Troubled Waters for Ancient Shipwrecks

800px-Shipwreck_turnerIn 1994, archaeologists surveying the seafloor near Lisbon, Portugal, spied several pieces of old timber jutting out from a mash of mud and peppercorns 10 meters below the water’s surface. The site was modest in appearance and partially looted, but it contained a key find: fragments of an ancient wooden ship known as a Portuguese Indiaman, built during the Renaissance to sail what was then the longest and most dangerous commercial route in the world–from Portugal to India, the land of pepper and spice. Designed for an age of discovery, the Indiaman “was the space shuttle of its time,” says nautical archaeologist Filipe Vieira de Castro of Texas A & M University in College Station.  Read more 

Illustration:  Shipwreck of the Minotaur, J.M.W. Turner, circa 1810, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Why are Humans So Creative?

BBC-artefacts

Unsigned and undated, inventory number 779 hangs behind thick glass in the Louvre’s brilliantly lit Salle des États. A few minutes after the stroke of nine each morning, except for Tuesdays when the museum remains closed, Parisians and tourists, art lovers and curiosity seekers begin flooding into the room. As their hushed voices blend into a steady hivelike hum, some crane for the best view; others stretch their arms urgently upward, clicking cell-phone cameras. Most, however, tilt forward, a look of rapt wonder on their faces, as they study one of humanity’s most celebrated creations: the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci.

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Photo of engraved ochre from Blombos Cave,  courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Christopher Henshilwood.

Dreaming of Space

Nile_River_Delta_at_NightVirgin Galactic describes astronauts as “the world’s most exclusive club.” I know this because I recently downloaded the company’s brochure, and spent many happy minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to lay down $200,000 and take out a membership. Virgin Galactic, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the space tourism company dreamt up by Sir Richard Branson, the former record-store owner who has racked up such a vast personal fortune that he is now ranked the fourth wealthiest person in the UK. Branson wants spaceflight to be a pleasant, zenlike experience—rather like a supersonic spa.

Banished are the days of adrenalin-infused terror when NASA strapped husky young farm boys to the back of faulty rockets. The Virgin Galactic journey begins in serenity in the New Mexico desert, in a spaceport designed by the architectural firm of Foster + Partners (the name says it all).   Read More.

Pacal’s Shiny-Jewel Tree

This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.

The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.”  Read more.

Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso