Friday, April 24, 2009

Markov Model determines Indus Script contains grammatical structure


As someone who has experimented with artificial intelligence programs since the mid 1990s, I was riveted by this article about the use of a program, normally used to predict failure in electronic components, to analyze ancient Indus script fragments. Apparently the program revealed a definite grammatical pattern in the symbols quite similar to the cadence found in other language structures.

The process of decrypting ancient languages has fascinated me for a long time. Just last week I watched a Nova production, "Cracking the Maya Code", that detailed the history of the process used to unlock the Mayan past secreted within the intricate glyphs carved on many of the structures they left behind.

I am still a little skeptical about how a Russian linguist reached the "aha" moment when he realized different symbols represented the same syllable - it just seemed like a quantum leap to me. Why would the Maya develop a system using multiple complex symbols to mean the same thing. I could understand it if it was like differences in a regional dialect, but apparently the various symbols all occurred within the same context. Maybe they're examples of the ancient development of synonyms.

Anyway, the problem of decrypting the Indus script is even far more challenging than the challenges encountered in deciphering the Mayan glyphs as the longest script fragment found to date only contains 27 symbols. The Indus script is an elegant series of highly detailed pictograms like the one above. If we have only 27 symbols to work with and some of them represent the same syllable, as occurred with the Mayan glyphs, the task may prove to be ultimately impossible unless more extensive scripts are found.

Computational analysis of symbols used 4,000 years ago by a long-lost Indus Valley civilization suggests they represent a spoken language. Some frustrated linguists thought the symbols were merely pretty pictures.

"The underlying grammatical structure seems similar to what's found in many languages," said University of Washington computer scientist Rajesh Rao.

The Indus script, used between 2,600 and 1,900 B.C. in what is now eastern Pakistan and northwest India, belonged to a civilization as sophisticated as its Mesopotamian and Egyptian contemporaries. However, it left fewer linguistic remains. Archaeologists have uncovered about 1,500 unique inscriptions from fragments of pottery, tablets and seals. The longest inscription is just 27 signs long..."

"...In 2004, linguist Steve Farmer published a paper asserting that the Indus script was nothing more than political and religious symbols. It was a controversial notion, but not an unpopular one.

"...Rao, a machine learning specialist who read about the Indus script in high school and decided to apply his expertise to the script while on sabbatical in Inda, may have solved the language-versus-symbol question, if not the script itself.

"One of the main questions in machine learning is how to generalize rules from a limited amount of data," said Rao. "Even though we can't read it, we can look at the patterns and get the underlying grammatical structure."

Rao's team used pattern-analyzing software running what's known as a Markov model, a computational tool used to map system dynamics.

They fed the program sequences of four spoken languages: ancient Sumerian, Sanskrit and Old Tamil, as well as modern English. Then they gave it samples of four non-spoken communication systems: human DNA, Fortran, bacterial protein sequences and an artificial language.

The program calculated the level of order present in each language. Non-spoken languages were either highly ordered, with symbols and structures following each other in unvarying ways, or utterly chaotic. Spoken languages fell in the middle.

When they seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages.

As for the meaning of the script, the program remained silent." - More: Wired


Friday, April 17, 2009

Stone sarcophagus and skeleton unearthed in Tibet


Again, I wish there had been an accompanying photo. This brief notice also did not include any speculation about the age or cultural period of the find. I did find references online to Tibetan funerary practices that said inhumation was the most common form of burial before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, but after that sky burial became the most widely accepted funerary practice. Buddhism was first introduced in Tibet in 173 CE [Reference: Buddhism in Tibet] but supposedly had little impact at that time. I'm not sure what this website means by introduced because it goes on to say the appearance of the first Buddhist scripture did not occur until the 6th century CE and it goes on to say the scripture was not translated at that time. The first Buddhist monastery was erected in the ninth century after King Trisong Detsen officially declared Indian Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism to be the religion of Tibet in 792 CE. If inhumation was abandoned somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries, then the sarcophagus would predate that period at least.

I also found a fascinating discussion of ancient Tibetan royal burial practicies.

"... the funeral rituals of the tsenpos [early Tibetan kings] [are] closer to those of other Eurasian cultures - for example, the Scythians. We know quite a lot about the funerals of the Scythian kings because Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC. Here’s what he wrote:

The tombs of their kings are in the land of the Gerrhi, who dwell at the point where the Borysthenes is first navigable. Here, when the king dies, they dig a grave, which is square in shape, and of great size. When it is ready, they take the king’s corpse, and, having opened the belly, and cleaned out the inside, fill the cavity with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed, and anise-seed, after which they sew up the opening, enclose the body in wax, and, placing it on a wagon, carry it about through all the different tribes. On this procession each tribe, when it receives the corpse, imitates the example which is first set by the Royal Scythians; every man chops off a piece of his ear, crops his hair close, and makes a cut all round his arm, lacerates his forehead and his nose, and thrusts an arrow through his left hand.*

