It is with great shock, sadness, and anger, that I must report one of the single greatest historical losses the world has ever seen. Sunday, September 2nd, 2018, at around 7:30 p.m., local time, the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil went up in flames, taking with it at least 20 million artifacts spanning 11,000 years of not only Brazilian history, but also Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Paleontological, Geological, Biological… Everything!
Before I go on to explain, please keep in mind that this tragedy is much more massive in terms of loss of artifacts than even the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Ancient accounts estimate the number of scrolls lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria is around 40,000. Modern scholars, such as Luciano Canfora (1990), professor at the University of Bari (Italy), have argued that the number may be much smaller, considering that some individual literary works were comprised of multiple scrolls. One of the highest estimates of the losses at Alexandria is from Aulus Gellius, in approximately 169 CE, who claimed that 700,000 scrolls were burned during the sack of Alexandria (Canfora, 1990); still nowhere close to 20 million! So what happened? How and why did this literal palace of cultural treasure burn? Brace yourself for the details, which are so shocking, they leave us wondering if this was a case of criminal negligence or criminal intent.
First, the background. The museum, located in Rio de Janeiro, is celebrating its 200th year. Founded in 1818 by King Dom João VI, it is also a research center that was incorporated into the University of Brazil (now UFRJ) in 1946. According to the National Museum of Brazil’s website, the collection had more than 20 million items covering many areas of science such as Archaeology, Ethnology, Geology, Paleontology, Zoology, and Biological Anthropology.
The fire was eventually controlled late in the morning of the following Monday, but small flares continued to burn parts of the institution's facility, causing the ashes of burned documents to fall in several neighborhoods of the city. According to the press office of the museum and the fire department, there were no injuries. Researchers and officials from the National Museum met with fire officials to try to assist in trying to save the museum. The goal was to prevent the fire from reaching a part of the museum containing flammable chemicals used in the preservation of rare animal specimens.
The causes of the tragedy are still unknown. The Brazilian Federal Police will investigate, but Minister of Culture, Sérgio Sá Leitão, theorized that the fire could have been the result of a short circuit. The Civil Police has opened an investigation and will pass on the case to the Federal Police's Office of Repression of Environmental Crimes and Historical Patrimony, which will determine if the fire was criminal or not.
Much of the building's structure was made of wood, and the collection had a lot of flammable material, which made the fire spread quickly. However, other factors were at play here. For example, only four guards were on site. Also, the museum's smoke detectors were not working. Firefighters arrived at the site soon after the fire started, but according to them, the two fire hydrants near the National Museum did not have enough pressure, even though according to the University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) rector, Roberto Lehrer, there was a reserve of water in the museum. The fire commander-in-chief, Colonel Roberto Robadey Costa Junior, said that the lack of water delayed their ability to fight the fire by a half hour, leaving firefighters with little choice but to collect water from a nearby pond in a futile effort to extinguish the blaze. Today’s dawn rainfall helped to extinguish further outbreaks.
Officials say that 90% of the entire collection is gone. Treasures from the collection of the National Museum include the skull of Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas; the largest Egyptian collection in Latin America, containing mummies and rare Egyptian objects purchased by Dom Pedro I and Dom Pedro II; also Incan artifacts and Andean mummies; a large collection of Greco-Roman art and artifacts of Empress Teresa Cristina; the collections of Paleontology that include the 80 million year old fossil of the dinosaur, Maxakalisaurus topai. The 5-ton meteorite, Bendegó, the largest ever found in Brazil, is the only item left untouched after the fire. Below are the pictures of the museum after the fire.
There are countless important artifacts and documents lost forever. While it is hard to imagine entire museum exhibits burning to the ground, it is perhaps harder to imagine what other items could have been lost. What about the artifacts stored away from public viewing? The museum, as an independent part of the university, was a research institution. Countless artifacts that were not in the public view are also gone. Were they burned too? Or was this the most sophisticated art heist of all time? The details are still unfolding.
Clearly, I am not the only one with major questions here. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets once the word got out. They blamed the government and Brazilian President, Michel Temer, for not investing enough to help secure the museum in the years leading up to the fire. Instead, the government chose to take millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and 2014 World Cup. This left public institutions, like the museum, broke. At one point, the museum could no longer pay its staff.
What really happened to this museum? I will stay on this story and investigate. I will be sure to bring you updates on everything I find out.
Canfora, L. (1991). The vanished library: A wonder of the ancient world. London: Vintage.
Museu Nacional. (n.d.). Retrieved September 4, 2018, from http://www.museunacional.ufrj.br/
Archaeologists believe they have found evidence of ancient cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. At the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., archaeologists discussed how ancient stone money transactions on the island of Yap, in the western Pacific Ocean, may have been the precursor to Bitcoin and blockchain technologies. Researchers drew astonishing parallels between the carved limestone disks of the Yap people and modern cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But how did this ancient stone money system work like cryptocurrency?
Yap islanders pioneered a public oral system for securely tracking and exchanging their currency, the giant limestone coins, called rai. Archaeologists point out that a similar process happens with blockchain through the storing of digital histories. There are many other similarities, though, including the mining, storage, peer-to-peer negotiation, and auditability of both currencies. Once again, history has shown that the ancients were wiser than people often realize.
What are these ancient coins, and how were they used?
How long the Yap people have used stone currency remains a mystery, but flat rocks have been found at the site dating back over 2000 years. What archaeologists do know, is that centuries ago, Yapese stone carvers started traveling to the Palauan archipelago to carve limestone into circular rai currency. The stone disks had a hole cut into the center, so men could skewer them with wooden poles for transport on their rafts. Back at the island, the miners would present the huge coins to the villagers at a public gathering where they would describe each coin’s manufacturing history and attributes of the stones to the community so that everyone knew a rai’s worth. After public inspection, a coin was assigned a value based on its attributes like size, shape, quality, and even the risks taken on the journey to acquire it. Once the rai’s worth was determined, the village chief would display the coin at communal spots. Researchers argue that similarly, Bitcoin miners solve complex mathematical problems in order to release units of the cryptocurrency to the community. Then, blockchain technology verifies the transaction, making it visible to the network.
The similarities do not end there. Through the display of rai in public places in the village, the Yap people could see and agree on the value of the currency, like how Bitcoin participants can check the value of their currency through a viewable digital ledger. Further, for the Yap people to have mined for limestone, they had to work out agreements with nearby islanders. Likewise, miners of Bitcoin receive a digital request to mine for coins. After a rai coin was verified and publicly displayed, it could be exchanged for goods and services, just like Bitcoins. Also, like Bitcoin, the transaction history for each rai was publicly visible to yap blockchain members.
New research is emerging every day to suggest that ancient stone money, like the rai, is only one of many examples of how ancient civilizations created a socially networked economic system based on community and transparency. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn from our ancient history. Exciting new technologies like cryptocurrencies and blockchains are yet another example of how ancient wisdom may hold the key to humanity’s future. As Machiavelli said, "Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times."
Time to rewrite the history books again! In Jordan, at a site called Shubayqa 1, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Cambridge, have found traces of what may be the oldest bread in the world. In fact, the bread residues found are older than agriculture. In a discovery that could rewrite human history, archaeologists found 24 charred remains of flat loaves of bread dating to as far back as 14,400 years! Discoveries of the Epipaleolithic Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, like flint sickle blades and ground stone tools, have led researchers to believe they may exploited plants in a number of ways. This new discovery, however, means that man made bread four thousand years earlier than the oldest known remains of agriculture.
The research, published in the scientific journalism Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the pieces of bread were baked from early ancestors of cereals that were later domesticated. Analysis of the remains found that wild grains were ground into flour, after which dough was made. The result was a type of bread that was also found at other Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey. The archaeologists are curious here whether the use of the wild cereals has had an influence on the later cultivation of crops, but whether this actually was the case, has yet to appear from follow-up research.
Did bread contribute to the development of agriculture?
The fact that the bread was baked before farming took place indicates that the bread had a special status. Making bread is in fact a laborious process, grain has to be harvested, the grains have to be peeled and ground, the dough has to be kneaded and then the bread has to be baked. Perhaps the desire to make more of this special food has contributed to the development of agriculture.
In the follow-up studies into the development of agriculture, research will continue to focus on the Natufian culture. The Natufian culture lived between about 12,000 BC. and 9,000 BCE, in the area of what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and parts of Syria. It is known as a culture that played an important role in the transition from nomadic cultures to cultures with a permanent residence. For example, Natufian culture was a hunter-gatherer culture, but they did have permanent settlements. The place in which the bread was found is such a permanent settlement.
I am back from a writing hiatus, just in time for some of the weirdest archaeological news yet this year. A few weeks ago, archaeologists in Alexandria, Egypt excavated a 2,000-year-old, black granite sarcophagus at a construction site of an apartment complex. The tomb was located about five meters below the surface, along with an alabaster head (probably of the owner of the sarcophagus).
The news spread all over. People were understandably excited to find out who or what was in that sarcophagus. Some even feared that they would unleash a curse. At the moment of truth, there was a bit of disappointment. Upon opening, the archaeologists were made nauseous from the putrid stench emanating from the sarcophagus. Inside, three skeletons sloshed around in a vile stew of reddish brown sewage water. When I first heard about this, I wondered if it may have been an embalming gone wrong, leaving the bodies to essentially cook in a vat of unknown chemicals. However, the archaeologists on site reported that there was a small crack in the sarcophagus that had allowed sewage water to seep in over the years, leading to what could be described as the devil’s privy.
Yet, the horror and disappointment didn’t stop there because the archaeologist did indeed release a curse; the curse of stupid. In the spirit of the, “The Tide Pod Challenge,” people are now asking to, “drink the red liquid from the cursed dark sarcophagus.” In a Change.org petition, signers are calling on Egyptian authorities to allow people to drink the “mummy juice.” As of this afternoon, the petition had over 22,000 signatures and was rapidly growing towards their goal of 25,000 signatures. Some reasons people have stated for signing the petition include, “This is the true next stage in the evolution of mankind, the world governments dare think they can take this nectar of life for themselves, Give. Us. The. Juice,” and, “Let us drink from the cursed waters of Set.”
Personally, I think that these people are way off. Clearly the only way to truly get the magic mummy juice power is to include the actual mummies in the mix to make a supercharged sarcophagus smoothie. Since we can't do that, here is a recipe for Dr. Heather Lynn’s Sarcophagus Smoothie. I guarantee it is 100% more delicious and nutritious than anything you will find floating in a sewage-filled sarcophagus.
All ingredients are what would have been eaten in ancient Egypt. The smoothie gets its red color from pomegranates. Pomegranates have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs and painted on the walls as a symbol of prosperity. Greek yogurt is used as a nod to the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Dr. Heather Lynn’s Sarcophagus Smoothie
1 cup plain yogurt Greek yogurt
4 figs (fresh, sliced in half)
1 1/2 cup ice cubes
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
4 teaspoons honey
2 Tbs. raw carob powder (Cacao or cocoa powder is a good substitute; however, carob is more authentically Egyptian)
Combine ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth. Pour into glasses and serve cold.