Secret History


Archaeologists uncover secrets of Portus, once gateway to Rome

© The Guardian, UK
An artist's impression of the 60-room imperial palace at Portus that once covered nine acres of land to the south-west of present-day Rome.
British archeologists digging near Rome have built up an accurate picture of Portus, the once-mighty port that could host 350 ships at a time and kept the ravenous capital of the Roman empire supplied with grain, wine, oil, slaves and luxuries from around the world.

The team says it has also unravelled the mystery of how the site's luxurious palace and huge warehouse vanished almost overnight, leaving no trace of the port's scale and wealth.

Rather than being burned down by invading hordes as the empire declined, or left to disintegrate, a team lead by the University of Southampton has revealed that Portus was systematically demolished in the 6th century by the Byzantines - the eastern emperors who fought the invading Ostrogoths to regain control of Rome.


Truth and speculations about the 'magnificent' T. rex

© Andrew Howe/Getty Images
Even one of the best known dinosaurs has kept some secrets. Here is what palaeontologists most want to know about the famous tyrant.

In late 1905, newspaper reporters gushed over the bones of a prehistoric monster that palaeontologists had unearthed in the badlands of Montana. When The New York Times described the new 'Tyrant saurian', the paper declared it "the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatever". In the century since, Tyrannosaurus rex has not loosened its grip on the imaginations of the public or palaeontologists.

Stretching more than 12 metres from snout to tail and sporting dozens of serrated teeth the size of rail spikes, the 66-million-year-old T. rex remains the ultimate example of a prehistoric predator - so much so that a media frenzy erupted this year over a paper debating whether T. rex predominantly hunted or scavenged its meals1. This infuriated many palaeontologists, who say the matter was resolved long ago by ample evidence showing that T. rex could take down prey and dismantle carrion. What particularly vexed researchers was that this non-issue overshadowed other, more important questions about T. rex.

The dinosaur's evolutionary origins, for example, are still a mystery. Researchers are eagerly trying to determine how these kings of the Cretaceous period (which spanned from 145 million to 66 million years ago) arose from a line of tiny dinosaurs during the Jurassic period (201 million to 145 million years ago). There is also considerable debate about what T. rex was like as a juvenile, and whether palaeontologists have spent decades mistaking its young for a separate species. Even the basic appearance of T. rex is in dispute: many researchers argue that the giant was covered in fluff or fuzz rather than scales. And then there is the vexing question of why T. rex had such a massive head and legs but relatively puny arms.


Tyrannosaurus rex grew heftier than museum fossils suggest

© Mark Garlick/SPL/Corbis

Even as adults, Tyrannosaurus rex and other dinosaurs may have never stopped growing, adding mass to their bones if not inches to their length.
Structure of bones' superficial layers suggests most dinosaurs were still growing when they died.

Even as adults, T rex and other dinosaurs may have never stopped growing, adding mass to their bones if not inches to their length.

Big bones belong to adults that have finished growing, smaller bones to juveniles that are still sprouting up. It seems like the safest of assumptions, but it is one that is fraught with peril when applied to dinosaurs.

Presenting this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's meeting in Los Angeles, California, palaeontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, revealed that when he cut open the fossilized bones of dinosaurs in the museum's collection and studied the layers of bone within, he found signs in most specimens that the animals were still growing at the time of their death.

In fossils labelled as juveniles, the outer bone layers contained canals that would once have held blood vessels, as well as large groups of osteocytes - cells that are important for bone formation. But Horner was surprised to find similar signs of growth in adult fossils, because in most animals that are alive today, the skeleton tends to stop growing once adulthood is reached.


McCarthyism continued: FBI suspected sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to be a Soviet spy

© Rowena
Isaac Asimov was one of America's most prolific and best-loved science fiction authors, publishing more than 500 volumes in a career that spanned five decades. But newly released papers show that, in the 1960s, the FBI investigated him on suspicion of being a Soviet spy.

Never-before-seen documents reveal that the agency acted to investigate Asimov in 1965 receiving a leaked US Communist Party list which included the I, Robot author's name. The list was of individuals who had either been contacted by the party or were considered "possibly amenable to such as supporters".


Pig-like beast leads the way to ancient cave drawings

© Alexine Keuroghlian/WCS
Researchers surveying pig-like animals called peccaries in Brazil inadvertently discovered ancient drawings of animals, like the reptile shown here.
White-lipped peccaries may not be glamorous-looking, but like their truffle-sniffing cousins, they sometimes turn up treasure.

On the trail of the pig-like creatures in Brazil, researchers made an unexpected and rare discovery: cave drawings showing armadillos, birds and reptiles, etched into stone thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists who examined the rock art say hunter-gatherers likely created the drawings 4,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) made the find while surveying white-lipped peccaries in Brazil's Cerrado plateau, a vast savanna region, in 2009. The animals, which travel long distances, are considered environmental indicators of healthy forests.

"Since we often work in remote locations, we sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case, one that appears to be important for our understanding of human cultural history in the region," Alexine Keuroghlian, a researcher with WCS's Brazil program, said in a statement.


