Wreck sites under threat

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With an estimated 42 per cent of the world’s three million wrecks already damaged by trawling, Dr Sean Kingsley of consultancy Wreck Watch International is calling for the creation of ‘red lists’ to protect particularly important sites.
 
These include the final resting place of HMS Victory in the English Channel, which was identified in 2008. The predecessor to Nelson’s flagship, already damaged by trawlers, is said to be at risk of total destruction.

Such problems come about because commercial boats employ nets that scour the seabed, disturbing the sediments where wrecks settle. Like the Mary Rose, many of the lost ships are potentially in excellent condition because organic matter breaks down slowly when it’s buried in mud and sand.

“Thousands of shipwrecks worldwide lie in the path of fishing trawlers, but governments are failing to find even small change to require the damaging effects of a multibillion-dollar industry to be monitored,” says Dr Kingsley.

Fossil discoveries shed new light on human evolution

 
Scientists have discovered three fossils – a face and two jawbones with teeth – that date from between 1.78 and 1.95 million years ago. The specimens support the view that a separate species of human, dubbed Homo rudolfensis after a skull was found in 1972, existed around two million years ago.
 
Homo rudolfensis would probably have shared its environment with Homo habilis, or ‘handy man’, and Homo erectus.
 
The new finds are particularly important because they support the idea that modern humans didn’t evolve in a sequential line, but that we need to think of our distant past in terms of a family tree of closely related species.
 
The research was led by Dr Maeve Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi.

Manet masterpiece to stay in Britain

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has raised £7.83m to purchase The Portrait of Madame Claus by French painter Edouard Manet, a key work in the development of Impressionism.

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The preparatory study for Manet’s painting Le Balcon sold for £28.5m to an overseas buyer last year. The painting, which had previously been in a private collection, was made the subject of a temporary export bar to give a British museum the chance to purchase the work. The huge difference in the price paid is down to tax breaks for works of art going to national collections.

The Heritage Lottery Fund gave £5.9m of the purchase price and a further £850,000 came from an Art Fund grant. More than £1m was contributed by trusts, foundations and private individuals.

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The portrait will be lent to public museums and galleries for a nationwide tour in 2013.

Revealing the hidden Charles Dickens

 
So far, the method, developed by Ian Christie-Miller, a former visiting research fellow at London University, has been applied to just one short story, ‘The Chimes’, in a pilot study by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Nevertheless, it’s revealed subtle differences in the text. Why, for example, did Dickens change the sentence “Years … are like men in one respect” to “Years … are like Christians in that respect”?
 
This may seem a small amendment of interest only to literary scholars, but applying Christie-Miller’s technique, which works by comparing frontlit and backlit images of manuscripts, to such novels as Bleak House may reveal far more.
 
“We’re talking of tens of thousands of manuscript pages that could potentially be unlocked,” says Florian Schweizer, director of London’s Charles Dickens Museum.

Flying drones to map Peru’s ruins

Archaeologists in Peru are preparing to map an abandoned colonial-era town, Mawchu Llacta, using an unmanned craft that could speed up data gathering at historical sites.

Normally, this kind of mapping is a hugely time-consuming process that can take several years to complete. However, the hope is that once the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is being developed by Aurora Flight Sciences and a team from Vanderbilt University in the USA, is perfected, the job will take just hours.

The UAV, which is small enough to fit in a backpack, will use a combination of cameras and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to gather data to use as the basis for a three-dimensional map of the site.

Mawchu Llacta has been chosen for the test in part because of its altitude, 4,100 metres, is close to the upper limit for current UAV technology. The town was built in the 1570s, when the Spanish moved 1.5 million native Andeans into planned towns.