News: Archaeologists discover ruins of lost early Medieval monastery in Israel

Archaeologists have found the remains of a Byzantine monastery dating back to the second half of the 6th Century AD (somewhere between 550-600 AD) – the early years of the so-called “Dark Ages”, which would dominate Europe for five hundred years. It was found near the village of Hura in southern Israel.

According to Megan Gannon, the site was uncovered during a construction project. Due to the region’s intense history, it is common practice for a site to be thoroughly examined for artifacts before any construction takes place. In this case, it was the construction of an interchange on Highway 31.

The monastery is rather small, measuring only twenty by thirty-five meters square. In life, the monks who lived here might have found it rather cramped. It was not as grand as those huge European monasteries from the high or late Middle Ages, but it was a start. Monasticism had begun rather recently at that time, and for the first monks, this was quite good enough. Considering their plain back-to-basics mindset, they would have regarded even this little place as more luxurious than they deserved.

The reason why they might have thought this way is down around your feet. the archaeologists were astonished to find exquisitely-preserved mosaic floors in two largest rooms. The designs include geometric patters, pictures of birds, amphorae, and even the names of some of the monasery’s abbots recorded for posterity, along with the dates that the floors were put down. The inscriptions are written in both Greek (the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire) and in Syriac, which was one of the languages spoken in this region. Coins and the remains of pottery were also found in the site, which further helped the archaeologists date the time period of this monastery.

Dr. Daniel Varga, the leader of the team which excavated this site, said that this monastary was just one of a series of monasteries that were located in this region.

Israeli officials plan to physically re-locate the monastery, including the amazing mosaics, to a new location a short distance away so that construction on the highway can proceed.

Sources used:

See me at the Garvies Point Museum next week

Hello to all of my fans,

Next week on Saturday, April 19, the Garvies Point Museum, located in Glen Cove, Nassau County, New York, will be holding its annual “Dinosaur Day”, a popular local event which is always held around the Easter weekend. I have been asked to come down there and help out with the paleontological lecture material. I love doing this sort of thing, and I look foward to it every year!

If you are in the New York City / Long Island area, and you want your dinosaur-loving kid to have a good time and learn a lot, then come to the Garvies Point Museum and Preserve. I’ll be there doing a presentation on dinosaurs and answering any questions that your child might have on prehistoric life and paleontology.

News: “Egg thief” dinosaur from Hell Creek FINALLY named!

All I can say is “It’s about ******* time!!!”

After sitting around for years without an official description, a bird-like dinosaur found in the Hell Creek Formation has finally been given a name. I’m very happy about that. What I’m not happy about is the name that was actually chosen - Anzu wyliei, a name that I REALLY don’t find appealing.

Last year, I read that a bird-like dinosaur more commonly found in the Gobi Desert was discovered in North America. Furthurmore, I found out that it was actually on display in Pittsburgh, and had been for several years – it shows just how horribly behind the times I am. However, I was aghast when I learned that this creature didn’t even have a name. I asked “What the hell’s been taking them (meaning the scientists) so long?” Well now the wait is over.

Anzu (I’m actually shuddering as I’m writing the name – I just loathe the way that it sounds) was a member of a family of dinosaurs called Caenagnathidae. The caenagnathids were a sub-group within a super-family of theropods known as the oviraptorosaurs, or “egg thief lizards”. These very bird-like dinosaurs are well-known from Asia, especially China and Mongolia, but they are almost unheard of anywhere else. Oviraptorosaurs ranged in size from five to twenty-five feet long, and might have evolved from the ornithomimids, the “bird mimics”, commonly known as “ostrich mimics” due to their ostrich-like appearance. The most famous of them was Oviraptor, “egg thief” found in Mongolia by the adventurous Roy Chapman Andrews. The name came from the discovery of a partial skeleton lying on top of a nest of eggs. Chapman and his colleagues thought that the animal was in the process of plundering the nest when it was killed. It wasn’t until later when the insides of the eggs were carefully examined that paleontologists discovered that the preserved embryos were that of other oviraptorosaurs. This animal wasn’t preying upon the eggs – it was the mother.

The caenagnathids have had a confusing history, dating back to the early 20th Century. In the early 1920s, the famous paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore was fossil hunting in Alberta, Canada, when he found the remains of a new and strange creature known only from a pair of incomplete hands. In 1924, he gave them the name Chirostenotes pergracilis. Another dinosaur was named based upon an incomplete foot, and it was called Macrophalangia. By the late 1970s, scientists realized that these two animals were the same, and Chirostenotes became the official name.

But what sort of creature was Chirostenotes? It was clearly a theropod – a bipedal meat-eater – but the bone structure was unlike any other theropod known. In fact, it looked very bird-like. It was believed that Chirostenotes was most similar to another mysterious dinosaur called Elmisaurus, which came from Mongolia during the late Cretaceous Period.

For a long time, Chirostenotes was the only North American oviraptorosaur, specifically a caenagnathid. It was found in rocks dated to the Campanian Stage (80-70 MYA) of the Cretaceous Period. Then, in the 1960s, another oviraptorosaur – and a very early primitive one at that - was found, named Microvenator, “the little hunter”. It lived in Montana approximately 100 million years ago alongside Deinonychus and Tenontosaurus. This showed that oviraptorosaurs were present in North America for much longer than previously suspected.

It had been believed for a while that Chirostenotes and its kind had become extinct a millions of years before the dinosaurs’ exinction. However, in the 1990s, fossils of an animal which might have been an oviraptorosaur were found in Montana in rocks that dated to the very end of the Cretaceous Period – the famous Hell Creek Formation, the home of Tyrannosaurus rex. No oviraptorosaur fossils had ever been found there before. In 1994, Canadian paleontologist Phil Currie, an expert on theropod dinosaurs, published a paper on a fragment of a lower jaw found at the “Sue” site. Based upon it’s shape, it was obviously an oviraptorosaur, specifically a member of the family Caenagnathidae. However, this specimen was significantly larger than any previously-known specimens. It could have been a larger specimen of Chirostenotes, or it might have been a new species.

The problem was that Chirostenotes was known only from a few fragmentary finds – a complete or nearly-complete skeleton had never been found. Then, a pair of incomplete skeletons were found in Hell Creek, and were described in 1995. Ever since then, they have been housed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The staff at the Carnegie Museum even took these two skeletons, composited them together, and put the creature on display for the public! However, the creature still did not have a definitive identification. Paleontologists were uncertain as to whether “the Triebold specimens”, as they were called, were Chirostenotes or maybe another larger species.

In 2011, Matt Lamanna and other scientists announced that they were studying the Hell Creek oviraptorosaur in more detail. Based upon a preliminary view, they stated that it was very similar to Chirostenotes, but they shied away from going so far as to claim that it was a distinct species.

In 2013, a team from the Burpee Museum (the same museum famous for “Jane”, which might be either a Nanotyrannus or a juvenile T. rex, depending on who you ask) discovered the partial skeleton of a caenagnathid oviraptorosaur near the small town of Ekalaka, Montana. The bones were so large that they originally thought that they had found a T. rex; Professor Thomas Holtz of Maryland rushed to the site and confirmed the animal’s identity. This specimen was even larger than the Triebold specimens in the Carnegie Museum. It was affectionately nicknamed “Pearl”.

In 2014, Matt Lamanna and three other colleagues published a paper on the Triebold specimens collected from North and South Dakota. After an exhaustive analysis of the bones, they concluded that the Triebold specimens were not Chirostenotes or Caenagnathus, but constituted an entirely separate genus. They called it Anzu wyliei. According to Lamanna’s own report, the dinosaur was named after Anzu, a feathered bird-like demon from Mesopotamian mythology, and measured somewhere between ten to fifteen feet long.

What the heck does a Mesopotamian demon, feathered or otherwise, have to do with a North American dinosaur? I can understand if the fossils were found in Iraq, but they weren’t. I would actually be highly surprised if ANY dinosaur fossils were uncovered in Iraq. It would be a lot more fitting if it was given a traditional Greco-Latin name, something like Dakotaraptor, or maybe even named after a being from native Sioux Indian folklore, like Wakinyanoraptor (“Wakinyan” is the Sioux name for the thunderbird sky spirit).

But then again, what the heck does the white-skinned feathered serpent god from central Mexico have to do with an unusually large pterosaur from Texas, which neither looked anything remotely like a serpent, nor had feathers, nor came from Mexico? I’m talking about Quetzalcoatlus, for those of you who haven’t caught on. So I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh. Still, Anzu … it just sounds SOOOOO wrong. Unfortunately, we’re all stuck with it.

