The Book of Secrets 2

10. December 2008 18:24

An accurate copy of the Book of Secrets, which the Leonardo3 researchers presented to the Emir of Qatar Here's a quick note following on from my post a couple of weeks ago about the Book of Secrets, a mysterious eleventh-century Arabic manuscript containing descriptions and drawings of more than 30 ingenious devices, including water clocks, automatic calendars and war machines. Researchers at an Italian company called Leonardo3 have spent months deciphering it and creating a virtual interactive version of the book, and the results of their work are on display at the new Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.

I didn't have any pictures of the Book of Secrets at the time, but Massimiliano Lisa, one of the curators at Leonardo3, just emailed me to say that there's now a lot more information available, plus videos and photos of the exhibition, here. The researchers have built two of the devices described in the book, the Clock with Three Characters and the Fortress Demolisher. Many others have been reconstructed virtually, including an automated model that acts out a love fairytale involving some evil snakes!

The designs are beautiful - many of them works of art in their own right. For those of us who can't make it to Qatar, you can buy a copy of the manuscript along with a book and interactive DVD. I know what's going on my Christmas list :-)


Bronze Age stowaway

8. December 2008 22:14


A house mouse

In the late Bronze Age, around the 14th century BC, a richly stocked cargo ship sank off the south coast of Turkey. The wreck, called Uluburun, was rediscovered in 1983, and archaeological expeditions have yielded an astonishing collection of artefacts. She was carrying copper and tin ingots, plus exotic raw materials such as ebony, amber, ostrich eggs, elephant ivory and hippopotamus teeth, while manmade artefacts ranged from pottery, tools and fishing equipment to weapons, jewellery and a gold scarab bearing the name of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The huge wealth of the cargo suggests that this was a royal vessel, perhaps taking gifts to the Pharaohs of Egypt. 

But despite all this treasure, the ship's origin has been a mystery. The items on board came from at least nine different cultures, including Canaanite, Mycenean, Egyptian, Cypriot and Babylonian. All experts have been able to say is that she probably sailed from either the mines of Cyprus, or the coast of Syria or Palestine.

I just saw a lovely little paper in last month's Journal of Archaeological Science that reports a new clue - from a young mouse that went down with the ship. Researchers sifted through loose sand and sediment brought up from the wreck and found a tiny jaw bone, just a centimetre long. Thomas Cucchi of Durham University analysed it and concludes it comes from a house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus). It's pretty certain that mice have spread across the Mediterranean in ships throughout ancient history but this is the earliest direct evidence of it, in fact that only other such stowaway ever found is a brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) from an 18th-century French galleon that sank off Corsica.

What's more, Cucchi reckons that a tooth from the Uluburun stowaway is most similar in shape to those of house mice that live in Syria today. Mice were likely to be brought on board with shipments of grain, so he tentatively concludes that the ship started her journey at the Canaanite port of Ugarit, on the Syrian coast. Ugarit was a huge international trading centre in the 13th and 14th centuries BC, and probably the only place on the Syrian coast where a ship could have taken on board large shipments of both grain and metal ingots.


In memory of Cicero

7. December 2008 17:19

Bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero
Today I thought I'd write a post in memory of Cicero, the high-flying Roman author and politician. He was executed on 7 December 43 BC, by order of Mark Anthony, because Cicero had attacked him in some of his speeches (there's more about his execution here).
Cicero was pretty much the leading intellectual in Rome at the time, and much of what we know about this period comes from his writings. But he was more than a bit self-obsessed (the greatest compliment he paid to his beloved daughter, for example, was that she was "the image of my face and speech and mind"). And although he loved politics, and tried to play with the most powerful figures in Rome  - Pompey, Caesar and Mark Anthony - he had a knack of annoying the wrong person and was banished from Rome more than once. When excluded from politics he wrote about philosophy - he loved Greek philosophy in particular and made it his mission to translate it into Latin for a Roman audience.
It's from these writings that we have the best evidence from ancient texts that the Greeks were making geared astronomical devices like the Antikythera mechanism. For example, in On the Nature of the Gods, he wrote about an instrument "recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the Sun, the Moon and the five planets that take place in the heavens each day and night". He went on to ask: "Suppose someone carried this to Scythia or to Britain. Surely no one in those barbaric regions would doubt that the orrery had been constructed by a rational process?" His point was that just as the sphere had an intelligent creator, so did the universe - an early incarnation of the (mistaken in my opinion) school of thought known as intelligent design.
That's not the only aspect of Cicero's work still relevant today. His persuasive speeches were famous throughout the Roman empire, and a recent article in the Guardian by Charlotte Higgins argues that Barack Obama bases his own speeches on the principles pioneered by Cicero:
"...One of the best known of Cicero's techniques is his use of series of three to emphasise points: the tricolon. (The most enduring example of a Latin tricolon is not Cicero's, but Caesar's 'Veni, vidi, vici' - I came, I saw, I conquered.) Obama uses tricola freely. Here's an example: "Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy ..." In this passage, from the 2004 Democratic convention speech, Obama is also using the technique of 'praeteritio' - drawing attention to a subject by not discussing it. (He is discounting the height of America's skyscrapers etc, but in so doing reminds us of their importance.)..."
If anyone wants to know more about Cicero (or the Greeks and Romans in general) I heartily recommend Robin Lane Fox's book The Classical World. There's colour, passion, drama and lots of detail - it totally immerses you in the stories of these ancient civilisations. 


