Getting a head: ‘Superduck’ dinosaur shows how dino crests evolved

Artist's reconstruction of the head of Probrachylophosaurus bergei in life.

Artist’s reconstruction of the head of Probrachylophosaurus bergei in life. (Illustration by John Conway)

A newly classified duck-billed dinosaur species snagged the nickname “superduck” due to its giant pelvis. But a small feature on its skull is a much bigger deal to paleontologists because it helps to define headgear evolution in hadrosaurs, a group of herbivorous duck-billed dinosaurs.

The new dinosaur’s name is a tongue twister: Probrachylophosaurus bergei (pro-BRACK-ee-loe-fa-SORE-us ber-GAY.) It would have been about 30 feet long and weighed around 5 tons. The crest atop its head may have barely cleared its brow, but it identifies the hadrosaur as a link between a predecessor species with a flat skull and later relatives with more dramatic paddle-shaped crests that reached the backs of their heads. [See Photos: Digging Up “Superduck,” a New Hadrosaur]

Getting a head

Piecing together this dinosaur took several decades. Paleontologists discovered leg and pelvis bones in Montana’s Judith River Formation, a rich source ofdinosaur fossils, in 1981. Though scientists knew the bones belonged to a 79-million-year-old hadrosaur, they couldn’t determine if the remains represented a new species.

“Typically, we need the skull to know what species we have,” Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, curator of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and an adjunct professor at Montana State University, told Live Science. “For most closely related animals, the variations are all going to be up in the skull,” said Freedman Fowler, who co-authored the new study detailing the findings.

“Not like anything we’d ever seen before”

But scientists didn’t have that critical piece until 2007, when weather and erosion exposed pieces of the skull at the site where paleontologists first recovered the pelvis and leg bones. Freedman Fowler and her colleagues were digging up hadrosaur fossils in a different location when they got the call from Fowler’s mentor, paleontologist Jack Horner. The quarry holding the skull bones was vulnerable to fossil poaching, and Freedman Fowler knew they had to recover the fossils for analysis before they were stolen.

As soon as the scientists cleaned up the bones in the lab, they realized the skull was special. “It had this really strange, small crest, not like anything we’d ever seen before,” Freedman Fowler told Live Science. [Photos: Discovering a Duck-Billed Dinosaur Baby]

The newfound skull most resembled those of hadrosaurs Acristavus andBrachylophosaurus, but its diminutive crest set it apart from both.Acristavus, the earlier hadrosaur, had a flat skull with no crest (its name, in fact, means “noncrested ancestor”). The later hadrosaur, Brachylophosaurus, had a crest extending toward the back of its head. Freedman Fowler and her team suspected that the small-crested dinosaur was a new intermediary species.

Cute crest

To make sure their find wasn’t just an immature big-crested Brachylophosaurusspecimen, the scientists cut open a leg bone to count the growth rings and find out how old the dinosaur was when it died. Once they discovered that their new hadrosaur was more mature than the oldest known Brachylophosaurusspecimen, they knew they had found a unique species. They named itProbrachylophosaurus, as it predated its larger-crested cousin by 1.5 million years.

Hadrosaurs, arguably the most endearing dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period, sported a range of crests that could be hollow or solid, resembling roosters’ combs, tapirs’ trunks or poorly modeled ashtrays. No one knows for sure what purpose their headgear served, but it may have been used for mating displays, or even to produce unique vocalizations.

The tiny crest topping Probrachylophosaurus probably served as some kind of species identification, Freedman Fowler said. “We think that they were display features for recognizing members of their own species and recognizing how mature they were,” Freedman Fowler said. Because the crest was so small, it would have been hard to see it from a distance, so there may have been something distinctive about its coloration, she added.

Filling in the gaps

The Judith River Formation is far from tapped out — Freedman Fowler asserts that many more Late Cretaceous fossils are yet to be discovered there, including more transitional species like the new hadrosaur. Every new discovery, she pointed out, creates connections between formerly isolated species, bringing dinosaur relationships more clearly into focus.

