The chariot survived ancient eruptions and modern-day looters to become a part of the world heritage site.
- Archeologists recently discovered a first-of-its-kind chariot in Pompeii.
- The ceremonial chariot is decorated with bronze and tin medallions, while the sides sport bronzesheets and red-and-black paintings.
- Given looting activity in the area, it's lucky the 2,000-year-old treasure wasn't lost to the world heritage site.
In 79 CE, near the Bay of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Geologically, this was business as usual for the volatile volcano, but for the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it proved a cataclysmic event.
After the terrifying initial blast, the volcano spewed ash and rocks miles into the atmosphere. As this volcanic drift cooled, it began to snow onto the cities. It collapsed buildings under its weight and suffocated those unlucky enough to not flee. Then came the pyroclastic flows—massive waves of ash, gases, and lava fragments that washed over the cities at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. All told, Vesuvius unleashed more than 100,000 times the energy of the two atomic bombs dropped during World War II on doomed towns nestled beneath it.
It seemed as though the cities weren't simply wiped off the map but practically from history itself, banished to a footnote in historical text. And so when explorers in the 1700s found the super-heated ash had preserved the city with taxidermic care, it was a miraculous discovery.
Today, Pompeii's fossilized slice-of-life gives historians an unprecedented view into a moment of history and culture. Bodies lie where they lived, traces of their clothes and other belongings still clinging to their forms. Frescos retain their imagery and vibrant colors. Fast food joints (called thermopolium) can be found with the jars still holding remnants of their menu items. Even the brain cells of a young man managed to survive the ages in vitrified conservation.
Each excavation teaches us something new about life in this Roman resort town, and Pompeii continues to surprise archeologists and historians well in the 21st century.
One dope Pompeian whip
Researchers carefully extract the chariot from the sedimentary rock encasing it.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
In a recent discovery, researchers unearthed a first-of-its-kind chariot at Civita Giuliana, an excavation site north of Pompeii's ancient walls. In Roman times, the site served as a getaway for Rome's elite and wealthy citizens, a serene countryside brimming with villas and Mediterranean farms. So, it's understandable why such an exquisite chariot was found here.
"I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who specializes in Pompeii traffic, told NPR. "Many of the vehicles I'd written about before ... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car."
Located in a double-level portico, the chariot is a far cry from anything Ben-Hur would have been seen cruising around in. It sports four iron wheels and a high seat complete with arm- and backrest. The sides are adorned with engraved bronze and wooden panels painted with red-and-black figures. And the rear bumps with a register of bronze and tin medallion depicting Eros-inspired scenes of satyrs, nymphs, and cupids. In short, this chariot is slab.
"It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world," Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological park, said in a statement. "At Pompeii vehicles used for transport have been found in the past, […] but nothing like the Civita Giuliana chariot."
But unlike a Lamborghini—which serves only to show the owner has more money than sense—this chariot served a social and cultural role. Likely a pilentum, it would have been rolled out in times of ceremony, potentially during festivals, processions, or weddings.
While similar chariots have been uncovered in northern Greece, this is the first such chariot to be discovered in Italy. Its presence in Pompeii will further help historians understand the people who called the city home, as well as their relation to the Mediterranean world.
As Poehler added, "This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time. And it happens to be in this case an object that is relatively rare despite its ubiquity in the past."
It belongs in a museum (not the black market)
Bronze and tin medallions depict satyrs, nymphs and cupids.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Beyond its gilded appeal, the chariot is also special because it survived so we could learn from it. The area where the vehicle was found has been favored in recent years by looters, and illicit tunnels had been dug precariously close to the chariot's resting place. For this reason, the archeological park has teamed up with the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata to protect Pompeii's history and excavate its treasures before they become lost or stolen.
"The collaboration between the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii has proved itself to be a formidable instrument, not only for bringing finds of exceptional historical and artistic value to light, but also for halting the criminal actions of individuals who for years have been the protagonists in a systematic looting of the priceless archaeological heritage preserved in the vast area of the Civita Giuliana villa, which is still largely buried and to which the recent exceptional findings bear witness," Nunzio Fragliasso, chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, said in his joint statement with Osanna.
Nor is everything that glitters historic gold. Even Pompeii's everyday ephemera can have an outsized impact on history. Pompeian citizens, for example, viewed street walls as a type of "public advertisement space" and so painted them thick with graffiti. As historians must often rely on the written works of the literate elite, this graffiti gives the ordinary Pompeians their voice back. One such charcoal tag even corrected the record of Vesuvius's eruption by two months, from August to October, contradicting the traditionally accepted date set by Pliny the Younger.
