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Archaeologists unearth dozens of mummified cats in Egypt
Dozens of mummified cats were dug up this week. This isn't as shocking as you might think.
- Archaeologists in Egypt have found dozens of mummified cats in the tomb of a royal offical.
- The cats will join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of previously discovered ancient kitties.
- While the cats are nothing special, the tomb also held well preserved beetles.
There are three things that everybody knows about ancient Egypt: they had mummies, built the pyramids as tombs for kings, and really liked cats. While there is vastly more to ancient Egyptian culture than these details, they are accurate ones. All three of these conceptions were confirmed again this week when archaeologists in Egypt discovered a tomb full of mummified cats.
One of the items found at the dig site. It seems to be a very good kitty and not at all cursed.
Photo: The Ministry of Antiquities.
The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has announced the discovery of dozens of mummified cats in a 4,500-year-old tomb. Alongside the cats were gilded statues of felines and a bronze icon of the cat-headed goddess Bastet. The archaeologists also found a large sarcophagus filled with mummified scarab beetles.
Other tombs on the site were dedicated to the royal official Khufu-Imhat. A door engraved with the names of two women was also found, though the archaeologists are still working on who they were.
Is this typical?
The beetles and the tiny caskets they were found in. Scarab beetles, including the well known dung beetle, were also considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians.
Photo: The Ministry of Antiquities.
Yes, since the 1890s, mummified cats have been found all over Egypt. According to Dr. Antonietta Catanzariti, who works with Smithsonian at UC Berkeley, a single massive discovery unearthed 180,000 well-preserved felines. Mummified cats are so common that during the 1880s they were sold off to make fertilizer as museums had little interest in buying more of them.
The Facebook post the ministry made about this discovery spends more time on the beetles than the cats, as the discovery of two, large, well-preserved beetles is a rare find.
Forget the beetles. Why would the Egyptians mummify cats?
The Egyptians mummified millions of animals, from beetles to bulls. According to Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, this was partly because many animals were seen as the incarnations of gods and giving them the honor of mummification was a pious act. This is why many mummified animals were given the same quality of treatment as humans.
Others mummified their animals because they wanted to be buried with their pets. It's no different than how some people today spend way too much money on their dogs, get their cats hip replacements, or include them in their will. Humans seem to love their pets no matter where you go and in what era.
How else did the Egyptians show their love of cats?
December 1936: The Great Sphinx of Giza, representing a guardian deity in Egyptian mythology, with the body of a lion and the head of a woman.
Photo by David Savill/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.
The Egyptian love of cats goes back a long way. Mafdet, the protector against venomous creatures, was depicted as having the head of a cat as far back as 2,800 BCE. This depiction was likely a reference to the tendency for felines to kill snakes, as she was also often depicted as with the head of a Mongoose.
Breeds similar to the African wildcat are depicted as being domesticated as early as the 26th century BCE. After the 10th century BCE, the typical person started keeping domestic cats at home. The love endured to the 1st century BCE when a mob supposedly lynched a Roman for killing a cat. It was only when the Roman empire began to suppress paganism that the view of cats as sacred began to decline.
Cats, other than being wonderful pets, also ate rodents that would spread disease and steal grain. In an era before modern medicine or food storage techniques, both of these functions were indispensable. Just as many scholars view the veneration of cows in Hinduism as a result of the dependence of early peoples on cattle as a source of fuel, many Egyptologists suggest cats were so useful to the Egyptian people that they were treated as sacred as a result.
It's wrong to think that they worshiped their cats, however. According Antonietta Catanzariti's interview with Smithsonian, the ancient Egyptians' attitude was one of reverence to the idea of the divine in animals. She explains that:
"What they were [actually] doing was associating cats to specific deities because of their attitude, how they were behaving in the natural world. Everything had a meaning. A cat protecting the house from mice. Or it might just protect kittens. These were attitudes that were attributed to a specific goddess."
It isn't that the cats were divine, but instead that they reflected the divine and should be respected as such; an observation many cat lovers would agree with.
Do dogs speak human?
- Back to back excavations unearth two dozen Egyptian mummies - Big Think ›
- Back to back excavations unearth two dozen Egyptian mummies - Big Think ›
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.