“We’re finding new specimens, we’re finding new species and they’re filling in these gaps, and so we can really look at the paths of evolution between species, and really know who’s connected in the direct lineage,” Freedman Fowler said.

The finding was detailed online Nov. 11 in the journal PLOS ONE.


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Archaeologists find world’s oldest fava seeds at site in Galilee

The world’s oldest domesticated fava seeds which were found at Ahihud. (Kobi Vardi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The world’s oldest domesticated fava seeds which were found at Ahihud. (Kobi Vardi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Prehistoric humans who lived in the Middle East may have been among the world’s first farmers.

Researchers from Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities made the surprising conclusion based on the discovery of what they now believe are the world’s oldest fava seeds at Neolithic archaeological sites in the Galilee. The seeds – found in storage pits after they had been husked dated to between 10,125 years and 10,200 years – would suggest the inhabitants diet consisted mainly of fava beans, as well as lentils and various types of peas and chick peas.

Related: Odd Ancient Beast Was Saber-Toothed Vegetarian

The storage of the seeds and their uniform size, according to the researchers, would also suggest they were cultivated and harvested at the same time – offering some of first signs of long-term planning for agriculture. The seeds, the researchers concluded, were intended not only for food but also to ensure there are future crops in the coming years.

“The identification of the places where plant species that are today an integral part of our diet were first domesticated is of great significance to research,” the researchers said in a statement.

Related: One third of vegetarians eat meat when they get drunk

“Despite the importance of cereals in nutrition that continues to this day, it seems that in the region we examined west of the Jordan River, it was the legumes, full of flavor and protein, which were actually the first species to be domesticated,” they said. “A phenomenon known as the agriculture revolution took place throughout the region at this time: different species of animals and plants were domesticated in the Levant and it is now clear that the area that is today the Galilee was the main producer of legumes in prehistoric times.”


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Prehistoric tooth reveals surprising details about long-lost human ‘cousins’

Prehistoric tooth excavated from the Denisova cave in Siberia's Altai Mountains in 2010 (Dr. Bence Viola, Max-Planck-Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology)

Prehistoric tooth excavated from the Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains in 2010 (Dr. Bence Viola, Max-Planck-Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology)

A prehistoric tooth discovered in a remote Russian cave has helped experts unearth surprising details about a group of long-lost human relatives called Denisovans.

The tooth was excavated from the Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains in 2010 and extensively analyzed. Experts have now released their findings, which show that Denisovans were around much earlier than previously thought.

A piece of Denisovan finger bone and another tooth discovered in the same cave, respectively, in 2010 and 2000, had been dated to between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. “The new tooth is 50,000 years older than the others – this is really interesting, it shows us these guys were around for a long time,” Bence Viola, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Anthropology, told

Related: Israeli archaeologists uncover stunning 1,700-year-old mosaic

The finger bone and the earlier tooth were from individuals that lived within a timespan of about 1,000 years each other, according to Viola.

The anthropologist, who worked on the research with experts from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, described Denisovans as our “long-lost cousins” who lived at the same time as both humans and Neanderthals.

“We know that they interbred with Neanderthals and modern humans,” he said, noting small amounts of Denisovan DNA in modern-day Melanesians who inhabit a number of Pacific Ocean islands. “At some point the ancestors of present-day Melanesians met Denisovans – we think that the Denisovans were widespread across all of Asia.”

The anthropologist also noted a key difference in Denisovans’ appearance compared to humans. “Based on the tooth, they had very large teeth,” he said. “[The tooth] is wide and long – it’s about double the surface of a modern human tooth.”

Related: Incan child sacrificed to the gods reveals history of American expansion

Both teeth discovered were upper molars.

Experts are also intrigued by the genetic makeup of the Denisovans. “These Denisovans who were all found have twice as much genetic diversity as Neanderthals and close to as much genetic diversity as we see in modern humans, which is pretty surprising,” Viola said.

Anthropologists, however, are still uncertain about when Denisovans became extinct. “They clearly were around when the first humans arrived in South East Asia about 50,000 years ago because they interbred with them,” explained Viola. “But we’re not really sure when extinction occurred.”