"Today, archaeologists try to understand ancient societies by studying the entire material record -- not just the beautiful or luxurious objects, but also the broken bits of cooking pottery, the animal bones thrown into the trash, the microscopic grains of pollen in the soil, and much more," Caitlín Barrett, associate professor at Cornell University, told CNN.
This ephemera is also at risk. Looters looking for eye-catching treasure and artwork will often destroy everyday objects in their pursuit. And after centuries encased in protective sedimentary rock, the city has again been exposed to the rains, winds, and human blunders that erode. The goal now isn't just to excavate fantastic treasures, but to preserve the world heritage site and learn from it for as long as time (and maybe Vesuvius) will allow.
The key? A computational flattening algorithm.
An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.
The team, including MIT Libraries and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers and an MIT student and alumna, published their findings today in a Nature Communications article titled, "Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography."
The senders of these letters had closed them using "letterlocking," the historical process of folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson Conservator at MIT Libraries, developed letterlocking as a field of study with Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London, and the Unlocking History research team. Since the papers' folds, tucks, and slits are themselves valuable evidence for historians and conservators, being able to examine the letters' contents without irrevocably damaging them is a major advancement in the study of historic documents.
"Letterlocking was an everyday activity for centuries, across cultures, borders, and social classes," explains Dambrogio. "It plays an integral role in the history of secrecy systems as the missing link between physical communications security techniques from the ancient world and modern digital cryptography. This research takes us right into the heart of a locked letter."
This breakthrough technique was the result of an international and interdisciplinary collaboration between conservators, historians, engineers, imaging experts, and other scholars. "The power of collaboration is that we can combine our different interests and tools to solve bigger problems," says Martin Demaine, artist-in-residence in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the research team.
The algorithm that makes the virtual unfolding possible was developed by Amanda Ghassaei SM '17 and Holly Jackson, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a participant in MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), both working at the Center for Bits and Atoms. The virtual unfolding code is openly available on GitHub.
"When we got back the first scans of the letter packets, we were instantly hooked," says Ghassaei. "Sealed letters are very intriguing objects, and these examples are particularly interesting because of the special attention paid to securing them shut."
"We're X-raying history," says team member David Mills, X-ray microtomography facilities manager at Queen Mary University of London. Mills, together with Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary, used machines specially designed for use in dentistry to scan unopened "locked" letters from the 17th century. This resulted in high-resolution volumetric scans, produced by high-contrast time delay integration X-ray microtomography.
"Who would have thought that a scanner designed to look at teeth would take us so far?" says Davis.
Computational flattening algorithms were then applied to the scans of the letters. This has been done successfully before with scrolls, books, and documents with one or two folds. The intricate folding configurations of the "locked" letters, however, posed unique technical challenges.
"The algorithm ends up doing an impressive job at separating the layers of paper, despite their extreme thinness and tiny gaps between them, sometimes less than the resolution of the scan," says Erik Demaine, professor of computer science at MIT and an expert in computational origami. "We weren't sure it would be possible."
The team's approach utilizes a fully 3D geometric analysis that requires no prior information about the number or types of folds or letters in a letter packet. The virtual unfolding generates 2D and 3D reconstructions of the letters in both folded and flat states, plus images of the letters' writing surfaces and crease patterns.
"One of coolest technical contributions of the work is a technique that explores the folded and flattened representations of a letter simultaneously," says Holly Jackson. "Our new technology enables conservators to preserve a letter's internal engineering, while still giving historians insight into the lives of the senders and recipients."
This virtual unfolding technique was used to reveal the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. The letter comes from the Brienne Collection, a European postmaster's trunk preserving 300-year-old undelivered mail, which has provided a rare opportunity for researchers to study sealed locked letters.
"The trunk is a unique time capsule," says David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history, Radboud University Nijmegen. "It preserves precious insights into the lives of thousands of people from all levels of society, including itinerant musicians, diplomats, and religious refugees. As historians, we regularly explore the lives of people who lived in the past, but to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day — and never even reached its recipient — is truly extraordinary."
Advancing a new field
In the Nature Communications article, the team also unveils the first systematization of letterlocking techniques. After studying 250,000 historical letters, they devised a chart of categories and formats that assigns letter examples a security score. Understanding these security techniques of historical correspondence means archival collections can be conserved in ways that protect small but important material details, such as slits, locks, and creases.
"Sometimes the past resists scrutiny," explains Daniel Starza Smith. "We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We've learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened."
