Identities of mysterious Jamestown settlers revealed


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Four lost leaders of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas have been identified, thanks to chemical analysis of their skeletons, as well as historical documents.

The settlement leaders were mostly high-status men who were buried at the 1608 Jamestown church in Virginia. And all played pivotal roles in the early colony.

“They’re very much at the heart of the foundation of the America that we know today,” said Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who helped identify the bodies. [See photos of the newly identified Jamestown settlers]

By analyzing the bones, researchers can get a snapshot of what it was like to live during the earliest days of America, Owsley said.

“It’s a way of getting very detailed information you simply can’t get from the history books,” Owsley told Live Science.

First colonies

Though the British had previously sent out settler ships (to the doomed colony of Roanoke), the British colonial adventure in America truly got started in Jamestown, Virginia.

English settlers disembarked from their ships in 1607 at an inland spot along the James River, marking a chunk of land as a prime location for a fortified settlement. Over the next few years, several boats would arrive, bearing hundreds of settlers to what would be called Jamestown.

But times were rough; during a six-month period in 1609 known as the “starving time,” nearly 250 people died at Jamestown. At least some of the inhabitants resorted to cannibalism, according to a 2013 study by the same researchers.

Founding fathers

In 2013, Owsley and his colleagues first unearthed the bodies, near the historic Jamestown church where Captain John Smith married Pocahontas. Two of the bodies were in fairly ornate, anthropomorphic coffins, though the bodies were poorly preserved.

To identify the men, the archaeologists combined genealogical and historical documents from both England and the colonies, along with artifacts and analyses of the chemicals in the skeletons. For instance, the elite often had higher levels of lead in their bones during this time, because they frequently used lead-containing pewter and lead-glazed ceramics for eating and drinking, Owsley said.

“These are high-status individuals, two of them particularly so,” Owsley told Live Science.

One of the men was Ferdinando Weyman, who died in 1610 at around age 34. He was the uncle of Sir Thomas West, the governor of Virginia. Weyman was also related to another of the men identified, Captain William West. This man perished in 1610 after a fight with the Powhatan Indians. His body was identified thanks to a partly decayed, dirt-covered military sash that was found with the skeleton. The sash, still inside a block of dirt, was placed in a computed tomography (CT) scanner, which revealed a silk cloth decorated with silver fringe. [Photos: Time Capsule from 1795 Reveals Piece of American History]

Both West and Weyman were buried in human-shaped coffins with a distinctive pattern of nails. Weyman had higher lead levels in his bones than the other individuals, indicating his elite status.

Another of the newly identified men was Captain Gabriel Archer, who died during the starving time in 1609 at the age of 34. Captain Archer was buried with the leading staff, an arrow-tipped staff that he used, enabling the team to identify him. Archer was also buried with a small silver box, known as a reliquary, containing bone fragments and pieces of a lead container for holding holy water atop his coffin. The artifact suggests he may have secretly clung to his Catholic faith.

The last man of the group was Reverend Robert Hunt. Unlike the more affluent men, he was buried in a simple shroud, facing west, toward the congregation he headed. Hunt died in 1608 around the age of 39.

Lost to history

The research team may do further analysis to confirm the men’s identities. The bodies were poorly preserved, but it may be possible to extract some usable DNA from the remains, Owsley said.

“Even as we speak, we’re looking at genetic evidence to see if I can show the connection between Weyman, who would be the uncle of William West,” Owsley said.

While the team would like to identify other individuals from historic Jamestown, that could prove difficult, as fewer traces remain of most of the settlers, the researchers said.

“If you’re a woman in the 17th century, you live totally in the shadow of your husband,” Owsley said. “Most people would come and go and die at Jamestown, and nobody would write a word about them.”

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Goliath gates: Entrance to famous biblical metropolis uncovered


A recent excavation in Israel has uncovered the historic fortifications and monumental gate of a Biblical-era city called Gath. (Prof. Aren Maeir, Director, Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University Expedition to Gath)

A massive gate unearthed in Israel may have marked the entrance to a biblical city that, at its heyday, was the biggest metropolis in the region.

The town, called Gath, was occupied until the ninth century B.C. In biblical accounts, the Philistines — the mortal enemies of the Israelites — ruled the city. The Old Testament also describes Gath as the home of Goliath, the giant warrior whom the Israelite King David felled with a slingshot.

