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Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

Archaeologists Discover 7-lb. Calcified Uterus in British Cemetery

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Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

During recent excavations at a cemetery in southeast England, archaeologists pulled something strange out of an otherwise unremarkable grave. The object looked like a hybrid of a soccer ball and a rugby ball—bulbous at one end, tapered at the other. It was smooth as bone, resting near the hips of the skeleton of an older woman, who had been buried in a shroud at least 200 years ago.

“The first thing you would think is somehow the head has rolled down into the pelvis,” said Carolyn Rando, a forensic anthropologist at University College London. But the object wasn’t a skull. It was completely solid, and, at more than seven pounds, it was strikingly heavy. After making a careful analysis, Rando and her colleagues think it’s a calcified uterus, the largest of its kind in the archaeological record. 

"I’ve never seen anything quite like that before, nor have my colleagues, and we were very excited,” Rando told mental_floss. “It’s one of the largest masses found archaeologically."

This giant calcified growth was found at St. Michael’s Litten, a graveyard in Chichester that was used from the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, but had been hidden under a parking lot until excavations in 2011 turned up nearly 2000 bodies.

The uterus belonged to a woman who was over 50, had lost all of her teeth and had developed osteoporosis by the time she died, likely sometime between the 1600s and 1800s. (Archaeologists don’t have good dates for most of the graves at this cemetery.) The mass probably started out as a number of leiomyomas, sometimes called uterine fibroids, which are benign growths that occur in up to 40 percent of women of reproductive age. Most of the time, these masses remain soft tissue and don’t calcify. But some leiomyomas can get so large that they outstrip their blood supply and start to harden.

Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

Rando and her colleagues came up with this diagnosis after conducting CT scans of the mass and then slicing it in half to look at its interior structure. In their case report, published in the September issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology, the scientists ruled out a long list of other potential conditions, including the possibility that the growth was a lithopedion, a fetus that dies during pregnancy and hardens outside the uterus. (This phenomenon occasionally shows up in the news, most recently in June, when a 50-year-old stone baby was found inside of an elderly woman in Chile.)

It’s not exactly clear how the growth affected the life of the woman who was buried at St. Michael’s, or if it contributed to her death. 

“I’m sure she knew she had something,” Rando said. “I imagine that she might have had some problems going to the bathroom properly. I don’t think she would have been very comfortable. It would be like carrying a full-term infant all the time. But she lived a long life and this object would have taken a long time to grow, so maybe it didn’t bother her that much.”

In archaeological medical cases like this one, it’s tough to look for modern analogs, as most women today would get leiomyomas removed quite early, Rando said. But while scouring the historical medical literature, Rando and her colleagues did find one case that might shed light on how a woman could have lived with a baby-sized, calcified uterus for so long—and at what health risk. In 1840, a British doctor described a 72-year-old woman who came to him with intense abdominal pain after a fall. He noticed that she had a hard mass in her abdomen, which she said had been there for at least 30 years without causing her any trouble. Soon after the exam, the woman died. An autopsy revealed a tumor as hard as marble that resembled the uterus at five months pregnant, in both size and shape. The fall had caused this growth to perforate a section of the woman’s bowel, which killed her. 

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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