2,000-year-old water supply system uncovered in Jerusalem

ancient-aqueduct

The 13-mile-long aqueduct carried water into Jerusalem. (Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Part of an ancient aqueduct built more than 2,000 years ago to transport water into the city of Jerusalem was uncovered during a recent construction project, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A section of the so-called Lower Aqueduct was discovered in the modern-day neighborhood of Umm Tuba, in East Jerusalem, during efforts to construct a new sewer line. The Lower Aqueduct was originally built more than 2,000 years ago by kings in the Hasmonean dynasty, who ruled Judea and its surrounding regions from about 140 B.C. to 37 B.C., and preceded King Herod the Great.

The sprawling, 13-mile-long aqueduct carried water to the capital, and “operated intermittently until about 100 years ago,” Ya’akov Billig, director of the aqueduct excavation with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said in a statement. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

The Lower Aqueduct fed from the En Eitam spring, which is located near three ancient reservoirs known as Solomon’s Pools that are about 3 miles southwest of Bethlehem. As water passed through the channel, it flowed down a gentle slope to Jerusalem, passing through the modern-day neighborhoods of Umm Tuba, Sur Bahar, East Talpiot and Abu Tor, according to the IAA.

“At first, the water was conveyed inside an open channel, and about 500 years ago, during the Ottoman period, a terra cotta pipe was installed inside the channel in order to better protect the water,” Billig said.

For nearly 2,000 years, the Lower Aqueduct remained one of Jerusalem’s principal sources of water, IAA officials said, which is why city rulers kept the structure so well preserved. About 100 years ago, the channel was replaced by an electrically operated water-distribution system.

The Umm Tuba section of the aqueduct was uncovered by workers at Gihon Company Ltd., who are constructing the new sewer line. Archaeologists at the IAA conducted an excavation of the site following its discovery, but the remains have since been covered up again to preserve the structure and prevent any damage, agency officials said.

Other sections of the extensive aqueduct have been uncovered in the past, including in the Armon Ha-Natziv tunnels in the City of David, on the Sherover promenade in southern Jerusalem and around the Sultan’s Pool along the west side of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, IAA officials said.

 

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World’s oldest stone tools predate humans

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Sammy Lokorodi, a resident of Kenya’s northwestern desert who works as a fossil and artifact hunter, led the way to a trove of 3.3 million-year-old tools. (West Turkana Archaeological Project)

The oldest handmade stone tools discovered yet predate any known humans and may have been wielded by an as-yet-unknown species, researchers say.

The 3.3-million-year-old stone artifacts are the first direct evidence that early human ancestors may have possessed the mental abilities needed to figure out how to make razor-sharp stone tools. The discovery also rewrites the book on the kind of environmental and evolutionary pressures that drove the emergence of toolmaking.

Chimpanzees and monkeys are known to use stones as tools, picking up rocks to hammer open nuts and solve other problems. However, until now, only members of the human lineage — the genus Homo, which includes the modern human species Homo sapiens and extinct humans such as Homo erectus — were thought capable of making stone tools. [See Photos of the Oldest Stone Tools]

Ancient stone artifacts from East Africa were first uncovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the mid-20th century. Those stone tools were later associated with fossils of the ancient human species Homo habilis, discovered in the 1960s.

“The traditional view for decades was that the earliest stone tools were made by the first members of Homo,” study lead author Sonia Harmand, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Live Science. “The idea was that our lineage alone took the cognitive leap of hitting stones together to strike off sharp flakes and that this was the foundation of our evolutionary success.”

However, there were hints of primitive tool use before Homo habilis. In 2009, researchers at Dikika, Ethiopia, dug up animal bones nearly 3.4 million years old that had slashes and other cut marks, evidence that someone used stones to trim flesh from bone and perhaps crush bones to get at the marrow inside. This is the earliest evidence of meat and marrow consumption by hominins — all the species leading to and including the human lineage after the split from the ancestors of chimpanzees. No tools were found at that site, so it was unclear whether the marks were made with handmade tools or just naturally sharp rocks.