The new findings reveal just how impressive the ancient Philistine city once was, said lead archaeologist of the current excavation, Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“We knew that Philistine Gath in the 10th to ninth century [B.C.] was a large city, perhaps the largest in the land at that time,” Maeir told Live Science in an email. “These monumental fortifications stress how large and mighty this city was.” [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

Ancient site

The gates were uncovered in Tell es-Safi, which was occupied almost continuously for nearly 5,000 years, until the Arab village at the site was left in 1948, Maeir said. Though archaeologists have been excavating at the site since 1899, it wasn’t until the past few decades that they realized how massive the Iron Age remains really were.

Both the impressive settlement size and mentions in biblical accounts suggest to scholars that the site is the historic city of Gath, which was ruled by the Philistines, who lived next to the Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Most scholars think that Gath was besieged and laid to waste by Hazael, King of Aram Damascus, in 830 B.C., Maeir said.

The team was digging trenches to look for the ancient city’s fortifications when they found the top surface of a monumental gate and fortifications. Because the remaining walls are so massive, it may take several seasons to fully uncover them, Maeir said. So far, only the top surface of the structures are visible, but based on the size and shape of the stones used to make them, the city walls must have been quite large. The mighty fortifications would have formed a rather imposing boundary that prevented the Kingdom of Judah from expanding westward, he added.

The team also found ironworks and a Philistine temple near the monumental gate, with some pottery and other finds typically associated with Philistine culture. Though the pottery represents a distinctive Philistine style, it also shows elements of Israelite technique, suggesting the cultures did influence each other in ways unrelated to war.

“This mirrors the intense and multifaceted connections that existed between the Philistines and their neighbors,” Maeir said. Though the Philistines were often seen as the absolute enemies of the Israelites and Judahites, he added, in reality, “it was much more complex.”


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Archaeologists Find Rare Writing, Then It Disappears


By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 6, 2015 7:22 AM CDT

(NEWSER) – Archaeologists digging for ruins ahead of a new construction project in Jerusalem made an incredible discovery—that immediately began to vanish. During the last hours of a “salvage excavation” two months ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority stumbled upon a 2,000-year-old ritual bath when a stone suddenly disappeared into a black hole, reports Haaretz. That hole turned out to be the remains of the bath, accessible by a stone staircase, which includes an anteroom with benches and a winepress. Carved into a natural stone cave, the bath itself isn’t so unusual, but the graffiti that covered the plaster walls is. Archaeologists were therefore horrified to find the Aramaic inscriptions and paintings in mud and soot, dating to the Second Temple era from 530BC to 70AD, per Discovery News, disappearing within hours of their discovery.

“The wall paintings are so sensitive that their exposure to the air causes damage to them,” the IAA says, perYnetnews. Crews quickly removed and sealed the plaster so the graffiti, along with a few carvings, can be preserved. Archaeologists say the Aramaic inscriptions are particularly special as few such writings have been found, though the script is hardly legible now. They guess at a few words, including what translates to “served” and the name “Cohen.” Still, the inscriptions back up the argument that Aramaic was commonly used at the time and perhaps even the language of Jesus. The plaster also holds drawings of a boat, palm trees and other plants, and what might be a menorah—portrayals of which were then considered taboo. An IAA rep says graffiti in baths may have been “common, but not usually preserved.” (Graffiti was found in a similar bath last year.)

Archaeologists Find Historic Synagogue Ruined by Nazis


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By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 31, 2015 8:06 AM CDT

(NEWSER) – The Great Synagogue of Vilna dated all the way back to the 1600s and was what the Jerusalem Postcalls one of “the most historic and treasured landmarks of European Jewry.” But that synagogue, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, was all but destroyed by the Nazis during World War II; YNet reports the Germans overtook Vilnius in 1941, burned the synagogue that year, and killed most of the city’s Jews. In fact, the Nazis killed all but 5% of the country’s 200,000 Jews during their three-year occupation, reports Slate, which brands that “a more complete destruction than befell any other European country.” Now, some 70 years later, archaeologists say a ground-penetrating radar survey conducted in June has likely revealed remnants of the synagogue buried beneath a school.

They plan to begin excavating the site in 2016 with the hopes of learning more about how Jews lived in the capital city prior to WWII. Built in the city’s dominant Renaissance-Baroque style, the Great Synagogue became the epicenter of Lithuania’s Jewish population, and was eventually surrounded by several community buildings—including twelve shuls, a community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and mikvahs (Jewish baths), reportsYeshiva World News. “We are very excited about this discovery, as this synagogue stands as a grand memorial to the Jewish community of Vilna,” the researchers said. (Achilling discovery involving Jews in Lithuania was recently made.)