French archaeologists discover beautifully preserved deformed skull

© io9
Normally, intentionally elongated or flattened skulls are associated with ancient Mesoamerican cultures. But this exquisite specimen, which dates back some 1,500 years, was recently found at a dig in Alsace, France.

There's an industrial park in Pays de Sainte Odile, France, that's about to be developed, prompting archaeologists to perform a major search over 7.5 acres. It resulted in the discovery of a whopping number of artifacts and human and animal remains from Neolithic, Gallic, Gallo-Roman, and Merovingian societies. That's over 6,000 years worth of stuff.

The History Blog does a good round-up of the various items found, including a Bronze Age grave containing both children and dogs, Gallic glass ornaments, coins, pottery, and a Gallo-Roman bathing complex.


The amazing Antikythera mechanism

© TodayIFoundOut
A replica of the Antikythera mechanism, showing the front panel.
Just over a century ago in the Mediterranean Sea in between Greece's Peloponnese and the Isle of Crete, a sponge diver came across an amazing discovery: an ancient shipwreck from classical times, filled with pottery, jewels, wine and so many marble and bronze statutes that, upon surfacing, he "gabbled that he had found a heap of dead, naked women".

The most significant piece from the find, however, was only about the size of a shoebox, and at first seemed to be merely a few unremarkable lumps of corroded bronze. Overshadowed by its flashier fellow castaways, the Antikythera Mechanism drew no serious attention from scholars until many years later.

In fact, it wasn't until 1971 that scientists began to realize the intricate workings, precise measurements and astronomical expertise that the device displayed. So complex, and shrouded in centuries of deterioration, even today, researchers are still uncovering the secrets of this unique artifact.

Black Cat

1,700-year-old sorcerer's curse uncovered in Jerusalem

Archaeologists have unearthed the ancient 'curse' tablet near the city of David in Jerusalem.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Israel may have the world's coolest piece of vengeance.

In an archaeological dig near the City of David, archaeologists have unearthed a 1,700 year old lead tablet, a tablet inscribed with a sorcerer's curse. The Antiques Authority have confirmed the details of the find, which is 'a curse tablet,' bearing a spell that was likely written by a sorcerer on behalf of an aggrieved female client named Kyrilla," according to The Jerusalem Post.

The tablet has had quite the journey.

Discovered "a few months ago in one of the rooms of an enormous building from the Roman period" that suffered an earthquake in 363 B.C.E., the tablet was unearthed only recently. After being carefully extracted, it was packed up and sent to Dr. Robert Daniel at the University of Cologne, Germany. Daniel was responsible for translating the artifact, which revealed quite the story.


Is this the world's oldest warning sign? 9,000-year-old wall painting of volcano tells people of nearby danger

In a play on the old adage 'if walls could talk', a mural has been discovered that could be the world's earliest warning sign.
The 9,000-year-old painting, found on a wall buried in the ancient Turkish settlement of Catalhoyuk, shows a village in front of an erupting volcano. Researchers now believe, through the use of mineral dating and geochemical tests, that the volcano shown in the painting is the nearby Mount Hasan, found 70 miles from the settlement site.

It is thought the mural was painted to warn about the dangers of this stratovolcano, yet it may also have been the first landscape painting or even the first news report.

A mural, pictured, found on a wall in the Turkish settlement of Catalhoyuk depicts a village in front of a volcano. The painting is thought to be a warning about the danger of nearby stratovolcano Mount Hasan, located 70 miles northeast from where the mural was found


Common bias known as 'endowment effect' not present in hunter-gatherer societies

© Eduardo Azevedo
Apicella offers a participant the choice between two packages of cookies.
Centuries of economic theory have been based on one simple premise: when given a choice between two items, people make the rational decision and select the one they value more. But as with many simple premises, this one has a flaw in that it is demonstrably untrue.

The fields of psychology and behavioral economics have experimentally identified a laundry list of common biases that cause people to act against their own apparent interests. One of these biases -- the mere fact of possessing something raises its value to its owner -- is known as the "endowment effect."

A new interdisciplinary study from the University of Pennsylvania has delved into whether this bias is truly universal, and whether it might have been present in humanity's evolutionary past.

The study was led by Coren Apicella, an assistant professor in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychology, and Eduardo Azevedo, an assistant professor in Wharton's Department of Business Economics and Public Policy. They collaborated with Yale's Nicholas Christakis and the University of California, San Diego's James Fowler.

It will be published in the American Economic Review.

A classic endowment effect experiments involves giving participants one of two items, such as a chocolate bar and a mug, and then asking whether they would like to trade for the other. As the starting item is selected at random, there should be a 50 percent chance that participants initially receive the item they like best and thus a 50 percent chance that they will trade.

"What we see, however, is that people trade only about 10 percent of the time," Azevedo said. "Simply telling someone they own something makes them value it more. That is, the way you ask the question changes what item people prefer, unlike what you would expect from rational economic behavior."

One problem with these experiments is that they generally involve participants from so-called "WEIRD" -- western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic -- societies. Apicella drew on her decade-long study of the Hadza people of Tanzania to provide a new perspective. The Hadza are one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on Earth, living in small, nomadic camps that communally share nearly all their possessions.