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AI is deciphering a 2,000-year-old 'lost book' describing life after Alexander the Great

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, it carbonized a book on rulers who followed Alexander the Great. Now, machine learning is deciphering the "lost book."
Alexander the Great
© Image courtesy Wikimedia, from an ancient mosaic in Pompeii, Italy
A 2,000-year-old scroll on the rulers who followed Alexander the Great (pictured here in a mosaic) is being deciphered with machine learning.
A 2,000-year-old "lost book" discussing the dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great may finally be deciphered nearly two millennia after the text was partially destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and, centuries later, handed off to Napoleon Bonaparte.

The reason for the breakthrough? Researchers are using machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, to discern the faint ink on the rolled-up papyrus scroll.

"It's probably a lost work," Richard Janko, the Gerald F. Else distinguished university professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan, said during a presentation at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, held in New Orleans last month. The research is not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Only small parts of the heavily damaged text can be read right now. "It contains the names of a number of Macedonian dynasts and generals of Alexander," Janko said, noting that it also includes "several mentions of Alexander himself." After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., his empire fell apart. The text mentions the Macedonian generals Seleucus, who came to rule a large amount of territory in the Middle East, and Cassander, who ruled Greece after Alexander's death.

The lost book is from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, a city that was destroyed alongside Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted after the turn of the first millennium. The villa, named for its vast scrolls of papyri, contains numerous writings from the philosopher Philodemus (lived circa 110 B.C. to 30 B.C.). These papyri were carbonized when the volcano erupted. At some point, the text was found, and it was given to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. He gave it to the Institut de France in Paris, where it now resides. In 1986, an attempt to unroll the papyrus resulted in further damage, Janko said.

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1.2 million-year-old tool workshop in Ethiopia made by 'clever' group of unknown human relatives

An unknown group of hominins crafted more than 500 obsidian hand axes more than 1.2 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia.

ancient human relatives
© M. Mussi et al.
An illustration showing ancient human relatives making hand axes out of obsidian more than 1.2 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia.
More than 1.2 million years ago, an unknown group of human relatives may have created sharp hand axes from volcanic glass in a "stone-tool workshop" in what is now Ethiopia, a new study finds.

This discovery suggests that ancient human relatives may have regularly manufactured stone artifacts in a methodical way more than a half-million years earlier than the previous record, which dates to about 500,000 years ago in France and England.

Because it requires skill and knowledge, stone tool use among early hominins, the group that includes humans and the extinct species more closely related to humans than any other animal, can offer a window into the evolution of the human mind. A key advance in stone tool creation was the emergence of so-called workshops. At these sites, archaeologists can see evidence of hominins methodically and repeatedly crafting stone artifacts.

The newly analyzed trove of obsidian tools may be the oldest stone-tool workshop run by hominins on record. "This is very new in human evolution," study first author Margherita Mussi, an archaeologist at the Sapienza University of Rome and director of the Italo-Spanish archeological mission at Melka Kunture and Balchit, a World Heritage site in Ethiopia, told Live Science.
Awash River at Melka Kunture in Ethiopia
© M. Mussi et al.
The archaeological site at the Awash River at Melka Kunture in Ethiopia.

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New AI tool 'fragmentarium' brings ancient Babylonian texts together

Enrique Jiménez uses AI to make texts that are thousands of years old readable. Now the Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures is making his platform accessible to the public.
Enrique Jiménez
© LMU
Enrique Jiménez
originally studied classical philology. Today he is an expert in Babylonian literature and uses AI to reconstruct Babylonian texts.
How should we live when we know we must die? This question is posed by the first work of world literature, the Gilgamesh epic. More than 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh set out on a quest for immortality. Like all Babylonian literature, the saga has survived only in fragments. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to bring two-thirds of the text into readable condition since it was rediscovered in the 19th century.

The Babylonians wrote in cuneiform characters on clay tablets, which have survived in the form of countless fragments. Over centuries, scholars transferred the characters imprinted on the pieces of clay onto paper. Then they would painstakingly compare their transcripts and - in the best case - recognize which fragments belong together and fill in the gaps. The texts were written in the languages Sumerian and Akkadian, which have complicated writing systems. This was a Sisyphean task, one that the experts in the Electronic Babylonian Literature project can scarcely imagine today.

