Tag Archives: archaeology

Recent News for archaeology
  • Scientists Re-create 170-year-old Beer
  • Why a South American Mummy Melted into Black Ooze

    With the thriving of tropical diseases in regions they never touched before, an Arctic Sea rapidly melting, at temps that could increase by one degree Fahrenheit per decade, and record breaking storms, all tied in with what could have been a deliberate gag order in Florida earlier this week, it seems like the consequences of climate change are more frightening than anything conjured up by a Hollywood action movie – details that were far more adverse than the 2004 epic The Day After Tomorrow. The latest unpleasant effect of increasing tropical temperatures, however, sounds a bit more like something out of a horror movie than real life – a centuries old mummy, unearthed in the Atacama desert, is brought to a museum in Chile, where the corpse slowly degrades into black ooze – perhaps a sort of dark metaphor for the destruction of human lives from fossil fuel.

    Unfortunately, this is beyond metaphor. Over 100 mummies kept in the Universidad de Tarapacá of Arica, Chile — have begun degrading.

    “The tissue change is reflected in the appearance of dark and bright spots,” explained Marcela Sepulveda, who works as an archaeologist at the Universidad de Tarapacá’s museum.

    These mummies are at least seven millennia old, belonging to a tribe known as the Chinchorro, who once dwelled along the South American coastline, throughout what is now northern Chile and into southern Peru and subsisted primarily on fish from the nearby Pacific Ocean. They were at least as ancient as the Mesopotamians, predating ancient Egyptian kingdoms by thousands of years. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Chinchorro, however, was their practice of mummification, which predated Egypt, and unlike the Egyptians who typically only mummified royalty or members of the priesthood, the Chinchorro preserved all their dead in the same way. It was a sacred rite that did not discriminate against age or economic status.

    The first of these mummies were found in the Arica desert, just inland from Chinchorro civilization, back in 1917, known for being one of the driest places on Earth.

    Hundreds have been unearthed, but although the preservation may have worked well for 7,000 years, that’s beginning to change.

    “The tissue change is reflected in the appearance of dark and bright spots,” explained Marcela Sepulveda, an archaeologist at the Universidad de Tarapacá, by email.

    While the ones in the museum are deteriorating slowly, new mummies are being found in an already damaged state, according to Sepulveda. “When you excavate mummies you can see that degradation is already there,” she said. The cause behind this? An altering climate.

    Arica may no longer be so dry. The city has already reported a rise in both precipitation and humidity in recent years. “Everybody say(s) that here,” she averred. Back in 2013, Christopher Burt, a weather historian also noticed a difference in Arica’s weather, a change evident in weather records kept between 1971 and 2000.
    While this may not be directly attributed to humans, it clearly represents a change in climate that has real implications for human life, however unplanned and small it may seem. Ralph Mitchell, a Harvard microbiologist, teamed with the Chilean archaeologists to find out why the specimens were becoming more decrepit. Many of them were uncovered in the 1980s and only about ten years ago did researchers notice signs of deterioration due to changes in the air. “Our colleagues in northern Chile say it’s terribly obvious that the place is foggy a lot more than it ever was,” Mitchell said.

    Mitchell and two of his Harvard colleagues worked with Sepulveda and one of her fellow researchers to determine if climactic change could be responsible, hypothesizing that a greater amount of airborne moisture was enabling levels of bacteria to grow and initiate deterioration cycles on these ancient relics.

    Testing both samples of mummy skin and also dried pig skin, in alternating conditions of humidity allowed them to analyze the types of microbes that could grow off of the skin. More humid environments were invitations for what Mitchell called bacterial “opportunists” to begin their work – finding nourishment in the dried skin. For their experiment, Mitchell’s team used common variations of skin bacteria.

    While the research has yet to be published, the findings were already publicized by Harvard earlier this week. Mitchell’s work in microbiology has already led him to work on the preservation of historical artifacts – ranging from ancient book manuscripts in museums to the Apollo spacesuits.

    The fate of the Chinchorro mummies are just one example of how climate change can significantly impact world artifacts, emphasizing again how climate change has had a sizable impact on so many branches of science. UNESCO World Heritage Centre has been behind this problem for some time, addressing it back in 2007 in a report to the United Nations, stating that “the impacts of climate change are affecting many World Heritage properties and are likely to affect many more, both natural and cultural, in the years ahead.” Obvious spots already are the Parthenon in Greece which has been affected by air pollution for decades, and also many American landmarks in Virginia and Maryland that may have to deal with rising sea tides.

    The U.S. Agency for International Development has also shared its concern over the impact of climate change on these sites, noting where in India there has been a problem similar to that seen in the Arica desert: “Buildings in the rare medieval city of Leh in Ladakh, India, were constructed in a high altitude desert environment and are ill suited to current increases in precipitation.”

