Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crystal Skulls' Murky Tale

An 'Aztec' Artifact Is As Fictional As Indiana Jones
Write to Christina Passariello at

PARIS -- Ever since the Quai Branly Museum placed its crystal skull in a glass display case a week ago, visitors have been swarming around the spooky artifact.
The museum's directors brought it out of storage to coincide with the release of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," opening this weekend. The film's plot is loosely based on the legend that 13 crystal skulls, dating from the Aztec period more than 500 years ago, must be reunited by 2012 to prevent the end of the world
But the Quai Branly's skull, along with others in prestigious museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum, are all phonies. The museum concedes that it knows little about the skull. Explanatory text next to the skull's display case doesn't explain much: "19th century? Europe?"
The bigger question: Why is a museum promoting an artifact it knows isn't authentic?
Partly because the public doesn't really care, notes Esther Pasztory, an art-history professor at Columbia University. "People want to see Aztec art," she notes, even if it isn't really Aztec art. Museums should clearly disclose counterfeit artifacts, she says, adding that known fakes still have their fans.
Fakes were once a source of embarrassment for museums. But more recently, they have become objects of fascination. In 1990, the British Museum put its most famous examples on display, including a sarcophagus that once was thought to be from the sixth century but was actually made in the 19th century.
Some fakes grow so notorious that they have taken on a significance of their own, becoming part of counterfeit lore. In 1896, the Louvre was duped into buying a rare gold tiara that it believed was a Greek treasure from the third century B.C. A German archaeologist soon proved it was a forgery, made by a Russian craftsman only a few years before it was sold. Humiliated by the affair, the Louvre locked it away for decades until the museum allowed the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to feature the tiara in a 1997 exhibition on the Russian craftsman.
"The crystal skulls are legitimate artifacts, just not what they purport to be," says Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who has studied 10 skulls since the Smithsonian received one as an anonymous donation in 1992. "We have to think of a new way of describing them. It's hard to call them fakes; sometimes I call them inventions," she says.
Museums are full of imitations, experts say. More than 600 were shown at the British Museum's exhibition. Many museum fakes were acquired during the rush to create large national collections in the late 19th century. "All museums have extraordinary fakes," says Stéphane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly, which opened two years ago to house France's national African, American, Asian and Oceanic collections.
Mr. Martin recalls being awed by the crystal skull as a boy when it was housed at Paris's Musée de l'Homme. But it wasn't until decades later, when preparing for the Quai Branly's opening, that he learned that the skull's Aztec origin was concocted. The British Museum and the Smithsonian shared the research they had done on their respective skulls. In the 1990s, Ms. Walsh of the Smithsonian had pored over excavation documents from pre-Columbian digs. No one had ever claimed to unearth a crystal skull.
Technological advances, which are unearthing previously undetected fakes, also let experts at the British Museum to go further in their study. In 1996, they analyzed the way holes were bored into the rock crystal for eyes, and into the top of the head. These were far too precise to have been done by hand. Using high-powered microscopes and scanners, the researchers concluded the tool marks left on the British and American skulls came from rotary machines. The Aztecs didn't possess such drills.
The British Museum informed Mr. Martin that it thought the French skull also wasn't genuine: Both the British and the French skulls had passed through the hands of a disreputable French antiquarian from the late 1800s, Eugène Boban. He peddled crystal skulls said to be from Mexico, beginning in the 1860s. Experts say he was well aware of their fraudulent origins -- and helped stoke the apocalyptic legend that surrounds them today.
Skulls -- carved out of volcanic rock -- were used in Aztec culture to commemorate human sacrifice. By claiming the crystal skulls were Aztec, which at the time conferred a mystical aura, Mr. Boban cloaked them in enigma. The myth of their significance snowballed for a century.
Mr. Martin decided not to include the French skull in the Quai Branly's permanent display because of space constraints. But the crystal sculpture had already attracted groups of fans and believers. He says he received letters from disgruntled devotees accusing him of not showing the skull out of fear of its curse. That's when he realized there was strong interest in the skull -- despite its dubious origins.
Over the past year, French researchers conducted a new investigation into the skull and reached the same conclusion as the British Museum and the Smithsonian. "Its story is strange and people like to talk about it," he says.
When Mr. Martin learned the title of the new Indiana Jones movie, he saw the opportunity to wheel the crystal skull out of storage. He doesn't deny that he thought the skull would drive visitors to the museum, despite its fake provenance. "We're riding a pop-culture wave, and we're trying to exploit it to our advantage," says Mr. Martin.
"But of course it's fake," said Yvane Hardy Riotte, a tattooed visitor who had come to see the skull. "The real ones are so powerful that no museum would dare to bring them out."
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

First Dinosaur Tracks Discovered On Arabian Peninsula

ScienceDaily (May 21, 2008) — Scientists have discovered the first dinosaur tracks on the Arabian Peninsula. They have discovered evidence of a large ornithopod dinosaur, as well as a herd of 11 sauropods walking along a Mesozoic coastal mudflat in what is now the Republic of Yemen.
"No dinosaur trackways had been found in this area previously. It's really a blank spot on the map," said Anne Schulp of the Maastricht Museum of Natural History in The Netherlands. He conducted the study with Ohio University paleontologist Nancy Stevens and Mohammed Al-Wosabi of Sana'a University in Yemen.
The finding also is an excellent example of dinosaur herding behavior, the researchers report. The site preserved footprints of 11 small and large sauropods -- long-necked, herbivorous dinosaurs that lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods -- traveling together at the same speed.
"It's rare to see such a big example of a dinosaur herd," Schulp said. "This is interesting social behavior for reptiles."
A Yemeni journalist spotted one of the trackways in 2003, about 50 kilometers north of the capital of Sana'a in the village of Madar. Stevens, Al-Wosabi and Schulp identified it as the footprint of an ornithopod, a large, common plant-eater sometimes referred to as the "cow of the Mesozoic," Schulp said. It walked on its hind legs.
Only a few dinosaur fossils have been reported so far from the Arabian Peninsula, including isolated bones from the Sultanate of Oman, which Schulp has studied, and possible fragments of a long-necked dinosaur from Yemen.
In late 2006, the research team conducted further field work at the Madar site. By taking measurements on the shape and angle of the different digits, they were able to identify the bipedal dinosaur as an ornithopod. The size, shape and spacing of the quadrupedal prints were used to identify the body size, travel speed and other distinguishing features of the animals in the sauropod herd, Stevens said.
The rocks in which the dinosaur tracks are preserved are likely Late Jurassic in age, some 150 million years old, according to Al-Wosabi. The tracks probably went unnoticed for so long, Schulp explained, because they were too big to be spotted by the untrained eye and were partially covered by rubble and debris. "It isn't a surprise that they were overlooked," he said.
Though ornithopods and sauropods overlapped in time, it's a bit unusual to find evidence of such a big ornithopod in the late Jurassic, the researchers noted.
"We really want to learn when did which dinosaurs live where, and why was that?" Schulp said. "How did the distribution change over time, why did one replace another and move from one place to another?"
The researchers agreed that discoveries from Yemen could yield more answers to those questions.
"This international collaboration provides an exciting new window into evolutionary history from a critically undersampled region," said Stevens, an assistant professor in Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. "These trackways help us to assemble a more detailed picture of what was happening on the southern landmasses. It's exciting to see new paleontological data coming out of Yemen -- and I think there is a lot more to discover."
The Yemen Geological Survey has implemented protective measures to preserve the trackways and to improve their accessibility to tourists, the researchers report.
Partial funding for the research was provided by the Yemen Geological Survey and Ohio University.
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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dinosaur Bones Reveal Ancient Bug Bites

ScienceDaily (May 6, 2008) — Paleontologists have long been perplexed by dinosaur fossils with missing pieces – sets of teeth without a jaw bone, bones that are pitted and grooved, even bones that are half gone. Now a Brigham Young University study identifies a culprit: ancient insects that munched on dinosaur bones.
BYU professor Brooks Britt will publish his study of these dinosaur bone-eating bugs in the May 8 issue of the scientific journal Ichnos. Britt’s idea for this study came when he first noticed the unique markings on the bones as an undergraduate at BYU.
“As students we noticed these marks and thought it might be due to algae or insects and we started calling them ‘bug bites,’ just for fun,” Britt said.
Years later, current BYU student Anne Dangerfield also wondered about the markings and teamed up with Britt to investigate the cause. They studied insect traces on the 148-million-year-old remains of a Camptosaurus, a plant-eating specimen discovered in Medicine Bow, Wyo., in 1995.
“I knew this trace was something different because I had been looking at fossil termite traces all summer, so I knew we needed to check it out,” Dangerfield said.
Their analysis revealed that beetles, from the family entomologists call Dermestidae, left the markings on the Camptosaurus. Dermestid beetles still exist today and are typically brown or black, oval-shaped and feed on flesh, hair, skin or horns of carcasses.
Information about the beetle’s typical habitat reveals the climate at the time of the Camptosaurus’ death probably had 60-80 percent relative humidity and a temperature of 77-86 F. By comparison, the average yearly temperature in Medicine Bow is now 43.5 F.
When the dinosaur died near what is now Medicine Bow, the carcass was consumed by other insects. The beetles then infested the Camptosaurus within months of its death.
In addition to shedding light on Wyoming’s ancient climate, Dangerfield and Britt’s work shows dermestid beetles existed much earlier than previously thought. The traces on this Camptosaurus predate the oldest body fossils for dermestid beetles by 48 million years.
“This information gives us an idea of the environment during the Jurassic period and the evolution of insects,” Dangerfield said.
To analyze the markings on the bones, Britt went to his family dentist for molding materials, allowing Britt to more quickly create replicas of the bone traces to work with.
He took the castings back to BYU’s Earth Science Museum where he used an electron microscope to look at the mandible markings in the bone, analyzing eating patterns and the width between the teeth marks. Britt and Dangerfield compared the marks to information about the mandibles of moths, termites, mayflies and dermestid beetles – all known to consume bone – to determine the identity of the insect.
“Other people have thought they have seen dermestid beetle marks, or they have interpreted termite marks as dermestids, but this paper provides a guide to identifying insects from the bone traces,” Britt said.
Britt and Dangerfield continued their research by looking at more than 7,000 bones from various quarries and found that insect traces on dinosaur bones are quite common, but dermestid beetle traces were found only on the Camptosaurus skeleton from Medicine Bow.
“Dr. Britt’s work is really exciting and delves into unique aspects of paleobiology that few scientists have yet explored,” said Eric Roberts, an expert in dinosaur decomposition who teaches at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. “Insects are among the most diverse and abundant organisms on the planet, yet we know next to nothing about the fossil record of insects because of their extremely limited preservation potential.”
Dangerfield’s undergraduate and graduate mentored research experience has impressed many potential employers. After finishing her master’s degree in August, she will assume a position with Exxon Mobile as an exploration oil and gas geologist.
“Whenever I show my resume, employers are impressed with the amount of undergraduate research I’ve done,” Dangerfield said.
Britt received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at BYU and his Ph.D. at the University of Calgary and is an assistant professor. Rodney Scheetz, another author on the study, is the curator at BYU’s Earth Science Museum.
Adapted from materials provided by Brigham Young University.
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