Now, scientists report stone artifacts that date back long before any known human fossils. Until now, the earliest known tools were about 2.8 million years old, the researchers said. The artifacts are by far the oldest handmade stone tools yet discovered — the previous record-holders, known as Oldowan stone tools, were about 2.6 million years old.

“We were not surprised to find stone tools older than 2.6 million years, because paleoanthropologists have been saying for the last decade that they should be out there somewhere,” Harmand said. “But we were surprised that the tools we found are so much older than the Oldowan, at 3.3 million years old.”

It remains unknown what species made these stone tools. They could have been created by an as-yet-unknown extinct human species, or by Australopithecus, which is currently the leading contender for the ancestor of the human lineage, or by Kenyanthropus, a 3.3-million-year-old skull of which was discovered in 1999 about a half-mile from the newfound tools. It remains uncertain exactly howKenyanthropus relates to either Homo or Australopithecus. [Gallery: See Images of Our Closest Human Ancestor]

“Sometimes the best discoveries are the ones that raise more questions than provide answers,” study co-author Jason Lewis, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University and Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Live Science. “In any of these cases the story is equally new and interesting. We are comfortable not having all of the answers now.”

The stone tools were discovered in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya, where the arid, rocky terrain resembles a New Mexican landscape.

The artifacts were found next to Lake Turkana in 2011 almost by accident. “We were driving in the dry riverbed and took the left branch instead of the right, and got off course,” Harmand said. “Essentially, we got lost and ended up in a new area that looked promising. Something was really unique about this place, we could tell that this zone had a lot of hidden areas just waiting to be explored.”

By the end of the 2012 field season, excavations at the site, named Lomekwi 3, had uncovered 149 “Lomekwian” stone artifacts linked with toolmaking.

“It is really exciting and very moving to be the first person to pick up a stone artifact since its original maker put it down millions of years ago,” Harmand said.

The researchers tried using stones to knock off and shape so-called flakes or blades — a process known as knapping — to better understand how these Lomekwian stone artifacts might have been made. They concluded the techniques used may represent a stage between the pounding used by earlier hominins and the knapping of later toolmakers.

“This is a momentous and well-researched discovery,” paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins at George Washington University, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. “I have seen some of these artifacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately.”

Analysis of carbon isotopes in the soil and animal fossils at the site allowed the scientists to reconstruct what the vegetation there used to be like. This led to another surprise — back then, the area was a partially wooded, shrubby environment.

Conventional thinking has been that sophisticated toolmaking came in response to a change in climate that led to shrinking forests and the spread of savannah grasslands. Stone blades likely helped ancient humans get food by helping them cut meat off the carcasses of animals, given how there was then less food such as fruit to be found in the forest. However, these findings suggest that Lomekwian stone tools may have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, bashing open dead logs to get at insects inside, or maybe something not yet thought of. [Denisovan Gallery: Tracing the Genetics of Human Ancestors]

“The Lomekwi 3 evidence suggests that important evolutionary changes that would later be really important for Homo to survive on the savannah were actually evolving beforehand, in a still-wooded environment,” Lewis said.

“The capabilities of our ancestors and the environmental forces leading to early stone technology are a great scientific mystery,” Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement. The newly dated tools “begin to lift the veil on that mystery, at an earlier time than expected.”

This discovery also has implications for understanding the evolution of the human brain, researchers said. Toolmaking required a level of dexterity and grip that suggests that changes in the brain and spinal tract needed for such activity could have evolved before 3.3 million years ago.

The scientists are now looking at the surfaces and edges of the tools under microscopes and with laser scans to try to reconstruct how they were used, “and also studying the sediment in which they were found to search for trace elements or residues of any possible plant or animal tissues that could be left on them after use,” Harmand said.

The site is still under excavation, and Harmand said other artifacts could exist from early attempts at knapping.

“We think there are older, even more rudimentary, stone tools out there to be found, and we will be looking for them over the coming field seasons,” he added.

The scientists detailed their findings in the May 21 issue of the journal Nature.

 

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Gold-filled tomb of Chinese ‘survivor’ mom discovered

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A brick tomb from the Ming Dynasty held gold treasures and the skeletal remains of a woman named Lady Mei. The tomb, with its vaulted roof, was excavated in 2008. (Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics)

A Ming Dynasty tomb containing gold treasures has been discovered at a construction site in Nanjing, China. However, the real treasures may be two stone epitaphs that tell the story of the person buried there — Lady Mei, a woman who went from being a concubine to becoming a political and military strategist.

The epitaphs, found inside the brick tomb, reveal that Lady Mei was a 21-year-old “unwashed and unkempt” woman who “called herself the survivor.” Later she became the mother of a duke who ruled a province in southwest China. Lady Mei came to wield much power, providing her son with “strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands,” according to the epitaphs, which were translated from Chinese.

The treasures in her more than 500-year-old tomb include gold bracelets, a gold fragrance box and gold hairpins, all inlaid with a mix of gemstones, including sapphires, rubies and turquoise. [See Images of Lady Mei’s Tomb and Gold Treasures]

Archaeologists from Nanjing Municipal Museum and the Jiangning District Museum of Nanjing City excavated the tomb in 2008, and their findings were recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. Lady Mei’s coffin was damaged by water, but her skeletal remains were found.

From “survivor” to “dowager duchess”

Researchers say that Lady Mei was one of three wives of Mu Bin, a Duke of Qian who ruled Yunnan, a province in southwest China on the country’s frontier.

Born in 1430, she probably would have been about 15 years old when she married the duke, who would’ve been more than 30 years older than her, researchers say.

She probably didn’t enjoy the same status as his other two wives. “Lady Mei was probably a concubine whom he married after he went to guard and rule Yunnan,” wrote researchers in the journal article.

But while Lady Mei was a concubine, her own family appears to have had some wealth: Her great-great grandfather “Cheng” was a general who “won every battle” and was granted a fiefdom over “1,000 households,” read the epitaphs.

Lady Mei’s life changed when she gave birth to the duke’s son, Mu Zong, who was 10 months old when the duke died. The newly widowed Lady Mei “was only 21 years of age. She was unwashed and unkempt, and called herself the survivor,” the epitaphs say.

She took charge of Mu Zong’s upbringing, grooming him to be the next duke.

“She raised the third-generation duke. She managed the family with strong discipline and diligence, and kept the internal domestic affairs in great order, and no one had any complaint,” the epitaphs read.

Lady Mei “urged him to study hard mornings and evenings, and taught him loyalty and filial devotion, as well as services of duty.”

When Mu Zong came of age, he and Lady Mei traveled to meet the emperor, who charged him with controlling Yunnan, the province his father had ruled. The emperor was pleased with Lady Mei and, sometime after the meeting, awarded her the title of “Dowager Duchess,” according to the epitaphs. [Photos: Ancient Chinese Warriors Protect Emperor’s Secret Tomb]

As Mu Zong began his rule over Yunnan, he relied on his mother for advice.

“Every morning when the third-generation duke got up, after taking care of official business, he returned to pay respect to the Dowager Duchess in the main hall,” the epitaphs read.

“The Dowager Duchess would always talk to the third-generation duke about her loyalty to the emperor, and kind concerns for the people under the rule of the departed former duke, and strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands.”

Lady Mei’s death

Lady Mei died at age 45 in the year 1474. The epitaphs say that she passed away of illness in southern Yunnan and was brought to Nanjing for burial.

“On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away,” the epitaphs read.

“When the obituary reached the imperial court, the emperor sent out officials and ordered them to consecrate and prepare for the funeral and burial.”

The epitaphs praise her role in nurturing the young duke and preparing him for the responsibilities of ruling Yunnan. “Using her love and her hard work, she raised and educated the child, and brought him up to be a man of ability and good moral character …” the epitaphs read.

