The Nebra sky disk, found near Nebra, Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. It is dated to c. 1600 BCE, and is associated with the Bronze Age Unetice culture.
This artifact weighs 2.2 kg, and is inlaid with gold symbols. It is thought that this disk was an astronomical instrument, and likely also held religious significance. This find reconfirms the abilities and astronomical knowledge of the people of the European Bronze Age, which included the sun’s angle between its rising and setting points at summer and winter solstice, and close observation of the sun’s course over the year. The Nebra sky disk is the oldest known “portable instrument” showing such measurements.
The disk appears to have been developed in four stages (Meller 2004):
1) On the right is the waxing moon, on the left the full moon, and between and above, the Pleiades.
2) Arcs are added on the horizon for the zones of the setting and rising of the sun. Individual stars were shifted and/or covered.
3) The “sun boat” is added.
4) The disk in its current condition. A star and part of the full moon (or sun) was restored.
(The diagrams used are by Rainer Zenz)
Euan MacKie suggests that the Nebra disk can be linked to Alexander Thom’s reconstructed solar calendar from his analysis of standing stone alignments in Britain.
Is Earth the only living needle in this haystack of planets?
We live in one of a hundred billion of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. And now, thanks to modern astronomy, we know that the Milky Way is home to perhaps a hundred billion planets! In the past two decades, these exoplanet discoveries have spawned new questions about our universe, and if there might be another Earth, or other life, somewhere out there.
In part one of my two-part series on exoplanets, we’ll look at how astronomers find exoplanets, and what it means to call them Earth-like. We also trace the history of planetary science back three thousand years and examine Earth’s changing status in the cosmos.
We were once the center of the universe, and now Earth is just another rock in the sky. What does that mean for us?
This is a blog entry I did for the Petrie Museum blog back in August, but for some reason, it has disappeared from that blog :( so I thought I’d post it here.
The meteoric origins of Egypt’s first ironwork
Deep in the Predynastic galleries of London’s Petrie Museum, there is something truly out of this world.
In the cabinet containing jewellery and beads from a tomb in Gerzeh, a site about 70km from Cairo, there are three iron beads. They may not look like much, they are small, blackened and corroded and placed among more colourful artefacts, but these are no ordinary beads…they are made from a meteorite. At over 5,000 years old, they are the oldest man made iron objects in history.
Professor Thilo Rehren from UCL made the discovery that proved the extraterrestrial origins of the iron beads, which are not made from pure iron but an iron-nickel alloy. This natural alloy is common in meteorites but the research team needed further proof. By scanning the beads with gamma rays and neutron beams, Thilo and his research team discovered unusually high amounts of cobalt, germanium and phosphorus. This was the proof that the metal really did originate in space, as these trace elements are found in higher concentrations in meteoric iron than in iron ore.
The beads also show the earliest examples of blacksmithing: instead of being carved or drilled like other beads, the iron was heated before being hammered and rolled into shape, then cooled extremely slowly to prevent the metal from cracking.
The discovery is further evidence that ancient Egyptians knew of iron in its metallic form long before the discovery of smelting iron ore mined from the ground. They seemed to have known that this metal had celestial origins and associated it with divinity and rebirth: the Pyramid Texts speak of the bones of the deceased king as being made from iron. There is even a theory that the ritual blades used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony may have been made from meteoric iron. This ceremony was performed on the mummified dead as a means of reanimating the soul of the deceased.
Whilst it is more probable that ancient Egyptians came across these iron-rich stones in the desert by chance whilst looking for stones with which to make jewellery, I can also imagine that perhaps they would have witnessed huge fireballs falling from the sky, shooting stars much brighter and more dramatic than usual. When they investigated where these may have landed, they would have discovered unusual metallic stones, and thus concluded that it they were made from a special, possibly sacred material.
Interestingly, this is not the only meteorite-related story to come out of Egypt…
The mysterious Benben stone, a cult object which once stood in the solar temple at Heliopolis, may have been a meteorite that had a conical or pyramidal shape. We will never know for sure what the Benben really was, since the stone was lost in antiquity, but some suggest that its shape may have been the inspiration for the tips of obelisks and even the pyramids themselves.
