Audio News for December 8th to December 14th

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! Im Laura Pettigrew and these
are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 8th to
December 14th.

Was Alexander the Great Killed by a Mosquito?


In our first story an epidemiologist believes dying ravens are a sign that
the West Nile virus killed the Greek emperor, Alexander the Great. Doctors
and historians have speculated for centuries about the cause of this
battle-hardened warrior's death. As the story goes, Alexander the Great
stood at the gates of Babylon in 323 BC and a flight of ravens fell dead at
his feet. According to the oracles of the time, this was a bad omen. Within
two weeks, at the age of 32, the conqueror of a vast empire was dead of a
mysterious illness. Previous theories had Alexander dying of typhoid, which
can cause the chills, fever, abdominal pain and delirium that he suffered.
But a new hypothesis from the Virginia Health Department's chief epidemiologist says those dying ravens were clues. Alexander, one of
history's greatest generals, was a complex man who left medical sleuths with
plenty of trails to follow. According to researchers, Alexander's counselors
told him to enter Babylon from the east. That required him to pass through a
swamp - where mosquitoes might breed. The insects carry West Nile virus,
which they pass to birds - especially crows - and to humans, spreading the
disease. Mosquitoes had been common, because ancient writers described many
cases of malaria, another mosquito-borne illness. The epidemiologist also
concluded that ancient Babylon was hot enough for mosquitoes to spread the
virus in late May instead of in late summer, when the disease most often
occurs here. As Alexander reached the walls of Babylon, Greek biographer
Plutarch wrote two centuries later, "he saw a large number of ravens flying
about and pecking one another, and some of them fell dead in front of him."
Other analysts ignored or dismissed that detail, assuming that Plutarch made
it up. At a banquet in Babylon, the conqueror drank 11 pints of wine, and
then grabbed his chest. In the days following he suffered chills, fever and
horrible abdominal pain. Many diseases exhibit these symptoms, but one
unique factor existed: a strange paralysis that began in Alexander's feet
and slowly moved up the body. That clinched the diagnosis for epidemiologist
John Marr. To check the diagnosis, Marr and his colleague entered
Alexander's symptoms and the clue about the ravens into an online diagnostic
program and got an answer: West Nile. Diagnosing the famous dead has become
a half-playful pastime among medical experts and historians. The University
of Maryland holds a public post-mortem on a historical figure each year. In
these sessions, scholars have concluded that Beethoven had syphilis, Edgar
Allan Poe died of rabies, Florence Nightingale had bipolar disorder, and the
Roman emperor Claudius was poisoned by a mushroom. The exercises are
considered a lot of fun and a useful teaching tool, but since they are based
on incomplete or distorted historical accounts, the diagnoses are not

New Hope for Afghan Buddhas


In Afghanistan, Italian engineers have completed work to prevent the
collapse of the cliff alcoves that hold the remaining pieces of the ancient
Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban. Engineers spent 55
days boring holes and dangling from ropes to pump 14 tons of cement into
gaping fissures to stabilize the immense, sandstone cliffs. There are still
small cracks to be filled at a later stage but the immediate danger of the
niches collapsing over the winter has been eliminated. Members of the now
-expelled Taliban regime blew up the statues amid international outrage in
spring 2001 before they were ousted later that year. Measuring 160 and 120
feet high, the immense statues carved into the cliffs had dominated the
Bamiyan valley for 1,500 years. Swiss researchers last month said they
wanted to rebuild one of the two ancient Buddhas but Unesco denounced the plan, saying the real priority was to mend the terrible damage inflicted on
the cliffs of Bamiyan. Unesco said it was more urgent to preserve the
fragments of the originals that were destroyed rather than think of
rebuilding them at an estimated cost of 30 million dollars. The Japanese
government has donated $1,5-million for rehabilitation of the Buddhas' site
in a project implemented by Unesco. The main statue, which was more than 1
500 years old, was smashed into about 4 000 fragments. From early next year,
the remaining fragments of both statues will be extracted from the cliff and
assembled on the ground where they can be analyzed with the help of a laser
scanner. Archaeologists fear losing certain fragments to traffickers who
hope to sell them on the black market. Some pieces have already turned up in
Geneva, the Swiss media reported.

Ancient Persian Fleet Discovered in Greece


In Greece, an underwater archaeological team working at the eastern side of
the Mt Athos Peninsula has made significant discoveries that may point to
the location of a sunken fleet led by the Persian general Mardonio. The
exploration's goal was to discover the Persian fleet of some 300 ships that
sank during a storm near Mt Athos during Darius first attempt to invade
Greece in 493 BC. 2,500 years later, scientists are trying to find traces of
this history. Exploration over an area of 300 square miles of seabed at a
depth of 1400 feet, east and southwest of the peninsula have been undertaken
using Side Scan Sonar. Within the gulf, the exploration team of two
archaeologists and a member of the Greek Marine Research Center found a
wreck containing amphorae dating from the Classical or early Hellenistic
periods. An area marked out was monitored by the underwater Remote Operated
Vehicle (ROV) Achilleas, which also examined another area of seabed where in
1996 two local fishermen had pulled up in their nets two copper Corinthian
helmets dating from the Classical period. The objects were found at a depth
of 330 feet. The most important find to date was found at 300 feet, enclosed
within a pot. According to an initial evaluation, it is a piece of metal
that was attached to the bottom of spears during Classical times. Similar
objects have been found on land, but rarely in the sea. The place where it
was found, which is also where the two helmets lay, indicates the existence
of a wrecked warship.

Church Refuses Testings of King Harold DNA


Our final story is a follow up from England where a church court refused
permission to exhume a body from a medieval church to find out if they were
the remains of King Harold. A group of amateur historians wanted the tomb at
the Holy Trinity Church in West Sussex opened, so they could settle once and
for all the age-old question of where the Saxon king was buried. Harold was reputedly killed with an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066,
and laid to rest in Waltham Abbey in Essex. However the historians, wanted
to see if DNA tests on the headless, legless body interred in a finely
crafted coffin could prove otherwise. But the Church Chancellor refused the
request in a lengthy written judgment after a Consistory Court hearing. The
court heard that three people who had claimed to be direct descendants of
Harold all had different DNA and any tests on the bones in the grave would
be pointless without an accurate comparison. The court also heard that this
was the first time a petition had been presented to exhume a body so that a
sample might be removed. The written decision stated there were complex
scientific, historic and archaeological issues but exhumation should only
take place for a good reason or on special and exceptional grounds. The
grave, which was discovered by workmen in 1954 and unlawfully opened, will
now remain closed.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the
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I’m Laura Pettigrew and I’ll see you next week!