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Decoding the ancient Egyptians' stone sky map Email

Monday, 05 July 2010 00:00

Just over 2000 years ago, ancient Egyptians carved a map of the sky onto two enormous sandstone blocks and set them into the ceiling of a temple at Dendera, on the west bank of the Nile.

This "Zodiac of Dendera" was blasted from its surrounds by a French treasure hunter in 1821, and is now on display in the Louvre museum in Paris, France. The circular design contains many intricate hieroglyphs, as well as human and animal figures, including several that represent the signs of the zodiac. As Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz discuss in their book The Zodiac of Paris (which I have reviewed, here), it arrived in France to a stormy debate over its meaning and origins.

The book deals with a fascinating period in French history, but it left me wanting to know more about the Zodiac of Dendera itself. Why did the Egyptians create it, and what was it intended to represent?

I called the latest scholar to tackle these questions, Sylvie Cauville of the Centre for Computer-aided Egyptological Research at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She told me that as well as star constellations, the Zodiac of Dendera shows the five planets known to the Egyptians. The configuration of planets depicted occurs only once every thousand years, so working with astrophysicist Eric Aubourg, she has been able to date the map to between 15 June and 15 August in the year 50 BC - just after the death of Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy Auletes, in 51 BC.

Two eclipses are shown too, which Aubourg has identified as the solar eclipse of 7 March 51 BC and a lunar eclipse that occurred on 25 September 52 BC.

Why did the Egyptians go to so much trouble to create this sky map? Cauville reckons the solar eclipse must have occurred in Alexandria at around the same time that Ptolemy Auletes died. So Cleopatra had the Zodiac created to "inscribe for eternity" the moment of his death, or to be more precise, her own rise to power.

"It's a shame that so many fanciful things have been written about the zodiac," she says. "The astronomical reality is so much more beautiful."

There's more about all this in Cauville's 1997 book, Le Zodiaque d'Osiris, and on my blog: see "Mystery of an ancient zodiac" and "Cleopatra and the eclipse".

Courtesy New Scientist

Sinking oil threatens historic Gulf shipwrecks Email

Sunday, 04 July 2010 00:00

TIMBALIER ISLANDS, La.—Not just flora and fauna are getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico's barnacled history of pirates, sea battles and World War II shipwrecks.

Continue reading at

Discovery of U-boat wrecks rewrites the history books Email

Sunday, 04 July 2010 00:00

The final resting places of six German U-boats sunk in the final months of the Second World War's greatest naval conflict have finally been identified. After years of research, maritime experts say their discoveries will force historians to re-evaluate the battle for control of the Atlantic.

Evidence from the wrecks suggests many U-boats were sunk by mines rather than attacks by Allied air and naval forces, as had previously been believed. The findings show coastal minefields were around three times more effective than British naval intelligence gave them credit for. Experts believe their view was distorted, unintentionally, by reports from over-enthusiastic airmen and escort ship commanders who sometimes claimed they had sunk U-boats with depth charges or anti-submarine mortars.

One submarine, the U-400, previously believed sunk by Royal Navy depth charges south of Cork in Ireland, has now been identified off the coast of north Cornwall. The German sub was on its very first patrol in December 1944 when it hit a mine, underwater photography suggests.

Read more: Discovery of U-boat wrecks rewrites the history books

Gold Digger: Beachcombing makes a rewarding passion Email

Saturday, 03 July 2010 00:00

Name: Philip Ocasio
Age: 58
Job title: Tresure hunter
Time on the job: 34 years

Sizzling temperatures are sparking a gold rush this summer. Sunbathers escaping to city beaches to beat the heat drop coins, watches and jewelry every day. This free-for-all draws treasure hunters, like Philip Ocasio, who comb the sands with state-of-the-art metal detectors as well as sand shovels to scoop up the loot that gets left behind.

What got you into treasure hunting?

I started in 1976 when my brother introduced me, and there were no permits back then — you could dig anywhere! Now I hunt with the Bronx Explorer’s Treasure Hunting Club [with a Parks Department permit] in parks and beaches in Queens, in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. I go out whenever I can [when not at his day job as a computer operator].

