Friday, July 11, 2008

Petrarch's skull missing from tomb in Arquà Petrarca


"Of all the world's great writers, Petrarch is the best known for losing his head. On Good Friday in 1327, the then 23-year-old writer and scholar fell madly - and forlornly - in love with a woman he saw in a church congregation.

His bad luck, to become enamored of a woman who did not return his affections, was the rest of humanity's good fortune. For, in seeking to express his feelings for the woman he called Laura, Francesco Petrarch gave definitive form to the sonnet and established himself as the first modern, western poet.

Now, it seems, he has lost his head for a second time.

Scientists who have been examining what they thought were Petrarch's remains have discovered that the skull belongs to someone else. And they suspect it could be that of a woman.

Professor Vito Terribile Wiel Marin of Padua University, who is heading the investigation, told the Guardian yesterday: "This must have been robbery. It is not, frankly, a nice business."

The suspects in a literary whodunnit spanning almost 700 years include a bibulously larcenous 17th century friar and a supposedly clumsy 19th century anatomist. Death has put both beyond the reach of indictment, but if Petrarch's skull were to be traced as a result of the latest discovery it could lead to charges of receiving stolen goods, an offense for which, under Italian law, there is no statute of limitations.

The seeds of the mystery were sown last November when a crane lifted the lid from Petrarch's pink marble tomb at Arquà Petrarca, the town where he died in 1374. It was the latest in a series of exhumations in Italy of famous historical figures. Prof Terribile Wiel Marin helped to set the vogue when he examined the remains of St Anthony of Padua in 1981.

One of the main reasons for picking over Petrarch's remains was to reconstruct his face and create a definitive portrait in time for the 700th anniversary of the poet's birth on July 20.

"Since we now don't even have his skull, that is absolutely impossible," Prof Terribile Wiel Marin lamented.

The bones of what was thought to be Petrarch's venerable head were in fragments when they were removed from his tomb. In 1873, it had been opened by an investigator, Professor Giovanni Canestrini, also at Padua University.

"He claimed Petrarch's skull disintegrated on contact with the air," said Prof Terribile Wiel Marin. "Since none of us has ever come across an instance of this happening, we can only conclude he dropped it."

Or might he have made up the whole story, putting back a damaged substitute and keeping for himself the head of a man revered as one of the fathers of the Renaissance?

It was when the skull's fragments found in Petrarch's tomb were reassembled that doubts surfaced about their true nature. Prof Terribile Wiel Marin said one of his team, Dr Maria Antonia Capitanio, noted the contours in two areas - above the eyes and below the ears - were more typical of a woman. Samples from a tooth and a rib were sent for analysis by Dr David Caramelli, a molecular anthropologist at Florence University who compared fragments of their DNA.

Last Friday, he reported back his sensational findings. "I am sure that the two samples are from different people," Dr Caramelli said yesterday..."

Greece responds to critics of culture polcy


I have read dozens of books about ancient Greece by such authors as Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield, and Michael Curtis Ford as well as listened to every course on ancient Greece and Greek culture I can get my hands on from The Teaching Company. I've also been fascinated by the Minoan culture and admired their beautiful art for years, too.

So I have been yearning to visit Greece for quite some time. But I had been cautioned by friends who had visited Greece that the ancient sites there were in pretty bad condition. However, I had once more considered traveling to Greece after viewing images of the beautiful new museum near the Acropolis in a recent television program. But, I was surprised to read in this article that Greece has continued to be less than hospitable to tourists, once the Olympic Games "gold rush" ended.

Apparently, though, frustrated tourists and tour operators have been badgering the Greek government trying to get them to wake up to the opportunities offered by a healthy tourism industry and they have finally responded by hiring more staff and extending some site hours for at least part of the year.

The additional staffing and extended opening hours are welcome but I agree with the individual that pointed out most tourists would rather visit these sites in the off-season not during the blistering summer months - me included. But, it's a start.

The article also mentioned that the Museum of Heraklion is closed until 2010 for rennovations. I would want to be sure it was reopened before I planned a visit as I gather Crete tours can be arranged with Athens tour operators. So, maybe a 2011 visit may be more prudent for me.

"Extra staff have been dispatched to guard the great cultural gems of Greece as the government in Athens tries to deflect growing criticism of its handling of national treasures.

Amid unprecedented protests from tour guides, travel companies and tourists irritated by conditions at prime archaeological sites, the ruling conservatives last week rushed hundreds of additional personnel to staff museums and open-air antiquities.

"The situation at museums and sites around the country is bad," the culture minister, Michalis Liapis, conceded in parliament last week. "It has to be corrected."

