Since before the Great Pyramid of Giza was enumerated as a wonder of the world two millennia ago, people have pored over the mysteries of these vast tombs. Now, modern technology is helping researchers glean new insight into the pyramids, revealing them from far above and exploring them from deep within.
Satellite images have revealed 17 “lost” pyramids and thousands of ancient tombs and settlements in Egypt, according to a BBC News report. Using a new imaging technique, researchers could pick out the outlines of ancient buildings buried under the surface.
What struck down ancient Egypt’s King Tutankhamen at the tender age of 19?
Just this winter, Egyptian researchers seemed to think they had a definitive answer. After years of genetic tests and CT scans, they concluded that royal incest had produced a sickly boy with a bone disorder, and argued that a malaria-bearing parasite finished him off. But now a team of German researchers is arguing that the observations actually point to death from the inherited blood disorder sickle cell disease (SCD).
People with SCD carry a mutation in the gene for haemoglobin which causes their red blood cells to become rigid and sickle-shaped. A single copy of the sickle-cell gene confers increased immunity to malaria, so it tends to be common in areas where the infection is endemic – such as ancient Egypt. People with two copies of the gene suffer severe anaemia and often die young. [New Scientist]
It took Turkish bees to make Israel flow with milk and honey.
When archaeologist Amihai Mazar and colleagues turned up 3,000-year-old remains of hundreds of preserved beehives from the ancient town of Tel Rehov in 2007, it was the first confirmation of the ancient beekeeping suggested by Egyptian paintings and Biblical references. Now, three years later, the team has published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the analysis of the “honeybee workers, drones, pupae, and larvae” found inside those hives. Surprise—they’re from Turkey, hundreds of miles away.
The findings “would imply an incredible amount of commodity trading of bees,” said bee expert Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, editor of American Entomologist. The importation of Italian bees to the United States in the 1860s “was thought to be a big deal then,” he said, “but the Israelis may have been doing this as far back as the first millennium BC” [Los Angeles Times].
Once again, to the bane of myth-makers and fans of historical intrigue, the simplest explanation may be the best: Scientists analyzing the DNA of the world-famous mummy of Tutankhamen say that he wasn’t done in by murder nor any of the exotic diseases put forth as explanations for his death at the age of 19. Rather, they say in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was likely complications of malaria that killed King Tut, who was already frail thanks to royal inbreeding.
The team led by Egypt’s top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, spent years taking CT scans and conducting genetic tests on mummies from the royal tombs. They say they confirmed that Tut was the son of Akhenaten, which is what scholars have long believed, but it hints at something else: It also identifies some of his grandparents and great-grandparents for the first time and suggests that his mother was Akhenaten’s sister [The Times]. A brother-sister pair wasn’t unusual during this period in ancient Egypt, medical historian Howard Markel says. Pharaohs were thought of as deities, so it makes sense that the only prospective mates who’d pass muster would be other deities [AP].
Forget the myths about massive numbers of slaves or Jews building the great pyramids, Egypt‘s chief archaeologist argues this week. He says Egyptian researchers have found the tombs of more pyramid builders, and in those tombs more evidence that free men erected these monumental tributes to the ancient pharaohs.
Zahi Hawass this week unveiled new research on 4,000-year-old tombs found near the pyramids—tombs he says belonged to pyramid builders. Graves of the pyramid builders were first discovered in the area in 1990 when a tourist on horseback stumbled over a wall that later proved to be a tomb [Canadian Press]. These new ones stretch beyond those previously-discovered tombs, and contain a dozen skeletons.
What matters for the historical interpretation, Hawass stressed, is location, location, location. “These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves,” said Mr Hawass. “If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king’s” [The Times]. In addition, Hawass says that the walls of the tombs (which the builders probably built for themselves) bear graffiti like “friends of Khufu (a pharaoh).”
The elites of ancient Egypt had money, power, divine status in the case of the pharaohs, and also heart disease. In a study in today’s issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers reports performing x-ray scans of 20 Egyptian mummies and finding them rife with cardiovascular disease like clogged arteries, one of the commonest ailments in modern American society.
On a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, one of the researchers had been intrigued by a nameplate on the remains of Pharaoh Merenptah, who died in 1,203BC. The plate said the pharaoh died at the age of 60 and suffered diseased arteries, arthritis and tooth decay [The Guardian]. So the scientists obtained permission to scan that mummy and others in the museum collection.
The common people of ancient Egypt weren’t mummified; only elites like royal families, their nursemaids, and priests got such a treatment. The elites ate salted fish, bread, and cheese like everyone else, but they also dined on rich foods such as cow, sheep, and goat meat, as well as honey and cakes with butter, says Abdel Nureldin, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, who worked on the investigation. At the same time, virtually no one in ancient times was sedentary, and that may have helped counteract their fatty diets [ScienceNOW Daily News].
By using a newly refined technique to analyze tiny bits of red pigment from an ancient Egyptian quiver, a researcher has found that a dye known as madder was used 4,000 years ago. Until now, the oldest relic containing madder dated to about 1,200 B.C., according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Analyzing ancient pigments is difficult because often not very much pigment remains on a relic, while at the same time, removing a large chunk of the dye for analysis would destroy the object. In this study, however, the researcher was able to analyze the dye without damaging the relic by refining a technique called Raman spectroscopy, which relies on the scattering of light to study materials. That process is not generally suitable for studying madder or some other dyes, but Leona enhanced the result using tiny metal particles that could amplify the findings and detect even very low levels of chemicals [AP]. The quiver dates back to 2124 to 1981 B.C. and is about 700 years older than any previous madder remnants.