The findings were released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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Ancient board game found in looted China tomb

Archaeologists think this 14-face die was used to play a game called "bo" that hasn't been played in 1,500 years.

Archaeologists think this 14-face die was used to play a game called “bo” that hasn’t been played in 1,500 years. (Image courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics)

Pieces from a mysterious board game that hasn’t been played for 1,500 years were discovered in a heavily looted 2,300-year-old tomb near Qingzhou City in China.

There, archaeologists found a 14-face die made of animal tooth, 21 rectangular game pieces with numbers painted on them and a broken tile which was once part of a game board. The tile when reconstructed was “decorated with two eyes, which are surrounded by cloud-and-thunder patterns,” wrote the archaeologists in a report published recently in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

The skeleton of possibly one of the grave robbers was also discovered in a shaft made within the tomb by looters. [See Photos of the Ancient Tomb and Board Game Pieces]

Dead game?

Twelve faces of the die are numbered 1 through 6 in a form of ancient Chinese writing known as “seal script.” Each number appears twice on the die while two faces were left blank, the researchers noted.

The artifacts seem to be part of a game called “bo,” sometimes referred to as “liubo” the archaeologists said. Researchers who have studied the game of bo are uncertain exactly how it was played. People stopped playing it around 1,500 years ago and the rules may have changed during the time that it was played.

However, a poem written about 2,200 years ago by a man named Song Yu gives an idea as to what the game was like:

“Then, with bamboo dice and ivory pieces, the game of Liu Bo is begun; sides are taken; they advance together; keenly they threaten each other. Pieces are kinged, and the scoring doubled. Shouts of ‘five white!’ arise” (translation by David Hawkes).

Massive tomb

The tomb itself has two large ramps that lead to a staircase descending into the burial chamber. Five pits holding grave goods for the deceased are located beside the tomb. In ancient times, the tomb — which is about 330 feet long — was covered with a burial mound (now destroyed).

At the time the tomb was built, China was divided into several states that often fought against each other. Archaeologists believe that this tomb was built to bury aristocrats from the state of Qi.

“Despite the huge scale of the tomb, it has been thoroughly robbed,” the archaeologists wrote. “The coffin chamber was almost completely dug out and robbed, suffering severe damage in the process.”

Archaeologists found 26 shafts dug into the tomb by looters. One of the shafts “yielded a curled-up human skeleton, which might be the remains of one of the tomb robbers,” wrote the archaeologists, who said they don’t know when this person died, why he or she was buried in the looting shaft, or the person’s age or sex.

Winner takes all

During the third century B.C., a state called Qin, ruled by a man named Qin Shi Huangdi, gradually conquered the other states, including the state of Qi.

Qi itself survived until 221 B.C., when Qin Shi Huangdi conquered it, unifying all of China and becoming the country’s first emperor. Qin Shi Huangdi then beganconstruction of his own tomb, which was guarded by a terracotta army.

The tomb near Qingzhou city was excavated in 2004 by archaeologists from the Qingzhou Municipal Museum and Shandong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. The finds were first reported in Chinese in 2014 in the journal Wenwu. Recently, the Wenwu article was translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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500-year-old church discovered in slave trade settlement

This is the site of the excavation of the earliest church yet discovered in sub-Saharan Africa, with some of the structure dating back to the late 15th century.

This is the site of the excavation of the earliest church yet discovered in sub-Saharan Africa, with some of the structure dating back to the late 15th century. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Archaeologists have uncovered a 500-year-old church that may be the oldest known European Christian church in the tropics.

Deformed by floods and possibly visited by famed naturalist Charles Darwin, the church had been built by Portuguese colonizers in Cidade Velha, the former capital of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. The historic settlement was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are upward of 1,000 bodies, many of them likely slaves, buried underneath the nave of the church. For hundreds of years, Cape Verde was a place where African slaves were held and sold before being sent to Portugal and the Americas. That ugly industry made Cidade Velha, at its peak, the second richest city in the Portuguese empire. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

Darwin’s most famous stop during his long voyage aboard the HMS Beagle may have been the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. But his first port of call was a different volcanic archipelago that was uninhabited until the 15th century: Cape Verde.

