Secret HistoryS


Sun

Mystery of ancient city's alignment comes down to the sun

The Pharos of Alexandria
© Martin HeemskerckBoth practical and beautiful, the 400-foot lighthouse at the mouth of Alexandria harbor started guiding sailors home around 250 BC. A fire made the lighthouse glow at night and a mirror reflected sun rays during the day, some say up to 35 miles away. The Pharos of Alexandria, an ancient lighthouse, is depicted in this hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck.
The Egyptian city of Alexandria, home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, may have been built to align with the rising sun on the day of Alexander the Great's birth, a new study finds.

The Macedonian king, who commanded an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt to the Indus River in what is now India, founded the city of Alexandria in 331 B.C. The town would later become hugely prosperous, home to Cleopatra, the magnificent Royal Library of Alexandria and the 450-foot-tall (140 meters) Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Today, more than 4 million people live in modern Alexandria.

Ancient Alexandria was planned around a main east-west thoroughfare called Canopic Road, said Giulio Magli, an archaeoastronomer at the Politecnico of Milan. A study of the ancient route reveals it is not laid out according to topography; for example, it doesn't run quite parallel to the coastline. But on the birthday of Alexander the Great, the rising sun of the fourth century rose "in almost perfect alignment with the road," Magli said.

The results, he added, could help researchers in the hunt for the elusive tomb of Alexander. Ancient texts hold that the king's body was placed in a gold casket in a gold sarcophagus, later replaced with glass. The tomb, located somewhere in Alexandria, has been lost for nearly 2,000 years.

Gift 2

Cyprus: Archaeologists explore ancient shopping mall

Ancient paphos agora
Archaeologists exploring the Agora (market) of ancient Paphos have found a small tablet with the name of an official in Greek and a plethora of other artefacts including a golden pendant, it was announced this week.

"The most spectacular finds are a golden earring or pendant, ending in an ivy leaf, bronze objects such as a jug, a ladle with an iron handle, bronze ring, numerous coins, pins and other artefacts," the department of antiquities said. "The most notable artefact among the lead objects - apart from a ladle with an iron handle, similar to the one uncovered last year, and weights - is a small tablet with Greek inscription mentioning the official - - Seleukos, son of Agoranomos (market administrator) Ioulios Bathylos.

Paphos was the capital of Cyprus in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Sherlock

World's best-preserved gladiatorial relics are discovered in the suburbs of York

roman mosiac york
A 4th century mosaic showing a gladiator in combat
Eighty skeletons - including one apparently killed by a large carnivore - found close to city centre

Archaeologists investigating an ancient Roman burial site in Britain have identified what may be the world's best preserved remains of gladiators and other arena fighters who entertained audiences through bloody confrontations with wild animals.

Eighty skeletons have been unearthed at the site in Driffield Terrace, south west of the centre of York, over the past decade. One man appears to have been killed by a large carnivore - almost certainly a lion, tiger or bear. Others have weapon impact damage and many of them have specific features, including marks on their bones, consistent with tough training regimes.

Sherlock

Understanding Stonehenge: Two Explanations

Stonehenge
© Getty ImagesA symbol of unity or healing? The debate continues.
Was the prehistoric monument built to unite a land or as a destination to heal the sick? Recent research supports both ideas.

After centuries of puzzling over the meaning of Stonehenge, laser-equipped researchers have concluded that the prehistoric monument was built to show off the solstices.

Apart from revealing 71 new images of Bronze Age axeheads, which bring the number of this type of carvings known at Stonehenge to 115, the English Heritage groundbreaking analysis showed that the stones were shaped and crafted differently in various parts of the stone circle.

In particular, the stones first seen when approaching the monument from the north-east were completely "pick dressed." Stonehenge workers removed their brown and grey surface crust to show a bright, grey-white surface that would glisten at sunset on the shortest day of the year and in the dawn light on the longest day.

Info

Spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed discovered

Ancient Complex
© Antonio Monterroso/CSICThis is the monumental complex in Torre Argentina (Rome), where Julius Caesar was stabbed.
Archaeologists believe they have found the first physical evidence of the spot where Julius Caesar died, according to a new Spanish National Research Council report.

Caesar, the head of the Roman Republic, was stabbed to death by a group of rival Roman senators on March 14, 44 B.C, the Ides of March. The assassination is well-covered in classical texts, but until now, researchers had no archaeological evidence of the place where it happened.

Now, archaeologists have unearthed a concrete structure nearly 10 feet wide and 6.5 feet tall (3 meters by 2 meters) that may have been erected by Caesar's successor to condemn the assassination. The structure is at the base of the Curia, or Theater, of Pompey, the spot where classical writers reported the stabbing took place.

Info

A pre-Islamic civilization in Saudi Arabia

Mada'in Saleh
© Flickr/SammySix
The ancient past of one of the world's most closed countries is beginning to be revealed.Mada'in Saleh, about 200 miles north of Medina in northwestern Saudi Arabia, is an impressive remnant of the Nabataean civilization, the same people who built Petra in Jordan 2,000 years ago. Massive tombs carved out of cliffs tower over the desert. Some are decorated with carvings or bear ancient inscriptions dedicated to the dead who lie within. Around the tombs are the ruins of a once-thriving city at a key node of an extensive trade network.

