Where we attempt to fill you in on everything they forgot to teach you at school

Orion of the Maya

Two of my passions are history and astronomy. So what could be better than combining the two? Check out this lovely image of a Mayan temple at Tikal with Orion high in the sky above it, as shot by astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard (click for large version):

Orion over Mayan Temple
© Stéphane Guisard, Los Cielos de Los Mayas
Credit: Stéphane Guisard / IDAEH-Tikal

Also love this long-exposure picture which gives an idea of the mystique that the night sky would have had for ancient people, and summons up some of those strange feelings you get when you start to venture into the mindset of the myth-makers (the 'Imperishable Ones', the 'Hitching Post of the Sun', the center of the whirlpool):

The Cosmic Whirlpool
© Stéphane Guisard, Los Cielos de Los Mayas
Credit: Stéphane Guisard / IDAEH-Tikal

For other galleries and higher resolution versions of these great shots, see Stéphane Guisard's website

Previously on TDG:

Viking Sunstone Navigation

New evidence has added support for the 'myth' that Viking sailors navigated with the help of a sunstone. In a paper published today in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists say the polarising properties of the crystal may well have allowed the Vikings to deduce the position of the Sun, even when hidden behind clouds or fog, or below the horizon.

Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season in the far north would have prevented them from using the stars as a guide to their positions, and the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe — in any case, it would have been of limited use so close to the North Pole.

But Viking legends, including an Icelandic saga centering on the hero Sigurd, hint that these sailors had another navigational aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sunstone.

The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the Sun. To check Sigurd's answer, Olaf "grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun". In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.

On a more skeptical note, the Nature article also notes the view of Sean McGrail, expert in ancient seafaring, that there still is no actual evidence to indicate that the Vikings did use crystals in this way: "You can show how they could be used, but that isn't proof," he says. "People were navigating long before this without any instruments."

Secret Chambers in the Great Pyramid

Mucho news coverage today of the 'discovery' of Khufu's actual burial chamber in the Great Pyramid. Now first off, let's get this straight - it's not a "discovery", or the revelation "of the existence of the chambers", it's just a hypothesis at this stage. Having got that out of the way, let's dig in to the speculation.

This new hypothesis for the true burial chamber of Khufu has been put forward by French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, and is based on similar known chambers in (Khufu's father) Sneferu's ‘Red’ pyramid at Dahshur, and a floor-level block in the King's Chamber of Khufu's pyramid which doesn't actually support the blocks above it (see the Talking Pyramids website for the full explanation):

Pyramid Stones

(Credit: Talking Pyramids)

If true, this would be a spectacular discovery. But I think at this stage it's still to be taken with plenty of grains of salt...and the current situation in Egypt won't make testing it any easier.

This isn't the first time Houdin has put forward a theory about hidden structures in the Great Pyramid. He has previously put forward the hypothesis that the enigmatic monument was built using an internal ramp system, an idea that he expanded upon as co-author of the 2008 book The Secret of the Great Pyramid. Here's a news report that mentions both of Houdin's ideas and the plans to check for their existence:

And let's not forget those other secret chambers that could well exist in the Great Pyramid...

Tut's Treasures Looted

With the world's focus on civil unrest in Egypt, one aspect of the turmoil that will be of particular interest to TDG readers is the safety of the country's priceless antiquities and monuments. Unfortunately, news has emerged that the Cairo Museum has been broken into, and a number of treasures have been either looted or vandalised - including those of Tutankhamun.

Egyptologist Margaret Maitland has kept a close eye on video reports from Al Jazeera and with help from others has documented the possible damages and losses in a series of updates at The Eloquent Peasant. These include t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶u̶m̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶T̶u̶t̶'̶s̶ ̶g̶r̶e̶a̶t̶-̶g̶r̶a̶n̶d̶p̶a̶r̶e̶n̶t̶s̶ ̶Y̶u̶y̶a̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶T̶j̶u̶y̶a̶ (not so, according to this update from Alan Boyle), a 4000-year-old wooden boat, a number of priceless statuettes of Tutankhamun, and also one of Tut's ceremonial fans.

The current 'Pharaoh' of Egyptian archaeology, Dr Zahi Hawass, has also posted a blog on his website with an update on the situation (via fax to Europe, as the internet has been shut down in Egypt), saying his "heart is broken" and his "blood is boiling." You can also find further information about the museum damage at MSNBC's Cosmic Log. Let's hope that the current reports give the full extent of the losses, and it's not discovered later that someone has filled their boots and things are being covered up.

Maitland notes that Wafaa el-Saddik, former director of the Egyptian Museum, has said in an interview that the looting of the museum was an inside job by guards and police. I've also seen rumours on Twitter that the vandalism was done by the Mubarek regime as propaganda against the protesters, but I have seen no actual evidence of that as yet. In more positive news, a number of reports have mentioned that young Egyptians are banding together to help protect various museums and monuments around the country that have not yet been given an official guard.

On a sidenote, one wonders what this damage will mean for the ongoing quest by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to repatriate archaeological treasures in museums around the world. It would be highly likely that these museums, obviously unwilling to let go of priceless Egyptian artefacts, will now put forward the defence that it's not safe to send them back to their country of origin. Although, to be fair, Berlin Museum - which currently holds the famous bust of Nefertiti - might be hard-pressed to use that argument in their favour...

Another question yet to be answered is what a change of government might mean for Zahi Hawass. Just over a year ago Dr Hawass was installed by President Mubarek as Vice Minister for Culture, in an apparent circumvention of his forced (mandatory) retirement as head of the SCA. He is also a noted sycophant to the current regime:

I would also like to say how grateful I am to President Mubarak. He is a unique man, who has given a lot to his country. He has been in public service for years and I have not once seen him make a decision just for himself. Everything he does, he does for Egypt. His wife, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, I feel deserves a Nobel Prize for the work she has done for peace.