This October 26, 1943, photo show Jews gathered at an assembly point in the Kaunas ghetto in Kanuas, Lithuania for a deportation action, most likely to Estonia.
This October 26, 1943, photo show Jews gathered at an assembly point in the Kaunas ghetto in Kanuas, Lithuania for a deportation action, most likely to Estonia.   (AP Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Archaeologists find ‘very significant’ 4K-year-old home in Ohio

Archaeologists find 'very significant' 4K-year-old home in Ohio

An archaeologist at work. (AP Photo/Gary C. Knapp)

One tribe lived in Ohio so long ago we don’t even have a name for them. Archaeologists recently uncovered one of their 4,000-year-old homes in Lorain County and say it belonged to hunter-gatherers who visited periodically during the fall and winter, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio,” says team leader Brian Redmond. “It’s very significant. … We have no idea what they called themselves or what language they spoke.” What archaeology tells us: They lived in a wigwam-style, U-shaped home where hickory saplings were placed in post holes along the perimeter and tied together, then covered with several cattail mats.

In other words, it was “long-term” and “rather comfortable by Late Archaic period standards,” says New Historian. There are also cooking pits, storage holds for hickory nuts, and a shallow clay basin that captured Redmond’s imagination.

It was found with a primitive bone tool and deer anklebone inside, but “the purpose of this construction remains a mystery,” he writes in a blog.

“Perhaps the basin held plant material. … Maybe it was a water dish for the family dog! We really don’t have a clue.” Whoever lived there, he says, they migrated from the southeast, hunted small game and deer, and caught fish from Lake Erie and Black River; pottery and farming hadn’t been invented yet.

Redmond is keeping the site secret to guard against vandals, and says he’ll probably cover it with dirt and plastic to keep it preserved. (Another mysterious US find: a shipwreck off North Carolina.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 4K-Year-Old Home Turns Up in Ohio

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Ancient burned Hebrew scroll reveals its secrets


Scroll fragment as imaged in The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center, Israel Antiquities Authority. (IAA/Shai Halevi)

The contents of an ancient burned Hebrew scroll have been deciphered for the first time thanks to state-of-the-art 3D scanning and digital imaging software.

The rare parchment scroll, which was discovered 45 years ago in Ein Gedi, Israel, was completely burned around 1,500 years ago, according to archaeologists.  Originally located inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the scroll has puzzled archaeologists for decades, prompting the deployment of sophisticated technology to decipher the document.

Related: Mysterious inscription from the time of King David offers glimpse into the past

The Israel Antiquities Authority worked with Israeli imaging specialist Merkel Technologies, which performed high-resolution 3D scanning of the scroll. Researchers then sent their findings to Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky who developed digital imaging software to virtually “unroll” and visualize the text, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

After a year of high-tech research, scientists were able to decipher the first 8 verses of the Book of Leviticus.

“We were ecstatic when we saw this,” Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, told “The chances of getting something out of these lumps of charcoal seemed impossible.”

Shor added that the scroll’s secrets are being revealed at a time of great significance in the Jewish calendar, just before the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. “It’s very symbolic,” she said.

This is also the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was discovered in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Experts say that the Ein Gedi parchment is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew bible to be found since the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956.

Related: 5th-century mosaic adorned with elephants and cupids

“The deciphering of the scroll, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting,” said Sefi Porath, who discovered the scroll in 1970, in a statement. Ein Gedi, he explained, was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period between the fourth and seventh centuries and had a synagogue with an elaborate mosaic floor and Holy Ark.

Archaeologists have no information about the fire that destroyed the synagogue, but have speculated that it was destroyed by Bedouin raiders or as a result of conflict with the Byzantine government.

“The settlement was completely burnt to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property,” said Porath, in the statement.

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Alexander the Great’s father found — maybe


The left leg of an adult male skeleton found in Tomb I at Vergina. The thigh bone (femur) and one of the bones of the lower leg (the tibia) are fused, and hole at the knee suggests a devastating penetrating injury. (Image Courtesy Javier Trueba)

A decades-old mystery about the body of Alexander the Great’s father has been solved, anthropologists claim.

A new analysis of bones from a Macedonian tomb complex reveals a skeleton with a knee injury so severe that it would have caused a noticeable limp in life. This injury matches some historical records of one sustained by Philip II, whose nascent empire Alexander the Great would expand all the way to India.

