Clear waters increase visibility to shipwrecks on Lake Michigan

For much of the year, visibility on Lake Michigan is obscured by either ice in the winter or algae blooms in warmer months. There is a window in the spring, however, when the water is unusually clear and a variety of shallow-water shipwrecks can be viewed from the air.

The US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City has noted that this is the time of year when crystal-clear water conditions allow sunken vessels to be spied from above during routine patrols.

Two years ago, Coast Guard officials came across several shipwrecks in the area near Sleeping Bear Point known as the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which is “one of the richest areas in Michigan for shipwreck diving,” according to the preserve’s website.

The lumber industry put the area on a shipping route. The North and South Manitou Islands, just north of the point, provided a somewhat sheltered area for ships hiding from storms, according to Smithsonian.com.

Map of Lake Michigan.

It is estimated that 6,000 ships have been lost on the Great Lakes over the years, with approximately 1,500 of these vessels having gone down in the waters of Lake Michigan, according to National Public Radio.

Of course, far more shipwrecks are beyond viewing. The lake, which covers more than 22,000 square miles, has an average depth of nearly 280 feet and reaches down to more than 900 feet in some locations.

While not much is known about many of the wrecks, a large number of which sank in the 19th century, they do include the James McBride, believed to be the first to carry cargo from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Michigan in 1848. The vessel,  a 121-foot brig, ran aground during a storm on Oct. 19, 1857, and her remains lie in 5 to 15 feet of water.

Like other Great Lakes, visibility on Lake Michigan decreases as the year goes on, due to algal blooms fueled by agricultural runoff. Warmer temperatures will likely nurture the blooms and obscure the wrecks in the summer, according to Smithsonian.com.

(Top: Shipwreck off the shore of Lake Michigan. Image taken in the spring of 2015 by US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City.)

California wildflower bloom short-lived but spectacular

California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument covers some 250,000 acres – a swath of land 38 miles by 17 miles – between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield and due north of Santa Barbara. Despite its rugged beauty and location within perhaps three hours of the several million residents of Los Angeles, it receives just a few thousand visitors a year.

At present, one of the more spectacular aspects of California’s spring is taking place in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. A “superbloom” of wildflowers, with a seemingly endless array of yellows, purples, blues, reds and oranges, is giving the area the appearance of an impressionist’s palette.

Carrizo Plain National Monument, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, is a vast grassland where antelope, elk and numerous other fauna roam, inhabitants of the last undeveloped, unfarmed region of grasslands that once covered much of the state.

Called California’s Serengeti, the Carrizo Plain is home to a variety of threatened or endangered species.

It has been inhabited off and on for millennia and features Indian pictographs believed to date back thousands of years.

The remote monument is also traversed by the San Andreas Fault, which has carved valleys, moved mountains and can be viewed up close in the ridges and ravines evident throughout the region.

Within a few weeks, at most, the superbloom will have withered and given way to the drab brown of dry grass, which a good part of the sun-baked state is noted for much of the year. But like a nova in the night sky, the bright explosion of colors may fade but will most certainly leave a brilliant memory.

(Top and middle: Images taken of superbloom of wildflowers at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California, by Bureau of Land Management.)

Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)

Research finds evidence of plague’s impact on England

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

A new archaeological study, drawing on finds from thousands of pits excavated during the past decade, reveals in detail the incredible swath of death left behind when the Black Death swept through medieval England.

Researchers, using pottery shards as a proxy for the presence of humans, calculated the decline in remnants after England was hit by the plague epidemic between 1346 and 1351.

In some locations, such as Binham in Norfolk, Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Shillington in Bedfordshire, and Great Amwell in Hertfordshire, catastrophic declines exceeded 70 per cent, according to information released by the University of Lincoln.

Millions died in England alone, and it’s estimated that half of Western Europe’s population, as many as 200 million individuals, succumbed to the plague during the period.

The research, led by Professor Carenza Lewis from the University of Lincoln and published in the journal Antiquity, indicate “eye-watering” declines in population within rural communities which are still inhabited today and generally regarded as “survivors” of the Black Death, according to the University of Lincoln.

“The new data reveal which places were most severely hit by plague, from the level of individual plots and parishes up to whole towns and counties,” the university added.

Data was gathered from more than 2,000 test-pits excavated by members of the public under professional archaeological supervision between 2005 and 2014 across the six counties of eastern England. These spanned 55 different rural settlements which are inhabited today. Deserted medieval villages were deliberately excluded from the study.

Overall there was a decline of 45 per cent in pottery finds between the high medieval (early 12th to early 14th centuries) and the late medieval period (late 14th to late 16th centuries) across the area studied.

“The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” said Lewis, an archaeologist and Professor for the Public Understanding of Research in the School of History & Heritage at the University of Lincoln.

“Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data for the period,” Lewis added.

The new research supports the emerging consensus that the population of England remained somewhere between 35 and 55 per cent below its pre-Black Death level well into the 16th century, Lewis added.

(Top: The Dance of Death, a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death, brought about in no small part by the lethality of the plague.)

Ancient set of antlers found on beach in Wales

red deer antlers wales

Weeks after first being spotted on a beach along the coast of Wales, researchers have recovered an impressive set of antlers that belonged to a red deer believed to have lived at least 4,000 years ago.

Researchers from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David are examining the remains, which include part of the skull, discovered on a beach in Borth, seven miles north of Aberystwyth, in the Welsh county of Ceredigion.