What equipment do you use?

This is a Minelab Explorer II metal detector. We call it “The Beast” because it’s one of the deepest-seeking machines. It has 28 frequencies that can discriminate between different materials. The whole set [with headphones and shovel] costs about $1,350 brand-new.

How do you know when you’ve found something?

It gives off different tones that you hear with the headphones, like the different rings on your cell phone. I have memorized the sounds for copper, pewter, glass, silver, gold. It keeps you ahead of the game — although you can be out here six hours and you will still dig up at least a thousand pull-tops [from aluminum cans].

Do you ever find anything that’s actually valuable?

I find change, bracelets, medallions, charms. I found a gold coin in Pelham Bay Park on Good Friday that was worth $480. And engagement rings ... it happens all the time on the beach: A girl will start fighting with her fiancé, and she takes off the wedding band or the engagement band and throws it in the water!

Do you find a lot of engagement rings?

I’ve found four, and I’ve returned all of them! The most expensive one was worth over $16,000. [The woman who lost it] asked me to find that for her. It was here all right, at Coney Island, in the shallow water. People wear their jewelry in the water, and they forget that their fingers shrink and rings slide off, or they dive, and the gold chains slip right off their necks.

Why did you return the engagement rings?

You’re tempted to keep it sometimes, but it’s better to give it back. We post some things that we find with identifying marks and inscriptions on the forum online. And every time I returned them, that same day I would find coins, or 12 to 15 rings with a lot of different stones. It’s a spiritual reward. And then to see their faces, the happiness to be reunited with their lost things, is priceless.

What have you kept?

Chains and jewelry. My wife, she has about 80 rings to herself that I’ve gotten over the years. And the coins. The old coins are my favorite. One day, I’m hoping to find that Morgan Liberty silver dollar ...

Are people on the beach supportive of your hobby, or do they consider you a scavenger?

It’s better to keep a low profile and go early in the morning when nobody is there. Some inconsiderate treasure hunters have given everybody a bad name. It’s very important to follow metal-detecting etiquette: Never dig on private property without permission. Be courteous, and always fill in your holes! We’re not losers or scavengers. It’s a hobby and a passion. I’m not looking to make a quick buck. What I love is the mystery. What am I gonna find today?


Buried millions triggers Austrian treasure hunt Email

Friday, 02 July 2010 00:00

(CNN) -- Treasure hunters armed with shovels and metal detectors have descended on a sleepy Austrian town in search of up to €5 million ($6.18 million) said to have been buried there by a fraudulent German financial advisor, says ORF, the Austrian broadcasting corporation.

The fortune is believed to have been buried in aluminium cases by Augustine G. in wooded mountainous areas surrounding the small town of Ebbs near the German border, say police.

Augustine, a 52-year-old whose full name has not been officially released by Austrian or German police, was arrested when an amateur archaeologist found a suitcase containing €150,000 ($185,000) and Augustine's passport buried near Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol region in the west of Austria.

At his 2002 trial Augustine said the €5 million fortune he had embezzled from investors while working for the BDA bank had been taken by the Italian mafia.

During his trial, German police said they suspected he had hidden the rest of the money because they had determined that he had bought several aluminium cases which they believed he might have used to bury the cash.

Augustine was jailed for the maximum six-years and is now living in Bavaria in Germany.

Investigators have now publicized the case in the hope that Augustine will tell them where the money is buried.

The ploy has failed but it has tempted treasure hunters to travel to Ebbs, population 5,000, and dig in the hope of finding their fortune.

Austrian law allows treasure hunters to keep 10 percent of any banknotes they find.

The DBA Bank has also said that anyone who finds the €5 million will be rewarded €660,000 ($815,000).

Jurgen Pettinger, an ORF correspondent based in Innsbruck, told CNN: "When (Augustine) was released from prison BDA hired private detectives who followed him into the woods... it sounds a little crazy, but that's what happened. No one knows the exact amount of money buried."

Augustine told police after his release in 2008 that he had managed to convince Mafia bosses to pay him back €100,000.

The banknotes he handed over to investigators were moldy and wet, according to investigators, Pettinger said.