Digitization of all surviving cuneiform tablets

Enrique Jiménez, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures at LMU's Institute of Assyriology, and his team have been working on the digitization of all surviving cuneiform tablets since 2018. In that time, the project has processed as many as 22,000 text fragments.

"It's a tool that didn't exist before, a huge database of fragments. We believe it can play a vital role in reconstructing Babylonian literature, allowing us to make much faster progress." Aptly named the Fragmentarium, it is designed to piece together fragments of text using systematic, automated methods. The designers expect that the program will also be able to identify and transcribe photos of cuneiform scripts in the future. To date, thousands of additional cuneiform fragments have been photographed in collaboration with the British Museum in London and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Blue Planet

Sumeria's marshy city of Lagash was built on mounds and interlaced with waterways

Lagash
© Emily Hammer
Ancient Lagash
The traditional model of early Mesopotamian urban development holds that cities were compact settlements that expanded out from a central monumental religious complex. However, a recent remote-sensing survey of the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash in present-day southern Iraq has established that it was composed of several discrete sections, each bounded by walls or waterways. The survey was conducted by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Emily Hammer in conjunction with Lagash Archaeological Project directors Holly Pittman and Augusta McMahon. It included drone photography of the entire 750-acre site.

The results revealed that some of the people of Lagash, which dates largely to the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.), lived on a pair of elongated mounds, each surrounded by substantial walls. One of these mounds, in the east, measured 100 acres, and the other, in the west, covered 220 acres. People also lived on an unwalled mound in the north that spanned 140 acres and was crisscrossed by waterways. A much smaller fourth mound in the northeast was dominated by a large temple.

Comment: See also: Crannogs: Neolithic artificial islands in Scotland stump archeologists


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Remapping superhighways travelled by first Australians

Sahul
© Flinders University
New research has revealed that the process of 'peopling' the entire continent of Sahul — the combined mega continent that joined Australia with New Guinea when sea levels were much lower than today — took 10,000 years.

Sophisticated models combined recent improvements in demography and models of wayfinding based on geographic inference to show the scale of the challenges faced by the ancestors of Indigenous people making their mass migration across the supercontinent more than 60,000 years ago.

The ancestors of Aboriginal people likely first entered the continent 75,000-50,000 years ago from what is today the island of Timor, followed by later migrations through the western regions of New Guinea.

According to the new research, this pattern led to a rapid expansion both southward toward the Great Australian Bight, and northward from the Kimberley region to settle all parts of New Guinea and, later, the southwest and southeast of Australia.

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The Eye of the Sahara

THE EYE OF THE SAHARA, ALSO KNOWN AS THE RICHAT STRUCTURE AND THE EYE OF AFRICA, IS A GEOLOGICAL FEATURE IN THE SAHARA DESERT'S ADRAR PLATEAU, LOCATED IN WEST-CENTRAL ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF MAURITANIA.

Eye of the Sahara
© NASA – Public Domain
Eye of the Sahara.
The structure is an eroded elliptical dome of sedimentary rock, that ranges in age from the Proterozoic (2500 to 538.8 million years ago) within the centre, to Ordovician (488.3 to 443.7 million years ago) sandstone around its periphery.

The dome has a diameter of 40 kilometres (25 mi), with an interior comprised of intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks, including rhyolitic volcanic rocks, gabbros, carbonatites and kimberlites.

The rhyolitic rocks have been interpreted as lava flows that are part of two distinct eruptive centres formed from the remains of two maars, a low-relief volcanic crater caused by a phreatomagmatic eruption (an explosion caused when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava or magma).

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Karahan Tepe

Karahan Tepe
© Berna Namoglu – Shutterstock
Karahan Tepe is a site close to Gobekli Tepe, and roughly the same age (see Karahan Tepe - The Sister site to Gobekli Tepe) it was discovered in 1997 but not surveyed until 2000. This revealed basin like pools carved in hard rock, and a collection of tools such as adzes, chisels, beads, stone pot fragments, grinding stones and pestles.

There were also arrowheads, scrapers, perforators, blades etc, made of flint or obsidian. This suggested to the archaeologists the people of Karahan Tepe were essentially hunter gatherers - or they practised animal husbandry. A lack of farmed vegetation was the biggest surprise.No evidence of cereals for example, or legumes. Nothing.

