Monday, 24 October 2016

Mitchell's Fold stone circle

Mitchell's Fold is a stone circle in South-West Shropshire, located near the small village of White Grit on dry heathland between Stapeley Hill to the north and Corndon Hill to the south.It dates to the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. The monument comprises 15 stones arranged in an ellipse measuring 30 m (100 ft.) by 27 m (88 ft.). Originally, there might have been up to thirty stones.

The dolerite stones are thought to have been brought from Stapeley Hill to the northwest and are of a uniform geology. The majority protrude above the turf to an average height of 0.4 m (1 ft. 4 in.); there are two recumbent stones; and three stones are appreciably taller than the rest with heights of 0.9 m (3 ft.), 1.4 m (4 ft. 6 in.) and 1.7 m (5 ft. 6 in.). Aerial photography shows that there is a central stone now hidden below ground. An outlying stone 0.7 m (2 ft 3 in.) in height stands on a small prominence to the southeast.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Shrewsbury Jail

HM Prison Shrewsbury was built in 1877, although there has been a jail on the site since 1793. It held convicts of both sexes until 1922, but thereafter was a men's prison until its closure in March 2013. In its later days, it was one of the most overcrowded prisons in the UK. The prison is located on Howard Street, adjacent to Shrewsbury railway station. It is often referred to as the Dana, after a road that runs past the main entrance. Howard Street is named for the penal reformer John Howard, the bust of whom is mounted above the main entrance. After the last prisoners left, the jail was opened to the public as a visitor attraction. It will remain so until the site is redeveloped next year.

Main entrance to the jail, featuring the bust of John Howard.

View of the barred cells from the exercise yard.

Inside one of the cells.

A Wing seen from the first floor.

The prison workshop

The sports centre

The prison chapel.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Shropshire Hills

Located between Shrewsbury and the Welsh border, the Shropshire Hills have been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The area is unspoiled by light pollution: on a clear night the Milky Way can be seen just a few minutes walk from the high street of Church Stretton.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Survival: the story of the Trevessa

Largely forgotten tale of survival against the odds

How 34 out of the 44-strong crew of the SS Trevessa reached safety after the 5,004 ton freighter sank in the Indian Ocean is one of the great stories of human survival in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The story has been likened to the 2010 Chilean mine rescue, but it has faded from public awareness to the extent that it even lacks an entry in Wikipedia.

The Trevessa was launched as the Imkenturm at Flensburg, Germany, in 1909. Throughout World War I, she was interned at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies, and in 1919 she was seized by the Ministry of Shipping. Her hull was by now in poor condition, but after scratch repairs in Singapore she sailed to Scotland, where she was dry-docked at Leith. In 1920, she was purchased by the Hain Steamship Company of St Ives, Cornwall, and was substantially refurbished at a cost of £36,000 by Messrs. John Redhead & Sons of South Shields. Hain was an operator of worldwide tramp services that had been acquired by P&O in 1917, although it continued to be run by its former directors.

Work on the Imkenturm, now renamed Trevessa, was completed in January 1921, and after being duly certified by Lloyds, the ship entered service with her new owners and put under the command of Captain Cecil Foster. Born in 1890, Foster had served with Hain since the age of twelve. The company had a policy of bringing youngsters through the ranks right up to command level. During World War I, he was serving as a First Officer in a supply ship. The ship was torpedoed by a U-boat and the survivors were soon rescued by a patrolling Royal Navy warship – only for this in turn to be sunk by the same U-boat. The 36 survivors were adrift for ten days before washing up on the Spanish Atlantic coast, by which time only 16 remained alive.

Foster realised that there was a problem with the survival rations placed in lifeboats. These were similar to the usual shipboard diet, and consisted mainly of tinned and/or salted meat. This was very difficult to digest for men dehydrated by lack of sufficient drinking water. After the war, at Foster’s insistence, the emergency lifeboat rations in Hain ships were changed to condensed milk and hard biscuits, which have a high calorific content and are easy to digest.

On 2 January 1923, the Trevessa left Liverpool in ballast on a voyage that took her to ports in Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. On board were Foster and 43 British and Indian crewmen. At Port Pirie she took on a cargo of zinc concentrates destined for Antwerp. She then coaled at Freemantle before sailing for Belgium on 25 May. 

Ten days out of Freemantle, on 3 June, she ran into a storm and began taking on water. The bilge pumps were started, but no water came through. The zinc concentrates in the hold had the consistency of half-set cement, and had been stowed on caulked pallets. This meant that the water entering the hold was not reaching the bilges, rendering the pumps ineffective. Innumerable freighters loading zinc concentrates at Port Pirie had previously used the same method of stowage without experiencing problems But the Trevessa was going down by the head in heavy seas, and soon the water was up to the top of No.1 hold. 

By the early morning of 4 June, it was clear that there was no option but to abandon ship. All 44 hands successfully boarded the two starboard lifeboats: 20 men including Foster and in one and 24 men including First Officer Stewart Smith in the other. There had been time to load extra rations into the boats and put out a distress call, which was picked up by two of Trevessa’s Hain fleetmates, the Tregenna and the Trevean. Unfortunately, these ships were hundreds of miles away and by the time they reached the scene, all that could be found was an empty lifeboat. It was accordingly concluded that the Trevessa had gone down with all hands.