Darwin was unimpressed with what he saw. However, among his disparaging remarks about Cape Verde and its people, he mentions visiting the ruins of a church:

This little town, before its harbour was filled up, was the principal place in the island: it now presents a melancholy, but very picturesque appearance. Having procured a black Padre for a guide, and a Spaniard who had served in the Peninsular war as an interpreter, we visited a collection of buildings, of which an ancient church formed the principal part. It is here the governors and captain-generals of the islands have been buried. Some of the tombstones recorded dates of the sixteenth century. The heraldic ornaments were the only things in this retired place that reminded us of Europe. The church or chapel formed one side of a quadrangle, in the middle of which a large clump of bananas were growing. On another side was a hospital, containing about a dozen miserable-looking inmates.

Over the last year, archaeologists from Cambridge University have revealed a ruined church in what may be the first major excavations to take place at Cape Verde. Christopher Evans, director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, thinks the church is likely the same one that Darwin described.

For a city built on the slave trade, Cidade Velha had a lot of Christian churches. The newly revealed building, which probably could have fit about 75 people, was just one of about two dozen churches and chapels in the small river valley where Cidade Velha is located, Evans said.

“Religion was an integral part of early Portuguese colonialism,” Evans told Live Science. “People were competitively building churches. You also have religious orders establishing themselves in the early 16th century, and Cidade Velha becomes the seat of the bishopric of Africa.”

Slaves may not have been excluded from religious life in Cape Verde. Already, isotope analyses of teeth suggest that many of the people buried under the church were African, and likely slaves.

“The fact that they’re getting a church burial could be evidence that converting the slaves to Christianity meant something,” Evans said. Further investigation of the bones could reveal more about the work conditions and the diets of the slaves, shedding light on slavery in a late medieval context.

While the main church was built during the decade straddling 1500, there are some early stone foundations from a Gothic chapel that date back to around 1470, which would make it the earliest building on the Cape Verde islands, Evans said.

Since the colonizers were the first people to inhabit the island, they had no knowledge of the local environment, and they made some critical mistakes when building the church. First, they built it on top of a seasonal stream course. Second, the church was located at the bend of a river. These factors made the building vulnerable to flash floods, and the church had to be rebuilt twice in the 16th and 17th centuries, Evans said.

“Instead of being a normally proportioned church, it became a rather fat, squat church,” Evans said. “It’s a reflection that they didn’t understand the landscape they were in.”

Pirate attacks eventually caused the downfall of Cidade Velha in the 18th century, but this church was likely reduced to ruins by floodwaters.

“Everyone attributes to demise of Cidade Velha to pirates,” Evans said. “In this case, it’s actually nature.”


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Israeli archaeologists uncover stunning 1,700-year-old mosaic

A partial view of a 1,700-year-old Roman-era mosaic floor in Lod, Israel, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A partial view of a 1,700-year-old Roman-era mosaic floor in Lod, Israel, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Archaeologists in Israel are showing off a newly-discovered 1,700-year old mosaic this week.

The Roman-era mosaic was excavated in central Israeli city of Lod between June and November 2014 by a team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority.  The discovery was made during the building of a visitors’ center meant to display another mosaic that was found two decades earlier at the same location.

Related: 500-year-old church discovered in slave trade settlement

“The villa we found was part of a neighborhood of affluent houses that stood here during the Roman and Byzantine periods,” said Excavation Director Amir Gorzalczany, in a statement.

The colorful mosaic, which measures 36 feet by 42 feet, was the courtyard pavement of the villa and depicts hunting and hunted animals, fish, flowers in baskets, vases and birds. “The quality of the images portrayed in the mosaic indicates a highly developed artistic ability,” said Gorzalczany.

The public will have an opportunity to view the mosaic for the first time this week, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Related: The ‘Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay’ in pictures

The new mosaic was found just a few yards from the first one, which covered the villa’s living room.