“Why did heaven bestow all the virtues upon her, while being so ungenerous as not to give her more years to live?” the epitaphs ask. “Although the will of heaven is remote and profound, it needs to be spread among millions of people.”

The team’s report was initially published, in Chinese, in the journal Wenwu. The excavation crew chief was Haining Qi.

 

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After 150 years scientists reveal hull of the 1st submarine in history to sink enemy warship

  • Confederate Submarine-1.jpg

    Conservator Virginie Ternisien works at removing the encrustation from the hull of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley at a conservation lab in North Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 27, 2015. Scientists say that after six months of work, about 70 percent of the encrusted sand, silt and rust from the outside of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship has been removed. Scientists hope that when the entire hull is revealed, it will provide the clues as to why the Hunley sank after sinking a Union blockade ship off Charleston, S.C., in 1864. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith) (The Associated Press)

Fifteen years after the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was recovered off the South Carolina coast, scientists are finally getting a good look at the hull of the first sub that ever sank an enemy warship.

The Hunley was raised in 2000 with its hull encrusted in hardened sand, silt and rust. Now, after six months of work at a lab in North Charleston, about 70 percent of the gunk on the outside of the hull has been removed.

Conservators say that cleaning the hull should help finally solve the mystery of why the Hunley sank back in 1864 after sinking the Union blockade ship Housatonic.

Senior conservator Paul Mardikian (mahr DEE kee in) says the work has revealed clues but researchers are not ready to discuss them yet.

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Fresh ink: Mummified iceman has new tattoo

otzi-iceman-tattoo-lines

The 61 lines that make up the tattoos on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991. (© Marco Samadelli)

Four thin, black lines, stacked on top of each other, bring the total number of tattoos on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummified iceman, to 61, according to an exhaustive new study.

Finding the new body art, located on the lower side of Ötzi’s right ribcage, “was a big surprise because we didn’t expect to see a new tattoo,” said Albert Zink, the study’s senior researcher and head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Research Academy in Italy.

Ötzi’s tattoos are no secret: Even the hikers who discovered him in the Italian Alps in 1991 noticed he had markings on his skin. But researchers have disagreed about the number of tattoos on Ötzi’s body for years, and “we decided it would be important to have a clear number of the tattoos” going forward, Zink told Live Science. [Mummy Melodrama: Top 9 Secrets About Otzi the Iceman]

To investigate, the researchers used technologies developed for the art world: a camera with specialized lenses that can determine whether an artist painted over another painting on the same canvas. The various lenses can capture different wavelengths of light, ranging from ultraviolet light at 300 nanometers (billionths of a meter) to infrared light at 1,000 nm. (Visible light extends from about 400 nm to about 700 nm.)

All 61 of the tattoos are made of black lines, measuring 0.3 inches to 1.6 inches in length and arranged in groups of two, three or four parallel lines, the researchers said. Two of the tattoo groups, one on the right knee and another on the left Achilles tendon, look like plus signs.

Prehistoric tattoos

The newly discovered tattoo is difficult to see because the mummy’s skin has darkened over time, and the tattoos themselves are black.

“We know that they were real tattoos,” Zink said. The tattoos’ creators “made the incisions into the skin, and then they put in charcoal mixed with some herbs.”

The other tattoos are mostly on Ötzi’s lower back and on his legs, between the knee and the foot. But it’s unclear why Ötzi had these tattoos, and whether they had therapeutic, symbolic or religious significance, the researchers said.

“Many people think that it was a kind of treatment because most of the tattoos are very close to areas where he probably suffered from pain,” Zink said.

It’s possible that the tattoos served as a medicinal form of acupuncture to treat injuries or chronic pain, studies report, including a 2013 study in the journal Inflammopharmacology.

For instance, many of the tattoos are located on the mummy’s lower back and near joints, places where Ötzi may have experienced pain, Zink said. The iceman likely also had problems with his knees and ankles, both of which are covered with tattoos, because he walked so much in the Alps.