In the meantime, Captain Foster and his crew were very much alive, but their plight was serious. The two boats had managed to keep together throughout the storm, but by the evening of 4 June they had drifted so far from the point where the Trevessa had sunk that the rescuers would be unlikely to find them. They were 1,600 miles from Australia and 1,700 miles from Mauritius. Although Australia was slightly nearer, they ran the risk of being blown off course by prevailing winds. Accordingly, Foster and Smith decided to try for the island of Rodriguez, which was slightly nearer than Mauritius. They calculated that the voyage would take three weeks and that with strict rationing, they could just make it.

Each boat had 130 tins of condensed milk, 550 biscuits, and about fifteen gallons of water. There was slightly more water in Smith’s boat, but he also had more men aboard. The rations issued daily were one biscuit per man, four teaspoonfuls of condensed milk, and less than a quarter of a pint of water.

The two boats kept together at first, but Foster’s boat, with fewer men and a larger sail, was significantly faster and on 9 June it was decided to separate. They parted at 08:00 and were lost from each other’s sight within six hours. On 22 June, with no land in sight, both Foster and Smith independently reduced rations in the hope of prolonging survival by another week.

On the afternoon of 25 June, by which time two men had died, Foster’s boat came within sight of Rodriguez, reaching the island soon after nightfall. A fisherman came aboard and piloted them into harbour, where they were promptly brought ashore to receive urgent medical attention. All eighteen who had survived the voyage recovered. Four days later, Smith’s boat, having missed Rodriguez, made landfall in Mauritius. Smith’s men had not fared so well: seven men died, an eighth was lost overboard and a ninth died shortly after landing.  

A Royal Navy ship collected Foster and his men from Rodriguez, and a few days later they were reunited with the rest of the Trevessa survivors at Port Louis, Mauritius. The British crewmembers sailed for the UK on 16 July, and returned to a heroes’ welcome at Tilbury. The Daily Telegraph wrote, “We may think with pride that our British sailors can match in daring, resolution, and loyalty those who won for their flag the realm of the circling sea”. Foster and Smith were awarded the Lloyds Silver Medal for saving life at sea and had an audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace. Foster’s lifeboat was brought back to the UK and went on show at the British Empire Exhibition.

Little is known of Captain Cecil Foster’s subsequent life. He died in Barry, Wales, in 1930, aged just 40. His grave in Merthyr Dyfan Cemetery remained untended following the death of his wife Minnie in 1982. The couple had no children. In 2011, Keith Greenway, a researcher for the Merchant Navy Association in Wales, raised around £1,000 to restore the grave.

Just when this remarkable story began to fade from the public eye is not clear: it is mentioned under the topic of ‘Shipwrecks’ in the 1960 edition of the Children’s Britannica, and this is where I first encountered it. That the Trevessa is mentioned at all suggests that the story was still widely known at the time. The Children’s Britannica coverage of maritime matters was patchy to say the least – I recall being very frustrated to find that there were no entries for such topics as Ferdinand Magellan’s round-the-world expedition or the mystery of the Mary Celeste. A detailed account of the Trevessa story was provided in another book I read in my childhood, which featured long voyages in small boats. Other chapters detailed Joshua Slocum’s single-handed voyage around the world, and the survival of William Bligh and his men after they were cast adrift from the Bounty by their mutinous shipmates. Such stories were devoured by boys of my age in the 1960s and it is unfortunate that this is apparently no longer the case.

1.  Prior, N., Restored grave for Barry sailor who survived shipwreck, Available at (2011).
2.  Disney, H., Report of Court, 1923.
3.  Greenway, K., Her name was Trevessa, Available at (2010).
4.  Perkins, M., The Trevessa lifeboat at Wembley, Available at (2014).x

Monday, 26 September 2016

Iconic mock Tudor facade at Fratton Park, Portsmouth

It's not the Nou Camp or the Bernabeau, but the mock Tudor facade at Portsmouth FC's Fratton Park is one of the most iconic features of any football ground in Britain.

The facade is all that remains of a pavilion constructed in 1905 at the Frogmore Road entrance to the stadium, adjoining the south stand. At that time, Pompey were competing in the Southern League and most of Fratton Park was open to the elements.The club has explored many options to relocate from this small, hopelessly-outdated but much-loved stadium, but none have been realised.

Following Pompey's calamitous decline from FA Cup winners in 2008 to League 2 strugglers just five years later, relocation is unlikely to be a priority in the near future.

Monday, 19 September 2016

St Andrew's Church, Surbiton

St Andrew’s Church, Surbiton, is a fine Grade II listed building located situated at the junction of St Andrew's Road and Maple Road, It was constructed between 1871 and 1872 at a cost of £6,602 with money gifted by Angela Burdett-Coutts, granddaughter of the banker Thomas Coutts whose not inconsiderable wealth she inherited. The architect was Arthur Blomfield, who was later knighted and became Vice-President of RIBA.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Space Patrol

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s favourite TV show as a child

Anybody who was a child in the 1960s is likely to remember at least some of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ science-fiction series, which included Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In the same genre, but far less well known was Space Patrol. It was created and produced by British author and television producer Rita Lewin under the pseudonym Roberta Leigh, with cinematographer Arthur Provis. 

