Where we attempt to fill you in on everything they forgot to teach you at school

For Whom the Bell Sketches

Check out these super-secret sketches that I found in a bar for the iPhone 5 prototype! Actually, rewind around 140 years, because in reality it's believed to the be the first sketch made by Alexander Graham Bell for his telephone system (little did he know...):

Early sketch of Bell's invention of the telephone

More fascinating images from Bell's sketchbooks available over at The Atlantic.

Slave to the Truth

Most of us grew up on it: the idea that the pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. In recent years though, the new view has been that the idea of slaves being used is archaic, and the Egyptian pyramids were built by a willing workforce, devoted to their king and his future afterlife. But wait, not so fast...

The main spin doctor for the interpretation of this information is Dr. Zahi Hawass, serving at the time the story hit the press (January 2010) as Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. He has a PhD from Penn, which has one of the best archaeology programs in the world. He is also a political appointee with a flair for PR who has continually demonstrated his interest in boosting Egypt’s image. He worked for the recently ousted Mubarak, an autocratic ruler trying to project a democratic image.

Hawass has an interest in pumping up the view that the ancient Egyptians loved their Pharaohs and were proud to work on their monuments: “And that’s why the pyramid was the national project of Egypt because everyone had to participate in building this pyramid. By food, by workmen, this way the building of the pyramid was something that everyone felt to participate, and really it was love. They are not really pushed to do it. When the king takes the throne, the people have to be ready in participating in building the pyramid. And then when they finish it, they celebrate.”

In the same interview, the main American archaeologist on the excavation project (Dr. Mark Lehner, University of Chicago and Harvard) is more restrained...

Read the full post at First Thoughts.

The Evolution of Telepathy

Last month Dr. Rupert Sheldrake delivered the Perrott-Warrick Lecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, discussing "The Evolution of Telepathy". Here's the abstract of his talk:

Field observations have suggested that wolves and other wild animals may communicate telepathically over many miles, and surveys have shown that about 50% of dog owners and about 30% of cat owners believe that their pets may respond to their thoughts or silent commands. Among humans, apparent telepathy is most commonly reported between members of families and between close friends and colleagues. Experimental investigations of telepathy in animals and people suggest that telepathy may be a natural means of communication between members of animal and human groups. Human telepathy is still evolving in the context of modern technologies, including the internet, emails, SMS messages and telephones. The speaker will show how anyone can explore their own abilities in automated telepathy tests using mobile phones.

And here's the audio and slides:


Anbody out there have personal observations of animal or human telepathy? Or do you think it's all bunkum? Chime in with a comment.


Hawass History?

It's official: Dr Zahi Hawass, the Pharaoh of Egyptian archaeology, has quit. Already there's been plenty of celebrating amongst those who think the Big Z is more of a liability than an asset to the preservation and exploration of Egyptian history, though I personally don't think he's quite 'gone' yet (more on that below). First, here's why he resigned as Minister of Antiquities:

I resigned because of three main things:

1. During the earlier protests, Egyptian youths and the police protected the museums and monuments. Only the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was broken into and, thank God, all the important objects inside it were safe and only a few things were lost or broken. Zahi HawassA report of exactly what is missing is still being compiled, however. Magazines were looted, but after initially appearing to get back to normal, the situation has recently become worse and there are many reports of thefts and illegal excavation.

2. Since the revolution, many people have continued to protest over other things, such as against me over jobs and salaries. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for. In the Ministry of State for Antiquities, we need money to protect sites and to restore buildings and objects too. We need the money brought in by tourists who visit our sites and museums to fund these things and, at the moment, there are no tourists.

3. Crooks in the Ministry and at the University of Cairo have started to attack me personally. I cannot stand this!

Most importantly, however, is that there are not enough police to protect the sites. I hope that my resignation will put pressure on the government to do something about this and also encourage the international community to do so as well.

The Egyptian antiquities that are on tour at the moment are safe and kept so with contracts. They are completely safe and when the police are back in force, everything here will be protected properly again too.

