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English Palace Identifies Marble Garden Planter as Roman Sarcophagus

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A year ago, at England’s Blenheim Palace, officials discovered a priceless piece of history hiding in plain sight when an antiques expert identified a marble flower planter—used to grow tulips in a palace garden—as part of a Roman sarcophagus. The relic was cleaned and restored, and recently put on public display inside the house, The New York Times reports.

Located in Oxfordshire, England, Blenheim Palace is the main residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. It’s one of England’s largest houses, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. As for the Roman sarcophagus, it came to Blenheim Palace sometime during the 19th century. Originally, the marble relic was used to collect water from a local spring; in later years—as early as the 20th century—it was integrated into a rock garden. There the sarcophagus sat for decades, attached to a lead cistern, until last year, when a visiting antiques specialist happened to notice it while walking through the garden.

The 6-foot-long sarcophagus fragment was once the front of a coffin, and is missing its base, sides, and back. It’s believed to date back to the 2nd century CE, and features carvings of lion heads and Roman gods, including Hercules, Ariadne, and a tipsy Dionysus leaning on a satyr. Experts don’t know whether anyone was actually buried in the sarcophagus, but thanks to its fine carving, they believe it belonged to someone of high social status.

The sarcophagus is likely valuable: It has some wear and tear, but it's mostly in good condition. Similar artifacts of lesser quality have been auctioned off for as much as $121,000. But despite its potential worth, officials at Blenheim Palace say they have no interest in selling the piece.

Blenheim Palace isn’t the only household to own a Roman sarcophagus unawares, or use it as a planter. In 2012, a Roman marble coffin—used as a flower trough by homeowners in Dorset, England—was sold at auction for $133,000. And after reading about the discovery, a retired couple in Newcastle, in northeast England, realized a marble planter in their own gardens was also a Roman sarcophagus, dating back to the 1st or 2nd century CE. They sold it in 2013 for $55,400.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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