The new ribcage tattoo isn’t located on the iceman’s back or on a joint, but “on the other hand, he could have suffered from chest pain,” Zink said. The mummy may have also suffered from other conditions, such as gallstones, whipworms in his colon or atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries, Zink added.

The ribcage tattoo could also be a spot where Ötzi felt “referred” pain, or pain at a site that is distant from the actual pain, said Dr. Walter Kean, a clinical professor of rheumatology at McMaster University in Canada who has studied Ötzi, but was not involved with the new study.

The findings were published Jan. 20 in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

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Captain Kidd’s ‘treasure’ found by divers off Madagascar

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File photo. (REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz)

Treasure said to belong to infamous pirate Captain Kidd has been found by divers in the waters of the Indian Ocean off Madagascar.

The BBC reports that underwater explorers found the 110 lb silver bar off the coast of Madagascar’s Sainte Marie island. The ingot is being guarded by soldiers on the island.

Famed American underwater explorer Barry Clifford led the team that discovered the bar, which he believes is from the wreckage of Kidd’s ship Adventure Galley. Clifford has an impressive reputation as an underwater archaeologist – in 1984, he discovered the wreck of the pirate ship Whydah, which sank off Cape Cod in 1717.
The silver ingot is believed to be from 17th century Bolivia.

The suspected booty was received by the President of Madagascar Hery Rajaonarimampianina and diplomats from the U.S. and U.K. in a ceremony on Sainte Marie island Thursday.
Born in Scotland in 1645, William Kidd was tried and executed for piracy in London in 1701.

Shipwrecks spotted in crystal-clear waters of Lake Michigan

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The wreck of the Rising Sun rests in 6-12 feet of water. (Mitch Brown/U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City)

Early spring is apparently a good time to look for shipwrecks in Lake Michigan.

Earlier this month, a helicopter from the Coast Guard’s Air Station in Traverse City, Michigan, was out on a routine patrol over the lake, looking for boats in distress or anything out of the ordinary. It was a calm day; the ice that covered the lake had recently melted, and the water was still very cold, just 38 degrees Fahrenheit — a perfect combination for good visibility.

When Petty Officer Mitch Brown looked out the window of the helicopter, he could spot several century-old shipwrecks in the crystal-blue waters. [See photos of the wrecks from above]

“We usually look for boats that are in the process of sinking,” Lt. Dan Schrader told Live Science. “We try to keep them keep from getting to that point.”

Brown snapped several pictures of the Lake Michigan wrecks with his iPhone. The Coast Guard posted the photos to Facebook, and they quickly went viral.

“We didn’t expect these photos to catch on like they did,” Schrader said. In the last week, he’s gotten calls from reporters as far away as Norway and China.

The photos didn’t reveal any new shipwrecks, but they did offer new views of vessels that sank up to 150 years ago.

For example, the aircrew captured a shot of a 133-foot-long wooden steamer named Rising Sun that ran aground in shallow water just north of Pyramid Point on October 29, 1917, during an early season snowstorm.

Some of Brown’s photos also revealed the 121-foot-long brig James McBride, which was stranded near Sleeping Bear Point during a storm on October 19, 1857, while carrying wood to Chicago.

Both of those ships are located in the Manitou Passage, which was a major shipping area in the heyday of Michigan lumbering, according to the Michigan Underwater Preserve Council (MUPC). Ships sought safety in the waters around the Manitou islands during storms, but clearly not all of them were successful.

The historic wrecks are protected under state law, and divers should know that it is a felony to remove or tamper with artifacts in Michigan’s Great Lakes, according to the MUPC. Anyone who tries to take a porthole, anchor or other object from a wreck could face two years in prison and hefty fines.

 

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Expedition set to recover frozen mummified bodies on Mexico’s highest mountain

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    A mummified frozen body sticks out from the snow in a glacier on the Pico de Orizaba volcano, Mexico’s tallest peak. (AP)

  • Mexico Glacier Body 2.jpg

    Mountaineer Luis Espinosa shows Gerardo Reyes a photo of an old expedition in Puebla, Mexico, March 10, 2015. (AP)

Fifty-six years after surviving an avalanche on Mexico’s highest mountain, Luis Espinosa may finally be able to say goodbye to his lost comrades.