The remains were first sighted in early April but could not be recovered until recently because of the tides, according to the BBC.

The find comes from a channel cut through an area which in the 1960s turned up bones of an auroch, large wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa, and the ancestor of domestic cattle.

“The individual was certainly in the prime of his life showing full development of the large antlers,” according to Dr. Ros Coard of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Map showing Borth, along the coast of Wales, where ancient antlers were found.

Map showing Borth, along the coast of Wales, where ancient antlers were found.

When the skull and antlers were first seen, they were reported to the Royal Commission in Aberystwyth which alerted officials at the school’s archaeology, history and anthropology department.

The individuals who originally located the antlers and partial skull photographed the area where it was spotted. The images were used by the team, who manually searched the water at low tide until the skull was found in approximately three feet of water, according to the BBC.

The forest and peat deposits on either side of the channel date to between about 6,000 and 4,000 years ago – the time of the last hunter-gatherers and the earliest farmers in Britain.

“This is a wonderful discovery that really brings the forest and its environs to light,” said Dr. Martin Bates of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “Although the exact age of the skull has yet to be confirmed, it’s probable that the channel within which the find was made is contemporary with the forest and so an age in excess of 4,000 years old is likely.”

Coard, a faunal specialist at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, added: “Although the antlers and partial skull still have to undergo full analysis, the antlers can be said to come from a very large, mature male red deer.”

(Top: Antlers and part of skull of red deer believed to be at least 4,000 years old, recovered along coast of Wales. Photo credit: University of Wales Trinity Saint David.)

Catholic church emerges from receding waters in Mexico

AP Mexico Colonial Church

An indication of the extent of drought conditions in southern Mexico was shown earlier this fall when a colonial-era church, under a man-made reservoir for nearly 50 years, was revealed by receding waters.

The Temple of Santiago, also known as the Temple of Quechula, is an abandoned Roman Catholic church located in the  Nezahualcóyotl Reservoir in the southern-most state of Chiapas. It was built in 1564 but later abandoned due to a smallpox epidemic in 1773 and ultimately submerged by a dam in 1966.

Drought conditions in Chiapas have seen the ruins rise again. In late October, the water level in the reservoir had dropped by more than 80 feet. The church normally rests under 100 feet of water.

The church is 183 feet long and 42 feet wide, with a bell tower that rises 48 feet high. When constructed, it was far larger than needed given the size of the congregation, but the Spanish anticipated a population boom.

“It was a church built thinking that this could be a great population center, but it never achieved that,” architect Carlos Navarretes told the Associated Press. “It probably never even had a dedicated priest, only receiving visits from those from Tecpatán.”

While parts of the church occasionally reappear during some dry seasons when water levels are low, the only other time a sizeable part of the church reappeared previously was in 2002. Then, visitors were even able to walk inside it.

The Nezahualcóyotl Reservoir was built on the Grijalva River to generate hydroelectric energy. Nezahualcóyotl is the nation’s second-largest reservoir.

(Top and below: Temple of Quechula, partially rises above the waters of Nezahualcóyotl Reservoir in the Mexican state of Chiapas.)

Nezahualcóyotl Reservoir 1

Ancient Pictish fort found off the coast of Eastern Scotland

Pictish-Fort

An essential aspect of older forts was their inaccessibility to enemies. The harder it was for foes to get at those inside, the easier it was for defenders to hold out.

It appears that this need was recognized quite early on. A recently discovered fort off the coast of Scotland sits atop a sea stack and can only be accessed using ropes at low tide, according to the BBC.

The Pictish fort was uncovered during an archaeological dig on the Aberdeenshire coast and is believed to be Scotland’s oldest, dating back to as early as the third century AD.

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen needed help from experienced mountaineers to scale the rugged cliffs in order reach the site, which is perched precariously on the top of a sea stack called Dunnicaer, with sheer drops on all sides, according to the Edinburgh Evening News.

“The team found evidence of ramparts, floors and a hearth on the small outcrop,” the publication added. “It is believed the fort would have comprised a timber house or hall, surrounded by an outer defensive rampart built from stone.”

The fort was especially impressive given the materials used in its construction.

“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site,” said lead researcher Gordon Noble, a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen.

Results of carbon dating suggest that use of the fort was relatively short-lived, and it is assumed the Pictish communities who inhabited it moved on to the larger site of Dunnottar Castle to the south.

The Picts were descendants of indigenous Iron Age people of northern Scotland.

“Pict” was a blanket term applied to an agglomeration of different people in the northern Scotland, probably with different cultures and languages, according to the website Orkneyjar, which details the heritage of the Orkney Islands.

The word “Pict” means “painted people,” likely referring to the Pictish custom of either tattooing their bodies or embellishing themselves with war paint.

Prior the arrival of the Romans in Britain the Picts were probably fragmented tribes who spent much of their time fighting among themselves.

The Roman threat appears to have forced them together. This allowed the tribes to resist the continental invaders, forcing cooperation in the face of invaders. By the time the Romans departed from Britain in the fifth century AD, the northern tribes had begun to form into what would later become the Pictish Kingdom.

By the 11th century the Pictish identity had been incorporated into the amalgamation of peoples known as “Scots.”

(Top: Researchers seen working atop Dunnicaer sea stacks off coast of Scotland, where an ancient Pictish fort was recently discovered.)