From comments I've seen, and emails I've received over the years, I think a substantial portion of the archaeological community wouldn't mind a sea change in Egyptian archaeology.

Update: For ongoing news, see the Egyptologists for Egypt Facebook page.

Previously on TDG:

Visualising Giza

This is wonderful: Visualising Giza is "an on-going project documenting Giza's inspiration to explorers, artists, engravers and photographers from 1400 to 1923". From the early fanciful drawings of 15th century explorers, to photos of swarms of infantryman covering Khufu's Pyramid and the Sphinx during the Great War, "Visualising Giza" is the motherlode of imagery when it comes to these famous Egyptian monuments. Here's one of my favourites - two ladies atop the Great Pyramid (at sunset) in 1920. They're looking suspiciously elegant after a 450 foot climb...

Ladies atop the Great Pyramid

I've been lucky enough to visit the Giza Plateau (just the once), and I hope anyone that hasn't yet been gets the chance to do it at some point. Truly history on a grand scale (chronologically and physically):

Giza Pyramids - As Above So Below

View the whole collection at Visualising Giza. Thanks Paula.

Word Mining with Google's Ngram Viewer

Google has taken on plenty of ambitious projects over the past decade, perhaps none more so than Google Books: the internet giant has so far managed to scan more than 5 million books into digital format. This has - for obvious reasons - generated much controversy regarding copyright and other aspects. Though it has bewildered me for a number of years how most people haven't understood the positive side of this incredible undertaking - basically making the corpus of all printed literature keyword searchable! Forget the old days of searching your local library for a title using the Dewey Decimal system - you can now search a mega-libary instantaneously for a particular keyword anywhere within the book...and then buy or download the book immediately.

Anyhow, recently Google have made a new tool available to search the Google Books database - the Ngram Viewer - which allows tracking of the use of particular words throughout history in published material. It's quite a bit of fun to use, and rather illuminating as well in various ways. As a simple example, and one that I'm sure nobody would doubt too much - usage of the word "vampire" over the last few hundred years, leading up to the modern fixation with this horror archetype:

Vampire Ngram

But it's interesting to find out that other terms were, surprisingly, not written about much until modern times (or perhaps, were discussed via different terminology). For example, "afterlife":

Afterlife Ngram

Another interesting exercise is to compare terms. Say for example that we wanted to see the most common spelling of the word describing the field of UFO studies, which tends to always end in disputes - ufology, UFOlogy, or Ufology. Google's Ngram Viewer shows that though it started out as "UFOlogy", since the 1970s "ufology" has become the most used term - though in recent years its usage has fallen off with the variant spellings closing the gap:

Ufology Ngram

Lots of other fun to be had, so head on over and get to it - and report back on any intriguing results in the comments! Science vs religion is particularly illuminating - try plugging in other terms like "Great Pyramid", "Illuminati", and "LSD" to find intriguing spikes during certain decades which point to historical moments and discoveries. Remember to vary your time frames as needed, and be careful how you enter words as they are case sensitive.

The Pyramids of China

Pyramids fascinate many readers of The Daily Grail - the more mysterious the better. As such, it's hard to beat the Pyramids of China, which - due to their location - have remained an enigma to Westerners, even in these modern days of instant, ubiquitous information via the Intarwebs. Nevertheless, there is some info out there - for example, here's some recent footage of some of the structures:

You can read more about these fascinating ancient constructions at World-Pyramids.com. Also, for the desktop explorers out there, you can find Google Earth co-ordinates to a number of them at Wikipedia.

Vale Zecharia Sitchin

The website of 'alternative history' author Zecharia Sitchin has posted a statement announcing his passing at the age of 90:

We regret to inform you that Zecharia Sitchin passed away on the morning of October 9th. A small, private family funeral was held the next day.Zecharia Sitchin

The family asks that you respect its privacy during this difficult time and refrain from contacting family members directly. Instead, to offer tributes to Mr. Sitchin or to contact those handling his affairs, please email tributes@sitchin.com or send a letter to P.O. Box 577, New York, NY 10185.

We appreciate the support that you have given over the years. Please continue to monitor this website for further updates.

Sitchin had been busy earlier in the year promoting his latest book There Were Giants Upon the Earth, including an interview in June posted at Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log. In July Sitchin had posted a note on his site regarding a hospital visit due to "an acute abdominal problem", though he hoped to "return to full activity" after a short rest.

Zecharia Sitchin shot to fame (and notoriety amongst scientists) in the mid 1970s with his book The 12th Planet ('Book One of the Earth Chronicles'), in which he put forward the hypothesis that Sumerian civilisation was 'kick-started' by the Anunnaki, a race of extra-terrestrials from a 'lost' planet in our own Solar System (on an elliptical orbit) called Nibiru. He went on to write a large number of books exploring these ideas further.

Sitchin was part of the 'ancient astronaut' genre which exploded in the 1970s via the works of authors such as Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods) and Robert Temple (The Sirius Mystery).

Time to Show

An awesome video-mapping show to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the construction of the Prague Astronomical Clock:

Definitely not "so anti-climactic"...

Colbert on Geller

Uri Geller gets the Stephen Colbert treatment in the wake of news the famous spoon-bender is in search of lost Egyptian treasure on the Scottish island he bought a few years back:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mysteries of the Ancient Unknown - King Tut's Penis Pt. 2
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Geller, King Tut, and Leslie Kean on UFOs - all in recent weeks. Is Colbert a Fortean? Or a skeptic? Who cares, it's all good fun.

Previously on TDG: