Tuesday, May 31, 2016

UC Davis study says logos make a group seem real

Organizations have logos, sports teams have mascots, countries have flags and national anthems. In marketing plans and political campaigns, a good logo is considered an essential tool for building brand identity.

New research at the University of California, Davis, shows that logos do far more -- creating the impression that a group is unified, effective and coordinated, even when the members of the group don't really seem that way on their own.

In a series of experiments, social psychologists Shannon Callahan and Alison Ledgerwood found that logos, flags and other group symbols make even disparate collections of individuals appear more tightly knit, effective, and even intimidating to outsiders. These effects held even for groups whose members seem to have little in common.

But there was a tradeoff: Groups that used logos to enhance their image as competent and cohesive were also perceived as less inclusive and less warm.

While flags and emblems have been used for centuries around the world, and logos are ubiquitous today, their psychological function has not been well understood, said Ledgerwood, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. "Nobody's really asked this question: What do symbols do for a group?"

In a series of online experiments, Ledgerwood and Callahan, a psychology doctoral student, asked participants to rate a variety of different groups (sometimes imaginary, and sometimes real) on how unified, organized, competent, threatening and friendly they seemed.

Consistent with past research, groups whose members looked the most like each other on the surface were considered the most unified and grouplike (for example, alien cartoon characters that were all the same color). But even diverse groups were rated as more unified -- and more threatening -- if they had a symbol.

"Part of the reason that people tend to see a political group or a sports team as a real, unified entity, and also tend to see them as potentially threatening, may be because they have these group symbols," Ledgerwood said.

To account for stereotypes, the researchers asked undergraduate students to rate 35 real-world groups for perceived competence and warmth, then picked eight that varied along the middle range of both scales: atheists, blue-collar workers, conservatives, Jewish people, Native Americans, obese people, immigrants and the disabled. A larger group of students then rated their perceptions of how unified, skillful and friendly each group seemed. A symbol made all groups look more cohesive, more competent and less warm.

A second series of experiments suggested that people also have an intuitive sense about when and how to use group symbols to archive a desired impression -- study participants tended to choose to display a flag or logo with they wanted their country or team to look united and intimidating, while selecting courteous acts like bringing food or other gifts when focused on collaboration.

The research findings, published today (April 15) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, could help guide organizations and other groups in deciding whether to adopt a symbol.

"It may depend on what their goals are," Ledgerwood said. "If they want to seem very competent and coordinated, like they get things done, they might want to have a logo. But if their goal is to seem inclusive and cooperative and open to outsiders, a logo might backfire."

The studies also illuminate the risks for symbols to polarize people, making groups seem more monolithic than they are and escalating us-versus-them conflicts, she said.

"When we think about groups as unified entities, we lose sight of the individuals and don't see each group in its diversity. That can really hinder cooperation," Ledgerwood said. "Each side sees the other side as unified and threatening, so they have to be unified and threatening back. If a nation wants to have a productive dialogue, for instance, that might be really difficult to do when we're all waving our symbols around."

EurekAlert. 2016. “UC Davis study says logos make a group seem real”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 15, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uoc--uds041516.php

Monday, May 30, 2016

How cults exploit one of our most basic psychological urges

The new Hulu TV series “The Path” – described by Time as the streaming service’s “best show yet” – centers on a cult-like faith, Meyerism, whose adherents seek fulfillment under the guidance of their leader, Cal.

As pure entertainment, the show seems promising. But as someone who studies human cognition and why people believe scientifically dubious claims, I’m more interested in the real-life versions of Cal – specifically, the needs that leaders of cult-like faiths tap into that make them so attractive to certain people.

The illusion of comfort

An answer to this question can take a variety of forms. One that has gotten a considerable amount of attention over the years is the emotional comfort cults can provide.

California Institute of Technology psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen, in attempting to explain why people are drawn to cults, has argued that the human desire for comfort, in the face of fear and uncertainty, leads us to seek outlets that can soothe our anxieties.

In and of itself, the urge to quiet internal demons is not a negative trait. I’d argue that, to the contrary, it’s an effective adaptation that allows us to cope with the stressors, big and small, that bombard us on a regular basis.

However, cult leaders meet this need by making promises that are virtually unattainable – and not typically found anywhere else in society. This, according Pedersen, could include “complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life.”

Beyond exploiting human desire for emotional comfort, cult leaders don’t always have the best intentions when it comes to the mental health of their followers.

Psychiatrist Mark Banschick has pointed out that cult leaders employ mind and behavioral control techniques that are focused on severing followers' connections to the outside world.

These methods can actually deepen members' existing emotional insecurities, while encouraging them to become completely reliant on their cult for all their physical and emotional needs. At the same time, they’re often told to sever ties with any friends or relatives who are not part of the group.

This can result in physical and psychological isolation, which actually exacerbates many of the problems, like anxiety and depression, that attracted people to the cult in the first place.

The anxiety and depression can become so overwhelming and feel so insurmountable that the followers feel trapped.

It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to truly tragic consequences, such as the well-documented 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when over 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide carried out under the supervision of cult leader Jim Jones. Then there were the Heaven’s Gate suicides in 1997, when 39 individuals, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite, willingly overdosed on phenobarbital and vodka in the hope of being transported to an alleged alien spaceship flying behind the (real) Hale-Bopp comet.

The case for reason

So just how can one face his or her fears, but avoid the potential danger of cult-like groups?

In a word: rationality.

Seeking reason-based solutions for emotion-focused conditions is by no means a new concept. Unfortunately, rationality is not as intuitively appealing as remedies that simply exploit sentimental cravings.

Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 text “The Future of an Illusion,” argued that religion was a mere mental trick constructed to comfort believers and help them overcome insecurities – even though their acceptance of dogma was irrational. While Freud’s position was focused on mainstream faiths, his highlighting of the emotional comfort central to them is analogous to the role that this element plays in cults.

His solution? Replace religion (or, in the present case, cults) with rational guides for living that deal with problems directly. Are you anxious about your appearance? Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Stressed about relationship problems? Talk directly to your partner in a clear and honest manner to arrive at mutually agreed-upon resolutions.

One could certainly argue that Freud, by highlighting religion’s negative elements, was ignoring the potential positive outcomes correlated with spirituality such as stable relationships, moral grounding and life satisfaction.

But there is no denying that emotions can cloud judgment and result in poor decisions.

For example, Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist who studies decision-making, illustrated the very real consequences of favoring an emotional response over a more data-driven one. In his 2004 analysis of highway fatalities in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, he pointed out how people became afraid of flying in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Many who still needed to travel ended up driving instead of flying in order to reach their destinations.

However, this influx of cars on the road led to approximately 350 more people dying in automobile accidents from October to December of 2001. As Gigerenzer noted, these deaths could likely have been avoided “if the public were better informed about psychological reactions to catastrophic events.”

It’s not easy to simply “use reason over emotion.” The fact that cults continue to exist – and that people continue to play the lottery despite the minuscule chance of winning, or insist on subjecting themselves to unproven cancer treatments such as urine therapy – is a testament to the potency of emotions as behavioral motivators.

Furthermore, this should not be taken as a directive to surrender our emotions, which can enhance human experiences in many ways.

But it’s important to be vigilant, and recognize the value of approaching decisions using logic, especially when emotion-driven choices can lead to negative, life-altering outcomes.

Which of these paths will Cal and his Meyerists pursue? My guess is emotions will win the day. In the fictional world of television, that’s OK.

But for those of us viewing their exploits from our living rooms, perhaps it’s an opportunity to think about our choices, and whether or not our feelings had the final say.

Manza, Lou. 2016. “How cults exploit one of our most basic psychological urges”. The Conversation. Posted: April 14, 2016. Available online: https://theconversation.com/how-cults-exploit-one-of-our-most-basic-psychological-urges-57101?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20April%2014%202016%20-%204673&utm_

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Headdress reconstruction throws light on hunter-gatherer rituals

A research team led by archaeologists at the University of York used traditional techniques to create replicas of ritual headdresses made by hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago in North Western Europe.

Flint blades, hammerstones and burning were among the tools and techniques they employed to fashion reproductions of shamanic headdresses discovered during excavations at the Early Mesolithic site at Star Carr in North Yorkshire.

The research published today in PLOS ONE is the first scientific analysis of the oldest known evidence of a shamanic costume in Europe. It challenges previously held assumptions over the care and time invested in the modification of the animal's "skull cap" in order to create these ritualistic artefacts.

Instead the study, part of a five-year project supported by the European Research Council, Historic England and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, suggests that hunter-gatherers achieved this through expedient manufacturing techniques. These may have involved packing the skull with damp clay and placing it in a bed of embers for up to four hours both to facilitate skin removal and make the bone easier to work.

Archaeologists unearthed a total 24 red deer headdresses at Star Carr representing around 90 percent of all such known artefacts across early prehistoric Europe. The artefacts are formed from the upper part of a male red deer skull with the antlers attached - the lower jaw and cranial bones having been removed and the frontal bone perforated.

The majority of the headdresses were discovered during archaeological investigations at Star Carr in the 1940s though researchers unearthed a further three during excavations in 2013. The most complete of these is likely to have come from a male adult red deer though the animal was 50 per cent larger than its modern counterparts.

