Secret History


Ebola panic echoes the 19th-century fear of cholera

Fears of cholera coming
© Graetz 1883/Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Fears of cholera coming.
On October 19th, an inspector sent north from London to Sunderland reported a long-awaited arrival: the first British case of cholera. It was 1831 and as part of a second pandemic cholera had again progressed from its Bengal heartland through Europe, before reaching the Baltic ports. It was only a matter of time.

The British public, informed by newspaper reports, were acquainted with the symptoms: profuse watery diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain and often death within a matter of hours. In advance of its arrival in Russia thousands fled from the cities. In Poland it was killing one in two victims. And unlike today, where oral rehydration solution can prevent dehydration and shock, there was no effective treatment.

Cholera was (and is) caused by vibrio cholerae bacteria and spread by poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. Although most people infected do not develop symptoms the bacteria remain present in faeces for one to two weeks after infection and contamination can go on to infect others.

In 1831, the conditions in which the second pandemic spread (there were six in total between 1817 and 1923) were little different to those in which Ebola is travelling today. And indeed there are some interesting parallels - from the developing official response, to riots and suspicion of the medical community.

The government's reaction as cholera made its way through Europe was to wait and see; although there was a greater degree of protection as an island then - with fewer travellers coming and going than we see today - a traditional quarantine policy would never have been 100% reliable. Screening ships' passengers and crews would not, as is happening with Ebola, have picked up the newly infected, although this was considered. Quarantine was seen as a greater risk to economic prosperity than the disease was to human life.

6,000-year-old temple with possible sacrificial altars discovered in Ukraine

© Nataliya Burdo and Mykhailo Videiko
A temple dating back about 6,000 years has been discovered within a massive prehistoric settlement in Ukraine.
A 6,000-year-old temple holding human-like figurines and sacrificed animal remains has been discovered within a massive prehistoric settlement in Ukraine.

Built before writing was invented, the temple is about 60 by 20 meters (197 by 66 feet) in size. It was a "two-story building made of wood and clay surrounded by a galleried courtyard," the upper floor divided into five rooms, write archaeologists Nataliya Burdo and Mykhailo Videiko in a copy of a presentation they gave recently at the European Association of Archaeologists' annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.

Inside the temple, archaeologists found the remains of eight clay platforms, which may have been used as altars, the finds suggested. A platform on the upper floor contains "numerous burnt bones of lamb, associated with sacrifice," write Burdo and Videiko, of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. The floors and walls of all five rooms on the upper floor were "decorated by red paint, which created [a] ceremonial atmosphere."

The ground floor contains seven additional platforms and a courtyard riddled with animal bones and pottery fragments, the researchers found.

Jack the Ripper: Scientists who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'

© The Independent, UK
'Error of nomenclature' undermines case against Polish immigrant barber accused of carrying out the atrocities in 1888 .
It was supposed to have been the definitive piece of scientific evidence that finally exposed the true identify of Jack the Ripper after he had brutally murdered at least five women on the streets of Whitechapel in the East End of London, 126 years ago.

A 23-year-old Polish immigrant barber called Aaron Kosminski was "definitely, categorically and absolutely" the man who carried out the atrocities in 1888, according to a detailed analysis of DNA extracted from a silk shawl allegedly found at the scene of one of his murders.

However, the scientist who carried out the DNA analysis has apparently made a fundamental error that fatally undermines his case against Kosminski - and once again throws open the debate over who the identity of the Ripper.

The scientist, Jari Louhelainen, is said to have made an "error of nomenclature" when using a DNA database to calculate the chances of a genetic match. If true, it would mean his calculations were wrong and that virtually anyone could have left the DNA that he insisted came from the Ripper's victim.

The apparent error, first noticed by crime enthusiasts in Australia blogging on the website, has been highlighted by four experts with intimate knowledge of DNA analysis - including Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of genetic fingerprinting - who found that Dr Louhelainen made a basic mistake in analysing the DNA extracted from a shawl supposedly found near the badly disfigured body of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes.

Best-ever portrait of Alexander the Great found?

Abduction of Persephone.
© Greek Ministry of Culture
This is the full mosaic depicting the abduction of Persephone.
The imposing mosaic unearthed in the burial mound complex at Amphipolis in northern Greece might contain the best-ever portrait of Alexander the Great as a young man, according to a new interpretation of the stunning artwork, which depicts the abduction of Persephone.

It might also confirm previous speculation that the tomb belongs to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great.

The mosaic portrays the soul-escorting Hermes, Hades and Persephone. In reality, the mosaic most likely has human counterparts represented in the guise of the three mythological characters, said Andrew Chugg, author of The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great.

"I am thinking very much that Persephone should be an image of the occupant of the tomb being driven into the Underworld," Chugg told Discovery News.

"That means an important queen of Macedon that died between 325-300 B.C. possibly at Amphipolis. So we are exactly where we always were: Olympias or Roxane," Chugg said.

Britain's greatest treasure hoard reveals how goldsmiths fooled the Anglo-Saxon world

Saxon Gold
© Birmingham Museums
Scientists discover sophisticated 7th century techniques used to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.
Scientists, examining Britain's greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn't quite as golden as they thought.

Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.

Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution - almost certainly ferric chloride - to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces' percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.

Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.

Extinct giant kangaroos didn't hop, they walked

© NGS/Alamy
No hopping here.
had faces like rabbits and some were 2 metres tall. But now it seems that an extinct giant kangaroo didn't hop - it walked.

Known as "short-faced giant kangaroos", sthenurines roamed Australia for 12.5 million years before being wiped out 30,000 years ago. No one knows what killed off these relatives of modern kangaroos, although they may have struggled as Australia's climate grew more arid.

Unlike kangaroos today, these ancient giants walked just like us. "All our evidence fits with these animals leaning on one leg at a time, like humans," says Christine Janis of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

She and her team took hundreds of measurements of the bones of 66 living species of the kangaroo family and 78 extinct species, including 71 from sthenurines, to calculate the likely size and function of each animal's bones and muscles.

They found that the ill-fated sthenurines had bone structures resembling those of animals that move by shifting weight from one foot to the other, like humans and apes (PLOS One, DOI). A flange at the base of their shin bones, similar to those found in horses and humans, would have prevented their feet from collapsing sideways under the weight of their body.

Prehistoric camps found in the High Tetons

ice patch
© Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum
Rebecca Sgouros searches an ice patch in the Tetons for thawing artifacts.
Quite a bit of what Matt Stirn, Rebecca Sgouros and a crew of volunteers found in the high Tetons remains to be told.

Partly because archaeology is a science, and the bits of data they found over two two-week expeditions on the west slope of the Teton Range still need to undergo intense study before any conclusions can be drawn.

And partly because the locations of these heretofore unknown, and unexplored, high-elevation archaeological sites are secret.

"At a few sites we found very little," said Stirn, who with Sgouros runs the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum's new archaeology program. "They were picked over. ... Mountain archaeology is so fragile as it is, because of the environment, we really need as much information as we can gather. When artifacts are taken, that prevents us from answering questions."

But the very fact that there are sites - some picked over, some yielding troves of evidence about Native American use and habitation of the high country dating back perhaps as early as 11,000 years ago - is exciting news.

Not that long ago archaeologists thought indigenous people of the region made short visits and spotty use of resources above 10,000 feet. The harsh conditions and unpredictable weather, it was assumed, would have mostly discouraged humans from all but brief visits to forage or for spiritual purposes.

Hallucinogenic plants may be key to decoding ancient southwestern paintings, expert says

rock art panel
© L. Loendorf
A rock art panel found at Dripping Springs, New Mexico depicts abstract triangle motifs. At this panel and others like it, potent wild tobacco was found growing beneath the image. Photograph enhanced with DStretch.
Dozens of rock art sites in southern New Mexico, recently documented for the first time, are revealing unexpected botanical clues that archaeologists say may help unlock the meaning of the ancient abstract paintings.

Over a swath of the Chihuahuan Desert stretching from Carlsbad to Las Cruces, at least 24 rock art panels have been found bearing the same distinctive pictographs: repeated series of triangles painted in combinations of red, yellow, and black.

And at each of these sites, archaeologists have noticed similarities not just on the rock, but in the ground.

Hallucinogenic plants were found growing beneath the triangle designs, including a particularly potent species of wild tobacco and the potentially deadly psychedelic known as datura.

Persephone abduction revealed in ancient Greek mosaic

Persephone's abduction_1
© Greek Ministry of Culture
The abduction of Persephone became a popular trope in Western Art. Here, the scene decorates a newly revealed mosaic in Amphipolis, Greece.
A newly revealed mosaic on the floor of a vast Greek tomb shows Hades hauling his reluctant bride Persephone to the underworld, archaeologists announced today (Oct. 16).

When the artwork was first uncovered a few days ago, excavators could only see part of the scene. The mosaic seemed to show Hermes, the Greek messenger God and son of Zeus, in a broad-brimmed hat, leading a horsedrawn chariot, with a bearded man in tow. But when more dirt was removed, a third figure came into view: a woman stretching her arm out in distress. Archaeologists with the Greek Ministry of Culture say it's now clear the mosaic depicts a famous scene from Greek mythology: the abduction of Persephone, sometimes called the rape of Persephone.

The mosaic, which is made up of brightly colored pebbles, lies in an antechamber in the huge Kasta Hill burial mound at Amphipolis, an ancient city about 65 miles (104 kilometers) east of Thessaloniki. The ongoing excavation at the site has been watched with great excitement in Greece. [See Photos of the Tomb's Excavation and Mosaic]

Radiocarbon analyses suggests that Aegean civilization ended about a century earlier than thought

Assiros Toumba

Assiros Toumba excavation site
Conventional estimates for the collapse of the Aegean civilization may be incorrect by up to a century, according to new radiocarbon analyses.

While historical chronologies traditionally place the end of the Greek Bronze Age at around 1025 BCE, this latest research suggests a date 70 to 100 years earlier.

Archaeologists from the University of Birmingham selected 60 samples of animal bones, plant remains and building timbers, excavated at Assiros in northern Greece, to be radiocarbon dated and correlated with 95.4% accuracy using Bayesian statistical methodology at the University of Oxford and the Akademie der Wissenschaften Heidelberg, Germany.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.