The skeleton in question, however, is not the one initially thought to be Philip II’s — instead, it comes from the tomb next door. The skeletons are the subject of an entrenched debate among experts on ancient Greece and Macedonia. While some praised the new study, others pushed back, suggesting the new research will not quell 40 years of controversy.

“The knee is the clincher,” said Maria Liston, an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo, who was not involved in the new study, which is detailed July 20 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). [See Photos of the Tomb at Vergina and Mysterious ‘Philip’ Bones]

“This publication in PNAS is incorrect,” said Theodore Antikas, a researcher at Aristotle University in Greece and author of another controversial study on bones from the tombs.

A violent history

The story of Philip II is wrought with twists and turns. In 336 B.C., the king was murdered by one of his bodyguards. The motives for the assassination are unclear. Some ancient historians wrote that the murder was an act of revenge stemming from a sordid tale of suicide and sexual assault between Philip II’s male lovers and other members of the court.

Whatever the cause, murder was de rigueur for the Macedonian royal family. Within days of Philip II’s murder, one of his wives, Olympias — mother of Alexander the Great — let her own homicidal tendencies run free. According to the Latin historian Justin, Olympias killed the newborn daughter of Philip II’s newest wife, Cleopatra, in her mother’s arms. She then forced Cleopatra to hang herself.

A generation later, after the death of Alexander the Great, the conqueror’s half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus (also spelled Arrhidaios) took the throne. Philip III Arrhidaeus was king in name only, and ancient historians record him as being mentally unfit. His wife, Eurydice, was a warrior, however. She was determined to make her husband more than a figurehead puppet for Alexander’s generals, who were by this time vying for power in the void left by his death.

But Philip III Arrhidaeus and Eurydice would lose that battle. In 317 B.C., Olympias came out against them. The couple’s troops refused to fight the forces of the mother of Alexander the Great. Olympias had the pair killed and buried. Some months later, they were exhumed and cremated in a display to shore up legitimacy for the next king. [Family Ties: 8 Truly Dysfunctional Royal Families]

Cremation and controversy

Philip II. Cleopatra. Philip III. Eurydice.

When archaeologists uncovered a Macedonian tomb complex near the Greek city of Vergina in the 1970s, they knew they had royal burials on their hands. But which tombs belonged to which royals?

There are three tombs at the site. Tomb I had been plundered in antiquity but contained human remains and an intricate wall painting of the Rape of Persephone. Tomb II was intact. Inside were the cremated bones of a man and a woman, surrounded by armor and other lavish items. Tomb III is widely accepted to belong to Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son.

Initially, the bodies in lavish Tomb II were identified as those of Philip II and Cleopatra. But debate has raged over possible injuries to the male skull, over the ages and dating of the skeletons, and over whether the bones were burned with flesh on or off. (As Philip III Arridaeus was cremated long after burial, archaeologists looked for signs that the bones had been burned after the flesh had rotted away.) Many archaeologists suspected the two burned bodies were not Philip II and Cleopatra, but Philip III and Eurydice.

The two sides have been lobbing research papers at each other for years, but seemed at an impasse.

“In fact, the issue has become eminently political, and for years a sort of vendetta has been raging between factions,” said historian Miltiades Hatzopoulos of International Hellenic University, who was not involved in the new research.

Now, Antonis Bartsiokas of Democritus University of Thrace in Greece has taken a different tact. Instead of examining the burnt bones in Tomb II, he and his team took a close look at three skeletons from the tomb next door.

The smoking gun

The analysis revealed that the man in Tomb I was in his 40s when he died, and stood 5 feet 9 inches tall — impressive for the era. The woman died around 18 years of age, based on measurements of the fusion of her bones. She was about 5 feet 4 inches tall. The baby was a newborn, probably only a week to three weeks past the due date.

The ages match historical records of Philip II, Cleopatra and their infant. But the real smoking gun, Liston said, was a knee injury on the male skeleton.

The man’s left thigh bone, or femur, had fused with one of his lower leg bones, the tibia. This fusion left the knee joint frozen in place at a 79-degree angle. A hole in the bone suggests the wound was caused by a penetrating injury from a projectile, such as a spear.

And that’s where things get exciting. According to historical records, Philip II was injured in the leg during a battle in 345 B.C. He then limped for the rest of his life.

