Herodotus’ mystery vessel turns out to have been real

Archeologists had been doubtful since no such ship had ever been found.

  • In 450 BCE, Greek historian Herodotus described a barge that's never been found.
  • When the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered, some 70 sunken ships were found resting in its waters.
  • One boat, Ship 17, uncannily matches the Herodotus' description.

From [the acacia] tree they cut pieces of wood about two cubits in length and arrange them like bricks, fastening the boat together by running a great number of long bolts through the two-cubit pieces; and when they have thus fastened the boat together, they lay cross-pieces over the top, using no ribs for the sides; and within they caulk the seams with papyrus.

Herodotus wrote these words in his 450 BCE Historia to describe a kind of ship, called a "baris," which he claimed to have seen under construction during his travels in Egypt. (Above is an excerpt — the entire passage is a bit longer at 23 lines.) His description constitutes an odd way to build a boat, and since no evidence of such a vessel had ever been discovered, some wondered if the esteemed Greek historian had made it up or got it wrong.

In 2000, though, the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered at the western mouth of the Nile in an expedition led by maritime archeologist Franck Goddio. Thus far, his team has found about 70 ships dating from the eighth to the second century BCE, and guess what? Herodotus knew what he was talking about: Among the ships discovered in recent years was a baris, built just they way he'd described.

Artist's concept of Thonis-Heracleion in its heyday. Yann Bernard © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Ship 17

The vessel, dubbed Ship 17 by archeologists, dates to somewhere between 664 to 332 BCE. It's been submerged in Nile silt for nearly 2,500 years, but is in amazingly good shape, allowing archeologists to uncover about 70 percent of the hull. Their research is being published by Oxford University's Centre for Maritime Archaeology as a book, Ship 17: a baris from Thonis-Heracleion, by Alexander Belov, a member of Goddio's exploration team.

Director of the Centre, Dr. Damian Robinson, tells The Guardian, "It wasn't until we discovered this wreck that we realized Herodotus was right. What Herodotus described was what we were looking at."

(Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Word for Word

Making the identification a bit tricky were errors made in translation from the original Greek, probably since translators had no archeological materials on which to base their interpretation of Herodotus' words. Explains Robinson, "It's one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we've been thinking of boats in this scholarly way." For example, the long internal ribs Herodotus described had never been seen before, leading to confusion as to what he was talking about. "Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying," says Robinson.

Belov reports that a close comparison of the Historia text and the find shows Herodotus' description matches "exactly to the evidence." In his 2013 paper analyzing the baris' navigation system Belov wrote, "The joints of the planking of Ship 17 are staggered in a way that gives it the appearance of 'courses of bricks'" Herodotus described. Belov suggests it's possible this baris came from the very shipyard Herodotus visited, its details fit so closely. However, this 27-meter baris is a little longer than Herodotus', which may explain what few differences are evident, such as the Ship 17's longer tenons, and the presence of reinforcement frames absent in the historian's accounting.

Still, the find reveals Herodotus knew exactly what he was writing about.

Exploring the sunken port. Image source: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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