Using techniques including 3D laser scanning allowed the team to observe and analyse a number of cut marks radiating out of perforations on both sides of the crania.

The researchers, which also involved researchers from the universities of Bradford, Chester, Manchester, Groningen and Leiden, concluded that hunter-gatherers were likely to have removed the head and superficially cleaned it before starting work on producing the headdress.

The first stage of the process may have involved removal of a large amount of antler possibly to reduce the weight of the headdress and make it easier to work. Some of the removed antler may have formed 'blanks' for the production of barbed projectile tips used for hunting and fishing.

But it is also possible that, in some cases, antler blank removal happened much later after the headdress had been used; in which case the process may have been a form of decommissioning of the headdress and/or the recycling of antler. The researchers say that given the amount of worked antler present at Star Carr, including over 200 barbed projectile tips, this is a plausible theory.

Lead author Dr Aimée Little, of the BioArCh research centre in the Department of Archaeology at York, said: "This research shows how experimental archaeology can give important insights into rare ancient artefacts. Knowing fire was used invokes a real sense of atmosphere surrounding the making of these ritual shamanic headdresses."

Professor Nicky Milner, co-director of the excavations at Star Carr, added: "These headdresses are incredibly rare finds in the archaeological record. This is the only site in Britain where they are found, and there are only a few other headdresses known from Germany. This work into how they might have been made has given us an important glimpse into what life was like 11,000 years ago."

Dr Andrew Wilson, Senior Lecturer and co-director of Bradford Visualisation in the School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, said: 'This exciting collaboration enabled the team to use a range of complementary 3D capture methods to document and investigate the modification of the deer crania at a variety of scales, before these waterlogged organic artefacts were subject to conservation treatment. This is a great showcase for how 3D documentation and analysis can transform our ability to understand objects of past societies."

Phys.org. 2016. “Headdress reconstruction throws light on hunter-gatherer rituals”. Phys.org. Posted: April 13, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-headdress-reconstruction-hunter-gatherer-rituals.html

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fresh look at trope about Eskimo words for snow

That old trope about there being at least 50 Eskimo words for snow has a new twist.

Researchers at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University have taken a fresh look at words for snow, taking on an urban legend referred to by some as "the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax."

But instead of counting the words for snow used by Inuit, Yupik and other natives of the Arctic regions, as others have done, they looked at how people in warmer climates speak of snow and ice compared to their cold-weather counterparts.

"We found that languages from warm parts of the world are more likely to use the same word for snow and ice," said Alexandra Carstensen, a doctoral student in psychology and co-author of the study published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The finding that people in warmer regions are less likely to distinguish between ice and snow indirectly supports a claim by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911 that the words used to describe different types of snow in Arctic languages reflect the "chief interests of a people."

By the same principle, people in warmer climates, where snow is less of a concern, are less likely to care as much about the difference between snow and ice, and so use one word to describe both, just as Hawaiians use the word hau for snow and ice.

To test that theory, researchers used multiple dictionaries and linguistic and meteorological data -- as well as Google Translate and Twitter -- to conduct an extensive search for words for snow and ice in nearly 300 diverse languages. They then linked those words to local climates and geography worldwide.

"We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages in particular," said study senior author Charles Kemp, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "The idea that languages reflect the needs of their speakers is general, and can be explored using data from all over the world."

The study builds on the team's previous research showing how language is shaped by our need to communicate precisely and efficiently.

"We think that terms for snow and ice reveal the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need," said study lead author Terry Regier, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Fresh look at trope about Eskimo words for snow”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 13, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uoc--fla041316.php

Friday, May 27, 2016

172 year old Saiwan boundary marker stone found

Teachers and students of Department of Real Estate and Construction of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) discovered a long forgotten boundary marker stone from the very earliest days of the British presence in Hong Kong. This B.O. No4, boundary stone, is located in the Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village in Sai Wan Shan.

Research by Dr Stephen N.G. Davies, Lecturer of the Department, has identified the stone's provenance. "B.O." stands for 'Board of Ordnance', the British military authority in charge of surveying and mapping before 1855. That clue led to its identification on Hong Kong's oldest scientifically surveyed map, the Ordnance Map of Hong Kong of 1845 by Lt. Thomas Bernard Collinson Royal Engineers.

In late September, in preparing for a course field trip of HKU's common core course CCCH9031 "Property Rights, Built Heritage and Sustainable Development in Hong Kong", Dr Davies identified the location of a "War Department boundary stone, B.O. No.4" on an 1895 building plan of Saiwan Redoubt in the British National Archives.

Students on the Department's common core course, in groups led by Mr Chan Yiu-hung found the stone itself during the course field trip on 3rd October. The 172 year old stone was standing exactly where the 1895 map had showed it, despite the heavy bombardment the historic Redoubt had suffered in the Japanese invasion in 1941 and extensive post-war alterations.

On a subsequent visit, a team of professional land surveyors, led by Dr Ken Ching Siu-tong, an alumnus of the Department and a professional land surveyor, closely surveyed the stone to confirm Dr Davies' identification. Precise geo-referencing process with respect to contemporary coordinate grid was performed in an ArcGIS platform showed the stone to be exactly where Lt Collinson had put it and mapped it. In addition, Sr Natalie Chan Wing-shan also identified an original survey benchmark, placed during the building of the Redoubt in 1895.

The stone has suffered some damage over the years but all the original markings are still legible. However, unchecked growth of vegetation in the neglected Redoubt means a tree is now growing right beside the stone, threatening to push it over and further damage it.

The Department has informed the Antiquities and Monuments Office of its finding. Professor Chau Kwong-wing, Head of Department and Chair Professor, has sent the Commissioner for Heritage a recommendation, drafted by Dr Stephen N.G. Davies in consultation with Professors Lawrence Lai Wai-chung and Dr Daniel Ho Chi-wing, that the stone be made an AAB Grade I listed object.

Phys.org. 2016. “172 year old Saiwan boundary marker stone found”. Phys.org. Posted: April 11, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-year-saiwan-boundary-marker-stone.html

Thursday, May 26, 2016

How to explore Guatemala’s Mayan ruins from 4500 kilometres away

Jaguar Paw Temple lies deep in the Guatemalan rainforest, part of the ancient Mayan ruins of El Mirador. Three days walk from the nearest road, it’s almost inaccessible. And yet here I am.

I get down on my knees to examine a sculpture of a jaguar. I see jungle dirt in the crannies. Dead leaves have collected at its feet. I can see it all, right in front of my face.

But my body’s back in San Jose, at the GPU Technology Conference, with a screen strapped to my face and two motion-tracking cameras watching my movements. I’m exploring the latest destination offered by virtual reality company Realities.io, which lets you visit some of the world’s most beautiful and striking places without leaving your living room.

Going off-road

CTO and founder David Finsterwalder made the Jaguar Paw Temple reconstruction just two weeks ago. After flying to Guatemala City, then catching a local flight to the small town of Flores, he and a team from the Global Heritage Fund took a 30-minute helicopter ride into the jungle. Armed with a high-definition still camera and a tape measure, they stayed long enough to take a few hundred photos and record key measurements. They then stitched it all together into a virtual reality for anyone to explore.

Most people who visit the site are archaeologists – Finsterwalder’s original occupation. The Guatemalan authorities do let tourists visit, but unless they take the expensive helicopter they must hike through the jungle for three days. “They want to let tourists go there, but they don’t want to have roads,” says Finsterwalder. “With roads you will have loggers, and this is the last part of Guatemala where the rainforest is really complete.”

Instead of bringing people to such places, his small start-up is bringing the places to people. The Mayan ruins are just one of the destinations on the company’s books. I also explore the ruins of Castle Hohenrechberg in southern Germany and gaze up at the ceiling of 10th century Cluny Abbey in Saône-et-Loire, France. Then I poke around in a room of the abandoned Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital, where Adolf Hitler recovered after being wounded in the leg at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Hooked on realism

I can’t touch the places I visit, but I can teleport around them with the click of a button. Pointing a controller to where I want to go, I zip through the environment. Stone walls blur past as I zoom to the top of Hohenrechberg. There’s a broken beer bottle on the floor and I can see the brand.

“The photorealism hooked me,” says media researcher Xárene Eskandar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “You can look in holes, behind doors and under chairs.”

I watch other people step into Finsterwalder’s worlds. “Oh my god, oh my god, this is so cool,” says a woman. She gasps in wonder as she looks up. “I feel like I’m really in here.”

Hodson, Hal. 2016. “How to explore Guatemala’s Mayan ruins from 4500 kilometres away”. New Scientist. Posted: April 11, 2016. Available online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2083848-how-to-explore-guatemalas-mayan-ruins-from-4500-kilometres-away/

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In with the in crowd: secret languages can confuse, exclude or empower

There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Include argots – the characteristic language of a particular group – and that number climbs ginormously.

Ginormous itself is argot, the portmanteau of gigantic and enormous to form a new blended word. It’s also hyperbole: gigantic is no longer deemed huge enough, so we blend and expand.