The original mosaic has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. It is currently on display at the Cini Gallery in Venice, Italy, and is expected to return to Lod after the visitors’ center is complete.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Edmund Fitzgerald sinking remains a Great Lakes mystery 40 years later

FILE 1959: The Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which disappeared Nov. 10, 1975, in a storm on Lake Superior.

FILE 1959: The Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which disappeared Nov. 10, 1975, in a storm on Lake Superior.

It was exactly 40 years ago Tuesday when “the winds of November came early” and took the legendary Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and 29 souls to the bottom of Lake Superior, a disaster memorialized in book and song that remains mired in maritime mystery.

The 729-foot ore-carrier, called the “Queen of the Great Lakes” sank during a brutal storm on the eastern section of the lake, but the exact cause of its demise continues to elude experts and historians. From the plausible explanations offered in Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting classic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” to crackpot theories involving space aliens, theories abound as to what caused one of the 20th century’s best-chronicled American shipwrecks.

“There were no survivors and no witnesses and we will never know, definitely, what happened on Nov. 10, 1975,” Fredrick Stonehouse, the author of the 1982 book “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” told “We do know that the crew must have thought, ‘We’re hurt, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.'”

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee,’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,
When the skies of November turn gloomy

– Gordon Lightfoot

The storm that day, by any measure, was horrible. But despite boasting 90 mph winds and waves measuring 25 feet, the vessel, laden with taconite pellets and headed from Superior, Wis., to Detroit (and not Cleveland, as Lightfoot sang), should have been able to survive, according to many historians. Its captain was the experienced E.R. McSorley and it was being followed by another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, which never heard a distress call.

“Lake Superior seldom coughs up her victims unless they’re wearing life jackets,” Capt. Charles A. Millradt, commander of the Soo Coast Guard Station, said at the time. “As of this time, we have no reason to believe the men of the Fitzgerald had time to get into life jackets.”

The Coast Guard requested that the Anderson turn around after safely reaching port and search for the Fitzgerald, recalled Ed Belanger, 60, who was on board the ship. The storm was at its worst, he said, but the captain and crew all decided that if they were missing, they would hope another ship would do the same. The Anderson spent the next day and a half searching for the Fitzgerald.

“It was a complete white-out,” he told “Imagine being on a boat, and looking up and seeing water; that’s what it was like.”

The search for the Fitzgerald continued the following day on eastern Lake Superior about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay included two freighters, a pair of Coast Guard helicopters and two planes. As searches go, the weather was idyllic: the largest of all Great Lakes was mirror-flat and the gunmetal gray sky meant that there’d be little reflections off the lake named by French explorers “le lec superieur,” or “Upper Lake.”

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled in May 1978 that the “probable cause of this accident was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers.” But the report admits that analysis of the wreckage “did not give any conclusive evidence as to the cause of the sinking.”

The Coast Guard said the Fitzgerald may have broken up and sunk before a distress call could be made. The Arthur M. Anderson did report receiving a call Monday night from the Fitzgerald indicating the doomed ship was taking on water, but its pumps were working and the vessel was not in immediate danger.

One Coast Guard spokesman said the Fitzgerald “probably broke in two.” But Ens. Kenneth Baker added that a hatch cover could have blown off, causing the vessel to take on water.

“In high seas, if they’re not secured, a couple of hatch covers could come off. If that happens, a ship will take on water very fast,” he said.

“I’m not a betting man, but if I had to put my money on it, I’d say she bottomed out at Caribou Shoal and could not overcome the damage,” he said.

The ship rests under 535 feet of cold Lake Superior water. Stonehouse said the wreck is on the Canadian side of the lake and the Canadian government has closed off all diving to preserve the ship and honor the crew members who rest there. In 1995, crews were able to retrieve the ship’s bronze bell.

Belanger agrees with the Canadian government that the wreck is a gravesite and should not be disturbed by new dive teams.

The Great Lakes has claimed other huge ore-carriers, including the Carl Bradley, which sank in Lake Michigan in November 1958, killing 33 of its 35 crew members, and the Daniel J. Morrell, which went down in Lake Huron in November 1966, killing 28 of its 29 crew members.

