Secret History


The Vatican's ancient texts go online

Japanese Tech Firm NTT is scanning the ancient texts in the Vatican Apostolic Library

This copy of Homer's Iliad in ancient Greek and Latin dates from the 15th century.
Almost 600 years after Pope Nicholas V founded the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Holy See is now turning to 50 experts, five scanners and a Japanese IT firm to digitize millions of pages from its priceless manuscripts, opening them to the broader public for the first time.

When the project is finished, one of the richest and most important collections of historical texts in the world will be available with a click of the mouse - and free.

The plan marks a revolution for an institution known as the Popes' Library, which houses more than 82,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the second century. Scholars must now submit a detailed request to gain access to the library, which sits within the Vatican walls. The most precious works of art, such as a 1,600-year old manuscript displaying Virgil's poems once studied by Raphael, have been mostly off-limits.

How the CIA used 'Doctor Zhivago' as a tool to undermine Soviet Union during Cold War

© Associated Press/Harold K. Milks
Soviet writer and poet Boris Pasternak near his home in the countryside outside Moscow on Oct. 23, 1958
A secret package arrived at CIA headquarters in January 1958. Inside were two rolls of film from British intelligence - pictures of the pages of a Russian-language novel titled "Doctor Zhivago."

The book, by poet Boris Pasternak, had been banned from publication in the Soviet Union. The British were suggesting that the CIA get copies of the novel behind the Iron Curtain. The idea immediately gained traction in Washington.

"This book has great propaganda value," a CIA memo to all branch chiefs of the agency's Soviet Russia Division stated, "not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read."

The memo is one of more than 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency's secret involvement in the printing of Doctor Zhivago - an audacious plan that helped deliver the book into the hands of Soviet citizens who later passed it friend to friend, allowing it to circulate in Moscow and other cities in the Eastern Bloc. The book's publication and, later, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Pasternak triggered one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War.

Gospel of Jesus' wife is no forgery, experts rule

Gospel of Jesus' Wife
© Karen L. King 2012
Gospel of Jesus' Wife: front.
The Gospel of Jesus' Wife, a papyrus fragment of Coptic script containing a suggestion that Jesus may have been married, is an ancient document, and not a modern forgery, says a paper published in the Harvard Theological Review on Tuesday.

Tests by teams of engineering, biology, and chemistry professors from Columbia University, Harvard University, and MIT indicate the papyrus dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries, and possibly as far back as the second to fourth centuries.

The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment, about 1 1/2 inches by 3 inches, caused international uproar when it was presented at a conference in Rome in September 2012 by Harvard Professor Karen L. King.

Written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, the fragment appears to be a broken conversation between Jesus and his disciples.

The center of the business-card-sized papyrus, which features just eight lines of text on the front and six lines on the back, contained the bombshell phrase "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'

"She will be able to be my disciple," said the next line. And then: "I dwell with her."

Dismissed as a "clumsy forgery" by the Vatican newspaper, the Gospel of Jesus' Wife was widely debated by scholars. Skepticism abounded, with several experts arguing over the document's poor grammar and its uncertain provenance.

But according to Harvard Divinity School, "none of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery."

Disease, beauty tips and jewellery exposed: Secrets of Egyptian mummies in the CT scanner

The "astonishingly well preserved" Egyptian singer Tamut wore a glamorous wig, was adorned with amulets but suffered furred arteries and may have died of a heart attack

For a stylish Ancient Egyptian lady the thought of appearing in public without her wig may have proved horrifying.

But the intimate details of Tamut, a singer in a temple in Luxor, will be displayed for the first time in a groundbreaking exhibition at the British Museum, including her shorn locks.

Archaeologists have used the latest technology to scan Tamut's mummified body and discovered a wealth of new information, including that she suffered from furred arteries and may have died of a heart attack or a stroke.
egyptian singer's mummy
© Geoff Pugh
On her exquisitely painted grave wrappings, Tamut, who lived around 900BC, is shown as a young woman with dark, flowing hair.

But archeologists found she was probably around 40 years old, with a cropped urchin-like hair cut and was suffering the effects of a poor diet.

The museum's director Neil MacGregor said technology was becoming so advanced that within five years it would even be possible to find out what her singing voice sounded like.

Napoleon's penis size confirmed: teeny weeny

© Independent
The political and military leader was right to have his famous complex
Poor Napoleon. Nearly two centuries after his death, it has been confirmed that the French military and political leader had a "very small" penis, measured at a modest one-and-a-half inches.