The Nabataean Kingdom stretched from its capital Petra in what is now Jordan deep into the Arabian Peninsula. It grew wealthy from trading in incense from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. Incense was used in religious rituals and burials and was vitally important for many cultures, including the Romans. The Nabataeans had a powerful kingdom from 168 B.C. until the Roman Empire annexed it in 106 A.D.

Mada'in Saleh was near the southern edge of Nabataean territory, perfectly poised to control the trade route. Even though it's in the middle of a desert, there are good wells at the site and the Nabataeans managed to cultivate sizable tracts of land.

Black Magic

Skulls from sacrificial rituals found in temple

Five Skulls
© INAHFive skulls had holes on both sides, indicating they were hung on a rack.
Archaeologists have unearthed gruesome evidence of brutal Aztec rituals by uncovering 50 skulls and over 250 jaw bones at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City).

Found at one sacrificial stone below a ceremonial platform called the "cuauhxicalco," the human remains date back more than 500 years and represent the largest number of skulls ever found in one offering.

Used in rituals associated with the worship of Mictlantecuhtli, god of death, the skulls were unearthed in different locations: 45 appeared to have just been dumped on top of the stone, while the remaining five were buried under it.

Each of the five skulls had holes on both sides, suggesting they belonged to a tzompantli. This was a skull rack on which the crania of sacrificed people were hung and displayed near temples or at other locations.

Pyramid

Chichen Itza ball court watchtower was ancient Mayan observatory

Mayan Observatory
© f9photos / Shutterstock
Archaeologists in Mexico have determined the ancient Mayas observed equinoxes and solstices using the watchtower-like structures built atop the ceremonial ball court at the temples of Chichen Itza. This discovery adds to understanding the many layers of ritual significance the ball game had for the Maya culture.

The Mayas played an early version of basketball in the court, using their elbows, knees and hips to knock a heavy ball through a stone ring set in the walls. The watchtower structures sat atop the low walls surrounding this ball court.

The ball court was built around 864 AD, so even though the bases of these structures had been detected before, the stairs leading to them had crumbled. All that remained of the structures was the base, or footing, which made it difficult for archaeologists to understand what their purpose was.

The Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that the boxes had been 90% reconstructed. A team, led by archaeologist Jose Huchim, confirmed that the sun shone through the slit-like openings on the winter solstice when the setting sun touches the horizon. The slits, which are just tall enough to stand up in, also form a diagonal pattern at the equinox.

The team knows of no other Maya ball court with such structures.

Sherlock

Why Orkney is the centre of ancient Britain

Image
© Adam StanfordCircle of life: the Ring of Brodgar – a stone circle, or henge – is a World Heritage Site.
Long before the Egyptians began the pyramids, Neolithic man built a vast temple complex at the top of what is now Scotland. Robin McKie visits the astonishing Ness of Brodgar

Drive west from Orkney's capital, Kirkwall, and then head north on the narrow B9055 and you will reach a single stone monolith that guards the entrance to a spit of land known as the Ness of Brodgar. The promontory separates the island's two largest bodies of freshwater, the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray. At their furthest edges, the lochs' peaty brown water laps against fields and hills that form a natural amphitheatre; a landscape peppered with giant rings of stone, chambered cairns, ancient villages and other archaeological riches.

This is the heartland of the Neolithic North, a bleak, mysterious place that has made Orkney a magnet for archaeologists, historians and other researchers. For decades they have tramped the island measuring and ex- cavating its great Stone Age sites. The land was surveyed, mapped and known until a recent chance discovery revealed that for all their attention, scientists had completely overlooked a Neolithic treasure that utterly eclipses all others on Orkney - and in the rest of Europe.

Info

Experts: Mayan ballgame had astronomical function

Mayan Ball Game
© Latin American Herald Tribune
Mexico City - Restoration works at Chichen Itza have confirmed the hypothesis that the ballgame played in that ancient Mayan city in southeastern Mexico had an astronomical function, the National Anthropology and History Institute, or INAH, said.

After almost two years of restoration and preservation work, the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, at 120 meters (130 yards) long the largest in Mesoamerica, is gradually recovering its original appearance with the reincorporation of different elements, including the five "passages" that the ancient Mayas built on the site.

The passages are structures that, according to recent studies, were used to observe the path of the sun during the equinoxes and solstices, INAH said in a communique.

Archaeologist Jose Huchim, coordinator of the Chichen Itza comprehensive conservation project, said that observers were possibly stationed in those structures to follow the game and see if the ball went through the vertical stone ring and make sure players hit the ball according to the rules of the ritual.

Huchim said that 25 years ago, when he was studying archaeology, he observed the site with his then-professor Victor Segovia, a pioneer in the study of pre-Colombian astronomy, because both were convinced that the passages were oriented to the equinoxes and solstices.