“When I found the femur fused to the tibia at the knee joint, I suddenly remembered the leg injury of Philip, but I could not recall any details,” Bartsiokas told Live Science. “I then ran to study the historical evidence.”

He found a description of Philip II’s wounds in the writings of the ancient historian Justin. “At that moment,” he wrote in an email to Live Science, “I knew the bone must belong to Philip!” [Bones With Names: Long-Dead Bodies Archaeologists Have Identified]

The injury does match descriptions of Philip II’s limp, the University of Waterloo’s Liston said.

“This was a devastating injury that separated the knee joint and left it probably completely unstable until it fused,” Liston told Live Science. The pain would have been excruciating, she said.

After reading the new PNAS paper, she said, she asked two middle-age men at her lab in Athens to stand on one foot, with the toes of the other foot just touching the ground. The angles of their knees were 72 degrees and 80 degrees. This ad hoc experiment suggests that, like Philip II, the man in the tomb could have walked, but only with difficulty. He probably could have ridden a horse — but he may have been vulnerable in hand-to-hand combat.

“This injury may also explain why Philip, a skilled warrior, was so utterly unable to fight off the assassins,” Liston said. “With this knee, he would have limited mobility and very poor balance.”

An end to controversy?

If Philip II and his wife and baby occupy Tomb I, it stands to reason that Philip III and his wife are the contested skeletons in Tomb II, Bartsiokas and his colleagues write July 20 in PNAS. [See Images of the Tomb II and Bones Inside]

Whether the finding will rewrite history remains to be seen. The museum at the site of the Royal Tombs of Vergina identifies Tomb II, not Tomb I, as belonging to Philip II. So does UNESCO, which classifies the monuments as a royal heritage site.

“These are bold claims that I don’t think will be very welcome in certain quarters in Greece,” said Jonathan Musgrave, an anatomist at the University of Bristol, who has argued that the bones in Tomb II belong to Philip II and Cleopatra.

Indeed, researchers who have argued for Tomb II as Philip II’s final resting place were not quickly convinced by the new study. In 2014, two bags of human and animal bones were found in a storage area with plaster from Tomb I, Antikas told Live Science. He and his team have analyzed those bones, he said, and found that Tomb I contained not two adults and a baby as discussed in Bartsiokas’ new paper, but two adults, a teenager, a fetus and three newborns. Those findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, pending permission for further study from Greece’s Central Archaeological Council, Antikas said.

“Any prejudgment concerning the occupants is impossible before the complete context is re-examined,” said Chrysoula Paliadeli, an archaeologist at the director of the Aristotle University excavations at Vergina.

Even the “smoking gun” leg wound falls under scrutiny; ancient historians were not always very detailed or clear with their sourcing. Bartsiokas and his team trust the writings of Demosthenes, a contemporary of Philip II, who simply wrote that the king was wounded in his leg. But 300 years later historian Didymos wrote that Philip’s wound was in his right thigh, said Hatzopoulos of International Hellenic University. The wound on the skeleton analyzed by Bartsiokas was on the left leg.

It might seem natural to trust the historian who was writing at the time of Philip II’s life versus the one writing 300 years later, but Demosthenes’ source was probably Theopompos, who did live at the same time as Philip II, Hatzopoulos said.

“Having followed this controversy through four decades I have come to the conclusion that in this particular issue one cannot put much faith in the so-called ‘exact sciences,'” Hatzopoulos said. “Reputed scientists have contradicted one another time and time again.”

Bartsiokas and his team seemed prepared for ongoing strife.

“I think that we have made a very strong case,” said study co-author Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. “Now the focus of attention will turn to Tomb I. I am open to debate.”


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Archaeology’s victims of war


In this image made from a militant video posted on YouTube on May 26, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises behind archaeological ruins in Palmyra, Syria. The video released by a media arm of the Islamic State group purportedly showed the archaeological ruins of Palmyra apparently undamaged. (Militant video via AP)

The Middle East is largely considered to be the epicenter of the “cradle of civilization,” and has historic sites that date back thousands of years. This region has seen countless armies march across it, leaving not only blood in the sand but also destruction in their wake.

The area around the Ishtar Gate in the ancient city of Babylon, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity, was damaged by military vehicles, which crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavements. Defensive trenches were also dug into the site, which further added to the damage. However, this wasn’t part of recent efforts by Islamic State to destroy ancient Iraqi ruins – it actually occurred following U.S. efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

That event was just one of several examples of how military conflict has damaged ancient sites. The most recent concerns are that ISIS could destroy the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back thousands of years. Palmyra suffered damage in 2012 during clashes between combatants engaged in the Syrian Civil War, but the site could face total destruction if ISIS gains control of the area.