The treasure hunters at the site include locals, and more people are expected to converge on the area as the story spreads.

"They need to have a lot of luck to find the money, the police told me. There are many locals going there to look and I think in the next days more people will come to look for money. I think some will come from Germany also," Pettinger said.

While treasure hunters will be keeping their fingers crossed, Ebbs may benefit from an influx of visitors. The local tourist office is already planning an official tourist trail, Pettinger said.

Courtesy CNN

Roman Ships and Amphorae Found off Sardinia and Panarea Email

Thursday, 01 July 2010 00:00

Roman ship-discovery season is in full flow, with several finds and explorations announced in the past week.

Yesterday Ansa ran a story about the discovery of a 25-metre merchant ship from the first century AD with its cargo of 500 amphorae containing fruit and vegetables still on board. The ship is said to be in perfect condition and was found south of Panarea, in the group of Aeolian/Lipari islands north of Sicily. The news agency reported that Italy's Maritime Superintendency and the Aurora Trust, an American foundation, were responsible for the find.

Read more: Roman Ships and Amphorae Found off Sardinia and Panarea

Website maps Welsh archaeological finds Email

Wednesday, 30 June 2010 00:00

ARCHAEOLOGICAL finds from across Wales can now be explored at the touch of a button, thanks to a new online database being launched tomorrow.

The website, Archwilio – which means "to explore" – catalogues the historic environment records of Wales, allowing users to freely explore details of thousands of different archaeological sites dating back more than 100,000 years.

Created using information from the four archaeological trusts of Wales, the new service is being launched by Welsh heritage minister Alun Ffred Jones.

Read more: Website maps Welsh archaeological finds

Investor buys out Mel Fisher's family Email

Monday, 28 June 2010 00:00

SEBASTIAN, Fla. - Brent Brisben is a real estate developer from Cincinnati who just became a full- fledged South Florida treasure hunter.


Found Cannons Likely From 1846 Navy Shipwreck Email

Monday, 28 June 2010 00:00

CANNON BEACH, Ore. -- Conservation work at Texas A&M University on the two historic cannons recovered from the beach at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast two yeasr ago is starting to show results - and pointing toward their likely origins as an 1846 Navy shipwreck, officials said Monday.

The cannons, found in February 2008 by teen beachcomber Miranda Petrone while walking at Arch Cape with her father, were recovered from the ocean shore by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, with help from Arch Cape officials.

Arch Cape is on the north Oregon coast between Oswald West State Park and -- quite fittingly -- Cannon Beach.

The cannons were heavily coated by a concretion -- a thick, hard layer of solidified sand and rock -- after being buried deep on the beach for an unknown amount of time.

It is possible the two cannons are the remnants of the 1846 wreck of the USS Shark, a US Navy vessel that sank on the Columbia Bar. Three of the Shark's cannons broke away from the wreck, and one was recovered from the Arch Cape area in 1898. The other two were never found.

After being removed from the beach, the two cannons were temporarily stored in water tanks at a nearby state park. In early 2009, the department signed a contract with the Center for Marine Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Since April 2009, the lab has been soaking the artifacts, to remove corrosive salt. Using hand-held tools, graduate students at the lab began to delicately remove the concretions under the guidance of lab director Jim Jobling.

After months of work, the lab has successfully revealed the metal and wood of one cannon. A symbol resembling a broad arrow is engraved on the cannon's surface, proving the cannon was at one time the property of the British Royal Navy. The early American navy frequently purchased cannon and other gear from overseas in the first half of the 19th century.

"We still don't know exactly where these cannons came from, but the information revealed by the lab is certainly pointing toward the USS Shark theory," said State Archaeologist Dennis Griffin of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

"This is where it gets interesting and exciting. What more clues will we find as the lab continues to work? What questions will be answered, and what new ones will be posed? We'll find out as the lab continues to do their excellent work."

The lab's physical work could still take several years to complete. As the group removes concretions, they then must chemically treat the wood and metal parts to shield them from corrosion.

The cannons will return to Oregon after the lab finishes conservation. A local, state and federal advisory team will make a recommendation to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department about long-term curation and public display of the artifacts.

Courtesy KTVZ Bend