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Real Life Indiana Jones

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The real-life Indiana Jones on the hunt for lost ancient Mayan cities in Mexico

Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Šprajc is behind discovery of three significant ruins in the remote jungles of the Yucatán peninsula

Ivan Šprajc at one of the Mayan sites discovered in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

There are days when Ivan Šprajc gets fed up with his job. Hacking pathways through the Mexican jungle with machetes is exhausting. Keeping a constant eye out for deadly snakes can be nerve-racking. The risk of finding nothing to show for all the effort is real.

But then there is reward that comes when the contours of a plaza, palace, ball court or pyramid emerge from beneath the tree cover, or inscriptions that could help explain them are revealed by brushing off undergrowth.

“I’ve said to myself quite a few times that this is the last season, because it is so difficult. But it is such a reward when you find a new site,” says the Slovenian archaeologist, who has made a career of finding lost Mayan cities. “It’s tough work, but it’s dead romantic.”

This year Šprajc’s team found two – Tamchén and Lagunita – which followed last year’s discovery of a large site called Chactún.

The finding of the three sites is the first step in surveying an almost unexplored area spanning about 1,200 sq miles in the northern part of the Calakmul biosphere reserve, between the Río Bec and Chenes regions, in the southern Mexican state of Campeche.

“You can call it archaeological reconnaissance,” he says. “It is the very first step into an area that is completely unknown.”

Tamchén, Lagunita and Chactún have all been dated to the 8th century, within the post-classic period that runs for the three centuries immediately before the collapse of high Mayan civilisation around AD900.

The ruins at the three Mayan sites have been dated to the 8th century.

Šprajc believes the size and obvious importance of some of their buildings denote a revival of the power of smaller cities that were once subjugated to the authority of Calakmul, a great city that quickly faded after losing a war in 695 with Tikal, the other lowland Maya superpower of the classic period.

“When Calakmul falls, apparently these other cities thrive,” he says.

Beyond regional power relations, Šprajc believes the new cities could also help shed new light on the wider collapse that was to come, once they have been excavated.

A fairly solid consensus exists that prolonged drought, population pressure and an intensification of conflict were all contributing factors, but the sequence of these remains a mystery.

Already, he says, obviously modified monuments and unusual finds in the newly discovered cities suggest they might one day be the centre of new ideas about what happened to the Maya in those key centuries.

He named one of this year’s sites Tamchén, which means “deep well” in Yucatec Maya, because it is filled with deep bottle-shaped underground chambers, known as chultúns, used for storage and rain water collection. While elsewhere in the Maya world chultúns rarely go beyond six metres, in Tamchén they are as deep as 13.

Lagunita, the second site, has an impressive monster mouth facade on one of the buildings, representing an earth god related with fertility. The site had already been located in the 1970s by American archaeologist Eric Von Euw, but all that was left from that expedition were his drawings, which Šprajc immediately recognised when he rediscovered the city this year.

What stands out here, he says, is that such doorways were previously associated with the late-terminal classic period in Río Bec.

In Chactún, Šprajc’s team uncovered glyphs in stucco, rather than stone, that have never been found anywhere in the Mayan world before.

“If we are finding things that seem unique to us now, it means there are still a lot of things we don’t know about the Maya,” he says.

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Spinosaurus fossil

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‘Giant swimming dinosaur’ unearthed

Spinosaurus is thought to be the largest known carnivore and would have feasted on huge fish and sharks

A giant fossil, unearthed in the Sahara desert, has given scientists an unprecedented look at the largest-known carnivorous dinosaur: Spinosaurus.

The 95-million-year-old remains confirm a long-held theory: that this is the first-known swimming dinosaur.

Scientists say the beast had flat, paddle-like feet and nostrils on top of its crocodilian head that would allow it to submerge with ease.

The research is published in the journal Science.

Lead author Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, said: “It is a really bizarre dinosaur – there’s no real blueprint for it.