An estimated 30,000 people have died in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes over the last three centuries, according to the Rev. William Fleming, pastor of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. A service was held there Sunday to remember victims from all disasters and tragedies on the Great Lakes, including the loss of the Fitzgerald.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Workers discover 19th century burial vault under New York City park


Workers upgrading water mains under New York City’s Washington Square Park this week discovered a vault containing a large pile of skeletal remains dating back approximately 200 years.

Officials from the city’s Department of Design and Construction told Newsdaythat the vault measured 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 feet long. It contained the remains of at least a dozen people. Anthropologists and archaeologists would be asked to investigate the vault to determine its exact age.

The agency told DNAInfo that work on the project would continue as planned south of the burial site. The vault was discovered east of the park, in an area surrounded by New York University buildings.

The land where the park is now located was a so-called potter’s field, or public burial ground, between 1797 and 1825. The city bought the land the following year and turned it into a military parade ground, and then a park.

Historians have estimated that approximately 20,000 people were buried underneath the park.

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In wake of crash, Egypt opens tombs to spur tourist interest


Nov. 5, 2015: A visitor looks at colored carvings on a wall at the Horemheb tomb, the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. (AP)

Egypt opened three tombs in the ancient city of Luxor to the public for the first time on Thursday, hoping to spur interest in tourism despite the shadow of last weekend’s airline crash in the Sinai Peninsula.

“It is very sad what happened, but we have to wait for the result of the investigation,” Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty said, before descending into one of the newly opened tombs. “It was not a terror act, it was an accident.”

The most significant tomb opened Thursday was that of Huy, Viceroy of Kush under the famed King Tutankhamun. Inside the tomb, wall paintings depict a great festival with southerners from Nubia paying tribute, confirming Egypt’s domination.

“The tomb also shows Huy receiving the seal of his office, and other unparalleled details regarding the administration of Egypt’s most important foreign holdings,” said John Darnell of Yale University. “In many ways the tomb of Huy gives us one of the most detailed and colorful glimpses into the interactions of Egyptians and Nubians during the high noon of imperial Egypt.”

Eldamaty said the newly opened tombs, in the Qurnat Marey area of Luxor, are among the most important ones made for nobles of the New Kingdom period, which ended over 3,000 years ago. The opening, planned before the airline disaster, is part of government plans to highlight new archaeological sites to encourage tourism.

Most of the tombs in Luxor are secured against unauthorized entry, but the ministry keeps several open at any given time, rotating access regularly to give them a rest from humidity and visitors.

The two other tombs opened Thursday are known as Tomb TT 277 of Amunemonet, a priest in the funerary temple of Amenhotep III, and Tomb TT 278 of Amunemhab, who was the keeper of the cattle belonging to the temple of the god Amun Re.

The cause of Saturday’s crash of a Metrojet flight packed with Russian vacationers returning home from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is under investigation, but the Islamic State extremist group has claimed responsibility and British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “more likely than not” that a bomb brought down the flight. All 224 on board were killed.

Cameron has grounded all British flights to and from Sinai, stranding thousands of tourists, citing “intelligence and information.” Germany’s Lufthansa Group said later Thursday it was also suspending all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh.

Officials from Russia and Egypt are dismissing the bomb theory as premature speculation. Many Egyptians in tourism-dependent areas are repeating the line with a sometimes desperate hopefulness.

Tourism, a key foreign currency earner for Egypt’s economy, is making a gradual recovery after years of political upheaval, but the future would be grim if it’s proven that an Islamic State bomb indeed brought down the Russian passenger plane. The army is already fighting in a northern corner of Sinai Islamic militants who in recent months claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, but such a revelation would undermine its claims that it has the insurgency under control and that Egypt is safe for tourists.

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Tomb tells tale of family executed by China’s first female Emperor

A "rubbing" of one of the epitaphs on the tomb of Yan Shiwei who helped China's only female emperor rise to power. The epitaph describes part of the man's life.