And as a commentator on Herodotus recently wrote: “The magnificent funerals of the Scythian kings have several parallels among Eurasian nomads of every age…” Indeed, restricting ourselves to the practices of cutting off the hair and self-laceration among mourners, we can easily pick out the following further examples. It was reported that at the funeral of Attila the Hun, mourners cut off their hair and made deep cuts in their faces. They kept the body in a ceremonial tent for a time before being buried. The Xiongnu (a nomadic empire that ruled northern China for a while in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD) buried their kings in large tombs, and plaits of hair have been found in some of those that have been excavated. The Khazars (around in the 7th-11th centuries) buried their dead in mausoleums near rivers, and at the funerals they beat drums, whistled and lacerated their faces. And so on

What we see again and again is the mourners cutting off their hair and lacerating their faces and bodies. This seems to me to be quite persuasive circumstantial evidence for rereading the Old Tibetan Chronicle in the same way. It also shows just how much the religion of the early Tibetan clans preserved the culture of their nomadic ancestors from the northern steppes. Other aspects of the tsenpo’s funerals which I haven’t mentioned here are also found among Eurasian nomadic peoples - like the long period elapsing between death and burial; the sacrifice of animals, especially white ones, and especially horses; and the killing and entombment of the king’s retainers.

I think all this helps us to see the early Tibetan religion (at least the myths and rituals surrounding the tsenpos) in the wider Eurasian cultural matrix shared by Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, and many more people of nomadic origin. - More: Early Tibet
News article:

A sarcophagus carved from stone, has been unearthed in Dongga Town, Lang County, southeastern Tibet's Nyingchi Prefecture, the prefecture's Cultural Relics Survey Team said.

The coffin was discovered in the course of building a road in the area. The frame and top of the stone coffin were made of bluish schist. The sarcophagus was 1.4 m long, 0.7 m wide, and 0.5 m tall. The tomb chamber was filled with cobblestones, sand and stones. A skeleton was also found in the chamber.- Tibet.news.cn



Newly-found tomb mural depicts ancient Chinese Medicine

I wonder if the mural described in this article is one of the murals described in an earlier article I discussed last month? I wish there had been an accompanying picture.

"Song Dynasty murals are not rare in and around the ancient Chinese capital Xi'an, but researcher Sun Bingjun at Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology said this was the first found to depict traditional Chinese medication, prevalent in China for nearly 5,000 years.

The mural, about four meters square, had a man sitting on a chair, whom experts believed was the tomb owner. "Jars and bottles were seen on a table nearby," said Sun.

Two other men were sitting at the table, one of whom was carrying two bags of herbs and the other consulting a huge collection of herbal formulas.

"The names of the herbs were still seen on the bags and the papers," said Sun. "We assume the master of the house was sick and two physicians were making prescriptions."

Sun and his colleagues have finished a preliminary research on the mural, which was found in a Song Dynasty (960-1279) tomb in the suburbs of Hancheng City in February."- More: chinaview.cn

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Earliest Known Child with Deformity found among Homo Heidelbergensis remains


It seems scientists are still surprised by evidence of more human, rather than primitive animal, behavior in very early human ancestors like Homo Heidelbergensis. In a study presented to the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified a 530,000 year-old member of the species with a deformity known as craniosynostosis, a condition where the skull sutures of a child close prematurely. The condition usually results in mental retardation because the developing brain can not expand normally. The Pleistocene-era child survived to about eight years old, so obviously received adult attention to reach that age.

Deliberately killing unwanted offspring "is not an uncommon practice among mammals, including great apes," our closest genetic relatives, Ana Gracia of the Centro UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamientos Humanos in Madrid explained.

Evidence of the practice also exists among modern human cultures. The Inuit, for instance, used to kill babies with severe genetic defects.

And at a medieval poorhouse in England, where parents often left their unwanted children, the cemetery contained a higher than normal number of children with deformities, the study team noted. - More: National Geographic News


But there are other early historical examples of compassion towards the physically deformed as described in Nick Thorpe's paper, "The Prehistory of Disability and ‘Deformity:

Yet there are examples which go against this, as at Salzmünde-Schiepzig in
Germany, where a child from the Early Bronze Age was buried in a wooden
coffin at the edge of a settlement. This child had suffered from both
incorrectly aligned thighs and a very long and narrow head obstructing brain
growth, with possible consequences ranging from restricted vision to partial
paralysis.

In the Early Neolithic of France, c. 4800 BC, an elderly man buried at
Buthiers-Boulancourt had, some years before death as indicated by
the degree of healing, had his lower left arm amputated. Despite this,
he was buried with highly prestigious grave goods of a complete sheep or
goat, a polished stone axe and a flint pick.