    Archaeology magazine listed a similar example several years ago, occurring in a different climate. The Scythians, an ancient Iranian nomadic culture, left burial mounds in modern Siberia as tribute to their warlords, known as “kurgans.” As the permafrost near Siberia is beginning to thaw for the first time, leaving craters in its wake, these burials are exposed to the air for the first time in centuries, leaving them vulnerable to irreversible cases of deterioration.

    “Historic marbles in the outdoor environment are at risk from climate change,” Mitchell said, naming a prime victim of this extreme weather – many statues from the classical Greek and Roman Age of Antiquity. While many climatologists and politicians are working to save the planet’s future from the dangers of climate change, it becomes easy to forget that much of the past may end up disappearing as well.

    James Sullivan
    James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

    Scientists Re-create 170-year-old Beer

    Back in 2010, some archaeologists investigating a 19th century Baltic Sea shipwreck found something more unusual than treasure in the ship’s cargo – four beer bottles fully intact, with the brew still sealed inside. The amber ale was likely brewed in Belgium back in the 1840s, and was on its way to ports in Scandinavia.

    You might wonder how well it held up, but surprisingly not too badly for being nearly two centuries old. “These bacteria were still alive,” said Brian Gibson, a senior scientist from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Espoo, Finland, not far from where the bottles were discovered. While beer has been around for at least 7,000 years, being brewed by the ancient Mesopotamians in Iraq, and many breweries have worked to recreate beers from the Middle Ages and American colonial era, Gibson believes this batch is likely the oldest bottle of beer in the world that’s still intact.

    Gibson and his colleagues from the University of Munich did an in-depth chemical and microbiological analysis of the beer recently, publishing their work this week in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Despite the inevitable contamination from salt water, they were able to learn quite a bit about the processes of mid-19th century brewing.

    “We have a reasonably good idea about what kind of hops were used, different ones than today,” said Gibson. “These hops would have been harsher, these days they are quite mild. The one surprising thing is the beers were quite mild. The original alcohol level was 4.5 percent, nothing extreme.”

    Shortly after their retrieval from under the sea, the discovery was celebrated with a monumental beer tasting, consisting of beer experts throughout Finland who came to sample the 170-year-old brew. Rather than using a novelty talking bottle opener, they inserted a thin needle through the cork, taking their samples from two different bottles, in order to avoid exposing the contents to open air. However, the taste testing ended up being something of a disappointment in the end. The researchers described the ancient beer’s scent fairly vividly in their paper, as a cross between “autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, Bakelite, burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat with phenolic and sulfery notes.” During its time under the sea, water leaked through the cork of the bottle, rendering the contents about 30 percent salt water.

    Despite how good it looked, the beer was considerably degraded. Like modern beers, this beer had a shelf life – a sell by date that had long since come and gone. Aside from the taste of sea water, the tasters had another issue. According to Gibson: “For the analysis, it was difficult to pick out the original flavors. We invited some of the most experienced beer tasters in Finland. The flavors were from bacterial contamination and not the original flavors of the beer.”

    Therefore, Gibson and his team had to rely on a further chemical analysis to be taken on the sugars that remained, as well as the alcoholic compounds in order to get a better idea of how the beer was made – their primary interest being the practice of pre-Industrial distilleries.

    “We looked at esters, which give beer a fruity or flowery taste. Most of the compounds that we would expect were there. In terms of the fruitiness, probably similar to modern beers. High level of 2-phenyl ethanol which gives a rose or floral aroma.”

    In comparison to modern day craft brews, Gibson said their batch was similar to an amber or lambic style ale, which are normally brewed with wild hops. One of the beers had a fairly pronounced hops flavor, while the other likely had more of a fruit flavor, similar to modern summer beers. In many ways, the ingredients in the beers were fairly similar to modern ones, although it was likely that 19th century beer was much more sour, as they did not have a way of keeping acid-producing bacteria from the brew during fermentation.

    Sam Calagione, who is the founder and president of Dogfish Head brewery in Milton, Del., has already shown great intrigue in their finds, as his company has worked to recreate historic beers since 1998 with recipes obtained from archaeological digs.

    Dogfish’s “Midas Touch,” named for the fabled Greek king, was based on a jar found in a 2,700-year-old tomb uncovered in Turkey, a Bronze Age drink made from barley, saffron and white muscat grapes.

    “The whole idea of looking backward for creative inspiration and culinary adventure is really catching on,” Calagione said. “All (the scientists) can give us is a laundry list of ingredients. It is up to us to come up with a creative recipe. What the alcohol content is, whether it’s filtered or carbonated. We have a lot of creative input in bringing these creative beers back to life.”

    Stallhagen Brewery of the Aaland Islands in Finland has recently imitated the Baltic Sea beer, under the label “1843.” In addition to the beer bottles, the divers also found 150 bottles of champagne in the wreckage.

    James Sullivan
    James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.