Groups of people form their own private lexicons because coded language is exclusive, exciting and defiant. Part of it is finding your community: the mystique of being in the “in group” carried over from school; the private joke you have to be in on to find funny. You find your tribe by mimicking the peculiarities of their diction. It creates a sense of belonging, expertise and solidarity.

But it can go beyond that. The coded nature of argot (from the French for slang) can be deliberately subversive because that particular group rejects the status quo, which they find unsatisfactory, unacceptable or oppressive. It can also help conceal criminal activity or frowned-upon behaviour, making it a cryptolect – a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character of a marginalised subculture.

For all those reasons, argot is my favourite part of language: it sits in the forbidden corners, between the gaps, underneath the rigidity of all the rules of grammar. It’s where creativity bubbles and thrives, shrouded by an enigmatic cloak of linguistic abandon. 

Often, adopters of argot have common enemies to defy or hide from: traditional conservative society; the law; the police. Defying the authority and perceived supremacy of the dominant forces in society is empowering and essential to avoid detection. It’s why drug dealers and users employ female personification in their trade to euphemise and conceal. So having a dinner party with Tina, Gina and Molly would be less civilised than it sounds: you’d be taking, respectively, crystal meth, GHB and MDMA. Similarly, the patois used in hip-hop was originally used to defy the same enemies, the argot defined by clever puns, rapid rhyming couplets, blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and don’t-give-a-toss attitude set to an insistent beat.

Youth slang is one of the most consistently refreshing of argots. The yoof want to feel cool, exclusive, quirky and not speak in the same manner as their ’rents, which is why they’ll say things like “Nek minnit I had mahoosive FOMO” – a combination of Jamaican patois hybrid, portmanteau, acronym and drama.

As fresh as argot can feel, it can also become redundant, incumbent or mainstream. Cockney rhyming slang, for example, is a casualty of sweeping gentrification. Some of it has become mainstream – we all know what “apples and pears” means. But it retains its linguistic creativity: one’s Aris means “arse”; an abbreviation of Aristotle, which rhymes with bottle-and-glass. Genius. Here are some argots peculiar to their groups.


Nellyarda, zhoosh the riah, titivate, schlumph your Vera down, and palare that omee for the bevvies because I’ve nanti dinarli.

(Translation: Listen, style your hair, make yourself look pretty, drink up your gin, and talk to that man to get a drink because I’m skint.)

Polari was pugnacious, camp, and racy. The cant was whispered by gay men in large cities in 1960s Britain (when homosexuality was illegal). In today’s more equal times, it’s linguistically archaic. But there’s a move from language lovers like myself to preserve and promote Polari as a kind of linguistic artifact – so the battles and resilience of those who spoke it are remembered and respected. The Polari app is fantabulosa, giving etymologies and explanations of the full Polari lexicon as far as records exist.

Polari’s weapon was camp – turning on its head the idea that “camp” was effete and submissive, instead transforming it into something powerful and defiant. It did this by imprinting a flamboyant flair and strange panache using a complete mish-mash of words borrowed from cockney rhyming slang, backslang (when a word is pronounced backwards such as riah and emag), Yiddish, Italian, theatre slang and naval slang. You might have dropped a Polari word into a sentence to surreptitiously show the attractive man you were talking to that you’re gay, or test if he was. Or to avoid disapproval – even arrest. Or simply to bitch, and get away with it.

Polari was popularised by the 1960s BBC radio series Round the Horne, featuring two camp Polari-speakers, Julian and Sandy. Once it gained popularity, the cat was out of the bag. 1967 saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, making Polari redundant.


Gym-goers speak in a common language, but those who attend CrossFit take it to another level. They don’t attend a gym; it’s a box. Acronyms abound – Wod (workout of the day) is the best known, but others include Amrap (as many reps as possible) and ATG (ass to grass). The Wod is often given a female name. Founder Greg Glassman explains: “Anything that left you flat on your back, looking at the sky asking ‘what just happened to me?’ deserved a female’s name.” Charming.

Like many argots, the unique vernacular enhances CrossFit’s mystique and sense of being a special, exclusive community. It gets people like me writing about it in places like this. Clever marketing, really.


Talking of clever marketing, when a corporate noun replaces the neutral noun, or a corporate word becomes a verb, the corporate really has won an Orwellian victory. It means we say Kindle instead of e-reader, iPhone instead of smartphone and Play-Doh, Sellotape, Pritt Stick and Tippex instead of their generic alternatives. Hoovering, tweeting and googling show how those companies dominate their markets.


Office talk – doing a Swot analysis and Smart objectives by end of play – is the kind of acronym-heavy argot that organisations develop their own version of, to build a sense of belonging, perceived expertise and perceived verbal shortcuts. Please. Just say the whole thing. Acronyms are annoying.


If you’re French, I’d argue that you’re automatically cool. Certainly, as I’ve written before, the French have the coolest idioms. But if you’re really cool in France, you use Verlan – a French cant which is like pig Latin, but cooler. It was initially used by young people, drug dealers and criminals as a secret language. Unlike pig Latin, many Verlan words have travelled into mainstream French. To speak in this coded inverted tongue, you must separate the word into syllables, reverse them, then piece it back together. Verlan itself is verlan for l’envers (backwards). Another example is chébran, which is the Verlan of branché (cool).


It may be dead, but there are many benefits to learning Latin – it deepens your understanding of English and other languages, and gives interesting insights into etymologies and the like. But it could be considered a cryptolect: a secretive exclusive language, designed to exclude, in this case, oiks. It’s mainly used to distinguish an expensive education from a state one. After all, it’s as arcane and defunct as Polari. It means private school kids can know that in vino veritasbecause their schools were acting in loco parentis.

It’s especially true if you call your university your alma mater. Ugh.


Sensationalist and over abbreviated language is journalese. If you interview an everyday eyewitness without a party trick to speak of and call them “talent”; if you speak of pegs or hooks metaphorically; or if you discuss “news currency” – then you’re chatting in journalese.

Nunn, Gary. 2016. “In with the in crowd: secret languages can confuse, exclude or empower”. The Guardian. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2016/apr/08/in-with-the-in-crowd-secret-languages-can-confuse-exclude-or-empower

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reconsidering Body Worlds: why do we still flock to exhibits of dead human beings?

When Dr. Gunther von Hagens started using “plastination“ in the 1970s to preserve human bodies, he likely did not anticipate the wild success of the Body Worlds exhibitions that stem from his creation. Body Worlds has since hosted millions of visitors to its exhibits, including six spin-offs. The offshoots include a version on vital organs and another featuring plastinated animal remains. The process replaces natural bodily fluids with polymers that harden to create odorless and dry "specimens.”

Frozen in place, plastinated remains in the exhibits are rigidly posed – both for dramatic effect and to illustrate specific bodily features. Over 40 million museum visitors have encountered these exhibitions in more than 100 different locations worldwide. Even copycat exhibits have taken off, eschewing accredited museums in favor of places like the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

But Body Worlds – though seemingly an entirely modern phenomenon only made possible with futuristic plastic technology – emerges from a long tradition of popular exhibits featuring actual and simulated human remains. What continues to draw so many people to human body exhibitions – even today?

Early exhibits of human bodies

For nearly as long as physicians and anatomists have attempted to understand the body, they have attempted to preserve, illustrate and present it. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the 16th century frequently included human skulls. As civic museums emerged in cities throughout Europe and the United States, some began to formally organize collections around anatomical questions.

Medical museums were often more interested in pathologies – abnormal medical conditions or disease. They also collected thousands of skulls and bones, attempting to address basic questions about race. Early on, medical museums were generally closed to the public, instead focusing on training medical students through hands-on experience with specimens. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public. Once they did, they were surprised by the relatively large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.

Medical museums were not the sole institutions housing and displaying remains, however. Collections aimed more squarely at the general public often included such items as well. The Army Medical Museum, for instance, located along the National Mall, exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early 20th century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park.

Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also wildly popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics.

Troubling transition from person to specimen

In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields.

In the United States, the human body in the late 19th and early 20th century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with the supposed differentiations between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans – occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.

Some exhibits blended medical science and racial science in a bizarrely inaccurate manner. Medical doctors supported eugenics groups organizing temporary exhibits comparing hair and skulls from different apes and nonwhite humans, underscoring popular notions about the supposedly primitive nature of those outside of Western civilization. To our modern eyes, these attempts are obviously stained by scientific racism.

Eventually, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world came under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race – dominating many early displays of human remains – was largely discredited.

Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods – including more sophisticated models – and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.

By midcentury it was less common to display actual human remains in museum exhibits. The occasional Egyptian mummy notwithstanding, museum remains were largely relegated behind the scenes to bone rooms.

Specimen exhibits fade, temporarily

With largely unfounded concern, museum administrators, curators and other critics worried audiences would be disgusted when shown vivid details about human anatomy. Gradually, as medical illustrations became better and easier to reproduce in textbooks, the need for demonstrations with real “specimens” seemed to dissipate.

First displayed at a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, see-through models of the human body became a favorite attraction at medical exhibits in years to come. Models replicated actual human body parts rather than displaying them in preserved form. Exhibits were sometimes animated with light shows and synchronized lectures.

Later, in the 1960s, new transparent models were created for popular education. Eventually, some of the many transparent medical models wound up in science museums. Although popular, it remains unclear how effective the models were in either teaching visitors or inspiring them to learn more about the human body.

Over the years, methods for teaching anatomy shifted. Many medical museums even closed permanently. Those that could not dispose of collections by destroying them donated or sold them. Human body exhibits generally faded from public consciousness.

But after decades of declining visitor numbers, something surprising started happening at one of the nation’s most important medical museums. The Mütter Museum’s displays continued to draw heavily from its human remains collections even as similar institutions moved away from such exhibits. From the mid-1980s to 2007, the number of visitors entering the Mütter’s galleries grew from roughly 5,000 visitors per year to more than 60,000. Today, the museum is the most visited small museum in Philadelphia, hosting over 130,000 visitors annually.

When Body Worlds began touring museums in the mid-1990s, it tapped into a curiosity in the U.S. that has probably always existed – a fascination with death and the human body.

Adding a gloss of scientization to the dead

People are very often unsettled by seeing what were once living, breathing, human beings – people with emotions and families – turned into scientific specimens intended for public consumption. Despite whatever discomfort emerges, however, the curious appeal of medicalized body displays at public museums lingers, enough so to make them consistently appealing as fodder for popular exhibitions.

Body Worlds states “health education” is its “primary goal,” elaborating that the bodies in exhibits are posed to suggest that we as humans are “naturally fragile in a mechanized world.” The exhibits are partially successful in achieving that mission. In tension with the message about human fragility, though, is the desire to preserve them by preventing their natural decay through technology.

With public schools cutting health programs in classrooms around the United States, it stands to reason people might seek this kind of body knowledge elsewhere. Models are never quite as uniquely appealing as actual flesh and bone.

But while charged emotional responses have the potential to heighten curiosity, they can also inhibit learning. While museum administrators voiced concern that visitors would be horrified viewing actual human bodies on exhibit, the public has instead proven to have an almost insatiable thirst for seeing scientized dead.

In the face of this popularity, museums must fully consider the special implications and problems with these exhibitions when choosing to display human bodies.

One basic concern relates to the exact origins of these bodies. Criticisms elicited an official response from von Hagens. Major ethical differences exist between exhibitions including human remains where permission has been granted in advance by the deceased or through descendants and museum displays revealing bodies of individuals offered no choice in the matter.

Spiritually sacred objects and the remains of past people present unique issues which must be dealt with sensitively and on an individual basis. Cultural and historical context is important. Consulting with living ancestors is critical.

Exhibitors also need to do more to put these displays into greater historical context for visitors. Without it, visitors might mistake artfully posed cadavers as art pieces, which they most assuredly are not.

These are all issues we will likely be grappling with for years to come. If past history is suggestive of future trends, visitors will continue to be drawn to these exhibits as long as the human body remains mysterious and alluring.

2016. “Reconsidering Body Worlds: why do we still flock to exhibits of dead human beings?”. The Conversation. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: https://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Monday, May 23, 2016

From pantomime to sign: How sign language evolves

How does sign language develop? A new study shows that it takes less than five generations for people to go from simple, unconventional pantomimes—essentially telling a story with your hands—to stable signs. Researchers asked a group of volunteers to invent their own signs for a set of 24 words in four separate categories: people, locations, objects, and actions. Examples included “photographer,” “darkroom,” and “camera.” After an initial group made up the signs—pretending to shoot a picture with an old-fashioned camera for “photographer,” for example—they taught the signs to a new generation of learners. That generation then played a game where they tried to guess what sign another player in their group was making. When they got the answer right, they taught that sign to a new generation of volunteers. After a few generations, the volunteers stopped acting out the words with inconsistent gestures and started making them in ways that were more systematic and efficient. What’s more, they added markers for the four categories—pointing to themselves if the category were “person” or making the outline of a house if the category were “location,” for example—and they stopped repeating gestures, the researchers reported last month at the Evolution of Language conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. So in the video above, the first version of “photographer” is unpredictable and long, compared with the final version, which uses the person marker and takes just half the time. The researchers say their finding supports the work of researchers in the field, who have found similar patterns of development in newly emerging sign languages. The results also suggest that learning and social interaction are crucial to this development.

Matacic, Catherine. 2016. “From pantomime to sign: How sign language evolves”. Science Magazine. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/pantomime-sign-how-sign-language-evolves

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What really happened on Easter Island?

Hundreds of iconic moai statues stand testament to the vibrant civilization that once inhabited Easter Island, but there are far fewer clues about why this civilization mysteriously vanished. Did they shortsightedly exhaust the island's resources? Were they decimated by European illnesses and slave trade? Or did stow-away rats devastate the native ecosystem? Such theories have spread widely, but recent evidence shows that the truth is not as simple as any one of these alone.

"These different interpretations may be complementary, rather than incompatible," said Dr. Valentí Rull. "In the last decade, there's been a burst in new studies, including additional research sites and novel techniques, which demand that we reconsider the climatic, ecological and cultural developments that occurred." Rull is a senior researcher of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona, Spain, and the lead author of an overview on the holistic reassessment of Easter Island history.

Until recently, the evidence has been limited. Prior sedimentary samples--commonly used as historical records of environmental change--were incomplete, with gaps and inconsistencies in the timeline. Furthermore, past interpretations relied heavily on pollen alone, without incorporating more faithful indicators of climate change. Due to this uncertainty, many fundamental questions remain, not only about why the culture disappeared, but also precisely when these events occurred and how this civilization developed in the first place.

Using the latest analytical methods, Rull and his collaborators are beginning to shed light on many of these questions. Complete sedimentary samples now show a continuous record of the last 3000 years, showing how droughts and wet seasons may have influenced the island's population. Sea travel depended on such weather patterns, resulting in periods of cultural exchange or isolation. Rainfall also impacted native palm forests, with droughts potentially contributing to the island's eventual deforestation. Radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of artifacts and human remains are also showing where the inhabitants lived on the island, what they farmed and ate, and the influence of cultures beyond their Polynesian ancestors.

"These findings challenge classical collapse theories and the new picture shows a long and gradual process due to both ecological and cultural changes. In particular, the evidence suggests that there was not an island-wide abrupt ecological and cultural collapse before the European arrival in 1722," said Rull.

There is much work yet to be done before this mystery is solved, but it is clear that neither environmental nor human activities are solely responsible for the events on Easter Island. Only a combined approach that encompasses climate, ecology, and culture will fully explain how this ancient civilization went extinct.

The article is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

EurekAlert. 2016. “What really happened on Easter Island?”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/f-wrh040716.php

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New discoveries into how an ancient civilization conserved water

Collection, storage and management of water were top priorities for the ancient Maya, whose sites in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala were forced to endure seven months out of the year with very little rainfall. As researchers expand their explorations of the civilization outside of large, elite-focused research site centers, aerial imagery technology is helping them locate and study areas that are showing them how less urbanized populations conserved water for drinking and irrigation. The NSF-supported research by Jeffrey Brewer, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Geography, and Christopher Carr, a UC research assistant professor of geography, was presented at the 81st annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. The meeting takes place April 6-10, in Orlando, Florida.

The UC researchers used a surveying technology called LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) - along with excavation data - to examine the spatial characteristics, cultural modifications and function of residential-scale water tanks - a little-investigated component of Maya water management by commoners versus the more powerful and visible elites, says Brewer.

LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that collects high-resolution imagery shot from an airplane at 30,000 points per second, allowing researchers to map ground surfaces through dense vegetation. The technology saves a significant amount of time in the field, compared with trekking through forests to locate these small depressions at ground level.

The specific area under study is the ancient Maya site of Yaxnohcah, located in the Central Yucatan. "One of the unique aspects of this particular site is that it appears to date a little earlier than many regional sites of the same size in terms of displaying significant cultural activity," says Brewer. "So, we're still at ground level with our discoveries here."

Although the LiDAR analysis revealed more than 100 potential small reservoirs scattered throughout the site, only five have been excavated so far. Brewer says three out of the five reservoirs appear to be water features based on the archaeological evidence.

"We looked specifically at small depressions that were adjacent to residential structures, and we could assume they were household accessible," explains Brewer. "We found modified reservoirs, a limestone quarry that would have served as a resultant water tank, and a depression that appears to have served as an area for localized horticulture or agriculture.

"Based on recovered ceramic material, we know that some of these residential-scale reservoirs at Yaxnohcah date to the Middle Preclassic period (around 900 B.C.). We also have evidence from the soil layers that shows these systems were lined with a thick, clay 'plaster' that would help them hold water," Brewer says. "The geology in this region is all limestone, so if they hadn't been modified or sealed in some way, the water would have just seeped through them."

Agricultural communities also would have needed water to farm maize, cotton and possibly even tubers, so Brewer says future examination will explore how the water features would have been used for agricultural purposes. "If the reservoir was elevated, it could have released water into agricultural fields for irrigation. If it was lower, it could have collected runoff from a paved surface or a field. We're still examining the elevation profiles."

Brewer adds that one of the depressions appears to have originated as a quarry for limestone, which would have been used in construction at the adjacent residential complex. Although not lined with clay, the resulting limestone tank floor could opportunistically hold water for the extended annual period that the region received very little rainfall - extremely useful for agricultural purposes if not for drinking water.

Brewer says investigating how the commoners existed at these ancient sites is becoming a growing trend in research among archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers.

EurekAlert. 2016. “New discoveries into how an ancient civilization conserved water”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 8, 2016. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uoc-ndi040816.php

Friday, May 20, 2016

When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead? Part 2

Holy Ground

The Church of England gets more say than the Druids. When human remains are excavated from land under the Church’s jurisdiction, religious as well as secular laws apply.

The Church takes the theological position that “there is little in the Bible to suggest that Jesus had great concern for the human body and its remains after physical death,” adding that past and current Christian theologians are in agreement that “at the resurrection there is no literal reconstitution of the physical body.”

However, the Church also believes that, “The phrase ‘laid to rest’, being common parlance for burial, implies that remains should not be disturbed. The finality of Christian burial should therefore be respected even if, given the demands of the modern world, it may not be absolutely maintained in all cases.”

Indeed, in its perceived role as safeguarding the wishes of those laid to rest, the Church opposes the cremation of historic human remains that have been excavated. Although it is currently the most common means for the disposition of the dead in England, cremation was abhorred by Christians prior to the late 19th century.

Today, the Church permits the archaeological excavation of human remains with the provision that they will be reinterred in consecrated ground after the scientific analyses are completed.

But are scientific studies of excavated human remains ever truly completed? This is the most contentious issue in bioarchaeology. Some researchers view repatriation and reinterment as the willful destruction of scientific information.

“If you do not repatriate, and if you keep remains for years, then future generations will have the opportunity to learn from those remains,” says Mays. “If they are reburied, you’ll be denying that opportunity to future generations. That is ethically undesirable.”

Mays points to some of his own recent research as an example. He was studying human remains—three adults and 50 infants—excavated in 1921 from a Roman site in England. The archaeologists at the time focused on the adult skeletons, because the research question of the day was to look at the history of British populations. 

“They weren’t able to think of a use for the infant skeletons, but nevertheless they had the foresight not to rebury them, to keep them in a museum,” says Mays. “So I could come along 90 years later and do some DNA analysis on them, which, in fact, helped address some compelling archaeological questions.”

Mays was interested in the gender of the infant skeletons, who had been deliberately killed at birth. Quite a lot of societies practiced female-related infanticide. Was this also true of the Roman period?

“We found that there was a fairly balanced sex ratio between the males and the females,” says Mays. “So it really argues against this idea of female-leading infanticide in Roman Britain. We wouldn’t have learned that at all if these remains had been reburied. “

Mays says that even temporary reinterment speeds up the destruction of human skeletons. “If you imagine bones that have been laying for centuries undisturbed in soil, they reach a kind of equilibrium with the soil around them, so the deterioration tails off, as it were,” he says. “If you dig them up, and then rebury them in another place, you get this fresh round of deterioration.”

Archaeologists and the Church have found at least one way to compromise: Some bone collections are now stored in churches that are no longer in use. This fulfills the archaeologists’ desire to avoid reburial, while meeting the Church’s requirement that human remains be returned to sacred ground.

Next of Kin

For Native Americans—who have endured decades of having their ancestors’ looted remains displayed at museums and kept in storage—repatriation is both a religious and human rights issue.

“They do not ethically have the right to study ancestors of people who haven’t given their consent,” says Rae Gould, an anthropologist and repatriation representative for her tribe, the Nipmuc Nation in Massachusetts. “Just the idea that Native American ancestors are put in a category of being less than human, or being archaeological specimens, is beyond disrespectful.”

Since 1990, the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has required publicly funded agencies and institutions to return human remains held in their collections to culturally affiliated, federally recognized Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian groups.

“I introduced this legislation because I feel it does not simply address the return of Native American remains to their rightful resting place, or the matter of the protection of Indian graves in the future,” said Rep. Morris Udall, who served 30 years in Congress, when he gave a floor speech supporting the law. “It goes far beyond that. It addresses our civility, and our common decency. In the larger scope of history, this is a very small thing. In the smaller scope of conscience, it may be the biggest thing we have ever done.”

Some within the bioarchaeology community opposed NAGPRA, notably the renowned archaeologist and anthropologist Clement Meighan. He wrote a lengthy essay in 1993, “Burying American Archaeology,” that encapsulated his colleagues’ grievances. He attributed the rise of the repatriation movement to “New Age” sensibilities and “political correctness.” 

He also defended the scientific value of the “large quantity of bones tucked away in museum drawers and cabinets,” since advances in forensic science were continuously creating opportunities to extract greater amounts of data. 

“Even if it were true that the bones, once examined, need never be studied again,” repatriating bones removed any chance of correcting errors later, he said. 

In 2010, new NAGPRA rules allowed for the repatriation of culturally unaffiliated remains as long as they were found on tribal lands. That means bones that are thousands of years old—uniquely valuable in studying North American prehistory and human migration—could be taken from the scientific community and given to tribes that might not have a proven direct ancestral connection to the remains. 

“The idea of repatriating 10,000-year-old skeletal remains to the group that happens to be living in the vicinity where those remains were found is simply preposterous,” said Arizona State University paleontologist Geoffrey Clark, upon hearing of the new rules. 

Gould says that institutions have used arguments such as Clark’s to delay repatriation. “The heart of the law is demonstrating cultural affiliation, so they’ll tell us that these ancestors are 2,000 years old, therefore, they’re not related to you, therefore, we’re not going to repatriate them.”

From Gould’s perspective, even “4,000 to 5,000 years ago is not really that far back,” given that indigenous peoples have lived continuously in North America for more than ten thousand  years. 

As vindication, she cites the case of Kennewick Man—the 8,500-year-old skeletal remains found in Washington State in 1996. The results of DNA tests published in 2015 in Nature confirmed that Kennewick Man is “closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide” and that genetic comparisons show “continuity with Native North Americans over at least the last eight millennia.” The closest genetic match came from the Colville tribe living along the Northwest coast.

“Scientists were pushing for more science,” Gould says. “We got it for them.”

A more recent case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three scientists at the University of California sought to block the repatriation of a pair of 9,500-year-old skeletons—among the oldest ever found in the Americas. 

The Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, representing 12 tribes, filed a claim for the remains in 2006, prompting a decade-long court battle that ended when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing the decision of the lowers courts in favor of repatriation to stand. 

However, a spokesperson for the committee hasn’t ruled out letting the scientists study the bones. “These things we need to discuss,” he told the New York Times. “We want to be the ones who tell our own story.”

Larry Zimmerman is optimistic that these “bone wars” are already becoming a thing of the past. “In another couple of decades it won’t be an issue anymore,” he says. “The people who were fighting over repatriation will have been dead and buried, me included. I see so many of our younger bioarchaeologists who are just coming up who understand the issue. They are quite willing to work with Native Americans and many of them have been provided with more access than they ever imagined.”

Still, Gould wonders whether she will see the issue resolved in her lifetime. According to a recent report of the NAGPRA Review Committee, “74 percent of federal collections ready for repatriation are now back with tribes. But that number represents less than 10 percent of all Native American remains in museum and federal collections.” 

Worse, a Government Accountability Office report on NAGPRA compliance decried “poor curation practices by agencies and repositories, in general, along with poor historical records and documentation.” Human remains have been discovered in boxes stored in rooms with leaky roofs, or wrapped in old newspapers.

Why Do We Care?

Why do we care so much about the rights of the dead, who, by virtue of their non-living status, have no apparent opinion on the matter?

Some academics portray the issue as one of religion versus science. That’s certainly true in many cases, but not all of them. Those uncomfortable with the excavation of human remains don’t always express their distaste in religious terms. Even the Church of England, which concedes there is no theological basis for the protection of human remains, nevertheless feels obliged to safeguard them. 

Dan Davis says time is often the defining issue: “Time is the big washcloth that wipes away distinctions between uncovering a modern, 100-year-old body from a cemetery versus one that’s from 2,300 years ago.”  

Yet, he adds, time is relative in human affairs. The bodies in the wreckage of the Titanic, he notes, recently crossed the one-century threshold to be deemed “historic,” but “it still has this aura of being a grave site.” And, among peoples who see an unbroken continuity in their history, time measured in millennia has little meaning. 

For others, the treatment of human remains taps into historic injustices; an extension of racist, colonialist policies inflicted on indigenous peoples. 

“Particularly for groups that are currently or who historically have been marginalized and exploited, I think that we really do have to give greater weight to their wishes than to scientific endeavors,” DeWitte says. “They’re the reason why I work with dead Europeans and I don’t do work with the Native American populations.”  

Our views are also shaped by tradition. “I think that the idea [that] the only way to respect the dead is to place remains in a hole in the ground and cover them up is something that is very strong in Western European culture,” says Simon Mays. “It’s probably to do with the idea that you own a burial plot and the remains should stay there in perpetuity. This is something that only became widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.” 

Above all else, when discussing human remains, the terms that most commonly emerge are “respect” and “decency.” How we deal with the dead is how we gauge our own humanity. It’s why, depending on one’s perspective, the excavation of the dead can be seen as an act of desecration or as an act in service to those who might otherwise be forgotten.

Strauss, Mark. 2016. “When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160407-archaeology-religion-repatriation-bones-skeletons/

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead? Part One

Human bones tell stories that would otherwise be lost to history. But archaeologists are increasingly confronted with demands to let past generations rest in peace.

Dan Davis watched on a video screen as an underwater robot explored a ship that had sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea. He was stunned to see bones appear in the wreckage. 

Davis, a marine archaeologist specializing in ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks, wasn’t used to encountering human remains. Ancient ships were typically open decked, so most doomed sailors floated away when their vessels sank; and in any case, skeletons rarely survive long in the ocean environment. According to Davis, out of 1,500 ancient shipwrecks, only a few have been found to contain human remains.

Davis imagined the possibilities. “We could do scientific testing, maybe some DNA tests, to help us learn about these people who are virtually historically invisible,” he says. 

Davis later shared the video with his Greek archaeology students at Luther College. 

“Some of them said, ‘Oh, you should just leave those bones alone. Don’t recover them,’” Davis recalls.  “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! What? These poor students are misguided.’”

The expedition was unable to recover the bones, but, Davis got to thinking more about the question, and he did some research on how the ancient Greeks viewed the issue. “In Athens and other ancient cities, it was a crime to mess with human remains,” he says. 

Should that matter? Variations of the debate in Davis’ classroom are playing out across the United States and around the world. News stories about archaeologists unearthing and studying human remains inevitably prompt accusations of “grave robbing.”  “These people were buried with love and dignity by the people who cared most about them,” wrote one commentator on Facebook, responding to a National Geographic article about human remains excavated in Jamestown. “What gives anyone the right to dig them up and put their skeletons on display?” 

The objections often stem from religious beliefs and historic grievances, but the outrage is also driven by perceptions of indecency—the discomfort of disturbing a person’s final resting place to satisfy idle curiosity.

Yet “bioarchaeologists,” people who specialize in the analysis of human remains, often defy the stereotype of emotionally aloof scientists who treat skeletons as inanimate artifacts, no different than clay shards or stone tablets. 

These researchers are deeply aware that they are handling what was once a living person. They see themselves not only as scholars of the past, but as speakers for the dead, giving a voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost to history. 

Still, ethical debates continue. At what age should a skeleton be considered prehistoric, or even just historic? 

Does it matter what the dead person’s religious beliefs were, or whether those religious beliefs still exist today? (See The Story of God with Morgan Freeman to explore how religions past and present deal with death.)

And there’s the most heated issue of all: the debate over repatriating and reburying human remains that are now held in museums or research labs. 

Some bioarchaeologists are staunchly opposed to returning bones to the ground. Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire, writes, “The destruction of human remains prevents future study; it is the forensic equivalent of book burning, the willful ruin of knowledge.” 

Native Americans blame such entrenched views for the slow repatriation of their ancestors’ remains, despite federal legislation mandating their return. The bones of thousands of individuals remain in storerooms—in one instance, an infant’s skeleton was found in an oatmeal box. 

Bioarchaeologists tend to agree that the days when “the pursuit of scientific knowledge” could be cited as the sole justification for studying human remains are at an end. 

“We’ve come to a point in American society that we recognize we do science for people,” says Larry Zimmerman, a bioarchaeologist at Indiana University, who has long been a proponent for the protection and repatriation of Native American remains. “Their concerns sometimes have to come first, even if it’s a matter of sacrifice from the scientific community’s side.”

Grave Concerns

Skeletons are time capsules that preserve the details not only of human lives, but of the era in which people lived. They can reveal the types of labor people performed. DNA analysis can help identify remains and reconstruct family trees or even patterns of human migration. Spectroscopic studies can tell us what people ate—and, by extension, what types of fauna and flora existed at the time. 

Bones also let us diagnose diseases such as the Black Death, which killed 20 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Over the past decade, Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Carolina, has made regular visits to the Museum of London, where she examines their collection of skeletons excavated from a mass grave of plague victims buried beneath East Smithfield Road.

Her studies have implications for present-day epidemics. “A lot of people have assumed the Black Death killed indiscriminately,” DeWitte says. “It didn’t matter how healthy people were or if they were rich or poor, male or female—none of those things would’ve mattered.”

But the skeletons told a different story. DeWitte looked for occurrences of “non-specific stress markers”—signs of illness and malnutrition than can be found in bones and teeth. For instance, excess bone growth on a tibia or shinbone can indicate soft-tissue infections on the leg that spread to the bone.

Lines on the teeth can also record childhood illnesses. If a child is malnourished or suffering from a disease, enamel formation stops temporarily. But, if the child survives, it begins again. 

DeWitte concluded that people who already had been in poor health were more likely to die in the Black Death epidemic than healthy people. The mortality rate was also higher among older people than the young.

DeWitte’s work suggests ways to target efforts in future epidemics. “We should expect there to be some variation in risks based on biological and also social factors,” she says.

Although scholars have praised her work, a history professor wrote a journal article singling out DeWitte and her colleagues as “grave-robbing scientists.”

DeWitte believes this notion persists, in part, because of archaeology’s unseemly past. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeology was largely the provenance of wealthy explorers with a “finders-keepers” ethos and disreputable people hired by museums to acquire artifacts—including human remains—for their collections.  

Archaeology was also tainted by racism, as 19th century scholars sought Native American remains to prove their theories about the inferiority of non-whites. Graves were robbed, and the recently dead were taken from battlefields. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that professional archaeologists established comprehensive ethical guidelines.

Present-day bioarchaeologists, DeWitte says, strive to uphold those ethics. And, she argues, her chosen profession makes a unique contribution by correcting history’s oversights.  

“Written records are mostly biased towards wealthy individuals and men, especially if we’re talking about the medieval period,” she says. “If we want to know anything about the experience of women, children, and poor people, very often the only way we can get at that is by looking at skeletal data.”

The Druids Strike Back

Simon Mays, a British archaeologist and human skeletal biologist, tells a story about a phone call he got when somebody heard a rumor about an excavation in Yorkshire:

“Did you dig up my ancestors?”

No, responded Mays. 

“Oh, what a shame. We were hoping to learn something about our family history from you.” 

By and large, the British public supports the excavation of historic human remains. (Read "London's Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History")  But that view varies from country to country. In Israel, during the 1990s, ultra-orthodox Jews—who believe the human body should never be desecrated—rioted against the excavation and study of human remains. The law in Israel now stipulates that any Jewish remains found at an archaeological site must be transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial. 

Native Hawaiians believe bones are a connection between the spirit world and the physical world. But southern Europeans, Mays says, rarely oppose the excavation of human remains, since bodies are typically buried just long enough for them to decay, at which point the bones are removed from graves and placed in ossuaries.

Ultimately, when assessing the ethics of recovering human remains, the key issue, according to Indiana University’s Zimmerman, is whether “the stakeholders have a level of say in it, beyond just the stakeholders who are in the scientific community.” 

Or, put another way, since the dead have no say in the matter, researchers are obliged to consult those who have the closest ties to the departed.

That principle is reflected in laws adopted by U.S. states for regulating archaeological digs. While specific details vary, permission to excavate historic human remains generally requires obtaining permission from descendants, culturally affiliated groups, and other “interested parties.” Those same individuals also have a say in the disposition of the remains.  

England has adopted similar guidelines to determine when bones should be repatriated. That policy was put to an unusual test in 2006, when the Council of British Druid Orders demanded the reburial of prehistoric skeletons on display at a local museum in Wiltshire.

The skeletons, between 4,000 and 5,700 years old, were excavated at a Neolithic enclosure at Windmill Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Druids consider the skeletons to be their ancestors and argued that placing them in a museum was a violation of their beliefs. 

“Humanity is, after all, an integral part of nature, and to isolate any part of it in a clinically clean and static environment, to preserve it, is to deny the sanctity of nature: to block its course,” declared one Druid priest. 

Much to the surprise—and dismay—of several British scholars, the authorities responsible for repatriation took the Druid claims seriously, and agreed to place a moratorium on research requiring destructive sampling of the bones until the case had been settled. 

After four years of deliberation, the claim was denied. The Druid groups “don’t bear any stronger genetic relationship to the remains than anybody else in Britain, so they had no special links,” says Mays.

Part 2 tomorrow

Strauss, Mark. 2016. “When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160407-archaeology-religion-repatriation-bones-skeletons/

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Speaking two languages for the price of one

In everyday conversation, bilingual speakers often switch between languages mid-sentence with apparent ease, despite the fact that many studies suggest that language-switching should slow them down. New research suggests that consistency may allow bilingual speakers to avoid the costs that come with switching between languages, essentially allowing them to use two languages for the price of one.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Our findings show that if bilinguals switch languages at the right times, they can do it without paying any cost," says study author Daniel Kleinman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This goes against both popular belief and scientific wisdom that juggling two tasks should impair performance. But our results suggest that multi-tasking may be easier than it seems as long as people switch at the right times."