Another rock from space also fell upon Egypt in 1911. Like the meteorite that exploded over Russia in February 2013, the Nakhla meteorite’s entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was spectacular and noisy. One account claims that it struck and killed a dog, however, this is probably just conjecture. This meteorite is even more remarkable because we now know that it originally came from Mars. Scientists analysed trapped bubbles of gas within Nakhla and discovered the gas had a composition identical to that of the Martian atmosphere, which had been analysed by the Viking Mars lander. It is thought a huge cosmic impact chipped the rock off the Red Planet’s surface and propelled it towards Earth.
I will end with another piece of cosmic Egyptian jewellery belonging to one of the most famous pharaohs of all. There is a region of Egypt’s Western Desert, close to the border with Libya, which is strewn with fragments of natural glass, formed when the sand there was molten by extremely high temperatures. This is most likely to have been caused by a large meteorite exploding in the atmosphere that heated the air to thousands of degrees, causing the sand to melt and to eventually form a beautiful greenish-yellow glass once it had cooled. The event took place in prehistory, about 29 million years ago. One of the pieces of desert glass was then collected by ancient Egyptians, fashioned into the shape of a scarab and placed in a necklace belonging to none other than the boy king Tutankhamun. The necklace can now be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
MC Tz’utu Baktun Kan
It’s not often you get Guatemalan musicians or singers performing in the UK, but thanks to a online fundraising campaign, one of the most innovative rappers on the global hip-hop scene came to London for a couple of electrifying performances. The fact that he managed to come to the UK is a testament to the power of crowd-funding in helping musicians and artists from around the world find success.
MC Tz’utu, real name Rene Dionisio, hails from an indigenous community in the highlands of Guatemala, his aim is to put the contemporary Maya on the musical map, he does this by blending the ancient cultural practises and language of his people with hip-hop beats, blurring the boundaries between prayer, poetry and rap with his lyrics, and bringing an element of ritual to his shows by performing an invocation and making offerings to the ancestors and spirits of the day – a tradition based on the Mayan calendar – before his concerts.
Before the show, we watched one of these invocations, performed on the South Bank, within eyeshot of St Pauls and the London Eye. A conch shell horn was blown towards the four cardinal points and Tz’utu chanted in his native Mayan language over a flaming cauldron of incense (and puffed on a big cigar) as we placed offerings of candles in the fire. It was a very moving, contemplative moment, though the peaceful mood of the ceremony was cut short by the Lord Mayor’s Show fireworks.
After the noise abated and the smoke cleared, the gig started in earnest, at the Ecocentrix exhibition inside the Bargehouse gallery by the Oxo Tower. Tz’utu rapped and sang in three of the Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala (and a bit of Spanish). The music ranged from highly danceable reggae and tango influenced tracks to hypnotic trip-hop style tracks inspired by sacred chants and prayers, there were backing tracks that fused hip-hop with indigenous instruments such as flutes and bird-mimicking whistles, rattles, rainsticks and conch horns. Even though people may not have understood the lyrics, Tz’utu still entranced the crowd with his presence and his mesmerising delivery.
Tz’utu performed tracks from his forthcoming album, inspired by twenty calendar spirits/essences that represent different aspects of Maya spirituality. These aspects are animal, vegetable, mineral and cosmic, including the Milky Way, the obsidian stone, the snake, the maize plant, and more. But there were also songs that told of more hard-hitting issues such as environmental destruction and the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war, which Tz’utu witnessed first hand as a child.
However, despite those serious or symbolic messages in his music, there was a wonderful party atmosphere and a feeling of conviviality to the whole occasion. We were all invited on to the stage to dance if we wanted to. There were also indigenous children, originally from Guatemala, whom British foster parents had adopted. They were invited to the show to learn about their ancestral culture and how it has evolved and contemporised. At the encore, Tz’utu freestyled with London based rappers and beatboxers whilst the children danced enthusiastically on stage. It represented what I love most about my city at its best…it really can be a place where the world comes together and merges to form something beautiful.