“Unfortunately, there is no shortage of depressing case studies for the destruction of cultural heritage sites during times of war,” Robert E. Murrowchick, director of the International Center for East Asian Archeology and Cultural History at Boston University, told “What better way to display the destruction of your enemy than by looting their art and sacking their historical buildings to whatever extent your military technology allows – from battering rams to siege engines to napalm. It’s a human character flaw and the United States is as guilty as most other countries in playing its part over the past couple hundred years.”

It is said that the winners may write the history but sadly combatants on both sides can do equal amount of damage. Buildings that stood for centuries have been destroyed in the heat of battle. However, some buildings and complexes have fared better than others.

The White House in Washington, D.C. was torched by British soldiers in 1814 but First Lady Dolley Madison had already organized the staff – as well as the first family’s slaves – to gather important artifacts and items including a painting of George Washington. The Kremlin in Moscow, which was burnt with much of the Russian city to keep it from falling into the hands of Napoleon’s La Grande Armée in 1812, was rebuilt and shows few scars today.

However, structures such as the Parthenon in Athens, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing and the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino were severely damaged or outright destroyed. The irony is that these structures had withstood prior sieges and battles but more advanced military technology proved to be too much.

Built circa 438 B.C., the Parthenon actually replaced an older temple dedicated to the goddess Athena that was destroyed during the Persian invasion, and stood for almost 2,000 years largely undamaged. In 1687 it was used as an ammunition dump in the fortified Acropolis, and extensively damaged when a Venetian mortar round set off an explosion. Since 1975 the Greek government has attempted to preserve and restore the ancient temple – and while it will not be restored to its pre-1867 state this ongoing restoration has helped stabilize the building and even correct some prior restoration attempts.

Monte Cassino had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The Italian monastery, which is located south of Rome, was first constructed on a pagan site devoted to the Roman god Apollo. Saracens sacked and burned the monastery in 884, and it was sacked by the French Army under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. It suffered its greatest damage during the Battle of Monte Cassino from January to May 1944.

At the time it was believed the Germans were using it as part of their defensive positions on the Gustav Line, meant to block the Allied advance to Rome. On February 15, 1944 the abbey was destroyed during American-led air raids – and only afterward did the German troops actually utilize Monte Cassino for defensive purposes.

“Monte Cassino was destroyed by Allied artillery and airpower for strategic military reasons, because it was thought to contain a German garrison and because it offered a good position for artillery-spotters,” military historian Nigel Thomas told “I don’t believe it was destroyed for the wrong reasons. I believe it had to be destroyed because it was holding up the Allied advance. This is a purely military reason, which is quite different from wanton destruction by ISIS, Taliban or Ustashas.”

Destruction for Religious and Cultural Reasons

As Thomas noted, many buildings were destroyed for military reasons – but many structures and sites have also been completely erased from the Earth during wartime for religious or cultural reasons. Often times these reasons blur, but the result is the same.

“The destruction of cultural and religious sites by the enemy is nothing new, but it is often difficult to disentangle the motives,” Thomas told “If Palmyra is destroyed it will be because ISIS is trying to destroy cultural memory, there does not seem to be a religious motive here. However, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 because it regarded them as idols.”

However, cultural destruction has not been limited to followers of Islamic extremism. Throughout history advancing armies – often with the belief that right was on their side – have laid ruins to important cultural and religious sites.

“In 1941-2 the extreme Catholic Ustasha regime in Croatia destroyed Serbian Orthodox churches, such as Banja Luka Cathedral, and cemeteries, and killed Serbian Orthodox priests and believers,” said Thomas.

“We could also add Nazi destruction of synagogues, in Germany and abroad, whilst respecting Christian and Muslim sites, although the Nazis were technically atheists,” Thomas added.

Total Destruction

Many sites that did stand for centuries are completely gone today. One of the most infamous is the Yuanmingyuan (Summer Palace) outside of Beijing, which was built in the 18th century as the official residence of the emperors of the Qing dynasty. It was sacked and burned during the Second Opium War following the capture and torture of two British envoys.