“It has a long neck, a long trunk, a long tail, a 7ft (2m) sail on its back and a snout like a crocodile.

“And when we look at the body proportions, the animal was clearly not as agile on land as other dinosaurs were, so I think it spent a substantial amount of time in the water.”

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‘Beer goggle’ study wins Ig Nobel award

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Drinking alcoholic drinks makes people believe they are more attractive

A team of researchers who found that people think they are more attractive when drinking alcohol, have scooped an Ig Nobel prize for their work

The researchers from France and the US confirmed the “beer goggle effect” also works on oneself.

Ig Nobel awards are a humorous spoof-like version of their more sober cousins, the Nobel prizes.

Winners have 60 seconds to make a speech to avoid being booed off stage by an eight-year-old girl.

Titled “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder”, the team were awarded one of the 10 awards (listed below) at a packed gala ceremony at Harvard University, US.

Other winners included a patent for trapping and ejecting airplane highjackers and a UK team scooped an Ig for observing that a cow is more likely to stand up the longer it has been lying down.

Penile amputation

The Peace Prize went to the president and state police of Belarus for making public applause illegal and having arrested a one-armed man for the offence. They did not attend the ceremony.

Penile amputations were the focus of the Public Health Prize. A team from Thailand recommended how to manage an epidemic of such amputations, but said their technique was not advised in cases where the penis had been partially eaten by a duck (after amputation).

Ig Nobel Prize The awards are presented by past Nobel laureates

Representing archaeology was a study that observed which bones dissolved when swallowing whole a dead shrew.

Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, US, and one of the five co-authors of the alcohol attractiveness study, said he was honoured that his team’s work had won an Ig.

In the study, people in a bar were asked how funny, original and attractive they found themselves. The higher their blood alcohol level the more attractive they thought they were.

Attractive drunks

The same effect was also found for those who only thought they had been drinking alcohol when in fact it was a non-alcoholic placebo drink.

“People have long observed that drunk people think others are more attractive but ours is the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves,” Prof Bushman told the BBC.

“If you become drunk and think you are really attractive it might influence your thoughts and behaviour towards others. It illustrates that in human memory, the link between alcohol and attractiveness is pretty strong.”

Judges were also asked to rate how attractive they thought the participants were. The individuals who thought they were more attractive were not necessarily rated thus by judges.

Snoozing cows

“It was just an illusion in their mind. Although people may think they become more attractive when they become intoxicated, other [sober] people don’t think that,” added Prof Bushman.

Prize winners tend to see the Ig Nobels as a considerable honour and indeed seven of the 10 winners (one winner died in 2006) attended the ceremony in Cambridge, US, to accept the prizes at their own expense.

Cows lying down One study looked at the time between cows standing up and sitting down

Although a light-hearted event, the awards are handed out for work that is for the most part serious research. Prof Bushman said that his study significantly contributed to the existing literature.

And the study about cows standing up or lying down was important to be able to detect health problems early on, say its authors.

“We were surprised by the prize. We thought we did a decent piece of work and did not realise it made other people laugh,” lead author Bert Tolkamp from Scotland’s Rural College, UK, told BBC News. But he added that anything that promoted interest in science was very welcome.

The full list of 2013 Ig Nobel winners:

Medicine Prize: Masateru Uchiyama, Gi Zhang, Toshihito Hirai, Atsushi Amano, Hisashi Hashuda (Japan), Xiangyuan Jin (China/Japan) and Masanori Niimi (Japan/UK) for assessing the effect of listening to opera on mice heart transplant patients.

Psychology Prize: Laurent Bègue, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra, and Medhi Ourabah, (France), Brad Bushman (USA/UK/, the Netherlands/Poland) for confirming that people who think they are drunk also think they are more attractive.

Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy: Marie Dacke (Sweden/Australia), Emily Baird, Eric Warrant (Sweden/Australia/Germany], Marcus Byrne (South Africa/UK) and Clarke Scholtz (South Africa), for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the milky way.