Mexican officials say they will mount a joint state, federal and municipal effort to recover the mummified bodies of two climbers from the Pico de Orizaba volcano, in the state of Puebla.

The federal Interior Department said the multi-agency team will wait for clear weather to ascend it.

The department warned volunteers not to risk their safety on the steeply inclined mountain face where the two bodies were found last week.

The two bodies are encased in ice and snow near the peak of 18,406-foot volcano and appear decades old.

A survivor of a 1959 avalanche in which three fellow climbers disapeared said Tuesday he’s sure the bodies are those of his colleagues.

Espinosa, 78, said Friday that the bodies’ location matches where the climbers were lost.

“Based on the location of where the first photo was taken I thought, ‘looking at the place, there is no doubt, it has to be them’,” Espinosa said.

“We expected the bodies to surface in 20 years,” Espinosa said. “We did a great number of expeditions, always trying to find our comrades.”

A third body may be found because three were reported missing in the avalanche.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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Giant Easter Island ‘hats’ rolled into place, study says

Moai.jpg

A view of “Moai” statues in the Anakena beach on Easter Island, 2,486 miles west of Santiago, in this photo taken October 29, 2003. (Reuters)

The distinctive headgear worn by some of the famous Easter Island statues may have been rolled up ramps to reach those high perches, a new study suggests.

A simple analysis of the physics suggests that rolling the headwear — bulky cylindrical shapes that look like Russian fur hats — would have been a relatively easy matter, said study co-author Sean Hixon, an undergraduate student in archaeology and geology at the University of Oregon, who presented his findings here on April 16 at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

“It seems like a relatively small number of people could have done it, either by levering or rolling,” Hixon said. [Image Gallery: Walking Easter Island Statues]

In addition, other features, such as indentations at the bases of the hats, line up with the rolling theory of placement, Hixon said.

Easter Island hats

Since Europeans arrived at the location in the 1700s, people have wondered how the residents of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, off the coast of Chile, raised their majestic statues. Some scientists have speculated that the statues were walked into place. Others have argued that the native islanders chopped down the island’s forests to roll the stone behemoths across the landscape, leading to environmental devastation and the collapse of the Easter Island civilization.

Some of these Easter Island statues, or moai, are topped by large red headgear. About 100 of these “hats,” made from red volcanic rock called scoria, have been found, with many strewn along ancient paths on the island.

Historians and ethnographers proposed that these “hats” were everything from feathered diadems, to turbans, to wigs, to elaborate hairdos. Nowadays, most scholars think the ornaments were meant to represent hair, and the Rapa Nuiword for them, “pukao,” means topknot, Hixon said. The pukaos for the biggest statues could be roughly 6.5 feet in diameter and weigh 12 tons, he added.

No one knows exactly what the hats signified, though their red color suggests they may have had a ritual significance, Hixon said. Because the hats were carved separately, archaeologists have questioned how people got the ornaments atop the moai, as the biggest of the statues could weigh 75 tons and stand a staggering 40 feet high.

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Hixon and his colleagues used simple physics to model the force and torque required to place the pukao atop the moai via different techniques, such as rolling the objects up a ramp to the top of the statues, building a giant tower and using a pulley system, or erecting the pukao and moai simultaneously.

The mostly oblong cross-section of the pukao meant that rolling up a ramp would have taken relatively little energy, and could have been done with fewer than 10 people, Hixon found. The oblong shape would have an advantage over a circular cross-section: it would prevent the pukao from rolling down the ramp by accident, HIxon said.

In addition, many of the statues have a small lip at the base. These indentations are about 0.78 inches thick, and “they pretty much fit the heads of the moai,” Hixon told Live Science.