The move follows embarrassing revelations over the upkeep of Greece's ancient wonders and mounting public disquiet, voiced mostly by foreigners in the local press, over visitor access to them.

Yesterday, the authoritative newspaper Sunday Vima disclosed that the Cycladic isle of Delos - the site of Apollo's mythological sanctuary and one of Greece's most important ancient venues - resembled an "archaeological rubbish dump". Recently, it emerged that many sites, including Delphi, Mycenae and the spectacular Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on the popular island of Santorini, were only partially open or permanently closed."

Monday, July 07, 2008

Topographical Map of Ancient Palmyra Planned


"Although a settlement dating back to the second millennium BC has
already been identified as Palmyra, a new settlement was evidently
established at another site in the third century BC and was later
abandoned in the Roman period. While we know a great deal about the
later Roman city, the Hellenistic settlement of Palmyra has never been
investigated," explains Project Manager Prof. Andreas Schmidt-Colinet
from the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Vienna.
"The current investigation gives us a unique opportunity to analyse the
transition from the Hellenistic period to the time of the Roman Empire
by studying the settlement structures that have been uncovered here over
a wide area."

Chronology of the Settlement & Trade Routes

In view of the large size of the area, the project has thus far focussed
on small sections of the ancient urban settlement structures. This work
is already yielding results, particularly as regards the chronology of
the individual phases of construction and the trade and commercial
background of the Hellenistic "Sand City". The investigations show that
building activities were divided across various major phases stretching
from the third century B.C. to the end of the third century A.D. This
indicates that the site could have fallen out of use around the time
when the city was conquered by the Roman emperor Aurelian or around the
construction of the wall under the emperor Diocletian.

Pottery finds are particularly important for helping to determine the
trade routes used by the citizens of Palmyra. Overall, the
archaeologists have found far larger amounts of local domestic pottery
than imported ceramic goods from other areas.
Nevertheless, amphorae from Rhodes - large clay containers used to
transport wine - and goods imported from Africa show that Palmyra had
connections with far flung corners of the world from the late
Hellenistic period until the late Roman period. Prof. Schmidt-Colinet
comments on the team's discoveries: "Our pottery finds reveal a
continuous progression of Hellenistic-Roman ceramics over a period of
600 years. What's more, we now have the first ever archaeological
evidence for a Hellenistic settlement with continuous habitation over
six centuries extending into the Roman period."

Looking to the future, the archaeologists aim to completely uncover a
monumental courtyard-type structure at the centre of the Hellenistic
settlement that has close parallels with Syrian caravan structures.
However, the team is not just hoping to reveal how or why the individual
rooms were built, it also wants to determine the overall importance of
the structure for the city of Palmyra. At the end of the project, the
findings from the excavations, which have been made possible by the FWF,
will be combined with aerial photographs and structures that are still
visible above ground to provide a topographical map of Palmyra."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Oregon Find Points to West Coast Occupation Older Than Clovis


"What archaeologist Dennis Jenkins found in the Paisley Caves in south central Oregon may turn on its head the theory of how and when the first people came to North America.

Many scientists believe humans first came to this continent 13,000 years ago across a land bridge from Asia and they started the so-called Clovis culture. But Jenkins says they may have been living in these caves 1,000 years earlier, toward the end of the last ice age.

In 2002, he and his students at the University of Oregon began excavating the caves looking for proof. They discovered 14,000-year-old camel bones and signs they'd been butchered by humans. And then, they found artifacts of the humans themselves.

Coprolites are an archeology term for fossilized feces. Jenkins says they're from humans, and they're more than 14,000 years old.

Jenkins and his colleagues took their new evidence, the coprolites, to the university lab to see if modern science could offer more answers. They found the coprolites reflected a human diet.

"Here we have bone, some hair, vegetation, material. Those are all good indicators that it's a human coprolite," Jenkins observed.

Carbon dating showed three of the coprolites, and the animal bones found with them were 14,300 years old. And DNA tests showed six samples with distinct markers of ancient Native Americans.

We found little tiny threads that were .04 millimeters, I mean, so tiny they're as small as the threads in your shirt. Clearly, people were sewing their clothing, form-fitting clothing just like we have, shirts, pants, those kinds of things, perhaps moccasins.

The coprolites show they ate desert parsley, which grows six inches under the ground.

"The fact that they were exploiting that plant just like the Native Americans of this region were doing at later times tells us that they were very well-adapted to their environment. These were not explorers. These were people who were living in this area. They were at home here."

The early humans would have had to come by boat to the Pacific coast and then traveled inland through a strip of warmer swampland. Early peoples are thought to have arrived in Australia by boat, but it's a new idea for America."