Safety Engineering Prize: The late Gustano Pizzo (US), for inventing an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. The system drops a hijacker through trap doors, seals him into a package, then drops the hijacker through the airplane’s specially-installed bomb bay doors through which he is parachuted to the ground where police, having been alerted by radio, await his arrival.

Physics Prize: Alberto Minetti (Italy/UK/Denmark/Switzerland), Yuri Ivanenko (Italy/Russia/France), Germana Cappellini, Francesco lacquaniti (Italy) and Nadia Dominici (Italy/Switzerland), for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond – if those people and that pond were on the Moon.

Chemistry Prize: Shinsuke Imai, Nobuaki Tsuge, Muneaki Tomotake, Yoshiaki Nagatome, Hidehiko Kumgai (Japan) and Toshiyuki Nagata (Japan/Germany), for discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realised.

Archaeology Prize: Brian Crandall (US) and Peter Stahl (Canada/US), for observing how the bones of a swallowed dead shrew dissolves inside the human digestive system

Peace Prize: Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public, and to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Probability Prize: Bert Tolkamp (UK/the Netherlands), Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford. David Roberts, and Colin Morgan (UK), for making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.

Public Health Prize: Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal, and Henry Wilde (Thailand), for the medical techniques of penile re-attachment after amputations (often by jealous wives). Techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck.

Pyramid in Peru torn down by developers

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Officials lodge criminal complaints against two firms after building at El Paraiso, one of Peru’s oldest archaeological sites, destroyed

El Paraiso, the archaeological site some 40km north of Lima where the 20ft pyramid was torn down. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

Real estate developers using heavy machinery tore down a 20ft (6m) tall pyramid at one of Peru’s oldest archaeological sites, cultural officials have said.

Rafael Varon, deputy minister of cultural patrimony, told reporters on Wednesday that the destruction occurred over the weekend at the ruins of El Paraiso, a few miles north of Peru’s capital, Lima.

He said his agency has lodged criminal complaints against two companies for the damage – identified as Alisol and Provelanz – and has moved to seize the equipment used. People who answered the telephone at both companies said no one was available to comment.

Peru’s tourism ministry says El Paraiso was built some 4,000 years ago and was a religious and administrative centre, long before the rise of the Inca culture encountered by the Spanish conquerors.

Marco Guilen, director of an excavation project at El Paraiso, said the people who tore down the pyramid “have committed irreparable damage to a page of Peruvian history”.

“We are not going to be able to know in what ways it was constructed, what materials were used in it and how the society in that part of the pyramid behaved,” said Guilen.

Varon said people apparently working for the two companies tore down one pyramid and tried to destroy three others, but were stopped by witnesses.

Mayor Freddy Ternero of San Martin de Porres, the town where the ruins are located, said the pyramids were sited in agricultural fields and were not guarded, though he said the minister of the interior sent police to protect it after the incident.

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Ancient Wari royal tomb unearthed in Peru

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The archaeologists spent months secretly digging through the burial chambers

Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed a royal tomb with treasures and mummified women from about 1,200 years ago.

The discovery north of Lima could shed new light on the Wari empire, which ruled in the Andes before the rise of the better-known Inca civilisation.

More than 60 skeletons were inside the tomb, including three Wari queens buried with gold and silver jewellery and brilliantly-painted ceramics.

Many mummified bodies were found sitting upright – indicating royalty.

The archaeologists say the tomb was found in El Castillo de Huarmey, about 280km (175 miles) north of Lima.

“We have found for the first time in Peruvian archaeological history, an imperial tomb of the Wari culture,” co-director of the project Milosz Giersz was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

“The contents of the chamber consisted of 63 human bodies, most of them women, wrapped in funerary bundles buried in the typical seated position, a native Wari pattern.”

Findings at El Castillo de Huarmey have changed archaeologists’ views of women in Wari culture

Forensic archaeologist Wieslaw Wieckowski says the way other bodies were positioned indicated human sacrifice.