“The base indentation isn’t really necessary for the hat once it’s on the statue. The hats are pretty massive. It’s not like they’re going to fall off without the base indentation,” Hixon said. Instead, these indentations might have helped prevent the pukao from tipping over during placement, if the statues themselves happened to tilt forward a bit, Hixon said.

Many of the pukao also exhibit ring-shaped indentations and vertical scratches around the sides, which could have provided traction as the headgear was rolled up a ramp, Hixon said.

Still, the research is far from definitive. Any of the proposed methods for raising the hats are theoretically possible with enough people, Hixon said. And erosion and damage have altered the sides of the pukaos, so it’s difficult to determine whether the scratches on the outer surface were deliberately placed, Hixon said.

 

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Early urban planning: Ancient Mayan city built on grid

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In the course of excavating remains of the Mayan city, archaeologists uncovered a corridor containing shiny white plaster that originally would have covered the city. (Photo by Evelyn Chan)

An ancient Mayan city followed a unique grid pattern, providing evidence of a powerful ruler, archaeologists working at Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala, have found.

The city, which contains flat-topped pyramids, was in use between roughly 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., a time when the first cities were being constructed in the area. No other city from the Maya world was planned using this grid design, researchers say. This city was “organized in a way we haven’t seen in other places,” said Timothy Pugh, a professor at Queens College in New York.

“It’s a top-down organization,” Pugh said. “Some sort of really, really, powerful ruler had to put this together.”

The ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan also used a grid system. But that city is not considered to be Mayan, and so far archaeologists have found no connections between it and the one at Nixtun-Ch’ich’, Pugh said. [In Photos: Mayan Art Discovered in Guatemala]

People living in the area have known of the Nixtun-Ch’ich’ site for a long time. Pugh started research on it in 1995 and has been concentrating on Mayan remains that date to a much later time period,long after the early city was abandoned. However, in the process of studying these later remains, his team has been able to map the early city and even excavate a bit of it.

Ceremonial route

From the mapping and excavations, Pugh can tell that the city’s main ceremonial route runs in an east-west line only 3 degrees off of true east. “You get about 15 buildings in an exact straight line — that’s the main ceremonial area,” he said. These 15 buildings included flat-topped pyramids that would have risen up to almost 100 feet high. Visitors would have climbed a series of steps to reach the temple structure at the top of each of these pyramids.

At the end of the ceremonial way, on the eastern edge of the city, is a “triadic” structure or group, which consists of pyramids and buildings that were constructed facing each other on a platform. Structures like this triadic group (the name comes from the three main pyramids or buildings in the group), have been found in other early Mayan cities.

The residential areas of the city were built to the north and south of the ceremonial route and were also packed into the city’s grid design, Pugh said.

From the excavations, archaeologists can tell that many of the city’s structures were decorated with shiny white plaster. “It was probably a very shiny city,” Pugh said.

The city’s orientation, facing almost directly east, would have helped people follow the movements of the sun, something that may have been of importance to their religion.

A wall made of earth and stone also protectedthe city, suggesting defense was also a concern of these Mayans.

Were the people miserable?

While the city was a sight to behold, its people might not have been happy with it, Pugh said.

“Most Mayan cities are nicely spread out. They have roads just like this, but they’re not gridded,” said Pugh, noting that in other Mayan cities, “the space is more open and less controlled.”

Cities in early Renaissance Europe that adopted rigid designs were often unpleasant places for their residents to live, Pugh said. It’s “very possible” that the residents of this early Mayan city “didn’t really enjoy living in such a controlled environment,” Pugh said.

Preserving the city

Archaeologists said they are thankful to the cattle ranchers who own the land the site is on and are protecting it against looters, Pugh said.

This location is one of the few Mayan sites in the area that hasn’t been looted, and that’s because the ranchers are “really protective, and they don’t want people messing with the Maya ruins,” Pugh said.

Additionally, the ranchers use a type of quick-growing grass, which, in addition to helping feed cattle, also protects the site from erosion, helping preserve it.

Pugh’s team presented their research recently at the Society for American Archaeology’s Annual Meeting, in San Francisco.

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