The site is now classified as pre pottery and pre-Neolithic, and is dated between 10,000 and 6500BC. This corresponds to nearby sites such as Gobekli Tepe and Sefer Tepe etc. What is clear is that the site was intentionally built by the inhabitants as the wider site is said to contain circular homes. The ritual complex and ceremonial structures have been found cut into the bedrock.

Георгиевская ленточка

'There is no God here': How the conflict between the Orthodox Christian Church and the Soviet Union helped define modern Russia

russian orthodox church bolshevik revolution lenin
© RT
105 years ago, the Bolsheviks were excommunicated

"Madmen, come to your senses, stop your bloody massacres. What you are doing is not only cruel - it's a satanic deed, for which you'll burn in the fires of hell in the life to come, and will be damned by posterity." With these words, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon, addressed the people in February 1918. The speech was a response to anti-religious pogroms happening all over the country.

It marked the beginning of a long conflict between the Soviet government and the Orthodox Church, which reverberates in Russian society to this day. A religious believer who also sincerely supports Communist ideals and feels nostalgic about the USSR is a seemingly contradictory and exotic type of person, but rather common in Russia. A famous example being the politician Gennady Zyuganov, who believes Jesus Christ himself was a Communist.

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Researchers identify oldest bone spear point in the Americas

The Manis bone projectile point represents the oldest direct evidence of mastodon hunting in the Americas.

The Manis site mastodon rib
© Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University
The Manis site mastodon rib with embedded point to the left.
A team of researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor has identified the Manis bone projectile point as the oldest weapon made of bone ever found in the Americas at 13,900 years.

Dr. Michael Waters, distinguished professor of anthropology and director of Texas A&M's Center for the Study of First Americans, led the team whose findings were published this week in Science Advances.

The team studied bone fragments embedded in a mastodon rib bone which was first discovered by Carl Gustafson, who conducted an excavation at the Manis site in Washington state from 1977 to 1979.

Using a CT scan and 3D software, Waters and his team isolated all the bone fragments to show it was the tip of a weapon — a projectile made from the bone of Mastodon, prehistoric relatives of elephants.

"We isolated the bone fragments, printed them out and assembled them," Waters said. "This clearly showed this was the tip of a bone projectile point. This is this the oldest bone projectile point in the Americas and represents the oldest direct evidence of mastodon hunting in the Americas."

Waters said at 13,900 years old, the Manis point is 900 years older than projectile points found to be associated with the Clovis people, whose stone tools he has also studied. Dating from 13,050 to 12,750 years ago, Clovis spear points have been found in Texas and several other sites across the country.

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Earliest evidence of humans hunting elephants

A STUDY AT THE MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC SITE OF NEUMARK - NORD, LOCATED NEAR LEIPZIG, GERMANY, HAS PROVIDED THE FIRST INDISPUTABLE PROOF OF ELEPHANT HUNTING BY EARLY HUMANS.
Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser
© Lutz Kindler, LEIZA
Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser standing next to a life-size reconstruction of an adult male European straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle.
Neumark - Nord was first discovered in the 1980's, revealing the remains of at least 70 straight-tusked elephants over a decade of excavations in a gigantic lignite pit, which had been well preserved over the last 125,000 years in the fine-grained lake sediments present there.

The European straight-tusked elephant was the largest land-living animal at the time - with shoulder heights of up to 4 metres and body masses of up to 13 tonnes. The animal by the scientific name of Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was characterised by its unusually long and essentially straight tusks.

Palaeoloxodon antiquus roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia in a period 800,000 to 100,000 years ago. It was the largest land mammal of the Pleistocene epoch, a period that began three million years ago. Straight-tusked elephants were not only significantly larger than today's African and Asian elephants, but were even bigger than the also extinct woolly mammoth.

It has been unclear to date, whether prehistoric hominins actively sought out and killed such elephants or simply scavenged from the carcasses of animals that had died a natural death

A zooarchaeological study by researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also based in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands, analysed an assemblage of European straight-tusked elephant remains from Neumark - Nord.

This revealed that Neanderthals deliberately hunted down and slaughtered European straight-tusked elephants in much larger social groups than had been previously assumed, whose meat and fatty tissue represented an important source of nutrition.