“Six of the skeletons we found in the grave were not in the textiles. They were placed on the top of the other burials in very strange positions, so we believe that they were sacrifices,” he said.

“The fact that most of the skeletons were of women and the very rich grave goods, leads us to the interpretation that this was a tomb of the royal elite and that also changes our point of view on the position of the women in the Wari culture.”

The archaeologists spent months secretly digging through the burial chambers amid fears that grave robbers would find out and loot the site.

The Wari civilization thrived from the 7th to 10th centuries AD, conquering all of what is now Peru before a mysterious and dramatic decline.

The Wari people had their capital near the modern-day Ayacucho, in the Andes.

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Bahrain digs unveil one of oldest civilisations

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The Saar site was effectively a modern city with restaurants and shops, say archaeologists

Excavations at an archaeological site in Bahrain are shedding light on one of the oldest trading civilisations.

Despite its antiquity, comparatively little is known about the advanced culture represented at Saar.

The site in Bahrain, thought to be the location of the enigmatic Dilmun civilisation, was recently discussed at a conference in Manama, the Gulf nation’s capital, organised by the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural body (Unesco).

The meeting was devoted to wide-ranging debate on heritage tourism; Bahrain is a Unesco regional headquarters and one of its key attractions is an abundance of ancient sites.

At Saar (named after the closest modern village), with the scorching sun rising ever higher in the sky, a Bahraini archaeologist patiently explained to a group of workers how to re-point a low wall in a state of near collapse.

This meticulous maintenance of the archaeological settlement marks a turning point in the way Bahraini specialists are dealing with the vast store of historical remains on the island.

According to Salman al-Mahari, the Bahraini archaeologist in charge, the Saar settlement divides into two: a residential zone and, at a small distance, the cemetery where the inhabitants buried their dead.

Archaeologists have uncovered a cemetery some distance from Saar’s residential zone

“This site has provided a lot of information about daily life,” he explains. “This has enabled us to compare finds made here with objects unearthed at other locations on the island. It is evident that this city and graveyard date back to the early Dilmun period.”

Dilmun, one of most important ancient civilisations of the region and said to date to the third millennium BC, was a hub on a major trading route between Mesopotamia – the world’s oldest civilisation – and the Indus Valley in South Asia.

It is also believed that Dilmun had commercial ties with ancient sites at Elam in Oman, Alba in Syria and Haittan in Turkey.

As Salman al-Mahari confirms, the team is now preserving what has been found to ensure that the historical findings are made accessible.

“For 4,000 years this site was underground so it was sheltered,” he says. “Now after excavation, it is exposed to the elements. We have no immediate plans to carry out further excavations. We want to protect the site and to interpret what we have unearthed for visitors.”

The Saar site is far from being the most significant relic of the Dilmun era. On the northern tip of the island, archaeological expeditions have uncovered seven successive levels of settlements at the Qal’at al Bahrain (the fort of Bahrain). Under the oldest and most extensive fort, three consecutive Dilmun cities as well as a Greek city dating back to 200 BC have been unearthed.

The site is impressive: the outer walls enclose an area of several hundred square metres. At its centre lie massive carved stones marking the entrance and walls of a chamber containing an altar once flanked by copper-faced pillars.

The Dilmun civilisation was a trading link between the Middle East and South Asia

Next to it is another structure where the presence of blackened animal bones and charred earth suggest a chamber for sacrifices to the gods.

On the other side of the central altar, a flight of carved steps leads down to a pool, a deep, stone-walled well built over one of the numerous underground springs where one of three principal Sumerian deities – Enki, the water-dwelling god of wisdom – supposedly lived.

The abundance of sweet water flowing from springs which still supply the island with much of its drinking water was one of the cornerstones of Dilmun. The island was an oasis of fertility in ancient times in a mainly desolate region. This could have given rise to a legend that Bahrain may even have been the biblical Garden of Eden.

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