My reading of this is more a case of Zahi "going on strike", trying to bring attention to the desperate need for a security plan to ensure the safety of Egypt's archaeological treasures - a publicity stunt, if you will (though whether for archaeology's benefit, or Zahi, I can't say). And already Hawass 'loyalists' are calling for his reinstatement in the belief he is the only man capable of protecting the country's heritage.

But perhaps Hawass has good reasons to get out of Dodge. For one, as I mentioned back in January, he had extremely close ties to the Mubarek regime. Furthermore, he is now being severely criticised for downplaying the extent of looting and vandalism while Mubarek was still in power, only coming clean recently (according to respected Egyptologist Jaromir Malek, it's "becoming clear that the amount of looting and damage is bigger than originally thought" - see also this analysis of the Cairo Museum debacle). And now it has emerged that Hawass may be facing a year in prison for some alleged shonky dealings in the tender process for the Cairo Museum gift shop contract.

Sadly, while the Zahi Circus rolls on, attracting worldwide media interest, Egypt's precious antiquities remain under threat during this period of instability. Hopefully decisive action to protect the country's past will be taken soon.

Previously on TDG:

Hidden in Plain Sight

For those with eyes to see... I really enjoyed this story in Cabinet about the cryptographical career of Colonel William F. Friedman, and his examples of using codes "to make anything signify anything". For example, this photo:

Coded Photo

At first glance, the photo looks like a standard-issue keepsake of the kind owned by anyone who has served in the military. Yet Friedman found it so significant that he had a second, larger copy framed for the wall of his study. When he looked at the oblong image, taken in Aurora, Illinois, on a winter’s day in 1918, what did Friedman see? He saw seventy-one officers, soon to be sent to the war in France, for whom he had designed a crash course on the theory and practice of cryptology... And he saw a coded message, hiding in plain sight. As a note on the back of the larger print explains, the image is a cryptogram in which people stand in for letters; and thanks to Friedman’s careful positioning, they spell out the words “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.” (Or rather they almost do: for one thing, they were four people short of the number needed to complete the “R.”)

The photograph was an enduring reminder, then, of Friedman’s favorite axiom — and he was so fond of the phrase that some fifty years later he had it inscribed as the epitaph on his tomb in Arlington National Cemetery. It captures a formative moment in a life spent looking for more than meets the eye, and it remained Friedman’s most cherished example of how, using the art and science of codes, it was possible to make anything signify anything. This idea will no doubt strike us as quintessentially modern, if not postmodern, but Friedman took it straight from the great Renaissance scholar-statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), along with both the hidden motto in the image and the method used to convey it. In other words, the graduation photo from Friedman’s earliest course in military cryptanalysis is at once a tribute to Bacon’s philosophy and a master class in the use of his biliteral cipher.

When you read through the article, and take into other cipher examples from history such as Kircher's 'alchemical cipher' (in which the first letters of each word in the emblem form the words "Sulphur Fixum Est Sol" (see Manly Hall's Secret Teachings of All Ages for more examples), it really does make you wonder how many coded messages we may be missing in famous works of art and historical texts.

Another interesting note from the article is that for some time Friedman was engaged in a well-funded, serious project investigating whether Francis Bacon was the true identity behind the genius of Shakespeare, via a search for biliteral ciphers in the Bard of Avon's works.

I had to smile at the link there, because in my own book The Guide to Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol I spent a chapter looking at codes and ciphers, and in my description of Bacon's biliteral cipher I jokingly included an example that decoded to "Francis Bacon was Shakespeare"...

The Fall of Pharaoh Zahi?

Two weeks ago, at the height of the Egyptian popular uprising, I asked whether it might spell the end for the controversial head of Egyptian antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass. SCA ProtestNow, with President Mubarek stepping aside, and the central protest in Tahrir Square winding down, smaller protests against particular 'regime personalities' have begun - and the Big Z appears to be well and truly in the cross-hairs. Around 200 archaeologists have gathered outside the headquarters of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) with a list of demands, one of which is the prosecution of Dr Hawass "for corruption and accountability for the theft of 18 masterpieces from the Cairo Museum". This Associated Press article makes clear that many professional archaeologists and students have had enough of the self-serving ego of the antiquities chief.