The specimen uncovered by the team from the Burpee Museum is also likely a specimen of Anzu.

News: “Nanook of the North”? New tyrannosaur species from Alaska

Paleontologists have recently announced the discovery and naming of a new tyrannosaur species from Alaska. They have called it Nanuqsaurus hoglundi.

The discovery was made by a team of paleontologists working for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, located in Dallas, Texas; the team was led by Prof. Anthony R. Fiorillo. The fossils were found at the Prince Creek Formation in Alaska in 2006 when the team was hunting for ceratopsians (that’s “horned-faced” dinos, like Triceratops and Styracosaurus). They consist of the front portion of the lower jaw (the bone is called the “dentary” because that’s the bone in the lower jaw that has the teeth in it) and two small pieces of the upper jaw. The pieces were collected, and then gathered dust for a while until Prof. Fiorillo and his associate Dr. Ronald Tykoski re-examined them.

Admitedly, it’s not that much to go on, but apparently, it was enough to create not only a new species, but a new genus. That doesn’t surprise me at all, as paleontologists are well known to be afflicted with what I call “neogenitis” – “the new genus disease”. They just can’t resist making up new names for things. The name Nanuqsaurus derives from the Inupiak word nanuq, “polar bear”, and the ancient Greek word sauros, “lizard”. The species name is in honor of the philanthropist Forrest Hoglund.

The fossils date to 70 million years ago. It appears to be closely related to both Tyrannosaurus rex and a close relative called Tarbosaurus bataar which lived in Mongolia (some paleontologists consider Tarbosaurus bataar merely to be an Asian species of Tyrannosaurus – personally, I don’t buy it for a few reasons, but I won’t get into them here). Based upon the size of the remains, limited though they may be, Nanuqsaurus may have been only half the size of T. rex.

Professor Fiorillo suspects that the animal’s small size might be a reference to a limited food supply up in the Great un-White North of the late Cretaceous. Although only three small pieces were recovered, it is strongly plausible that a northern tyrannosaur like Nanuqsaurus would be covered in an insulating layer of feathery fuzz.

News: Jurassic megalosaur from Portugal officially described

Hot off the presses! A new carnivorous dinosaur from Portugal has been officially named – Torvosaurus gurneyi.

The fact that Torvosaurus came from Portugal isn’t a revelation – it was, after all, featured prominently in an episode of the Discovery Channel mini-series Dinosaur Revolution (which I didn’t particularly care for). For years, people have known that there have been megalosaurid dinosaur fossils from Portugal, specifically the Lourinha Formation, which dates to the late Jurassic Period, about 150 million years ago. These fossils were tentatively ascribed to the species Torvosaurus tanneri, known from the Morrison Formation of the USA. However, upon closer examination, there are a few minor differences in the bone structure, so the Portuguese specimens were named Torvosaurus gurneyi, named after the famous paleo-artist James Gurney.

Torvosaurus was one of the last megalosaurid theropods, as they were being replaced by the allosaurids and the coelurosaurids. Torvosaurus and its kind ruled Europe durring the middle and late Jurassic Period. It measured 30-35 feet long, giving Allosaurus a serious run for its money, and possibly weighed somewhere in the realm of four to five tons.

As if this wasn’t news enough, there are some dinosaur embryos from Portugal which might belong to Torvosaurus as well.

For more info, check out the websites listed below:

Publishing update: My book sales are rising!

Hello everybody,

Last year, Trafford Publishing (based in Bloomington, Indiana) published my history book Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg. I am happy to say that my book sales have been steadily rising. In fact, they’ve doubled since the book came out in May 2013! Apparently, my book has become rather popular among the historical crowd. So far, I have not recieved a single bad review on it, a trend which I hope continues. Two people on the British version of Amazon.com said some very nice things about me and the book. Another British writer and historian, whose name I will not mention for reasons of privacy, sent me an e-mail saying that he enjoyed the book very much, and that he especially liked my descriptions and analysis of ancient Germanic tribal politics and customs. I’m also happy to see that my work has been cited and discussed on a couple of popular websites, such as blogs and history forums.