In what sounds like a very morbid, yet compelling, new Channel 4 series, Dead Famous DNA aims to find the remains of history's most famous figures - from Hitler's hair and Elvis's DNA to Napoleon and his penis. Presenter Mark Evans travelled to New Jersey to find the artifact, which now belongs to Evan Lattimer - who was given it by his father, a renowned urologist, after it was bought at a Paris auction for $3,000. The relic is known among the Lattimer family as "Napoleon's Item".

"Dad believed that urology should be proper and decent and not a joke," said Lattimer. "It's very small, but it's famous for being small. It's perfect structurally, the university have done X-rays and examinations and it's obviously what it is."

One million buried in mass graves on forbidden New York island

© Agence France-Presse
Most New Yorkers don't even know it exists. But a million forgotten souls are buried in mass graves dug by convicts on a tiny, forbidden island east of the Bronx.

Since 1869, still-born babies, the homeless, the poor and the unclaimed have been stacked one upon the other, three coffins deep, on Hart Island.

Corpses are interned in great, anonymous trenches. There are no tombstones. Small white posts in the ground mark each 150 adult bodies. A thousand children and infants are buried together per grave.

No bones about it: Technology made ancient humans less active

Femur Bones
© Ann Ross, North Carolina State University
Two femur, or thigh, bones.
Human bones can serve as a historical record of their owners' lifestyles, and now ancient human skeletons from Central Europe may reveal how humans shifted from rugged nomads to plow-pushers, researchers say.

Leg bones of people living in the Danube River valley became weaker after 5,300 B.C., around the time when agriculture emerged in Europe, a new study suggests. The decline was most noticeable in men's bones, but both sexes lost bone strength.

The bones show "it was initially men who were performing the majority of high-mobility tasks, probably associated with tending crops and livestock," study researcher Alison Macintosh, an anthropologist at Cambridge University in England, said in a statement.

But with the rise of technological innovation, tasks became less strenuous and people became less mobile, so leg bones got weaker, said Macintosh, who will present her findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Calgary, Alberta, this week.

Intense, frequent storms of The Little Ice Age

With the recent run of stormy weather in the UK, it is worth reflecting on just how stormy it was during the Little Ice Age, and even before.

Brian Fagan, in his book "The Little Ice Age", states that,"throughout Europe, the years 1560-1600 were cooler and stormier, with late wine harvests and considerably stronger winds than those of the 20th Century. Storm activity increased by 85% in the second half of the 16th Century and the incidence of severe storms rose by 400%.".

HH Lamb comes to similar conclusions, "there was a greater intensity, and a greater frequency, of intense storm development during the Little Ice Age", in his book "Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe".

Sealed for a century: 'Time capsule' from soldier who died on the Somme opened

© Daily Mail
  • Private Edward Ambrose, from Hertfordshire, was killed on the Somme, just days he arrived at the front in 1916
  • After a telegram telling of his death, his last belongings were sent back from the trenches to his heartbroken parents
  • But the family left the case unopened, finding its contents too painful to look at, and it was placed in an attic for years
  • After visiting a local historical exhibition, Private Ambrose's nephew has now opened the package for the first time
  • The case includes black and white photos of his family, letters from his parents, a half-smoked pipe and cigarettes
  • The items, including a locket with photos of Private Ambrose and his sweetheart, Gladys, will go display later this year
Paralysed by grief, Sarah Ambrose could not bear to look at her son's belongings after he was killed at the Battle of the Somme.

So 18-year-old Edward Ambrose's possessions were packed in a leather suitcase and stored away in the attic of the family home.

And there they stayed for more than 90 years - until curiosity finally got the better of Edward's nephew John, 82, who retrieved the case after reading about an appeal for untold stories for a First World War exhibition.

Y-shaped crucifixion depicted in Shroud of Turin

© Camerapress/DDP
THE image of Christ on the cross, arms stretched out to the sides, is seared onto many Christians' minds. But this isn't necessarily how people have imagined it throughout history. A new analysis of the Shroud of Turin, which appears to depict a man that has been crucified, suggests that whoever created it thought crucifixion involved the hands being nailed above the head.

The Shroud of Turin is a piece of linen cloth imprinted with the faint image of a naked man with what appear to be streams of blood running down his arms (seen in the bottom centre of the photo), and other wounds. Some believe it is the cloth in which Jesus's body was wrapped after crucifixion. But reliable records of it only begin in the 14th century, and carbon dating suggests the Shroud is a medieval forgery.

Either way, the Shroud is worth studying, says Matteo Borrini at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. "If it's a fake, then it's a very interesting piece of art and human ingenuity," he says.

Borrini wanted to know if the "bloodstains" on the left arm, the clearest ones, were consistent with the flow of blood from the wrist of a crucified person. So he asked Luigi Garlaschelli of the University of Pavia, Italy, to assume different crucifixion postures, while a cannula attached to his wrist dribbled donated blood down his arm.