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Mysterious shorthand code used by Rhode Island founding father Roger Williams finally cracked

© AP , John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
This image provided by Brown University shows the preface page of the "Mystery Book" from the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I.
The obscure book's margins are virtually filled with clusters of curious foreign characters - a mysterious shorthand used by 17th century religious dissident Roger Williams.

For centuries the scribbles went undeciphered. But a team of Brown University students has finally cracked the code.

Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island's founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

His coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university's John Carter Brown Library. The nearly 250-page volume, "An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians," was donated in the 1800s and included a handwritten note identifying Williams as the notes' author - though even that was uncertain at first.

A group including former library director Edward Widmer, Williams scholar and Rhode Island College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called "Mystery Book" a few years ago. But the most intense work began this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.
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Building Stonehenge: A new timeline revealed

Stonehenge
© Albo, Shutterstock
A new timeline of Stonehenge's construction reveals that the massive megaliths came first, while the smaller bluestone oval came later.
Ancient people probably assembled the massive sandstone horseshoe at Stonehenge more than 4,600 years ago, while the smaller bluestones were imported from Wales later, a new study suggests.

The conclusion, detailed in the December issue of the journal Antiquity, challenges earlier timelines that proposed the smaller stones were raised first.

"The sequence proposed for the site is really the wrong way around," said study co-author Timothy Darvill, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in England. "The original idea that it starts small and gets bigger is wrong. It starts big and stays big. The new scheme puts the big stones at the center at the site as the first stage."

The new timeline, which relies on statistical methods to tighten the dates when the stones were put into place, overturns the notion that ancient societies spent hundreds of years building each area of Stonehenge. Instead, a few generations likely built each of the major elements of the site, said Robert Ixer, a researcher who discovered the origin of the bluestones, but who was not involved in the study.

"It's a very timely paper and a very important paper," Ixer said. "A lot of us have got to go back and rethink when the stones arrived."
Sherlock

'One of the most significant digs ever' - Shining a light on the Dark Ages: 1,000-year-old household objects and tools made from iron, bronze and bone found

Pieces of a medieval board game and 1,000-year-old combs are among rare artefacts uncovered during an archaeological dig that is set to rewrite the history books. Experts have hailed the finds in Co Fermanagh as internationally significant, claiming they shed new light on life in medieval Ireland and its connection with the wider world.

Iron, bronze and bone ornaments have been discovered at the crannog just outside Enniskillen, along with the chess-like pieces believed to have been part of the game. Parts of log boats, leather shoes, knives, decorated dress pins, wooden vessels and a bowl with a cross carved on its base have also been unearthed during the six-month dig.
© PA
fine-tooth comb: The objects found indicate that people were very sophisticated in their tastes, say experts
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400-year-old playing cards reveal royal secret

King
© Patrick Debremme
Among a set of playing cards from 400 years ago was this king of swords, with the ruler dressed as a Holy Roman Emperor.
Call it a card player's dream. A complete set of 52 silver playing cards gilded in gold and dating back 400 years has been discovered.

Created in Germany around 1616, the cards were engraved by a man named Michael Frömmer, who created at least one other set of silver cards.

According to a story, backed up by a 19th-century brass plate, the cards were at one point owned by a Portuguese princess who fled the country, cards in hand, after Napoleon's armies invaded in 1807.

At the time they were created in 1616 no standardized cards existed; different parts of Europe had their own card styles. This particular set uses a suit seen in Italy, with swords, coins, batons and cups in values from ace to 10. Each of these suits has three face cards - king, knight (also known as cavalier) and knave. There are no jokers. [See Photos of the Silver Playing Cards]

In 2010, the playing cards were first put on auction by an anonymous family at Christie's auction house in New York. Purchased by entrepreneur Selim Zilkha, the cards were recently described by Timothy Schroder, a historian with expertise in gold and silver decorative arts, in his book Renaissance and Baroque Silver, Mounted Porcelain and Ruby Glass from the Zilkha Collection (Paul Holberton Publishing, 2012).

"Silver cards were exceptional," Schroder writes. "They were not made for playing with but as works of art for the collector's cabinet, or Kunstkammer." Today, few survive. "[O]nly five sets of silver cards are known today and of these only one - the Zilkha set - is complete."

On the cards, two of the kings are depicted wearing ancient Roman clothing while one is depicted as a Holy Roman Emperor and another is dressed up as a Sultan, with clothing seen in the Middle East. . The knights and knaves are depicted in different poses wearing (then-contemporary) Renaissance military or courtly costumes. Each card is about 3.4 inches by 2 inches (8.6 centimeters by 5 centimeters) in size and blank on the back.
Beer

Bronze Age 'microbrewery' unearthed

Micro-brewery

Archaeologists working in western Cyprus with their discovery of a Bronze Age 'microbrewery'

Archaeologists working in western Cyprus are raising a glass to the discovery of a Bronze Age "microbrewery".

The team excavated a 2 metres x 2 metres mud-plaster domed structure which it says was used as a kiln to dry malt and make beer 3,500 years ago.

Beers of different flavours would have been brewed from malted barley and fermented with yeasts with an alcoholic content of around 5%. The yeast would have either been wild or produced from fruit such as grape or fig, according to the researchers.

Dr Lindy Crewe, from the University of Manchester, has led the excavation at the Early-Middle Bronze Age settlement of Kissonerga-Skalia, near Paphos, since 2007. She said: "Archaeologists believe beer drinking was an important part of society from the Neolithic onwards and may have even been the main reason that people began to cultivate grain in the first place.

