pieces of a head and an arm. Seems strange that after beheading John the Baptist that King Herod would bother to put the head and body in the same place, particularly after the head was so callously served on a plate to Salome.

Of course, records from this time period are sketchy at best. And lets not forget that several other countries also claim to have the remains of John the Baptist, such as Istanbul, Egypt and Armenia.

Skeptics live by the credence that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This evidence is far from extraordinary.

So don’t be surprised if/when this find turns out to be totally bogus. Or the Bulgarian archeaologists simply don’t bother to investigate the remains further and keep shouting to the media that they found something great.

Scientists Find the Gatekeeper of Hell

July 2, 2010 2 comments

Imagine a sea monster over 50 feet long with razor sharp teeth almost 3 FEET LONG! No, it is not a scene out of Moby Dick, but an actual fossilized skeleton which has just been discovered by scientists.

The Leviathan melvilli was named after the Leviathan, biblically known as a giant sea monster which was the ‘Gatekeeper of Hell’. He has also made many appearances in the awesome Final Fantasy series.

It was also named after one Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.

Aside: Roughly half of Moby Dick was good, the parts about the whale and Captain Ahab and Queequeg etc. However, the other half just described the technicalities of whaling and how whale ships works and so forth. BORING! If you haven’t read it yet, skip those chapters, and you won’t miss a thing.

Back to reality…the Leviathan Melvilli apparently dined on other whales back in its day (roughly 12 million years ago).

This find is not only cool because giant whale-eating whales are awesome, but because scientists have been finding the teeth of this creature for quite awhile. The teeth hinted at the existence of a massive whale, but the complete jaw skeleton has not actually been found until now.

Now while I am more or less sure that this is not the fossilized remains of Hell’s gatekeeper, I don’t think it matters too much as the devil still has his 3-headed dog, Cerberus (who, interestingly, also makes an appearance in Final Fantasy).

Decapitated Gladiators Found in U.K.!

June 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Everybody loves Gladiators! Although modern day hand-to-hand combat doesn’t involve swords or shields (or lions or tigers), we all have that little bit of blood lust that makes watch UFC, and even the WWE.

It seems archeologists working near York in the U.K., a town roughly 300 km north of London, believe they have found a “Gladiator Graveyard”.

The site has yielded 80 skeletons in the past 10 years. Many of those buried were decapitated prior to being buried. Some of the archeologists believe this is evidence that the skeletons were gladiators, as being decapitated was often an act of mercy for gladiators suffering serious injuries during combat. One skeleton even shows evidence of a large animal bite, such as a lion.

The skeletons date back to between the 1st century and the 4th century A.D., when this area was one of the largest settlements of Roman Britain. Gladiators would periodically travel the area to put on combat shows.

It is not totally conclusive that all these skeletons are Gladitors. Some believe they could be remnants of an army. But the evidence is starting to mount that this is indeed a resting place for a large number of Gladiators.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to wrap up this blog post and go watch Russell Crowe decapitate some opponents in the Collosseum…