One would think that ZH is a canny enough operator to work his way out of this current mess though...despite the backlash, his monopolisation of Egyptian archaeology does give his CV enough 'oomph' for him to perhaps argue that only he is qualified enough to guide Egyptology forward in such uncertain times. However, according to this report he may already be packing his bags.

An acquaintance of his who visited him today at his office while protesters outside bayed for his downfall described the usually supremely confident archeologist as "shattered" by recent events, and said most of his books and personal papers have already been moved out of the office. In the waning days of the Mubarak regime he threw his weight behind the established order, and also appeared to have hid the extent of the damage done at the famed Egyptian museum – one of the great repositories of human heritage.

After a brief spate of looting two weeks ago, he said nothing of great value was taken. On Sunday, he admitted that the thieves had made off with 18 priceless artifacts, including two gold encrusted wooden statues of Tutankhamun. "He had to have known that much sooner," says the acquaintance. "I think he held the information back because he understood it would be catastrophic for the regime's legitimacy."

The functionaries of a dictatorship, perhaps of any order, take on the character of their leaders. There are hundreds of men in positions of power in Egypt right now who, like Hawass, are the targets of Egyptian popular anger.

This Discovery News piece also lists more archaeologists disparaging (would "tut-tutting" be too crass?) the Big Z, as well as addressing the strange issue of the conflicting reports about the Cairo Museum looting/vandalism (in a related note, apparently two of the stolen treasures have been found on the ground outside the museum).

And yet bizarrely, given recent events, Dr Hawass will be holding a press conference at the Cairo Museum on Wednesday to announce the results of the DNA testing of King Tutankhamen. Getting on with business, or a handy smoke-screen in a time of crisis? Whatever the reason, it's just one more controversy that the pharaoh of Egyptian archaeology has found himself involved in.

Previously on TDG:

Orion of the Maya

Two of my passions are history and astronomy. So what could be better than combining the two? Check out this lovely image of a Mayan temple at Tikal with Orion high in the sky above it, as shot by astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard (click for large version):

Orion over Mayan Temple
© Stéphane Guisard, Los Cielos de Los Mayas
Credit: Stéphane Guisard / IDAEH-Tikal

Also love this long-exposure picture which gives an idea of the mystique that the night sky would have had for ancient people, and summons up some of those strange feelings you get when you start to venture into the mindset of the myth-makers (the 'Imperishable Ones', the 'Hitching Post of the Sun', the center of the whirlpool):

The Cosmic Whirlpool
© Stéphane Guisard, Los Cielos de Los Mayas
Credit: Stéphane Guisard / IDAEH-Tikal

For other galleries and higher resolution versions of these great shots, see Stéphane Guisard's website

Previously on TDG:

Viking Sunstone Navigation

New evidence has added support for the 'myth' that Viking sailors navigated with the help of a sunstone. In a paper published today in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists say the polarising properties of the crystal may well have allowed the Vikings to deduce the position of the Sun, even when hidden behind clouds or fog, or below the horizon.

Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season in the far north would have prevented them from using the stars as a guide to their positions, and the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe — in any case, it would have been of limited use so close to the North Pole.

But Viking legends, including an Icelandic saga centering on the hero Sigurd, hint that these sailors had another navigational aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sunstone.

The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the Sun. To check Sigurd's answer, Olaf "grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun". In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.

On a more skeptical note, the Nature article also notes the view of Sean McGrail, expert in ancient seafaring, that there still is no actual evidence to indicate that the Vikings did use crystals in this way: "You can show how they could be used, but that isn't proof," he says. "People were navigating long before this without any instruments."

Secret Chambers in the Great Pyramid

Mucho news coverage today of the 'discovery' of Khufu's actual burial chamber in the Great Pyramid. Now first off, let's get this straight - it's not a "discovery", or the revelation "of the existence of the chambers", it's just a hypothesis at this stage. Having got that out of the way, let's dig in to the speculation.

This new hypothesis for the true burial chamber of Khufu has been put forward by French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, and is based on similar known chambers in (Khufu's father) Sneferu's ‘Red’ pyramid at Dahshur, and a floor-level block in the King's Chamber of Khufu's pyramid which doesn't actually support the blocks above it (see the Talking Pyramids website for the full explanation):

Pyramid Stones

(Credit: Talking Pyramids)

If true, this would be a spectacular discovery. But I think at this stage it's still to be taken with plenty of grains of salt...and the current situation in Egypt won't make testing it any easier.

This isn't the first time Houdin has put forward a theory about hidden structures in the Great Pyramid. He has previously put forward the hypothesis that the enigmatic monument was built using an internal ramp system, an idea that he expanded upon as co-author of the 2008 book The Secret of the Great Pyramid. Here's a news report that mentions both of Houdin's ideas and the plans to check for their existence:


And let's not forget those other secret chambers that could well exist in the Great Pyramid...

Tut's Treasures Looted

With the world's focus on civil unrest in Egypt, one aspect of the turmoil that will be of particular interest to TDG readers is the safety of the country's priceless antiquities and monuments. Unfortunately, news has emerged that the Cairo Museum has been broken into, and a number of treasures have been either looted or vandalised - including those of Tutankhamun.

Egyptologist Margaret Maitland has kept a close eye on video reports from Al Jazeera and with help from others has documented the possible damages and losses in a series of updates at The Eloquent Peasant. These include t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶u̶m̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶T̶u̶t̶'̶s̶ ̶g̶r̶e̶a̶t̶-̶g̶r̶a̶n̶d̶p̶a̶r̶e̶n̶t̶s̶ ̶Y̶u̶y̶a̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶T̶j̶u̶y̶a̶ (not so, according to this update from Alan Boyle), a 4000-year-old wooden boat, a number of priceless statuettes of Tutankhamun, and also one of Tut's ceremonial fans.

The current 'Pharaoh' of Egyptian archaeology, Dr Zahi Hawass, has also posted a blog on his website with an update on the situation (via fax to Europe, as the internet has been shut down in Egypt), saying his "heart is broken" and his "blood is boiling." You can also find further information about the museum damage at MSNBC's Cosmic Log. Let's hope that the current reports give the full extent of the losses, and it's not discovered later that someone has filled their boots and things are being covered up.

Maitland notes that Wafaa el-Saddik, former director of the Egyptian Museum, has said in an interview that the looting of the museum was an inside job by guards and police. I've also seen rumours on Twitter that the vandalism was done by the Mubarek regime as propaganda against the protesters, but I have seen no actual evidence of that as yet. In more positive news, a number of reports have mentioned that young Egyptians are banding together to help protect various museums and monuments around the country that have not yet been given an official guard.

On a sidenote, one wonders what this damage will mean for the ongoing quest by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to repatriate archaeological treasures in museums around the world. It would be highly likely that these museums, obviously unwilling to let go of priceless Egyptian artefacts, will now put forward the defence that it's not safe to send them back to their country of origin. Although, to be fair, Berlin Museum - which currently holds the famous bust of Nefertiti - might be hard-pressed to use that argument in their favour...

Another question yet to be answered is what a change of government might mean for Zahi Hawass. Just over a year ago Dr Hawass was installed by President Mubarek as Vice Minister for Culture, in an apparent circumvention of his forced (mandatory) retirement as head of the SCA. He is also a noted sycophant to the current regime:

I would also like to say how grateful I am to President Mubarak. He is a unique man, who has given a lot to his country. He has been in public service for years and I have not once seen him make a decision just for himself. Everything he does, he does for Egypt. His wife, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, I feel deserves a Nobel Prize for the work she has done for peace.

From comments I've seen, and emails I've received over the years, I think a substantial portion of the archaeological community wouldn't mind a sea change in Egyptian archaeology.

Update: For ongoing news, see the Egyptologists for Egypt Facebook page.

Previously on TDG: