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CFEETK-CNRS-MoA: J. Maucor / Antiquity 2017
CFEETK-CNRS-MoA: J. Maucor / Antiquity 2017

Egyptian Priests Buried These Sacred Statues of Gods More Than 2000 Years Ago

CFEETK-CNRS-MoA: J. Maucor / Antiquity 2017
CFEETK-CNRS-MoA: J. Maucor / Antiquity 2017

An Egyptian statue "grave" filled with figurines of deities and mythical creatures ranging from sphinxes to monkeys is providing archaeologists with new insights into ancient religious practices, according to the International Business Times. These findings were recently published online in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists in Luxor discovered the cache in 2014, while excavating a temple dedicated to Egyptian creator god Ptah. Ptah's temple is situated in the precinct of Amun-Re, a central section of the massive religious complex of Karnak that was devoted to the male god, who was associated with the ancient city of Thebes, as Luxor was known in antiquity. Other sections of the sprawling site celebrate Amun-Re's wife, the Egyptian mother goddess Mut, and the war-god Montu.

Behind an edifice of Thutmosis III—the 18th-dynasty pharaoh who's remembered for conquering all of Syria, giving ancient Egypt unprecedented global power—archaeologists discovered an oval pit about three feet deep and wide.

A total of 38 objects—statuettes, figurines, statue fragments—were found inside the pit, which researchers refer to as a favissa, defined by Antiquity as "an intentionally hoarded assemblage of religious objects in a pit." Most were broken, but some had well-preserved details. The sacred objects were crafted at different times, but were all buried during the second half of the Ptolemaic period, which spanned between the 2nd century BCE and the middle of the 1st century BCE.

Along with a large lower piece taken from a seated statue of Ptah—an artwork that had likely sat in the god's Karnak temple for years—the trove included one sphinx; two statuettes of Mut (one complete with hieroglyphic inscriptions); a head and a partial statuette featuring the cat goddess Bastet; 14 statues and figurines of Osiris, the god of rebirth; and three baboon statuettes, which represent Thoth, a deity of the Moon, learning, and writing. (Thoth's sacred animals were the ibis and the baboon.)

Statue bases, slabs, and inlay fragments were also found, the last of which included body parts like an iris, a cornea, and a false beard.


Main artifacts discovered: top left: male head; top right: lower part of the limestone statue of the god Ptah; bottom left: limestone sphinx; bottom right: small statue of Osiris.
(© CFEETK-CNRS-MoA: J. Maucor

Egyptian religious statues were considered to be alive, and were regularly washed, clothed, and fed by priests. The artifacts discovered in the pit may have had a shelf life as ritual objects, and were ceremonially buried after they were no longer useful, researchers say.

"We can consider that when a new statue was erected in the temple, this one [of Ptah] was set aside in a pit," said Christophe Thiers, the study's co-author and director of the French-Egyptian Centre for the Study of the Temples of Karnak, according to Live Science. "The other artifacts were also previously damaged during their 'lifetime' in the temple, and then they were buried with the Ptah statue" to symbolically protect it.

The priests likely lowered the fragment of Ptah statue's down into the pit first, before placing down a wooden effigy of Osiris and surrounding it with other objects. The pit was covered with a layer of backfill, and topped with a small limestone sphinx. It then received a second layer of earth, and was topped with a gilded protective statue of a male head—only for researchers to dig up the elaborate arrangement more than 2000 years later.

[h/t International Business Times]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Skeleton of the Pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy
iStock
iStock

The skeleton of a famous pirate dead for more than three centuries may have been discovered. This week, researchers in Massachusetts announced they'd found a human skeleton near the wreck of a ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717—and they think it just might be the remains of New England's greatest pirate, Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy.

Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Following the War of Spanish Succession, Bellamy relocated to Massachusetts in 1715.

It's said that Bellamy fell in love with a local beauty named Maria Hallett, whose parents didn't want their daughter marrying a lowly sailor. This bit of folklore might be baseless—although historians do know that a young woman with that name did live in Eastham, Mass. at the time. But in any case, Bellamy soon left the colony to pursue a get-rich scheme.

He and a friend had learned that a treasure-laden Spanish fleet had recently sunk near the Florida Keys, so the duo promptly headed south. After failing to salvage any loot, Bellamy turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work: He captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. Forbes magazine has calculated that all the loot Bellamy seized would be worth $120 million in modern U.S. dollars.


Gold recovered from wreck of the Whydah.
Theodore Scott, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Despite the dark nickname bestowed by others—and his considerable net worth—Bellamy hated wealthy elites with a passion and liked to call himself the "Robin Hood of the Sea".

The flagship of Bellamy's fleet was the 300-ton Whydah, a former British slave vessel. In 1717, the pirate took the ship up to New England. Then, on April 26, 1717, a wicked storm sank the Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet. Most of the crew—including Bellamy—went down with it.

In 1984, marine explorer Barry Clifford and his diving team found the ship's wreckage. More than 200,000 artifacts from the site have since been taken ashore. To give them a proper home, Clifford established the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth in 2016.

This past November, researchers at the museum found part of a human skeleton inside a hardened block of sediment they'd taken from the Whydah's general area a few years ago. The slab also contained a belt, some cufflinks, and—most interestingly—a pistol. According to an Associated Press report, this gun is believed to have been Bellamy's.

Forensic scientists at the University of New Haven plan to compare DNA from the bones against that of a living Bellamy descendant in England. Whether the skeleton turns out to be the famous captain's or somebody else's, though, it'll most likely be interred—eventually. On February 19, the bones will be on display during a press conference.

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