Kleinman and co-author Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego speculated that people may show different outcomes in the lab than they do in everyday conversations because lab studies typically require bilingual speakers to switch languages on command and at times when those switches are likely to be inefficient. If bilingual speakers were allowed to choose a language for a particular object or concept and then stick with it, the researchers hypothesized, they might be able to switch between languages without slowing down.

In other words, consistently using English to say "dog" and Spanish to say "casa" over the course of a conversation that toggles between the two languages could eliminate the costs that typically come with language-switching.

Across two studies, a total of 171 bilingual university students completed a picture-naming task. The participants, who spoke English and Spanish fluently, were presented with a series of black-and-white drawings of objects organized in four separate blocks.

In one block, the participants were instructed to name each picture in whichever language was easier and to stick with that language every time that particular picture appeared. In another block, the participants were given a cue that told them which language to use in naming each picture. And in the remaining two blocks, the participants were instructed to use only English or only Spanish to name the objects displayed.

The results showed that consistency is key: Participants didn't slow down when switching languages between pictures as long as they consistently used the same language each time a particular picture appeared.

Switching languages between pictures noticeably slowed their response times, however, when they followed cues telling them which language to use to name each picture, or if they did not follow the instruction to be consistent about which language they used for each picture.

But additional findings suggest that bilingual speakers don't necessarily use consistency as a strategy on their own. When participants were free to choose which language to use, language-switching led to slower response times because most speakers didn't consistently associate each picture with a particular language.

These findings show that even experienced language-switchers have room for improvement.

"Although bilinguals have been switching between languages for their entire lives, the strategies they use to decide when to switch may vary depending on context," Kleinman explains. "While speakers may sometimes adopt switching strategies that incur costs, these studies show that all bilinguals can be redirected quickly and easily to switch for free."

Science Daily. 2016. “Speaking two languages for the price of one”. Science Daily. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160407083739.htm

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bone weathering helps determine time of death

Researchers have made great strides in determining how long a human body has been dead by looking at characteristics of bones subjected to the elements. In one of the first studies looking at freezing and thawing specifically, researchers have concluded that freeze-thaw cycles are an important component of bone weathering (the chemical and physical breakdown that bones undergo when exposed).

These findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, may one day assist in crime scene investigations.

According to the researchers, ages of older skeletons (such as mummies) are routinely determined with carbon dating, and ages of more recent skeletons lying on the ground surface at outdoor crime scenes often rely on the state of decomposition, including the species of insects found at the scene. Determining the age of skeletons in-between proves more of a challenge, relying on techniques such as bone weathering.

In this study Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) researcher James Pokines, PhD, repeatedly subjected a large sample of bones to freezing and thawing cycles over the course of three months. At intervals, the bones were examined under microscopes for evidence of cracking.

"Imagine what happens to the paint on your house," explains Pokines, who is the corresponding author and assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM. "When exposed to the elements, it bleaches, cracks, dries-out and flakes away, exposing what is underneath. A similar process occurs in bones that have been left outdoors." By mapping out the process of how bones decay, Pokines hopes to help law enforcement answer the question, "How long has this skeleton been lying outside?"

Researchers found that repeatedly freezing and thawing the bones caused some definite progression of cracking, but, the progression was not extreme. Pokines suspects that repeated wetting-drying of bones may play a larger role in bone weathering than freezing-thawing alone. "We hope that other scientists will perform similar research into what makes bones weather; including the freeze-thaw process, but also wetting-drying, warming-cooling, degreasing, mineral crystallization from ground water, and solar radiation."

Phys.org. 2016. “Bone weathering helps determine time of death”. Phys.org. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-bone-weathering-death.html

Monday, May 16, 2016

Stone Age Humans Brought Deer to Scotland by Sea

Stone Age humans populated the Scottish islands with red deer transported “considerable distances” by boat, said researchers Wednesday who admitted surprise at our prehistoric ancestors’ seafaring prowess.

DNA analysis revealed that deer on Scotland’s northermost islands were unlikely to have come from the closest and seemingly most obvious places — mainland Scotland, Ireland or Norway, said a study in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Our results imply that Neolithic humans were transporting deer considerable distances, by sea, from an unknown source” some 4,500-5,500 years ago, co-author David Stanton of Cardiff University told AFP by email.

“These results are surprising… The evidence suggests that we have misunderstood our relationship with this species,” he added.

“Perhaps humans managed deer, having long-term relationships with herds that allowed them to plan, capture and transport deer on longer voyages.”

It was known that late Stone Age humans had transported cattle, sheep and pigs by boat, but not large wild animals, and not over such vast distances.

Red deer, said Stanton, were central to life in Britain from the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago to the arrival of the first late Stone Age farmers.

The animals provided crucial nourishment, skins, sinew, bones and antlers — used to till the soil, among other things.

Scientists say all animals, including deer, found on the islands today must have been introduced by seafaring people. The islands were covered in ice during the last “glacial maximum”, a period of deep Earth freeze, and have since been separated from each other and the mainland by spans of ocean too wide for deer to swim.

It was therefore thought the deer must have been brought from nearby, possibly from mainland Scotland, boat-hopping from island to island with short spurts of swimming in between.

But DNA analysis of Neolithic deer bones found that those on the most distant, northern islands, were genetically dissimilar to deer from Britain, Ireland, the western European mainland or Scandinavia.

Discovery News. 2016. “Stone Age Humans Brought Deer to Scotland by Sea”. Discovery News. Posted: April 6, 2016. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/animals/stone-age-humans-brought-deer-to-scotland-by-sea-160406.htm

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Yucatan archaeology races to keep up with development

Mexican archaeologists said Tuesday they are racing to keep up with development on the Yucatan peninsula as suburbs of the colonial city of Merida swallow Maya settlements.

Fed by an increasing number of U.S. retirees, some Merida suburbs are expanding at a rate of 7 percent a year, especially to the north and south of the city, which was known in the Mayan era as T'Ho.

Yucatan state has over 3,500 known archaeological sites but just 22 government archaeologists. While attention focuses on big ruins like Chichen Itza or Uxmal, only about 17 of the state's sites are even open to the public.

"There is never going to be enough money to recover the 3,500 sites in Yucatan, impossible," said Jose Huchim, an archaeologist who works for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the INAH. One option is to leave the sites undisturbed.

"As long as humans don't touch the relics, they will last thousands of years," Huchim said. "Let's not eat all the cake at once. I'm of the opinion we have to leave something for the future generations of archaeologists."

But sometimes a housing development is planned on top of a ruin site, often a smaller Maya satellite settlement that might contain dozens of houses and a few raised temple platforms.

When that happens, archaeologists have to rush in to save what they can, often marking off spaces to conserve some foundations at the site while removing relics like pottery and jewelry for further study or display.

Huchim recalls one out-of-state developer who bought a piece of land on the outskirts of Merida hoping to build houses—and found out there were the foundations of about 170 Mayan-era structures on the property, including 10 temple platforms. He persuaded the businessman to preserve some of the temple mounds as part of the parks area of the housing development, and the developer got so excited he decided to give Maya names to the streets.

"This could be part of the 'plus' for your development," Huchim said he told the builder.

When they have to save artifacts, archaeologists do "rescues"—quick digs before commercial construction begins. They say they have turned up fascinating details about daily life among Maya commoners, precisely because they have been digging in the suburbs. Colonial-era development in Merida's center, founded in 1542, erased many of the Maya vestiges from the area's thin soil. But on the outskirts, remains have been found dating from about 900 B.C. to about the time of the Spanish conquest.

INAH archaeologist Luis Pantoja said digs on the outskirts have turned up the foundations of commoners' houses, which were at first round, then square or rectangular. The "traditional" Mayan oval-shaped house, which is believed to maximize airflow in the extremely hot climate, wasn't developed until later.

Only the stone foundations of the ancient houses are left, because the upper part of the homes were made of perishable materials like wood, mud, reed or thatch.

Rafael Burgos, another government archaeologist, noted that as difficult as the situation is in Merida, at least the city government requires an archaeological survey before building permits are granted. In the rest of the state, such rules often don't exist.

"Many of the building projects in outlying towns aren't even reported" to the government history institute, Burgos said. The experts rely on the awareness of Yucatan's residents, many of them modern-day Mayas, to alert authorities.

"We learn about it from members of the communities, who make anonymous calls to report: 'They're building at such-and-such a site'," Burgos said.

Stevenson, Mark. 2016. “Yucatan archaeology races to keep up with development”. Phys.org. Posted: April 5, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-yucatan-archaeology.html

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Recognize the value of social science

If the science community is serious about integrating social science into its thinking and operations — and statements by everyone from Nature and the UK government to Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society, indicate that it is — then we social scientists must do more to make this happen.

Our input is necessary because, too often, the reach and influence of research is discovered only with hindsight. Lessons are 'learned' only after the social implications of new domains of science and technology have provoked controversy or challenged existing norms. Social science can help to predict these implications and plan for them. It can also help to frame science questions to make them more sensitive to economic, cultural and social factors.

Scientists have their own hands-on understanding of how the science and innovation system operates, and what demands it faces. Why should they pay attention to social-science contributions, particularly when these are not yet well known and understood across the scientific community?

Social scientists understand that many colleagues in the hard sciences are sceptical of what we can offer. We know that we need to make our contribution more widely understood and appreciated. This week, social scientists in Britain take what we hope will be a significant step.

We (including myself and colleagues Robin Williams of the University of Edinburgh and Fred Steward of the Policy Studies Institute in London) are launching a professional association, with an explicit goal of engaging with science and science policy. Researchers in the social sciences have built links with specific scientific constituencies, but have failed to engage at a more general level.

We argue that it is especially important to do this now, because all researchers are being urged to explore and make explicit how their work has reach and influence in the wider world. And we want to make clear that social science — especially science, technology and innovation studies (STIS) — should be integral to science and does not merely handle external issues, for example by addressing 'public acceptance'.

Our new body is called the Association for Studies in Innovation Science and Technology-UK(AsSIST-UK). It has been built over 18 months and has a strongly interdisciplinary membership of more than 200 people. Unlike similar bodies in mainland Europe and the United States, which tend to look inwards to the academic discipline, it is intended to take our methods and thinking into the broader world.

One priority is to lobby for social-scientist involvement in the earliest stages of research projects, when emerging ideas are most open to discussion. We want to work at national and regional levels, from the UK government and research-funding councils to professional science bodies and the devolved governments in the four UK nations, which are experimenting with science and technology policies.

Science and society are not discrete, as some researchers seem to assume. Knowledge — about the impacts of climate change, for example — gets its value and usefulness only when rooted in particular contexts. This makes it diverse and contested. From the perspective of a social scientist, the challenge for researchers in genomics, for instance, is not to 'communicate' their ideas and discoveries to a homogenous 'public': it is to realize that they are members of that public and act accordingly. Change in the direction of science cannot be viewed from a single position. It is relative and depends on the position of the observer, and on the interplay of diverse knowledge communities.

Social science can help in interrogating the evidence and assumptions behind theoretical models (say, for biomarkers of ageing). It can assess how technical standards are defined and applied to a new field, and how innovation shapes the way in which clinical trials are designed and conducted (as my own research has done in regenerative medicine). Models, standards and trials all rely on agreement about appropriate evidence and how it is used. This allows for fruitful discussion across the sciences and the early recognition that knowledge is provisional and may change — important if a project is to have scope for future debate.

One of the first tasks for our new group is to review the research and activities of our members, to identify their existing impacts on science (through specific projects and membership of national bodies) and how they have engaged more broadly with the wider scientific community. To increase that engagement, we aim to identify and share examples of good practice. We want to bring together STIS expertise in diverse fields such as biomedicine, energy and data analytics to inform research-council programmes — including the current move towards interdisciplinary doctoral training across the social and natural sciences. And we want to act as a national body that can contribute to specific fields of science from their earliest days onwards. Social scientists should help to plan for the possibilities of gene editing, for example, and anticipate the challenges posed by the diversification and growth of biobanks.

To make the most of science, we must know how science operates, and understand the factors that influence it. Social scientists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have been studying that for more than 50 years. We are ready and able to help.

Webster, Andrew. 2016. “Recognize the value of social science”. Nature. Posted: April 7, 2016. Available online: http://www.nature.com/news/recognize-the-value-of-social-science-1.19693

Friday, May 13, 2016

Lost Wright Brothers' 'Flying Machine' Patent Resurfaces

The patent file for the Wright brothers' original "Flying Machine" has returned to the National Archives, after being misplaced 36 years ago.

The long-missing patent paperwork filed by aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright on March 23,1903, included a diagram of their invention, their petition for patent approval, the patent registry form, and their patent oath, affirming that "they verily believe themselves to be the original, joint inventors" of the so-called "Flying Machine." \

The Wright brothers didn't wait for the patent to be granted to take flight. On Dec. 17, 1903, the brothers lofted their flying machine into the air for 12 seconds, flying 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. And a little more than three years after filing, the Wright brothers were granted their patent: number 821,393, assigned on May 22, 1906.

A wrong turn for the Wright patent

For years, the files resided in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the federal repository for historically important U.S. documents.

But more than three decades ago, the Wright patent took a wrong turn, embarking on an unexpected journey that diverged from its proper place for quite a bit longer than expected. In 1978, the National Archives lent a number of documents — including the Wright brothers' patent — to the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum, for an aviation exhibit commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first successful flight of a manned, powered, heavier-than-air craft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Archivists marked the documents as returned in 1980, but a later search failed to locate the patent, and it was added to the official list of missing files. Other important entries currently on the National Archives "Missing Historical Documents and Items" list include the patent drawing for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, assorted 19th-century presidential pardons, several telegrams written by President Abraham Lincoln, and a diamond-studded dagger that was given to President Harry S. Truman.

Sometimes, historic documents and artifacts are stolen for private sale, and the National Archives exhorts collectors and dealers to avoid illegally buying, selling or trading in stolen government documents, and to report any that they might encounter to the proper officials.

But important documents can also simply be misplaced. With more than 107,600 cubic feet (3,047 cubic meters) of patent files in storage at the National Archives, containing 269 million pages, it's not very difficult to imagine how a single patent could "disappear" if it were mistakenly filed in the wrong spot.

Which is apparently what happened to the Wright brothers' patent. A National Archives representative revealed in a statement that the patent had been filed in the wrong box, and that the Archival Recovery Program tracked it down on March 22, after a targeted search. A folder holding the missing documents had surfaced in a National Archives storage "cave" in Lenaxa, Kansas, The Washington Post reported on April 2.

After spending more than three decades in hiding, the recovered documents will be getting some long-overdue attention. Several pages will appear in an exhibit at the National Archives Museum's West Rotunda Gallery, beginning May 20, to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright receiving patent number 821,393.

Weisberger, Mindy. 2016. “Lost Wright Brothers' 'Flying Machine' Patent Resurfaces”. Live Science. Posted: April 14, 2016. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/54409-wright-brothers-missing-patent-found.html

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Curse Tablets Discovered in 2,400-Year-Old Grave

Five lead tablets that cursed tavern keepers some 2,400 years ago have been discovered in a young woman's grave in Athens, Greece.

Four of the tablets were engraved with curses that invoked the names of "chthonic" (underworld) gods, asking them to target four different husband-and-wife tavern keepers in Athens. The fifth tablet was blank and likely had a spell or incantation recited orally, the words spoken over it.

All five tablets were pierced with an iron nail, folded and deposited in the grave. The grave would have provided the tablets a path to such gods, who would then do the curses' biddings, according to ancient beliefs.

Dog's ear curse

One of the curses targeted husband-and-wife tavern keepers named Demetrios and Phanagora. The curse targeting them reads in part (translated from Greek):

"Cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios and their tavern and their property and their possessions. I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phanagora, in blood and in ashes, with all the dead…"

"I will bind you in such a bind, Demetrios, as strong as is possible, and I will smite down a kynotos on [your] tongue."

The word kynotos literally means "dog's ear," an ancient gambling term that "was the name for the lowest possible throw of dice," Jessica Lamont, an instructor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore who recently completed a doctorate in classics, wrote in an article published recently in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. The "physical act of hammering a nail into the lead tablet would have ritually echoed this wished-for sentiment," Lamont wrote.

"By striking Demetrios' tongue with this condemningly unlucky roll, the curse reveals that local taverns were not just sociable watering holes, but venues ripe for gambling and other unsavory activities in Classical Athens," Lamont wrote. 

A woman's grave

The grave where the five curse tablets were found was excavated in 2003 by archaeologists with Greece's Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. The grave was located northeast of the Piraeus, the port of Athens. Details of the burial have not yet been published, but Lamont said that excavation reports indicate that it contained the cremated remains of a young woman. Lamont has been studying the curse tablets at the Piraeus Museum, where they are now kept.  

"The way that curse tablets work is that they're meant to be deposited in an underground location," such as a grave or well, Lamont told Live Science. "It's thought that these subterranean places provided a conduit through which the curses could have reached the underworld," and its chthonic gods would then do the curse's biddings, Lamont said. 

The woman buried in the grave might have had nothing to do with the curses or tavern keeping, Lamont said. Perhaps she died at the time when someone wanted to cast these curses on others in the same community, Lamont said.

During the ceremonies surrounding the woman's death, the grave "would have been accessible, a good access point for someone to deposit these tablets underground and bury them," Lamont said.

Who cast the curses?

The writing on the curse tablets is neat and its prose eloquent, suggesting that a professional curse writer created the tablets. "It's very rare that you get something so explicit and lengthy and beautifully written, of course in a very terrible way," Lamont said.

This curse writer, who probably provided other forms of supernatural services — including charms, spells and incantations — was likely hired by someone who worked in Athens' tavern-keeping industry, according to Lamont. "I think it's likely that the person who commissioned them was probably in the world of the tavern himself or herself," possibly a business rival of the four husband-and-wife tavern keepers, Lamont said.

Jarus, Owen. 2016. “Curse Tablets Discovered in 2,400-Year-Old Grave”. Live Science. Posted: April 4, 2016. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/54285-curse-tablets-uncovered-in-greece.html