"But it's extremely rare to find the remains of production preserved from thousands of years ago so we're very excited. The excavation of the malting kiln with associated sets of pottery types and tools left in place gives us a fantastic opportunity to look at Bronze Age toolkits and figure out techniques and recipes."
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Prehistoric skeletons reveal first Sicilians avoided seafood

Favignana Island
© Marcello Mannino
The island of Favignana near Sicily, where remains of early Mediterranean settlers were found in a cave.
Despite a seaside home overlooking the Mediterranean, the very first human settlers of Sicily weren't seafood lovers, new research finds.

In an analysis published today (Nov. 28) in the journal PLOS ONE, skeletal remains of the people who occupied the site around 10,000 years ago show no telltale signs of seafood eating. Instead, researchers say, these hunter-gatherers chowed down on game such as deer and boar.

These first settlers, found on the modern-day island of Favignana, which was once connected to Sicily by a land bridge, probably ate little seafood for two reasons, said study researcher Marcello Mannino, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

First of all, the Mediterranean is relatively nutrient-poor - there just aren't that many fish in the sea. Second, these Mesolithic people likely didn't have the technology to do much fishing.

"The fact that these hunter-gatherers did not develop sophisticated fishing technologies in response to sea-level rise suggests that the potential returns of doing so were insufficient and that their population numbers were probably low," Mannino told LiveScience.
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Killer cave may have inspired myth of Hades

Alepotrypa
© Gianluca Cantoro, Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas
A giant cave called Alepotrypa that might have helped serve as the inspiration for the mythic ancient Greek underworld Hades may have supported complex settlements in its heyday. Here, the cave's main chamber.
A giant cave that might have helped serve as the inspiration for the mythic ancient Greek underworld Hades once housed hundreds of people, potentially making it one of the oldest and most important prehistoric villages in Europe before it collapsed and killed everyone inside, researchers say.

The complex settlement seen in this cave suggests, along with other sites from about the same time, that early prehistoric Europe may have been more complex than previously thought.

The cave, located in southern Greece and discovered in 1958, is called Alepotrypa, which means "foxhole."

"The legend is that in a village nearby, a guy was hunting for foxes with his dog, and the dog went into the hole and the man went after the dog and discovered the cave," said researcher Michael Galaty, an archaeologist at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. "The story's probably apocryphal - depending on who you ask in the village, they all claim it was their grandfather who found the cave."
Sherlock

Necropolis with over 100 burials unearthed near the village of Marten, northern Bulgaria

A necropolis with over 100 burials has been unearthed during archaeological excavations near the village of Marten in northern Bulgaria. The discovery was made by the archaeologist from the Archaeology Museum in the Danube city of Ruse, Deyan Dragoev. The necropolis is on the path of the future gas connection between Bulgaria and Romania.

The site includes tombs from the Thracian times to the times of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. The oldest ones date from the 5th - 4th centuries B.C. Some reveal very interesting rites such as the tomb of a decapitated soldier, whose head was laid on his lap, while others have been buried with gold and silver jewelry or with their dogs.

Some skeletons have deformed skulls, which have been typical for the First Bulgarian Kingdom as a sign of high position in society and of nobility. Noble children then had their heads tightened with headbands in order to change the form of the skull, experts say.
© Ruse History Museum
The newly-discovered necropolis in Bulgaria includes tombs from the Thracian times to the times of the First Bulgarian Kingdom.
Sherlock

40 silver Roman coins from 3rd century found at Odeon site in Bulgaria's Plovdiv

Archaeologists working at the Odeon site in Bulgaria's second city of Plovdiv have found 40 silver coins said to date from the third century CE when the city was under Roman rule. The coins were said by archaeologists to have been minted during the Severan dynasty, while ruled from 193 to 235 CE and variously feature images of four different emperors.

The Odeon site, dating from the second to fifth centuries, is the location of a Roman-era theatre, and is smaller in scale than Plovdiv's well-known ancient theatre in the city's Old Town. The coins were found near the complex of administrative buildings at the northern end of the forum complex. This archaeological season, more than 600 coins have been excavated at Plovdiv's Odeon site. From the Hellenic era, there have been many finds of pottery.
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The written word: An ancient tool of oppression

Ancient Writing
© BBC News
Experts working on proto-Elamite hope they are on the point of 'a breakthrough'.
The advent of writing is generally viewed in terms of its significance as a cultural advance - less attention is given to its political implications. Yet it looks like the most important function writing originally served was in the management of slavery and the regulation of society.

The BBC's Sean Coughlan reports on efforts to understand proto-Elamite, the world's oldest undeciphered writing system, which was used in an area that is now in south-western Iran over 5,000 years ago. The script was imprinted in clay tablets.
These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we're doing now - my writing and your reading - is a direct continuation.

But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn't so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.

Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr [Jacob] Dahl [director of the Ancient World Research Cluster at Oxford University] says it's possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets.

The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.

This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like "cattle with names".

Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status - the equivalent of being called "Mr One Hundred", he says - to show the number of people below him.

It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers.

Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer.

The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level.

However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.

For the "upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now", he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today's poorest countries.
If we think of writing as an observer's record-keeping we might imagine some kind of proto-historian assuming the task of creating these first tablets, yet their content as described above makes it clear that these texts had a purely utilitarian function - they were records for the ruling class. Indeed, the creation of writing was likely one of the necessary conditions that facilitated the development and expansion of ownership.
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