Archaeologists Discover 7-lb. Calcified Uterus in British Cemetery

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

Stonehenge Builders Likely Descended From Immigrants, Genetic Analysis Says

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There's a lot we don't know about Stonehenge, but until recently, the structure was thought to have been built by hunter-gatherers native to what's considered England today. A new study disputes that theory. As IFL Science reports, Stonehenge was likely the the work of Turkish people who migrated to Britain 6000 years ago and their descendants.

In the new report published in the journal Nature: Ecology & Evolution, scientists from London's Natural History Museum and University College London explain how they analyzed the DNA from the remains of dozens of people who lived in Britain between 8500 BCE and 2500 BCE.

The results contained fewer native British genes than expected: Researchers found that when the people whose bones they studied were alive, most of Britain's hunter-gatherer population had already been replaced by farmers from the Aegean region.

Roughly 6000 years ago, people from what is now Turkey traveled across Europe and settled in Britain. In addition to reshaping the British gene pool, the new group also introduced agriculture to the area. Archaeologists have long debated whether farming is something that was brought to Britain by a different culture or if native hunter-gatherers gradually adopted it on their own.

"The transition to farming marks one of the most important technological innovations in human evolution. It first appeared in Britain around 6000 years ago; prior to that people survived by hunting, fishing and gathering," study co-author Mark Thomas said in a press release. "Our study strongly supports the view that immigrant farmers introduced agriculture into Britain and largely replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherer populations."

That means Stonehenge, the first part of which was constructed around 3000 BCE, was likely the work of people who were culturally and genetically closer to ancient Aegeans than native Britons. But how they moved the 25-ton stones to their current location and for what purpose remains a mystery.

[h/t IFL Science]

An Ancient Shipwreck Has Been Turned Into an Underwater Museum Off the Coast of Greece

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

If you love ancient history and eerie, abandoned places, it might be time to break out the scuba diving gear and book a flight to Greece. As AFAR reports, the site of an ancient shipwreck near Alonissos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, has been turned into an underwater museum.

While underwater museums exist in Florida, Mexico, and Europe, those destinations are geared more toward art and sculpture lovers. In this case, divers will be swimming alongside a piece of history dating back to the late 5th century B.C.E. The wooden cargo ship, which sank for an unknown reason, disintegrated long ago. However, the seabed is still covered in thousands of amphoras (a kind of storage jar used in ancient Greece and Italy), which likely held wine.

Dubbed the Peristera shipwreck, the site was discovered in the early 1990s. It was named after the uninhabited island where it was discovered, but guided dives of the site leave from the harbor of Steni Valla on Alonissos, which is located in the Northern Sporades group of islands in the northwest Aegean Sea.

Peristera is the first shipwreck in Greece to be made accessible to the public, but it won’t be the last. As part of a program funded by the European Commission, the country also plans to open up three other shipwreck sites in the Pagasetic Gulf. The efforts are part of a push to promote eco-friendly tourism while also highlighting the country’s rich history.

“The goal is in the next two years to make the country’s shipwrecks visitable, but also to provide important information and raise awareness about underwater monuments, such as the Peristera wreck off Alonissos,” alternate culture minister Kostas Stratis said at an event, according to the Greek City Times.

Italy and Croatia are also expected to create their own underwater museums in the future via the same program, called BlueMed.

[h/t AFAR]

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