Provis was Anderson’s former business partner (the ‘P’ in their company AP Films Ltd.), and he and Anderson  had previously collaborated with Leigh to make The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery BoyHowever, he felt that Anderson was taking too many risks with the business, so he eventually decided to leave. Anderson kept the name AP Films for the company until 1965, when he renamed it to Century 21 Productions Ltd.  

Space Patrol is credited to National Interest Picture Productions and Wonderama Productions Ltd, and was produced in 1962. As seems to have been a common practice at the time, 39 b/w episodes of 25 minutes each were produced in three blocks of 13.

In common with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol relied upon voice-synchronised puppets, although these were more realistic-looking than those used by the former in any series prior to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In contrast to the Barry Gray scores and incidental music associated with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol featured electronic music composed by Fred Judd, a pioneer in the field. 

Space Patrol is set in the year 2100. The eponymous Space Patrol’s operating authority is the United Galactic Organisation, which despite the name encompasses only Earth, Mars and Venus (the series was prone to use the term ‘galaxy’ to describe planetary systems, a mistake which was repeated in the slightly later TV classic Lost in Space). Space Patrol is headquartered in a futuristic city, identified in the pilot as New York, but never so referenced again. The introduction states that “Men from Earth, Mars and Venus live and work there as guardians of peace.” A rhythmical clanking sound pervades the city at all times. Transport within the city is provided by single-person pods that move through a transparent travel-tube.

The series focusses on the adventures of Galasphere 347 and its crew, comprising goatee-bearded Captain Larry Dart, Venusian navigator Slim and Martian engineer Husky. The elfin Slim was the Mr Spock of the series; the burly Slav-accented Husky devotes a fair bit of time to thinking about his next meal. The trio will not hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way if the circumstances demand it, which they often do. In overall charge of operations is Colonel Raeburn, assisted by his super-efficient Venusian secretary Marla. Raeburn regularly threatens Dart with court-martial, but his bark is rather worse than his bite. Never hiding his anxiety when Dart and co are in peril, he frequently rewards them with extra leave when they return from a dangerous assignment.

The team regularly need to call on the services of eccentric Irish genius Professor Haggerty, his daughter Cassiopeia, and Gabblerdictum the Martian parrot. The appearance of this trio was generally preceded by an establishing stock shot of the then-new Empress State Building in West London. Recurring adversaries in the series include the plant-like Duos of Uranus and Tyro, ruler of Neptune. Anybody much younger than forty will be shocked by the pronunciation of Uranus.
The series was not entirely free of the sexism characteristic of that era, but the blonde and highly intelligent Marla would often remind Raeburn that “There are no dumb blondes on Venus.” It should be noted that Roberta Leigh was the first woman producer in Britain to set up her own film company.

Galaspheres have superseded rockets as the space vehicle of choice, but unlike Fireball XL5 they remain largely confined to the Solar System, with realistic travel times to the planets. Pluto is six months away, Jupiter twenty days. A galasphere consists of a ring-shaped crew section connected to a central stem by three spokes. They have three modes of propulsion: a primary drive for take-off and landing, an orbital drive for low-speed planetary operations, and meson power for interplanetary travel. Gamma rays and ‘yobba’ rays also need to be activated before a galasphere can take off.

Meson power can sustain speeds of up to 800,000 miles per hour (1.3 million km per hour), and in an emergency can be boosted to up to one million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour) for short periods. However, boosting the meson power is risky. It is not clear why galaspheres cannot simply continue to accelerate once they reach a certain speed (presumably the writers were unfamiliar with Newton’s laws of motion). When in flight, galaspheres are surrounded by a rotating spherical field and emit a distinctive warbling sound. Galaspheres can hover above the surface of a planet, or even travel underwater. They are armed with a laser gun, but this has to be operated by setting it up in the airlock and opening the outer vacuum door before it can be fired. The term ‘galasphere’ (galaxy sphere) was possibly inspired by ‘bathysphere’ (deep sphere). If so, given that the spacecraft were not spherical, ‘bathyscaphe’ (deep ship) might have been a better choice, to give ‘galascaphe’ (galaxy ship).

During interplanetary travel, the crew go into a freezer for a pre-set period of time and a robot takes over. In the event of an emergency, the timer can be overridden from Earth by a faster-than-light ‘zirgon’ ray. Regardless of where a galasphere is at any time, instantaneous communications between it and Earth are apparently possible. A recurring problem for the Space Patrol is that galaspheres require a metal called plutonite for their construction. Plutonite is only found on Pluto, and stocks are all but exhausted. Fortunately, a supply is later discovered on an asteroid.

Hover bikes are used for surface travel similar to the type that were ubiquitous in the Anderson shows. The crew carry gamma ray guns but typically use ‘plastifoam’ guns to render an opponent immobile without harming them.

Although the number ‘347’ suggests that the Space Patrol operates large numbers of galaspheres, it only has landing facilities for one at a time: a pad atop a tall, broad-waisted building, which for some reason swivels through 180 degrees and extends upwards before a galasphere lands. The pad remains in the rotated and extended position until the galasphere takes off again, at which point it promptly returns to its original position.