“This was the less destructive option decided upon by the English and French in retaliation for the killing of some European diplomats in 1860,” said Murrowchick. “Other discussions considered the much more widespread destruction of the city of Beijing itself; these were abandoned as unhelpful in that they would likely incite more of the population to rise up to resist the British and French.”

Instead of condemning the destruction of the Chinese palace,  reports suggest that Britain’s Queen Victoria seemed delighted.

“She was even presented with a captured Pekingese dog named ‘Looty’ to celebrate the sacking of the imperial palace complex at Yuanmingyuan,” added Murrowchick.

However, the cultural impact of this site’s destruction carries on to this day.

“The site today is still more or less untouched — the ruins have intentionally been left in ruins as a striking visual reminder of China’s humiliation in the face of more powerful Western armies, a situation that will not be allowed to repeat itself,” Murrowchick told “The ruins of the Summer Palace also were used as the primary decorative motif for the nearest subway station built for the Summer 2008 Olympic Games.”

Saving History and its Sites

While many historic sites and artifacts have been lost, much has been saved. As the movie “Monuments Men” chronicled there have even been efforts by some military leaders and planners to save – not loot – historic sites. The George Clooney movie focused on artwork, but during World War II there were other efforts to preserve important cultural sites.

Rome was famously declared an open city during World War, as was Paris. There were even attempts to spare other cities, but these efforts failed.

“Budapest in March 1944 and Belgrade in April 1941 were declared open cities, but the Germans ignored this and both cities suffered serious damage,” added Thomas, who noted that some cities fared better. “General Winkelman, commander of Dutch Armed Forces, surrendered the Netherlands to the Germans on 14th May 1940 following a Luftwaffe bombing raid on Rotterdam which killed 900 civilians. His motive was to avoid further loss of life and destruction of buildings, ancient and modern.”

Perhaps the most famous city to be spared total destruction was Japan’s former capital of Kyoto. The city had been at the top of the atomic bomb sites short list, but Henry Stimson, who served as secretary of war, reportedly opted to spare the city he had visited as a young man and returned to for his honeymoon.

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5th-century mosaic adorned with elephants and cupids



A section of the mosaic showing an elephant discovered in 2013. This section is part of the larger mosaic exposed in summer 2015. (Jim Haberman)

Stunning mosaics have turned up during an archaeological dig of a fifth-century synagogue in northern Israel.

Tiny earth-hued stones in the mosaics swirl to form images of women surrounded by cupids holding discs, mythological creatures, a rooster, expressive theater masks and symbols of Dionysus (Bacchus), the Greco-Roman god of wine. And painted ivy crawls up columns covered with plaster. These recent discoveries add context and scenes to previously uncovered mosaics and inscriptions on the same and adjacent panels.

“The images in these mosaics — as well as their high level of artistic quality — and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other synagogue,” Jodi Magness, the director of the excavation project and professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a statement. “They are unique discoveries.” [See Photos of the Colorful Mosaics from Israel]

Magness led the team that discovered the first mosaic at the excavation site, which featured the Bible’s Samson, in 2012, and continued unearthing pieces each summer. The site is located in Huqoq, in the Galilee region of Israel. Magness said she expects to return to the site for another four to five years, until excavation is complete.

This summer’s findings are “quite extraordinary panels,” Magness told Live Science. “The mosaics were the paving of [the synagogue’s] floor.” The building measured about 66 feet long and 32 to 50 feet wide. “The floors are in a relatively good state of preservation, but the building is buried and ruined,” she said.

Secular mosaics

Elephant mosaics found in an earlier excavation of different sections of the same and adjacent panels hinted at the synagogue’s less religious take on décor. The armored pachyderms “indicate that the scene depicted in the elephant mosaic is not a biblical story,” Magness said, because there are no stories in the Hebrew Bible that involve elephants. The elephant panel measures about 11.5 feet from top to bottom and fits on a panel set in an aisle about just as wide.

The elephants were featured on a panel discovered last summer that may have depicted a Jewish legend about a meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest. “The Greek armies after the time of Alexander the Great and then later the Romans did use elephants from their campaign,” she said, so though elephants likely never roamed Israel, they “were certainly known from their use in the Greek and Roman armies.”

However, Magness said she didn’t think the artists who assembled the mosaic ever saw an elephant, “because they look like cartoons.”

The synagogue does feature some biblical scenes, including the first image found at the site, of the biblical hero Samson, who is likely most remembered for his extraordinary strength and susceptibility to female persuasion. The synagogue’s mosaic features a scene of Samson from the biblical Book of Judges in which he sets foxes on fire and sends them on a revenge-seeking quest to burn the land of the Philistines, Magness said.