Mysterious cloud people

6. December 2008 19:21
The huge walls at Kuelap

The Spanish generally get a bad rap for wiping out various indigenous civilisations in central and south America, including the Inca. But the Inca themselves weren't averse to pushing other people around when it suited them. For example, a few decades before the Spanish turned up in the 16th century, the Inca conquered a little-known mountainous people called the Chachapoya, who had inhabited the cloud forest of the Peruvian Andes since the 8th century.

This is my first post for a few days as I've been off exploring deepest Somerset, and one of the most interesting pieces of archaeology news to break while I was away is the discovery of the remains of a town built by the Chachapoya, in the remote Jamalca district of northern Peru. The newspapers are calling the town a "citadel" but that's probably a bit strong. The site covers around 5 hectares and includes a group of stone circular houses, as well as big flat stones that may have been used to grind seeds and wild plants. It's next to an abyss, complete with 500-metre high waterfall, and there are paintings on the cliffside. According to a Peruvian news agency, local people discovered the site, and showed it to Peruvian archaeologists last weekend.

So what do we know about the Chachapoya? Overall they are pretty mysterious because not that many sites from them are known.  The Inca took over their territory in around 1470, but when the Spanish turned up in 1532, the Chachapoya allied with them against the Inca. The Chachapoya lived on for a while under their new masters but were eventually killed off by European diseases such as smallpox and the measles.

According to contemporary Spanish reports, they were taller than other local peoples, and had pale skin (meaning their women were particularly desired by the Inca). This has led to suggestions that they could have been of European descent, but DNA analysis of skeletal remains has ruled this idea out. Apart from their colouring, the Chachapoya are best known for digging tombs in the sides of cliffs. They painted the bones of their dead red, and wrapped them in tight bundles of cloth. They regularly brought these bundles back into town to take part in various rituals and festivals - that's one way to remember the dead I suppose!

The whole region is very remote today and covered with thick forest, but some archaeologists believe that when the Chachapoya lived the area was thriving and densely populated. One of the best-known Chachapoya sites is Kuelap (pictured) - a fortress discovered in 1843. It's bigger than the Inca's famous mountain city Macchu Picchu, but has never been fully explored. Then in 1996, a set of Chachapoya cliffside tombs was found by looters. The authorities mounted a rescue mission and recovered hundreds of funeral bundles and mummies. Results of carbon dating published last year showed that the bundles dated from before the Inca takeover, whereas the mummies dated from afterwards, suggesting that the Chachapoya got the idea of making mummies from the Inca (this paper has some amazing photos by the way, it isn't free access but you can at least see thumbnails here).

According to the Daily Telegraph, the remoteness of the site appears to have protected the site from looters, and the archaeologists have found ceramics and undisturbed burial sites. If it really is untouched that would be very exciting, but I fear it's just too good to be true. Looting - along with unregulated archaeological expeditions and adventure tourism - is a huge problem in this region. A few years ago, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alka estimated that there are a mind-boggling 200,000 unregistered monuments and archaeological sites in Peru, dating from the last four millennia. He believes that all of them, no matter how distant or how overgrown, have been at least partially affected by looting.


Exploring HMS Serapis

29. November 2008 10:37


Defence of Captn Pearson in his Majesty's Ship Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough Arm'd Ship Captn Piercy, against Paul Jones's Squadron, 23 Sept 1779, by Robert Dodd

For anyone who's ever wanted to explore an old wreck, maybe this is the next best thing. A new blog has just started up, detailing dive by dive the archaeological expedition at a wreck thought to be HMS Serapis. The Serapis was involved in one of the fiercest ship-to-ship battles of the American Revolution (pictured). On 23 September 1773 she engaged the US warship Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea, just off the coast of Yorkshire. The British had never been beaten in their home waters and called on the Bonhomme Richard to surrender but her captain, John Paul Jones, cried the now-famous words: "I have not yet begun to fight". He lashed the two ships together, which meant the Serapis couldn't aim her cannons at her opponent. The Bonhomme Richard sprayed the Serapis's deck with gunfire, and even though the US ship ended up sinking, Jones won the fight, and the British handed the Serapis over. She later ended up under the command of the French, who were US allies, and she sank off the coast of Madagascar in 1781, in a fire apparently started when a sailor dropped a lantern into a tub of brandy.