Despite a very low budget, Space Patrol proved to be very popular. It was broadcast regionally in the UK on the ITV network, first appearing on Sunday, 7 April 1963 on ABC Television in the Midlands and North regions. In the London area, it was shown on weekdays by Associated-Rediffusion. ABC did not broadcast the final episodes until summer 1968.

Space Patrol was sold overseas and broadcast in the United States, Canada and Australia. It was retitled Planet Patrol in the United States to distinguish it from an earlier US series, which had also been titled Space Patrol. J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the 1990s science-fiction series Babylon 5 described Space Patrol as his favourite TV show as a child.

Unlike the Anderson shows, Space Patrol was never repeated in the UK, and it was considered lost until 1997, when Leigh discovered that she had a complete set of 16 mm prints in her lock-up garage. The series was subsequently released in VHS and later DVD formats.

Roberta Leigh continued to work until a year before her death in December 2014, a few days short of her 88th birthday. Arthur Provis made commercials until his retirement. He died in May this year, aged 91.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Guildford Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit, Guildford is an Anglican cathedral at Guildford, Surrey. The Grade II listed building was designed by Sir Edward Maufe. Construction began in 1936, but due to the war and a postwar lack of funds, was not completed until 1961. In the 1950s, funds were raised to complete the church by the then novel approach of asking the public to sponsor bricks for 2/6 (12.5 pence) each. Sponsors were entitled to sign their names on their bricks. The Queen and Prince Phillip both sponsored bricks and duly handed over five bob for the privilege.

In August 2016, the Cathedral was undergoing an extensive program of restoration.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Neanderthals lacked specialised cold weather clothing

Study of faunal remains suggest garments with fur trim were made only by modern humans.

Neanderthal use of clothing has long been debated. Even during warm interglacial periods, Neanderthals must have faced a problem with heat-loss in winter. It has been argued that wearing cape-type clothing across the shoulder would not have been sufficient to ward off the cold of even a moderately severe winter or body cooling caused by wind-chill. Clothing and footwear would therefore have had to be sewn together tightly in order to keep out snow and water. (Sørensen, 2009) Despite this, definite evidence for tailored clothing is lacking in Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans, and it has only been found at modern human sites. (Klein, 1999; Hoffecker, 2005)

In an attempt to resolve the issue, a team of researchers led by anthropologist Mark Collard adopted a novel approach. They considered faunal remains found at both Neanderthal and modern human sites and noted species whose skins might have been used to make clothing. They found that although species suitable for making cold-weather garments were found at both Neanderthal and modern human sites, remains of wolves, foxes, rabbits and mink occurred more frequently at modern human sites. These species are used to make garments with fur trim, and it was accordingly argued that Neanderthals did not make such garments and did, after all, rely on cape-type clothing. (Collard, et al., 2016)

Sørensen, B., Energy use by Eem Neanderthals. Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (10), 2201-2005 (2009).
Klein, R., The Human Career, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999).
Hoffecker, J., Innovation and Technological Knowledge in the Upper Paleolithic of Northern Eurasia. Evolutionary Anthropology 14, 186-198 (2005).
Collard, M., Tarle, L., Sandgathe, D. & Allan, A., Faunal evidence for a difference in clothing use between Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2016).x

Friday, 29 July 2016

Earliest hominin cancer

Malignant tumour found in 1.7m year old metatarsal

Cancer is the primary cause of death in industrialised countries and the second most common cause of death in the developing world. The condition not known to occur in non-chordates and is largely confined to the higher vertebrates. It is extremely ancient, with purported cases of neoplasm found in fossil fish from the Upper Devonian. It may therefore be assumed that hominins have always been afflicted by cancer, but evidence for malignant tumours is rare in the fossil record. The earliest example affecting an archaic human is a case of fibrous dysplasia from a Neanderthal rib dated to 120,000 years ago from the site of Krapina in northern Croatia.

The earliest evidence yet described for malignant bony tumours in the hominin fossil record has recently been announced by a South African team. They found definite evidence for a malignant tumour in a hominin fossil designated SK 7923: a left fifth metatarsal from the cave site of Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, dating to between 1.6 and 1.8 million years old. The exact species has not been determined, but the site has previously yielded fossils of Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus.

The tumour was identified as an osteosarcoma, a rare primary bone cancer which in modern humans usually affects younger people. Early diagnosis and treatment can effect survival rates of 60 to 80 percent, although until the 1960s the outlook was very poor. It was not clear how old SK 7923 was at death, or whether the cancer was the cause of death, but the cancer would have affected their ability to walk and run – which by itself could have ultimately proved fatal.

The same team also reported a benign bone tumour affecting the juvenile Australopithecus sediba MH 1 from Malapa, dating to 1.98 million years ago.

It is often assumed that both malignant and benign tumours in humans are the result of modern lifestyles and environments, but these results show that they occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies arose.

Odes, E. et al., Earliest hominin cancer: 1.7-million-yearold osteosarcoma from Swartkrans Cave, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 112 (7/8) (2016).
Randolph-Quinney, P. et al., Osteogenic tumour in Australopithecus sediba: Earliest hominin evidence for neoplastic disease. South African Journal of Science 112 (7/8) (2016).x

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Full Moon

Taken on 22:00 on 19 July 2016 with Canon Power Shot SX530HS - 1/160 sec at f/8 ISO 100.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Birmingham Central Library

The Birmingham Central Library opened in 1974 and was for a time the largest non-national library in Europe. Designed by architect John Madin in the brutalist style, the library won praise for its inverted ziggurat form, but it did not meet with the approval of HRH Prince Charles, who described it as looking like "a place where books are incinerated, not kept".

The library was part of a masterplan for the newly created Paradise Circus site, which also included a School of Music, a Drama Centre, an Athletic Institute, offices, shops, public house, a car park with 500 spaces, and a bus interchange. These were to be connected by high level walkways. In the event, only the School of Music and Yardbird pub were ever built, and the walkways were never completed. Spending cuts led to the Council selling off land surrounding the library, ending hope of the site being occupied by a publicly-owned civic complex.

The library's atrium was enclosed with a glass roof and screens around 1990, and the space below was named Paradise Forum. It was intended that this become an alfresco eating and entertainment area, but it was eventually leased to property companies who in turn sublet the units to shops and fast food outlets.

In the late 1990s, Paradise Circus was sold to property developers, and the Council began to investigate relocating the library, After a number of proposals had fallen through, work finally started in 2010 on a new Library of Birmingham, located next to the Rep Theatre. The Central Library closed at the end of June 2013.

The building could have been refurbished and put to other uses, but proposals came to nothing. The Council thwarted all attempts to have it listed, and demolition commenced in August 2015.

The library in September 2009

August 2013, shortly after closure.

Above: August 2013, showing visible signs of dilapidation.
Below: June 2016, demolition in progress.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Flores ‘hobbits’ were already small 700,000 years ago

Earliest Homo floresiensis fossils found at Mata Menge

The diminutive Homo floresiensis hominins, popularly referred to as the Flores hobbits, are thought to be descended from normally-sized hominins who underwent a phenomenon known as ‘insular dwarfism’ after they reached Flores. Food shortages combined with an absence of dangerous predators meant that smaller individuals, with lower calorific requirements, were at an advantage and over many generations the entire population ‘downsized’.

Up until now, the evidence for when this process begun have been tentative. The hominins originally found at the western Flores cave site at Liang Bua, though older than once thought, are still no more than 100,000 years old. It has been suggested that stone tools from the sites of Mata Menge and Wolo Sege in central Flores show technological continuity with artefacts associated with the original Homo floresiensis finds at limestone cave of Liang Bua in western Flores. The Mata Menge artefacts are 880,000 years old and those from Wolo Sege are at least at least a million years old, suggesting that hominins were on Flores by then, although these artefacts cannot tell us anything about the size of their makers. (Brumm, et al., 2006; Brumm, et al., 2010)

However, Mata Menge has now yielded actual hominin remains, which have been dated to 700,000 years ago by argon-argon and fission track methods. (Brumm, et al., 2016) They comprise an adult hominin fragmentary lower jawbone and six teeth. The fossils have been described as ‘Homo floresiensis-like’ and the jawbone and a molar teeth are even smaller than those of their Liang Bua counterparts. Thus Flores hominins were already downsized by this time. (Van den Bergh, et al., 2016)  

Brumm, A. et al., Age and context of the oldest known hominin fossils from Flores. Nature 534, 249-254 (2016).
Van den Bergh, G. et al., Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores. Nature 534, 245-248 (2016).
Brumm, A. et al., Early stone technology on Flores and its implications for Homo floresiensis. Nature 441, 624-628 (2006).
Brumm, A. et al., Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748-753 (2010).

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Tomb of Flight Sub Lieut. Reginald Warneford, VC

Reginald Warneford was a pilot in the Royal Navy Air Service, having transferred from the Army soon after joining up. By May 1915 he was on active duty with 1 Wing at Veurne on the Belgian coast, which the Germans never managed to occupy. He rapidly made a name for himself with attacks upon German troops and aircraft, and was assigned his own aircraft - a French-built Morane-Saulnier Type L monoplane. On 7 June near Ghent he encountered the German Zeppelin LZ 37. He engaged the heavily-armed airship, managed to climb above it, and attacked it with bombs. His last bomb set the airship on fire and brought it down, but the explosion damaged his own aircraft. Forced to land behind enemy lines, Warneford managed to effect repairs and returned safely to base.

For this not inconsiderable act of bravery and cool-headed thinking,Warneford was awarded both the Victoria Cross and the French Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur, but sadly he was dead just ten days later. On 17 June, after receiving the Légion d'honneur from the French Army Commander in Chief, Warneford travelled to Buc in order to fly an aircraft for delivery to the RNAS at Veurne. He made a short test flight alone, then a second flight with American journalist Henry Beach Newman as a passenger.The aircraft broke up in flight, and both men were fatally injured: Newman died at the scene and Warneford on his way to hospital.

He was buried at Brompton Cemetery on 21 June 1915 in a ceremony attended by thousands of mourners

Thursday, 26 May 2016

175,000-year-old underground Neanderthal stone circle

Structure discovered in 1990s is ten times older than Lascaux cave paintings

Bruniquel Cave in southwest France was discovered by members of a local caving club in 1990. The cave’s entrance had been sealed by a landslide during the last Ice Age, but the cavers re-opened a narrow 30m (100 ft.) passage leading into a main gallery of chambers rich in stalagmites and stalactites. Some 336 m (1,000 ft.) from the entrance, they found strange complex of stone circles, constructed from broken stalagmites. Intrigued by the discovery, the cavers brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud to investigate.

The complex comprises two circles measuring 6.7 × 4.5 m (22 ft. x 14 ft. 9 in.) and 2.2 × 2.1 m (7 ft. 3 in. x 6 ft. 10 in.) and four smaller stacks of stalagmites, two of which are located inside the larger circle. Around 400 stalagmite fragments were used in the construction, half of which are mid-sections with the tip and base removed. The fragments were standardised in length, leaving no doubt that the structures had been constructed by humans. All six structures show extensive traces of fire, with many of the fragments showing signs of either blackening or reddening.

Rouzaud recovered a burned bone from the largest structure, which was radiocarbon dated and found to be 47,600 years old. This predates the arrival of modern humans in the region, but not sufficiently to rule out the possibility that they were the builders. The only other possibility was Neanderthals – which in the 1990s, was viewed as unlikely. The slow-to-die perception of Neanderthals as dimwits was even more prevalent then. Sadly, before further investigations could be carried, Francois Rouzaud died suddenly, aged just 50. With his death, all work at Bruniquel Cave ceased, and the enigmatic stone circles were forgotten until they came to the attention of geologist Sophie Verheyden.

Verheyden was curious as to why nobody had attempted to date the stalagmites. 47,600 years is close to the useful limit of radiocarbon dating, but uranium series dating can go back much further, and speleothem is very amenable to this method. By applying it to calcite layers that had formed over the stalagmite fragments after the complex was built, it would be fairly straightforward to determine when they had been broken off from the floor of the cave. Verheyden assembled a multi-disciplinary team including archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and geologist Dominique Genty and in 2013, after obtaining permission to study the cave, they resumed the investigation.

The results are reported in the online edition of the journal Nature and they suggest that the Bruniquel Cave stone circles are 176,500 years old – ten times older than the cave paintings of Lascaux. There is not the slightest possibility that they were the work of modern humans, who would not arrive for another 130 millennia. The only hominins living in southwestern France at that time were Neanderthals. The attribution of the Bruniquel constructions to Neanderthals demonstrates that they possessed the sophistication and organisational skills to heat and light a deep underground cavern while they built and used an elaborate structure of a type never before seen elsewhere.

The obvious question now is was the function of these structures, located at such a great distance from the cave entrance? There is no evidence that the cave was used as a living habitat. Had the stone circles dated to the Upper Palaeolithic, nobody would have doubted that the complex was a ritual centre of some kind. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it served this function for its Neanderthal builders and as such is further evidence of their capacity for symbolic behaviour.

Jaubert, J. et al., Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature (Online edition) (2016).

Friday, 20 May 2016

Regent Cinema, Amersham, Bucks

This magnificent Art Deco cinema was located in Sycamore Road, Amersham-on-the-hill, a few minutes walk from Amersham Tube Station at the terminus of the Metropolitan Line. An independent venture by local entrepreneurs, it opened in 1928 and seated seated 658. It was taken over and upgraded by Shipman and King in 1931, but competition from the Embassy in neighbouring Chesham and the growing popularity of television led to its closure in 1961. It was demolished and replaced by a characterless supermarket which stands there to this day. Originally known as the Maypole, it was subsequently taken over by Lipton and then Iceland.

Photo: Ken Roe at

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Bridges of Newcastle

Few cities can claim as many architecturally-distinctive bridges as Newcastle on Tyne.

A photograph taken from the High Level road and rail bridge of three of the bridges that connect Newcastle to Gateshead. They are (foreground) the Swing Bridge constructed 1873-6; (middle) the Tyne Bridge constructed 1926-8 and (background) the Gateshead Millennium Bridge constructed 1998-2001. The Sage Gateshead can be seen to the right of the latter.

A photograph taken from the opposite direction towards the Tyne Bridge. The High Level Railway Bridge can just be made out at the back.

The High Level Bridge, opened in 1849. The other bridges can be seen in the background.
A closeup of the Tyne Bridge.

The Swing Bridge and Tyne Bridge, as viewed from the High Level Bridge.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Iron Age origins of European Alpine dairy farming

Chemical analysis of organic residues from pottery reveals lipids

Dairy produce from the high Alps is today of enormous economic and cultural importance to the region. The recent history of dairy farming is well-documented, but there is very little in the way of archaeological evidence to attest to its origins. Transhumance (seasonal migration of livestock between pastures) leaves few traces, and the problem is compounded by acidic soils that lead to the deterioration of faunal remains.  

Milk production in lowland settings in Europe is documented from the Early Neolithic, and ceramic sieves for separating curds and whey are evidence for the production of cheese and fermented milk products by populations that were still predominantly lactose intolerant. In the Alpine lowlands, there is evidence for dairy farming in the form of lipid residues on pottery vessels from around 6,000 BC. However, it was at this stage part of a generalised mixed farming economy that also included meat production.  