“There is only one other ancient synagogue in Israel that has a scene depicting Samson,” Magness said. That synagogue, known as Wadi Hamam, is located 5 miles south of the synagogue with the newfound mosaics. The mosaics at Wadi Hamam are poorly preserved, unlike the ones Magness uncovered, which she said are “truly works of art.”

The mosaics at the Huqoq synagogue date to the synagogue’s construction in the early fifth century, or possibly slightly later. To try to figure out why the artists chose to depict nonbiblical scenes, scholars can look at contemporary ancient sources, like writings left by rabbis. “What did they have to say about Samson?” Magness mused.

Magness said that it’s possible each panel was commissioned by a different donor, since a single underlying theme among the images isn’t yet evident. “We may never know — we can speculate, but we may never know,” she said.


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Iron Age warrior lived with arrowhead in spine


The remains of an Iron Age warrior, who survived in spite of a bronze arrowhead (see pointer) embedded in his vertebra. (Svetlana Svyatko)

A horrific spinal injury caused by a bronze arrowhead didn’t immediately kill an Iron Age warrior, who survived long enough for his bone to heal around the metal point, a new study of his burial in central Kazakhstan finds.

“This found individual was extremely lucky to survive,” said study researcher Svetlana Svyatko, a research fellow in the school of geography, archaeology and paleoecology at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “It’s hard to get a vertebral wound without damaging the main blood vessels, which would have resulted in an immediate death.”

The male warrior was likely between 25 and 45 years old, and stood 5 foot 7 inches in height, which was tall considering that his people stood an average of 5 foot 4 inches in height, the researchers said. They found his grave, an elaborate burial mound called a “kurgan,” after getting a tip from local people who live in the area. [In Photos: Boneyard of Iron Age Warriors]

Giant burial

The researchers have studied the area in central Kazakhstan for more than 20 years. Their work has shed light on the area’s culture and the emergence of thepowerful Scythians (also known as the Saka), a population of fierce nomads who lived on the central Eurasian steppes from about the eighth century B.C. to about the second century A.D., said study researcher Arman Beisenov, the head of prehistoric archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in Kazakhstan.

During an excavation of a famous Saka cemetery in 2009 (a dig that yielded 200 jewellery pieces and more than 30,000 smaller ornaments, such as beads), locals told the researchers about a nearby kurgan that had been shamefully neglected and heavily devastated, Beisenov said.

“What local people often want is attention and respect to their history and customs, which is the foundation of their present life and the key to the future,” he told Live Science. “Although the schedule of our excavations was extremely tight and prohibitive for any extension, we anyway decided to follow the tip and take a look at the remains of the kurgan.”

The kurgan was so magnificent that the researchers opened a new investigation, excavating the kurgan in 2010 and 2011. It was likely no more than 6.5 feet high and about 74 feet in diameter when built, Beisenov said. However, evidence suggests that robbers plundered the site in ancient times, and that local people reused much of its soil and stones for housing in the 1960s and 1970s, he said.

Elite warrior

The grandiose grave suggests the individual belonged to the early Saka nomadic aristocracy, the researchers said. But the plundered kurgan held only a few scattered bones, including ribs, fibulae (lower-leg bones) and a vertebra. Radiocarbon dating suggests the individual lived sometime between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., during the early Iron Age, according to the study.

A close look at the man’s bones revealed a bronze arrowhead — made of copper, tin, and traces of lead and iron — lodged in one of his vertebra. The researchers also found a rib with a healed fracture, but it’s unclear whether the man received these injuries at the same time as the arrow wound, the researchers said. It’s also unclear how long he survived following his injuries, they said.

Computed tomography (CT) scans showed that the arrowhead, measuring 2.2 inches long, caused more than just a flesh wound. In fact, it “teaches us is the power of the human body to heal,” said Aleksey Shitvov, a research team assistant at Queen’s University Belfast who works with the group, but wasn’t among the study’s authors.

The scientists also looked at the chemical composition of the man’s bones, and found he likely ate more millet (a type of grain) than did many of his Saka peers, Svyatko said.

“We can only speculate now what was the status of millet as a food for this society,” Svyatko told Live Science. “Perhaps it was specifically accessible to high-ranked people or military elite, though this needs further investigation.”

The study was published online June 22 in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.


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