A “rubbing” of one of the epitaphs on the tomb of Yan Shiwei who helped China’s only female emperor rise to power. The epitaph describes part of the man’s life. (Chinese Cultural Relics)

A 1,300-year-old tomb, discovered in Xi’an city, China, holds the bones of a man who helped the nation’s only female emperor rise to power. The epitaphs in the tomb describe how she then executed him and his entire family.

Located within a cave, the tomb contains the remains of Yan Shiwei and his wife, Lady Pei. While little is left of the individual’s skeletons, archaeologists found colorful ceramic figurines, a mirror with a gold plaque and, most importantly, epitaphs inscribed on bluestones.

The tomb and its epitaphs were described recently in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics by researchers from the Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeology and Conservation of Cultural Heritage. [See Photos of the Chinese Tomb Site and Treasures]

A woman comes to power

Wu Zetian started out as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong (649-683), eventually becoming his empress and gaining a high degree of influence over him.

After the emperor’s death, Wu Zetian declared that she would rule China as Empress Dowager with her son, Emperor Ruizong. The epitaphs say that shortly after her declaration, a duke named Xu Jingye led a rebellion in Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou).

At this time, according to the translated epitaphs, Yan Shiwei was serving as a military official in Jiangdu; the duke, Jingye, tried to persuade Shiwei to join the rebels, but Shiwei refused and fought against the duke.

“The lord [Yan Shiwei] intentionally broke his own arm to resist the coercion from the rebel, showing that his loyalty to the imperial court had not been shaken,” the epitaphs read in translation. It’s unknown why Shiwei had to intentionally break his own arm. It could have been during hand-to-hand fighting while trying to get out of a hold. It’s also possible that the phrase is metaphorical. [In Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]

In the ensuing conflict the duke’s forces were defeated. Wu Zetian claimed power as Empress Dowager, and Yan Shiwei was promoted.

“After the rebels were defeated, the lord received his reward. He was promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master for closing court,” the epitaphs say.

In 690, Wu Zetian declared herself emperor in her own right and founded her own dynasty, which she called the “Zhou.”

As Wu Zetian’s power increased, Yan Shiwei became one of her favorite officials, taking on those who challenged her authority. The epitaphs say that at one point Yan Shiwei was charged with confronting “powerful families” near the capital city of Luoyang. The texts say that civil disorder was occurring.

“There were more spoiled young bullies in the counties near the capital, and the local officials feared those powerful families,” the epitaphs say. Yan Shiwei resolved the situation, although the epitaphs are vague on how he did it, saying that “the lord was strict as the autumn frost, as well as warming as the winter sun, and got the people to learn self-control, and civil order was established.”

Betrayal and downfall

By 699, Yan Shiwei had become a senior official who “was stationed in the capital area and controlled mountains and rivers,” the texts alluding to his great power.

The epitaphs say that Yan Shiwei had little time to enjoy his power before he was executed. “Before he started galloping, a tragedy descended upon him,” the epitaphs say, explaining that his younger brother, Zhiwei, turned against the female emperor. The epitaphs don’t specify precisely what Zhiwei did, but the consequences for Yan Shiwei and his family were severe.

“Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother Zhiwei, he [Yan Shiwei] was executed under collective punishment,” the epitaphs say, adding that “the entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed.”

Yan Shiwei’s wife, Lady Pei, had died a few years earlier, in 691, so she was not killed in the mass execution.

The epitaphs also suggest that murder was not enough of a punishment for Yan Shiwei’s supposed betrayal. “The corpse and soul were carelessly buried, it being thought it would never be possible to move them for proper burial.”

However, the female emperor was thrown out of power in 705, and died shortly afterward, bringing an end to her short-lived “Zhou” dynasty. The dynasty that had preceded her, called the “Tang,” was restored to power.

“The resurrection of the Tang Dynasty brought exoneration [for Yan Shiwei]. Therefore, his remains were exhumed to be buried at his birthplace,” the epitaphs say. The “tomb [that the archaeologists found] was built to house his remains,” the writings say.

The tomb was excavated in 2002. The finds were first reported in Chinese in 2014 in the journal Wenwu. Recently, the Wenwu article was translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.


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