Four Days in September cover

This is what the cover of the book looks like. It’s available in hardcover, softcover, and e-book formats, and is available from all major book retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

AMNH Allosaurus photos

Recently, I have decided that my Allosaurus color drawing, which I have re-tooled about four or five times and felt so proud of, actually needs to be re-tooled again. I had made that drawing the center focus of one of my blog posts some time ago. Here it is again if you don’t remember it.

Allosaurus

One thing that immediately jumps out at me is that the tail is too narrow – there’s just not enough meat on it. I’ve noticed that many paleo-artists who follow what I like to call the “Gregory Paul School” of paleo-art often have their paleo-critters very shrink-wrapped, especially the tails. The tail’s weight needs to be proportionate to the weight of the front half of the animal; a tail that is not thick enough will make the animal front-heavy, and I can safely say that this Allosaurus looks front-heavy.

The second thing that I have a problem with are the lacrimal horns. Those are the rounded projections on the skull just in front of the eyes. Many times, I have seen paleo-artists put these very large or at least prominent fin-like crests on Allosaurus skulls. I have always been loathe to do this, since I am a stickler for sticking to the anatomy. if there aren’t any crests, I don’t put them on. However, when I was volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH as it is commonly abbreviated), I took various photographs of the two allosaurus skeletons that they have on public display. based upon this information, I knew that I needed to redo my drawing. I have decided to include the photographs here for any future reference for any aspiring paleontologist or paleo-artist.

AMNH Allosaurus entrance hall

Here is that dynamic running Allosaurus that everyone sees when they come into the entrance hall. I want to to take note of several things. First, look at that beautifully curved neck. Second, look how large the arms are in proportion to the body. Third, look at that enormous Baryonyx-esque thumb claw on each hand. Fourth, notice that the body is a lot more rounded than many artists often show, who make the body appear narrower and flatter.

AMNH Allosaurus skull entrance hall

Here is a close-up of the entrance hall Allosaurus‘ skull. I’m sorry if the picture looks a little fuzzy – I think I jerked the camera when I took the shot. Take note of a couple of things. First, notice that the jaws are strongly U-shaped. Second, the face is pretty much flat on both sides. This animal had absolutely no stereoscopic vision. Third, there does not seem to be any real three-dimensionality to the face – not a whole lot of wrinkles, ridges, and bumps, but almost flat.

Allosaurus arm photo

I had a lot of trouble finding pictures of Allosaurus hands and arms for my drawing. So here’s one, so that you can get your proportions just right.

AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 1AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 2

Now we move into the Hall of Sauriscian Dinosaurs, located on the fourth floor. This is the room that is always the most crowded, aside from the entrance hall, because here is where the Tyrannosaurus skeleton is located, and seemingly every elementary school child in all of NYC wants to see it. This is the skelton of Allosaurus seen in that hall. You might recognize the pose as being similar to a Charles Knight painting, which has been endlessly copied ever since. The two Allosaurus skeletons in the AMNH are meant to represent two modes of behavior: predator and scavenger. There are two things that I notice right away. First, it’s brown not gray -  a rather superficial difference. But what jumps out at me is that the skull is a slightly different shape. The skull used on the skeleton in the entrance hall has an almost flat jawline, producing a rectangular-looking skull – this is the skull that is most commonly seen in museums and in dinosaur anatomy books. However, the skull that you see here has a more curvaceous S-shaped jawline, and the skull appears to be fatter.

AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 3

Here is another view of the skull (again, sorry if it’s a bit blurry; I really need to work on not jerking the camera).

AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 4AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 5AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 6

Here are some various views of that same skull from different perspectives. I took these shots because just having a side view doesn’t really tell me a whole lot of information. Again, you will notice that the skull is flat-faced with no stereoscopic vission. The only way that Allosaurus could see what was directly in front of it was if it cocked its head to the side like a bird so that one of its eyes could see something. Also, look closely at the rounded lacrimal horns. Notice those linear grooves running along the surface. That means that these horns were covered with keratin, the same stuff that your fingernails are made out of. Also, notice that the lacrimal horns are pretty-much in line with the post-orbital bones (the bones behind the eye socket). This would infer that the horns were not as pronounced as I had shown in my drawing.

AMNH Allosaurus skeleton 7

Lastly, here is another photo of Allosaurus arms. Look at the size of those thumb-claws!

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