From around 3000 BC, it has been speculated that dairy farming intensified as there was a greater reliance on ‘secondary’ animal products such as wool and milk, and greater utilisation of poorer and less accessible land. As noted above, the limited supporting archaeological evidence is not unexpected. Seasonal occupation of high-altitudes intensified from around 2500 BC to 1000 BC and large dry stone enclosures were constructed during this period. They are thought to be livestock pens, but the scarcity of artefacts or faunal remains means that there is no definite clues as to their function. The only ceramics to have been recovered from these sites are small, highly fragmented potsherds.

To investigate further, researchers obtained 30 securely-dated potsherds from six highland archaeological sites of the Engadin region of southern Switzerland. The sites dated from 5000 to 1000 BC. The region is typical of the alpine environment, with valley bottoms above 1,000 m above sea level and high seasonal pastures ranging from around 2,000 m to 2,800 m above sea level. Five of the sites were more than 2,000 m above sea level. They include early Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-shelters and a later Iron Age stone enclosure and hut.

Lipids were successfully extracted in varying amounts from the potsherds, with all the Iron Age pots yielding much higher quantities. Analysis of the lipids using gas chromatography mass spectrometry revealed profiles typical of degraded animal fats. Several Bronze Age and Iron Age potsherds contained ketones with chain lengths consistent with heating of saturated fatty acids, suggesting that the pots were used for heating animal products.

Carbon stable isotope analysis was then applied to fatty acids obtained from 28 of the potsherds. The milk of ruminants and to a lesser extent carcass fat of ruminants, is depleted in 13C relative to other fatty acids. Values obtained were then compared with those obtained from dairy, ruminant and non-ruminant sources. It was found that values for lipids obtained from the Iron Age potsherds were consistent with dairy products. By contrast, the earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age potsherds yielded values consistent with ruminant and non-ruminant animal fats. Dairy farming was identified at all of the Iron Age sites included in the study.

Thus it appears that while low-altitude dairy farming was present from the Neolithic onwards, specialist Alpine dairy farming was a later development. Iron Age alpine pastoralists would have had to face adverse and unpredictable weather, and a significant reduction in the yield and quality of milk. It is likely that pressure on lowland pastures and an increased demand for alpine cheese were motivating factors. This in turn was probably triggered by social and economic changes, deterioration of the climate, and demographic growth during the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age.

Carrer, F. et al., Chemical Analysis of Pottery Demonstrates Prehistoric Origin for High-Altitude Alpine Dairying. PLoS One 11 (4), DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0151442 (2016).

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Waxing gibbous Moon

19 April 2016 at 19:16 shot with Canon Power Shot SX530 HS 1/800 sec at f/8 ISO 200.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

No Neanderthal-derived Y-chromosomes in modern population

Evidence found of genetic incompatibility

An open access study published in The American Journal of Human Genetics has found no evidence of Neanderthal introgression into modern male Y-chromosome despite it being elsewhere in the modern genome. The study is the first in which a Neanderthal Y-chromosome has been sequenced as all the Neanderthal individuals previously sequenced to 0.1x coverage were women. Women do not have a Y-chromosome, so men inherit their Y-chromosomal DNA exclusively from their fathers. The researchers sequenced the Y-chromosome from a male Neanderthal from the El Sidrón cave site in northern Spain, dating to 49,000 years ago.

The researchers found that the Neanderthal and modern human Y-chromosomes diverged from one another around 588,000 years ago, which is consistent with estimates for when the ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans diverged from one another. This was not unexpected: the surprise was that no Neanderthal-derived Y-chromosome has ever been observed in a modern male. While this could simply be the result of genetic drift, the researchers found evidence of genetic incompatibility between the Y-chromosomal genes of Neanderthals and modern humans.

They identified protein-coding differences between Neanderthal and modern human Y-chromosomes, including potentially deleterious coding differences in the genes PCDH11Y, TMSB4Y, USP9Y and KDM5D. PCDH11Y and its X-chromosomal counterpart PCDH11X might play a role in brain lateralisation and language development; TMSB4Y might influence sperm production; USP9Y might reduce cell proliferation in malignant tumours; and KDM5D might play a role in suppressing the invasiveness of certain cancers.

Three of these changes are missense mutations, i.e. they alter the amino acid sequence of proteins, which in turn have a biological impact. All three are in genes that produce male-specific minor histocompatibility (H-Y) antigens. Such antigens can trigger an immune response during pregnancy, leading to a miscarriage. These antigens are similar to human leucocyte antigens (HLA) that form part of the body’s immune system, but because the genes are on the Y-chromosome they are specific to men. If only girls were carried to full term, that could explain the absence of any Neanderthal contribution to the present-day Y-chromosome.