The research team hopes to make a study collection of letterlocking examples available to scholars and students from a range of disciplines. The virtual unfolding algorithm could also have broad applications: Because it can handle flat, curved, and sharply folded materials, it can be used on many types of historical texts, including letters, scrolls, and books.
"What we have achieved is more than simply opening the unopenable, and reading the unreadable," says Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University. "We have shown how truly interdisciplinary work breaks down boundaries to investigate what neither humanities nor the sciences can hope to understand alone."
Computational tools promise to accelerate research on letterlocking as well as reveal new historical evidence. Thanks to this research, adds Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University, "we can now imagine new affective histories that physically connect the past and the present, the human and the nonhuman, the tangible and the digital."
The research team includes Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator, MIT Libraries; Amanda Ghassaei, research engineer at Adobe Research; Daniel Starza Smith, lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London; Holly Jackson, undergraduate student at MIT; Erik Demaine, professor in EECS; Martin Demaine, robotics engineer in CSAIL and Angelika and Barton Weller Artist-in-Residence in EECS; Graham Davis and David Mills, Queen Mary University of London's Institute of Dentistry; Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University; Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University; and David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history at Radboud University Nijmegen.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Seaver Foundation, the Delmas Foundation, the British Academy, and the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek.
Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of prehistoric animals and NASA artifacts that are viewable for free with a smartphone.
- The exhibits are viewable on most smartphones through Google's free Arts & Culture app.
- In addition to prehistoric animals, the new exhibits include NASA artifacts and ancient artwork.
- The Arts & Culture app also lets you project onto your walls famous paintings on display at museums around the world.
Many of the world's museums are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now you don't need to leave the couch to see some of the creatures on display at institutions like Moscow's State Darwin Museum and London's Natural History Museum. Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of new exhibits that can be viewed in augmented reality through your smartphone.
After installing the app on an ARCore-supported Android device, an iPhone, or an iPad, users can project the creatures onto any surface, take photos and videos, change their size, and move them around the room.
One of the strangest new exhibits is the Cambropachycope, a tiny crustacean from the Cambrian Period that has one of the world's oldest preserved compound eyes. Here's a look:
Google Arts & Culture
Other animals on display include:
- Opabinia — A 500-million-year-old arthropod with five eyes
- Skeleton of the blue whale – The largest animal to ever exist on Earth
- Spotted trunkfish — A fish with an unusually strong carapace made from thick hexagonal scale plates called scutes
- Aegirocassis — A 480-million-year old marine animal, believed to be the oldest large filter feeder, which existed hundreds of millions of years before whales and sharks
Google Arts & Culture
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Scientists have reproduced the voice of an ancient Egyptian priest by creating a 3D-printed replica of his mummified vocal tract.
An international and interdisciplinary team, led by David Howard, a professor of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, used computed tomography (CT) scanning technology to measure the dimensions of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a mummy that's spent about two centuries on display at Leeds City Museum in the United Kingdom.
The team then used those measurements to 3D-print an artificial vocal tract, through which they produced sounds using a peculiar electronic device called the Vocal Tract Organ. (You can check it out here.)
"The Vocal Tract Organ, a first in its own right, provided the inspiration for doing this," Howard told CNET.
Nesyamun, whose priestly duties included chanting and singing the daily liturgy, can once again "speak" — at least, in the form of a vowel noise that sounds something like a cross between the English pronunciation of the vowels in "bed" and "bad."
Of course, the new "voice" of Nesyamun is an approximation, and given the lack of actual recordings of his voice, and the degeneration of his body over millennia, it's impossible to know just how accurate it is. But the researchers suggested that their "Voice from the Past" project offers a chance for people to "engage with the past in completely new and innovative ways."
Howard et al.
"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."
Connecting modern people with history
It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to reconstruct the voice of Ötzi, an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.
"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told Live Science.
As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told The Associated Press, that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."
John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."
"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told The Associated Press. "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."
The American Museum of Natural History presents the new, more accurate T. rex.
- Hatchling, four-year-old, and adult models show us new sides of the famous predator.
- They're part of the T. rex: The Ultimate Predator exhibit running from March 2019 to August 2020.
- Attention time travelers: You may want to pet the feathered hatchling. Don't.
There's no doubt that the adult Tyrannosaurus Rex was a fearsome predator, with a powerful bite that could cause the head of a victim to explode from sheer force. Of course, much of what we've longed "known" about T. rex is informed speculation based on incomplete information. However, paleontologists at New York's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) are about to unveil the result of a remarkable project.