A historian and underwater archaeologist called Dick Swete spent years researching the battle and led a project which in 1999 discovered a wreck off Madagascar that's thought to be the Serapis. Unfortunately he died of malaria not long afterwards but the project continues and archaeologists are now exploring the wreck to confirm that it really is the Serapis and record everything they find. The divers are keeping a blog, and Mike Krivior described the first dive on 21 November. The wreck is about 22 metres down, and so far they've found glass bottles, ceramics, cannons, an anchor and copper sheathing around the hull - all in line with what you'd expect on an 18th-century ship. I'm fascinated by archaeology in general but there's something special about wrecks - I think it's because ships generally sink quite suddenly so you get a snapshot of all the details of daily life, one particular moment frozen in time for anything up to thousands of years. I'm looking forward to the next installment from the Serapis.


Antikythera mechanism lives again

26. November 2008 20:09

As promised a while ago, here's a short video I made of Michael Wright demonstrating his reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism. I'm a journalist not a filmmaker, so please don't judge the quality too harshly! I hope though that this at least gives you a sense of what the Antikythera mechanism was, and what it could do. In all the research I did for Decoding the Heavens, nothing brought this incredible machine to life for me quite like sitting in Michael's workshop, sipping tea while watching those pointers dance gently round the zodiac...



The Book of Secrets

25. November 2008 20:28


Water pump described by al Jazari

This week's opening of the impressive Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, has got a whole lot of press attention, with write-ups in the New York TimesEconomist and elsewhere. The articles describe how the museum, paid for by the oil wealth of Qatar's ruling family, is housed in an elegant building designed by Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei, and contains a huge collection of exquisite art exhibits, from silk wall hangings to jade jewellery.

But they've all missed what I think is the most exciting exhibit of all: a manuscript by an 11th-century Andalusian engineer called al-Muradi. It is tantalisingly called The Book of Secrets about the Result of Thought, and it doesn't disappoint. In it, al-Muradi describes (and draws) more than 30 machines and devices, including war machines, calendars, the earliest Arabic description of water clocks, and complex mechanical figures called automata. His rugged clocks were driven by fast-moving streams and involved elaborate gear systems, sometimes lubricated by mercury - a feature not seen in Europe until the 13th century. Some included epicyclic gearing, in which small wheels are carried around on larger wheels. This is the earliest known description of such complex gearing apart from the Antikythera mechanism; this is a technique the Arabs may have learned from the Greeks, and then built on (for this reason al-Muradi gets a walk-on mention in Decoding the Heavens).

The Book of Secrets is normally held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, but the Italians have lent it to the Qatar museum for a temporary exhibition that lasts until 22 February 2009. The manuscript has been badly defaced, but researchers at Leonardo L3 have spent months studying it using imaging techniques that they have developed to decode Renaissance manuscripts, and have read much more of the Book than has been possible before. They have produced an interactive digital version of the manuscript that is also being displayed in Qatar, along with physical models of two of al-Muradi's machines: The Clock with Three Characters and the excellently-named Fortress Demolisher.

According to Qatar newspaper The Peninsula, other scientific and mathematical manuscripts from the 11th to 15th centuries are also on display in Doha. Scholars from the Islamic world have been responsible for some fundamental scientific and technological advances, as well as preserving much ancient Greek knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. This is too little recognised, and I'm so pleased that the Qatar museum is showcasing Islamic science and technology as well as art.

PS I couldn't find any pictures from the Book of Secrets, so instead here's a picture of a water pump from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, written by the engineer al-Jazari in 1206.


Carbon is forever

23. November 2008 18:39


Earth as seen from Apollo 17

Ancient civilisations have left some pretty amazing things for us to remember them by, from Stonehenge to the great pyramids of Egypt. But what will we be remembered for, thousands of years from now? The internet? The space station? The Large Hadron Collider? Not quite. According to a feature article in the December issue of Nature Reports Climate Change, our longest-lasting legacy is likely to be the carbon dioxide that we're pumping into the atmosphere.

According to Mason Inman, who wrote the article, most popular books and articles on climate change don't say much about the lifetime of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, perhaps just saying "a century or more". But a group of climate scientists is now trying to spread the word that it will be much, much longer than that. Here's how University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer puts it in his book The Long Thaw:

"The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge. Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilisation so far."

He goes on to say that unless we kick our addiction to fossil fuels now, we could force the Earth out of its regular pattern of freezes and thaws - even delaying the next ice age by half a million years.

That's quite a legacy. But does it matter? Of course any change to the climate can have positive as well as negative effects. Unfortunately the predictions for global warming suggest that the planet won't just get gently warmer. As things heat up, it's likely that weather patterns will get more unstable, with more extreme events such as floods, droughts and storms. So while the greenhouse gases we produce will last, all kinds of other things, from glaciers to species to communities, may not. A friend of mine, science journalist Gaia Vince, is about to set off on a journey around the world, to see for herself how global warming is affecting the planet.

She says: "I never saw the dinosaurs, I missed the Mayan civilization - now is a uniquely fascinating time for all sorts of life on Earth and this is a chance to see it. It might be the last chance." She's keeping a blog, called Wandering Gaia, to tell the rest of us about what she finds.


Aristotle's dreams

22. November 2008 13:00


Sleepy men in Tehran, Iran

There's a cute paper coming up in the journal Sleep Medicine about how the ancient Greeks and Romans explained dreams. It's by Joseph Barbera - no not the animator, but a sleep scientist based at the University of Toronto. He explains that the predominant view was that they were messages sent from the gods (although given the surreal nature of most dreams I can't imagine how this was anything other than totally confusing!) But this was also the first time that people started thinking about dreams in a more rational, naturalistic way. A philosopher called Democritus (460-370 BC), who came up with the excellent idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny particles called atoms, thought that everything we perceive was due to fast-moving films of these atoms hitting our sensory organs. He figured that when they bypass the sensory organs and hit the soul directly, we dream.

The great philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) was one of the first to consider a psychological component to dreams. He said: " all of us, even the most highly respectable, there is a lawless wild beast nature, which peers out in sleep." In that respect, Plato wasn't so far from Freud's wish-fulfillment theory of dreaming, although Freud thought the wishes expressed in dreams are disguised, whereas Plato saw our desires as being played out more directly.

But out of all ancient scholars that we know about, Aristotle (384-322 BC) came up with the explanation that's closest to our understanding today. For him, dreams had no purpose. He firmly rejected the traditional view that dreams could foretell the future, arguing that if this appeared to happen it was just a coincidence. He saw wakefulness and sleep as characterised by the presence and absence of perception, respectively, and argued that we dream when the mechanism of perception is activated in the absence of external stimulation. He also said that the suspension of judgement in sleep causes us to accept the things we see in dreams as real. Barbera notes that this is supported by modern neuroimaging studies, which have shown that activity of the brain's frontal lobe is suppressed during REM sleep.

When I first started learning about Aristotle, I thought he was overrated. After all, he thought that the Earth was at the centre of the universe - a misconception that sent astronomy down the wrong path for centuries. But the more I read about him, the more I'm in awe of him. He didn't get everything right, but the insights he was able to gain about the world around him, in the absence of all the scientific evidence that we take for granted today, was so impressive. As Barbera points out, scientists weren't able to improve much on Aristotle's theory of dreams until the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s. In that respect I guess he was further ahead of his time than even the Antikythera mechanism.

[Photo by Bertil Videt.] 


Copernicus's tomb found

20. November 2008 18:20

Portrait of Copernicus from early 16th centuryMore exciting DNA research today - this time it has been used to identify the remains of 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus is the guy who famously declared (much to the disgust of the Catholic church) that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, as it is orbiting the Sun. Other astronomers had suggested this before him, such as Aristarchus of Samos, an ancient Greek astronomer who lived in the third century BC. But the idea never caught on until Copernicus, and for that reason he's often described as "the father of modern astronomy".

People have apparently been looking for his tomb for a couple of centuries, and the latest search began in 2004, at the request of the local bishop. Scientists figured he was probably buried at Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland, because he served as a priest there. But there were hundreds of sets of remains under the cathedral's floor.

Eventually they found a likely candidate - the bones of a 70-year-old man (this is how old Copernicus was when he died). Forensic reconstruction of the skull showed that the man had a broken nose and a scar above his forehead - both features shown in a self-portrait of Copernicus as an old man. To clinch the case, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden compared DNA from the skull with that from two strands of hair found inside a book that Copernicus owned (and now kept in a library at Uppsala University). They announced today that the two sets of DNA match.

I'm not sure what's happening to the bones - hopefully they'll be left under the floor so he can continue to rest in peace, though I guess he'll get a lot more visitors now. In his memory, here's a quote about Copernicus written by the all round literary genius Goethe:

"Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the centre of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind - for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic - religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of."