Mendez, F., Poznik, D., Castellano, S. & Bustamante, C., The Divergence of Neandertal and Modern Human Y Chromosomes. The American Journal of Human Genetics 98, 728-734 (2016).x

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Flores ‘hobbits’ died out much earlier than originally thought

Homo floresiensis extinct by 50,000 years ago

A new study published in Nature has suggested that Homo floresiensis became extinct much earlier than originally reported. The type specimen LB 1, recovered from Late Pleistocene sediments at Liang Bua, Flores in 2004 was claimed to be 18,000 years old, with other remains and associated stone tools dating from 74,000 to 95,000 years old. The dates were inferred from radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, uranium series and electron spin resonance dates on associated sedimentary material. No direct dates were obtained from the remains themselves for fear of damaging them. However, some authorities were dubious that the ‘hobbits’ could have survived for so long after modern humans reached Southeast Asia.

It has now been discovered that the hominin remains and artefacts were found in a stratigraphic sequence of older sediment forming a pedestal, which have been truncated by one or more phases of erosion and subsequently covered by later sediment. This was not recognised during the original excavations, hence making the accuracy of the inferred dates suspect.

The new dates have been obtained by dating the main stratigraphic units within the pedestal; and this time direct dating was also applied to the skeletal remains of Homo floresiensis. Radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and uranium series methods were used. The revised dates suggest that the skeletal remains range from 60,000 to 100,000 years old and the associated stone tools range from 50,000 to 190,000 years old.

Parts of Southeast Asia may have been inhabited by Denisovans during this period, and modern humans reached Australia by 50,000 years ago. Whether either came into contact with Homo floresiensis or were connected to its demise is at this stage still unknown.

Sutikna, T.
et al., Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature17179 (2016).

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Waterloo sunset

Taken at 18:32 on 25 March 2016 with iPhone 5.1/120th sec at f/2.4 ISO 80.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Melanesian genomes reveal episodes of interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans

Study demonstrates multiple encounters with archaic humans

In a new attempt to obtain genetic information about Neanderthals and Denisovans, researchers have analysed the genomes of 1,523 genetically-diverse individuals, including 35 Melanesians. Results were compared with known Neanderthal and Denisovan sequences. 1340 Mb of the Neanderthal genome and 304 Mb of the Denisovan genome were obtained.

The Melanesians show between 1.9 and 3.4 percent of Denisovan ancestry. They have an average 104 Mb of archaic sequences: 48.9 Mb of Neanderthal, 42.9 Mb of Denisovan, and 12.2 Mb of ambiguous sequence that could be either. By contrast, only 0.026 Mb (in Esan) to 0.5 Mb (in Luhya) of archaic sequences per individual were found in Africans. An average 65.0 Mb of archaic sequences were found in East Asians; 55.2 Mb in South Asians; and 51.2 Mb in Europeans. Most of these archaic sequences were Neanderthal in origin, although a small fraction (less than 1 percent) in East Asians and South Asians are predicted to be Denisovan. There was evidence for an additional pulse of Neanderthal admixture in Europeans, East Asians, and South Asians compared to Melanesians. The data suggests that there were at least three separate episodes of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, and one of modern humans interbreeding with Denisovans.

The study also found a statistically-significant overlap between regions depleted of Neanderthal and regions depleted of Denisovan genetic sequences, suggesting that archaic sequences in these regions were deleterious and were purged by the effects of purifying selection. Regions depleted of archaic lineages are contain large numbers of genes associated with specific regions of the brain, particularly in the developing cortex and adult striatum. A large region depleted of archaic sequences spans 11 Mb on chromosome 7 and contains the FOXP2 gene associated with speech and language, as well as genes associated with autism.

It is likely that further studies will reveal an increasingly complex picture of how modern humans have interbred with archaic humans throughout Eurasia. The depletion of archaic sequences from brain-related sequences of the genome might hint at cognitive differences between modern and archaic humans; or these regions might simply be more prone to adverse effects of horizontal gene transfer.

Vernot, B. et al., Excavating Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from the genomes of Melanesian individuals (10.1126/science.aad9416) (2016).x

Friday, 18 March 2016

The mammoth diet of Neanderthals

Stable isotope evidence from three Belgian sites

Attempts to gain insight into Neanderthal diet have been many and various over the years. Methods have included consideration of dental microwear, tooth calculus, lithic use-wear and residues, and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope data. These studies have shown that the Neanderthal diet included the consumption of large herbivores, but the extent to which smaller mammals, birds, riverine and seafood was eaten remains uncertain.

To address these issues, researchers conducted carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses of collagen extracted from Neanderthal remains from the Belgian sites of Goyet and Spy. Results were compared with those from extensive faunal remains from Goyet, Spy and a third Belgian site, Scladina. These included mammoth, rhino, horse, reindeer, hyena, wolf, cave bear and cave lions. The proportion of the isotopes carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 reflect an animal’s place in the food chain: the highest levels are found in carnivores.

The results show that Neanderthal isotope levels and hence diet differed from that of any carnivore, indicating that they occupied a distinct ecological niche. The overall data suggested that while predators typically preferred smaller animals such as reindeer and horse, the Neanderthal focus was on large herbivores. Mammoth was the most important source of meat, accounting for around 30 to 40 percent of the Neanderthal diet. Reindeer and rhino accounted for lesser proportions, and plant food for about 20 percent.

Wißing, C. et al., Isotopic evidence for dietary ecology of late Neandertals in North-Western Europe. Quaternary International, (2015).x