They've constructed stunning models of the T. rex as a hatchling, as a four-year-old, and as an adult based on the latest discoveries and thinking. Their intent is to provide the most scientifically accurate renderings ever of the T. rex as part of their "T. rex: The Ultimate Predator"exhibit running from March 11, 2019 to August 9, 2020.
The biggest surprise? The hatchling. Who ever thought a T. rex could be so, well, crazy-cute!?
Latest fossil discoveries
Image source: AMNH/AMNH / R. Peterson
As more fossils are discovered, we learn more and more about the Tyrannosauroidea family. The first discovery of a feathered dinosaur, the Sinosauropteryx prima in 1996, suggested we might've been picturing the ancient creatures, including T. rex, incorrectly. More recent discoveries such as the Yutyrannus huali have only bolstered this suspicion. In addition, archeologists have begun finding infant Tyrannousaur fossils, and this has allowed the team at the AMNH, led by Mark Norell, to realistically imagine T. rex at three life stages for the "Ultimate Predator" exhibit.
Not all Tyrannosaurs were T. rexes — there were dozens of Tyrannosaur species, and no others were as large. The "Ultimate Predator" show includes a number of them, including the Dilong paradoxus. Most were about the size of a T. rex youngster as adults. They were all, however, all dangerous predators — and the AMNH exhibit will feature new representations of a variety of family members. Most Tyrannousaurs were fast runners, unlike the adolescent and adult T. rex, a slower-moving death machine. (The hatchling ran.)
There's still a fair amount of conjecture involved, but between what's visible in the fossil record and what can be seen today in T. rex's living relatives, there's little doubt that experts are growing ever-closer to a complete understanding of these creatures who last roamed the earth some 68 million years ago. A lot can be inferred from these familial connections, including feeding and parenting behaviors and various as-yet-unknown physical features. For example, fossilized T. rex footprints are nearly identical to the modern emu, albeit bigger, and so inferences can be made about their feet.
Speaking of skin, contrary to the traditional belief that T. rex's skin was akin to a contemporary lizard's or snake's, experts now suspect it was actually a more leathery covering, similar to that of the foot of a chicken or the leg of a turtle.
The new AMNH models reflect the latest theories regarding every minute details of their physiognomy.
The hatchling T. rex
Image source: AMNH/D. Finnin
About 60 percent of T. rex hatchlings — about the size of turkeys — probably didn't survive to their first birthday. The downy-feathered tykes grew quickly, though, about 140 pounds a month, but it still took until they were about 20 to reach full size. Experts believe that they were quick little predators with lots of tiny, needle-like teeth. Like modern Komodo dragons, they probably fed on insects and smaller vertebrates before maturing into their grownup fare.
The four-year-old T. rex
By the time T. rex was around four, it was as big as other non-rex Tyrannosaurs. (AMNH says this is about five times the size of a four-year-old human boy.) It was fully feathered, with teeth good for slicing and cutting as opposed to crushing, the speciality of the adult T. rex. At this stage, T. rex also had long arms — it's believed they stopped growing prior to reaching full size, resulting in the oddly teeny arms of the adult T. rex.
Adult T. rex
Even scarier than before? Image source: AMNH/D. Finnin
This is the terrifying bad boy — or girl — we know and fear, albeit likely with more feathers than you might have once thought. The monster was up to 40 feet long, and weighed between 11,000 and 15,500 pounds.
T. rex's banana-shaped teeth and mighty jaws could clamp down with 7,800 pounds of force — that's about the weight of three cars. It was one of very few creatures ever to be capable of pulverizing and digesting the solid bone of prey. (30–50 percent of T. rex coprolites, fossilized poop, is actually crushed bone.)
If that wasn't enough, we now know that T. rex senses were super-sharp. Orange-sized eyes faced forward, hawk-like, and were set far enough apart that T. rex had great depth vision. Examination of its brain casings suggests an exceptional sense of smell and of hearing, too.
The new exhibit has a shadow-theater floor projection of one of these nightmares coming to life.
If you're fortunate enough to visit the AMNH for the T. rex: The Ultimate Predator exhibit, you'll have the opportunity to get up close and personal — safely — with T. rex.
- They'll have a definitive life-sized model of an adult T. rex, replete with patches of feathers.
- There will be several hatchling reconstructions, as well as a four-year-old T. rex.
- A "roar mixer" will allow visitors to construct their own T. rex roars by combining the vocalization of related animals.
- You can wander through an interactive Cretaceous environment.
- Dig in at a fossil "investigation station" with all the tools a paleontologist could want: a CT scanner, measuring tools, and a microscope.