I look forward to hearing Tz’utu’s album when it is released, hopefully around December. I wish him all the best in this exciting venture. (I also have to thank the awesome people at the Ecocentrix exhibition, Indigeneity in the Contemporary World and Border Crossings for the fundraiser and hosting this gig, without them none of this would have been possible!)
Truth be told, I’d be a terrible critic…I’m too nice, not scathing enough!
But I still want to use this tumblr for something useful, every now and then…so maybe I’ll try blogging with it.
So here’s my first of what will be many blog posts, reviews and the like. I finally got to see this film so I have to rave about it…
I haven’t seen many films in 2013 but I had to see this one. It’s about a subject very close to my heart (SPAAAAAAACE!) and seeing astronauts raving about it on Twitter, as well as various science bloggers giving it high praise, I just had to check it out. If astronauts say it’s good, it has to be good, surely?
I am happy to say that Gravity lives up to the hype. The plot is pretty straightforward (space shuttle is ruined by space debris from a satellite blown up by the Russians, the astronauts are thrown off course and orbiting out of control, and they have to find a way to return to Earth before the debris, moving at speeds comparable to a bullet, does even more damage) but this film is all about the visuals, the special effects, that makes it worth every penny to see on the big screen. Go and see it in 3D, if you can. I don’t normally see 3D films but it was worth the cost. In 3D, you FEEL this film. As in, really feel it. I felt butterflies in my stomach, like being on a ride at the funfair, as the camera followed the astronauts floating and zipping around the space station. I felt slightly dizzy as I saw the Earth looming over the astronauts, as though I was with them. I actually flinched as fragments of space junk hurtled at me, out of the screen. That’s how good the 3D was. But even if you don’t see it in 3D, you’re in for a visual treat. Get ready to feel your eyes pop out of their sockets.
The effect of space and the earth below is so authentic, you’d think they actually did film in space. The countries and cities on our planet were so realistic; I could identify them at times. (Italy was very prominent in one scene.) Even the constellations in the sky were accurate.
Other than a soundtrack and sounds inside the space stations, this film reinforces the silence of space. No whoosh-bang sound effects other than the ones provided by the musical score. As the camera pans in to the astronauts, you hear their voices as radio transmissions, crackly and full of interference, some tinny country music from George Clooney’s spacesuit, transmissions from Mission Control. Little moments of humanity from the cold, silent void. But when the shots are from inside the spacesuit, so to speak, or inside the space stations, you hear voices and sounds clearly. This was especially obvious in the scenes that were a transition from the vacuum of space to the oxygen-filled space stations, where the sound would gradually return as the air lock was sealed and the air pressure rose.
There were some wonderful touches in this film, such as seeing the aurora down below, the bit where the protagonists were floating above Egypt and the Nile Valley ablaze with lights, flames floating in the ‘weightlessness’ of the space station, seeing space from the perspective of Bullock’s character – you can see the fogged up visor, especially when she is panicking and the moisture in her breath condenses – and the scene where Sandra Bullock’s character was having a conversation over the radio, what she thought would be her last contact with Earth and humanity, the tears rolled down her cheeks and then floated around her. (This scene is very touching, where she catches the signal of an Inuit father singing to his child, and then proceeds to have a conversation with him that transcended language and distance.) Seeing a hurricane from above in the opening scene, I thought how disastrous it must be for the people in that storm (the horrible images from Typhoon Haiyan still lingering in my mind) but from space it looks almost serene. I did notice a lack of the lightning flashes that are ubiquitous in ISS videos of the earth at night, considering how lightning strikes thousands of times every day around the world, but that’s just a minor nitpick.
Talking of nitpicks, if you want to read about the science of the film, this review gives a nice overview of the scientific accuracy, both good and bad (but mostly good!) http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/10/04/ba_movie_review_gravity.html
So all in all, see this film and don’t forget to pay extra for the goofy glasses, your eyes will thank for it. Hold tight and enjoy the ride.