A case of dwarfism resulting from a genetic mutation occurred at Riparo del
Romito in Southern Italy at the end of the Paleolithic around 10,000 BC. Despite his severe condition, which must have greatly limited his ability to contribute to either hunting or gathering, the young man survived to the age of 17.
Are examples of compassion found in the early archaeological record simply remains reflecting a parent's instinct towards their offspring? Should we attribute compassion to an entire population group based on such isolated findings? Would a deformed child whose parents had perished been cared for by others?

[Photograph courtesy of Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España]

Navigational Instruments & French Apothecary Weights found in Queen Anne's Revenge

Since I am planning to attend the new Pirates! exhibition at the Chicago Field Museum when I am in the Chicago area attending the Historical Novel Society conference in June, this article about the latest discoveries found in a wreck thought to be Blackbeard's "Queen Anne's Revenge" caught my eye.

A brass navigational instrument known as a chart divider is among artifacts recently recovered from a shipwreck thought to be the Queen Anne's Revenge, the ship of the infamous 18th-century pirate Blackbeard, archaeologists said in March 2009.

Underwater archaeologists from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources have been excavating the wreck—which lies 22 feet (7 meters) underwater a few miles off Beaufort, North Carolina—since 1997.
- More: National Geographic Society News

Archaeologists have also discovered some apothecary weights embossed with distinctive French fleur-de-lis. Blackbeard captured a French ship originally named Le Concorde and renamed her the Queen Anne's Revenge. So, the discovery of French-marked weights lends more authority to claims the wreck is, in fact, the fabled pirate ship.

—Photographs courtesy Wendy M. Welsh, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Intimate Portraits From The Georgian and Regency Period Featured in New Exhibition at the British Museum


This beautiful portrait of Mary Hamilton by Sir Thomas Lawrence in an announcement of a new exhibition at the British Museum caught my eye. I collect small historical portraits called Cameo Creations and Mary Hamilton, with her rather windswept hair and trace of a broad brimmed hat looks very much like a portrait in my collection of Elizabeth, The Duchess of Devonshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. I have always been fascinated by historical portraits as if studying the faces of these people could somehow provide keys to unlocking the past.

My son had a less appreciative viewpoint of my hobby when he was growing up. I overhead him telling his friends, once, that his Mom was a little strange because she hung pictures of dead people she didn't even know all over the house.

Anyway, I hope if you are able to attend this exhibit at the British Museum you do appreciate these marvelous works of art. Alas, I just returned from Rome so won't be venturing "across the pond" again this year.

"The Intimate Portrait will explore the period between the 1730s and the 1830s – the heyday of British portraiture – when some of the country’s greatest artists produced beautifully worked portraits in pencil, chalks, watercolours and pastels that were often exhibited, sold and displayed as finished works of art. Jointly organised by the National Galleries of Scotland and the British Museum, this exhibition of 180 works will draw upon the superb (and largely unexplored) holdings of intimate portrait drawings in the collections of both institutions, as well as upon important private collections that have been placed on long-term loan at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Highlights will include masterpieces by Allan Ramsay, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and David Wilkie.

While oil paintings and sculpture dominated the very public art of portraiture which flourished in Georgian and Regency Britain, many artists were simultaneously involved in creating more private portraits for domestic consumption and display. Portrait miniatures painted in watercolour on ivory were worn as jewellery or displayed as treasures in cabinets; pastels with their fragile but brilliant surfaces were protected under glass and hung within gilt frames; while drawings were either framed and hung in family groups or kept in albums or portfolios to be shown to friends and family.

Until now, there has never been a serious investigation of these captivating modes of portraiture, and it has largely been forgotten that these smaller, more intimate portraits were also enjoyed by a wider public, and were exhibited in their hundreds at the Royal Academy in London and other public exhibition spaces in Britain. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s magnificent portrait drawing of Mary Hamilton, which will feature in the exhibition, was one of a dozen pastel and chalk drawings he showed at the RA in 1789.

The Intimate Portrait will bring together works by around eighty artists, including many of the leading figures of the period, such as Richard Cosway, Henry Fuseli, John Downman, John Hoppner, the architect George Dance and the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Two Scottish artists, John Brown and Archibald Skirving, will be a revelation to London audiences and of particular note will be two masterly self-portrait drawings by the young rivals Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

The exhibition is arranged thematically to look at artists’ self-portraits and images of their families and friends, as well as their portrayal of the rising middle classes and the celebrities of the day. Well-known sitters include Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Lady Hamilton, the Duke of Wellington and the young Queen Victoria. Intimate portraits are revealed to be important indicators of contemporary taste and ideas of ‘sentiment’, particularly through the many portraits of women and of children. The exhibition explores how and why they were made, where they were displayed and, above all, their qualities as portraits that are ‘intimate’ in the multiple senses of the word." - The British Museum