Canna’s cursing stone

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A graveyard on the Isle of Canna is the site of an exciting find for the National Trust of Scotland. The bullaun stone, or ‘cursing stone’ is 25cm in diameter, dates back to AD 800 and is engraved with a cross. It is the first example ever to have been found in Scotland, with Ireland a much more common location for the stones.

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Cursing stones are linked to early Christian standing crosses, one of which stands on Canna. There is a worn hole at its base, into which the new find perfectly fits. Bowl-shaped lower stones have previously been found elsewhere in Scotland, including on Canna, but this is the first discovery of a top stone.

In the early-Christian period, Canna belonged to the monastery on Iona. The island was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981 by Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell.

Katherine Forsyth, an expert in the history and culture of early Celtic-speaking peoples, based at the University of Glasgow, said the stones “date from the early Christian period but have continued to be used by pilgrims up to modern times. Traditionally, the pilgrim would recite a prayer while turning the stone clockwise, wearing a depression or hole in the stone underneath.”

She added: “This exciting find provides important new insight into religious art and practice in early Scotland and demonstrates just how much there is still to be discovered out there.”

The Sunday Times archive unveiled

To celebrate 50 years of The Sunday Times Magazine, a huge digital archive has been made available, with nearly 600,000 pages of newspaper to view.

Key stories include the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, the exposure of Kim Philby as a Soviet double-agent in 1967, and the revelations about the Israeli nuclear programme in 1986. Further back, there is a letter from Charles Dickens, mediating in a dispute between his friend Edmund Yates and William Makepiece Thackeray; and the regular Freemasonry column, outlining the activities at various lodges.

The archive offers comprehensive search parameters, allowing researchers to search by article title, author, page number, issue number, document number or key word. They can also quickly browse by issue and view all articles via a table of contents sidebar. They can then save, print, bookmark or email the documents. The image viewer allows researchers to pan, grab, zoom or crop images.

‘Yeti’ hair to be tested

Remains that are purported to be of yeti and bigfoot are to undergo DNA testing by a UK-Swiss team.

Professor Brian Sykes of Oxford University, who will lead the team alongside Michel Sartori, director of the Lausanne Museum of Zoology, told Reuters: “There have been DNA tests done on alleged yetis and other such things but since then the testing techniques, particularly on hair, have improved a lot due to advances in forensic science.”

The project will examine hair, bone and other material from a collection amassed by Bernard Heuvelmans, a Belgian-French biologist who investigated reported yeti sightings from 1950 up to his death in 2001. The researchers will apply a systematic approach and employ the latest advances in genetic testing, aiming to publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Past examinations of other remains have found them to be human. But theories include the survivals of Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis (the Indonesian “Hobbit”) or Gigantopithecus, a giant ape that once inhabited the forests of East Asia. And the project could add to the growing body of knowledge on the interaction between different human species in the past.

“In the last two years it has become clear that there was considerable interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals,” said Professor Sykes. “About two per cent to four per cent of the DNA of each individual European is Neanderthal.”

The first diamond jubilee

How will June’s jubilee celebrations compare to Britain’s first diamond jubilee, held for Queen Victoria in 1897?

In that year, Victoria sat at the head of an empire of 450 million people, stretched across every continent. The ‘Festival of the British Empire’ proposed by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain initially met with resistance from the 78-year-old queen, who only came to enjoy the celebrations after being pushed into taking part.

The highlight of the day itself was a procession along six miles of London streets. The parade was accompanied by colonial forces from Canada, India, Africa and the Antipodes, while the diminutive queen, dressed in her habitual mourning black (as well as Albert, she had lost two children and six grandchildren by 1897) was confined to her state coach by arthritis. In addition, street feasts were laid on for 400,000 of London’s poorest residents and 100,000 of Manchester’s.

Despite her reluctance, the queen afterwards wrote: “No-one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets… The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening and every face seemed to be filled with joy.”

SS Great Britain jellied

Add professional jellymongers to Brunel’s SS Great Britain, and you are left with an unusual piece of modern art.

As part of the Museums at Night season, jellymongers Bompas and Parr have covered the glass plate on which the ship sits with lime jelly, and then lit it from below for a spectacular nighttime light show.

A team of 10 people mixed the 55,000 litres of jelly in barrels and using industrial paint mixers. The jelly comprised of sodium alginate derived from seaweed, industrial dye and a lime flavouring.

The display is the brainchild of Rhian Tritton, who is the ship’s director of conservation. “I thought the conjunction of jelly, which is a perfect 19th-century food, worked well with the SS Great Britain, which is a perfect 19th-century ship,” she said. “The obvious thing was to have jelly on the glass plate.”

Jellymonger Harry Parr said “It smells incredible.”

 

New burial site reveals prehistoric human bones

The Trefael Stone in Pembrokeshire has been reclassified after a survey established it as the capstone of a Stone Age burial chamber. It has been used for ritual burials for at least 5,500 years.

An archaeological team from the University of Bristol has been given permission to examine the human bones found there along with beads and shards of pottery. University of Bristol visiting fellow Dr George Nash and colleagues Thomas Wellicome and Adam Stanford held an excavation in September 2010 and returned again last year. As well as unearthing the human remains, beads and pottery, they found a stone cist – a half-metre long coffin-like container that they estimate was put there in the later Bronze Age. Their findings suggest it may prove to be Wales’s earliest Neolithic ritual burial location and one of the earliest in Western Europe.

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Dr Nash said: “The soils around this site are very acidic, so I’m astonished how the pottery and the bones have survived all this time. It’s a big problem in Wales because of a lot of sites have in excavated by antiquarians who have just dug a hole looking for goodies, then taken what they want but have wrecked the site. What we have found is extremely rare.”