Queen Hatshepsut and the case of the poison skin cream

German archaeologists studying a skin cream once owned by Queen Hatshepsut have found evidence that the female pharaoh may have accidentally poisoned herself.

The tiny bottle, which has an inscription saying it was owned by Hatshepsut, was still partially filled with a substance that the archaeologists subjected to chemical analysis. It included nutmeg and palm oils, commonly used to soothe skin irritations. It also included benzopyrene, which smells nice but is highly carcinogenic. It’s found in burnt substances such as pitch, coal tar, cigarette smoke, and burnt foods such as barbeque and coffee. Keep that in mind this Labor Day Weekend.

In contrast to the idealized statue of Hatshepsut shown here, her mummy revealed that she was obese, had liver cancer, and probably suffered from diabetes.

Hatshepsut’s rule saw two decades of peace and ambitious trade expeditions as far as Puntland, which was probably in the modern unrecognized state of the same name. Her modern-looking temple at Deir el Bahri is one of Egypt´s most stunning attractions. You can reach it by bus, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can take a mountain path from the Valley of the Kings, which leads you to a cliff overlooking the temple before sloping down past the tombs of its builders and to the temple itself. I did this one August, which is not the best time. That was probably as bad for my skin as Hatshepsut’s skin cream.

[Photo courtesy Rob Koopman]

Ancient port discovered in Egypt

Archaeologists working in Egypt have discovered a harbor on the Red Sea that was used for international trade.

The excavation at Mersa Gawasis has revealed traces of an ancient harbor. It’s long been known that the Egyptians traded down the coast of Africa, but the location of their embarkation was unknown. A famous carving at Deir el-Bahari, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, shows an ocean-going vessel like the one pictured above and scenes a land with thatched huts and exotic items for sale such as ivory and giraffes. Inscriptions identify the land as Punt but don’t mention where it is. Archaeologists have speculated that it was in the Horn of Africa, either in Eritrea or Djibouti, or where the modern unrecognized states of Somaliland or Puntland are today.

The first recorded voyages to Punt started in the reign of the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled from 2487-2475 BC. Regular trading missions were sent out for centuries to buy exotic items for Egypt’s elite. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous engravings of Punt date to around 1490-1460 BC.

Scholars have traditionally been doubtful of the Egyptians’ ability to make long sea voyages. Further excavation at Mersa Gawasis may change this view and open up new possibilities for Egyptian influence on other ancient cultures. While the excavations at Mersa Gawasis are not yet open to public view, Deir el-Bahari is a popular attraction and you can wonder at the scenes depicting the mysterious land of Punt for yourself.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Sea Shepherd boat “Steve Irwin” heads to Somalian pirate waters

In a not-too-surprising move last week the Sea Shepherd took its ship the “Steve Irwin” – proudly waving its skull-and-crossbones pirate flag – straight into the heart of real pirate country.

While the Shepherd’s are regarded among conservation groups as being rebels and outsiders, willing to go to nearly any lengths to protect whales, dolphins, baby seals, tuna and more, happy to obstruct and lob stink bombs onto opposing vessels … to-date they’ve not actually engaged in what we would consider today to be real piracy, i.e. boat-seizing, hostage-taking and gun-rattling.

But last week they painted the usually all-black “Steve Irwin” in green camo, with a giant “77” on its bow (“so we looked like a Navy ship,” spokeswoman Tiffany Humphrey told me, the number representing the year – 1977 – the organization was founded), crossed the northern Indian Ocean, transited the Gulf of Aden and sailed into the Red Sea, through the waters still regarded “the most dangerous” on the planet thanks to Somali pirates.

“A few (real) pirates came and looked,” said Humphrey, but apparently the “official” look of the environmentalist’s boat gave them pause. Three separate skiffs with a half-dozen men in each approached the ship, tailed for a few miles, but kept their distance. As well as the new paint job, the ship was ringed with barbed wire, 4-foot-long steel spikes and the on-watch crew manned water cannons and “imitation” weapons.

The ship’s new look apparently confused some local navies as well. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter buzzed the ship, thinking it to be a Dutch warship.
Humphrey reports that they’ll keep the camo look during the ship’s upcoming season in the Mediterranean Sea (dubbed “Operation Blue Rage II”), which starts on June 1 and will attempt to stop bluefin tuna catching off the coast of Libya. “It’s too hot in the Med for our usual black,” said Humphrey.

In related news, the Shepherd’s website suggests that Japanese whalers may not return to the Southern Ocean for their annual hunt (November-March) because they’ve lost funding from the government.
In large part due to the impacts – and ballooning costs – of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear leakage the government in Tokyo has announced massive, across the board budget cuts, including “child support, senior citizen support and pensions, and infrastructure repairs and maintenance.”

But the non-profit groups insists if the whalers do return to Antarctica next November, they’ll be there waiting.
“There have been a few critics who have been advising us to lay off Japan because of the recent disasters,” reports the Shepherd’s website. “The point is that Sea Shepherd interventions are not targeting the Japanese people. We are addressing unlawful activities – whale poachers in an area far from Japan, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where whales are supposedly protected by law.”

[Flickr image via gsz]

The spread of Somalian pirates

Should we be concerned by suggestions that terrorists are taking clues from the Somali pirates and considering hijacking ships across the Indian Ocean for reasons other than ransom?


There is increasing evidence of links in Somalia between the mafia-like organizations that run most of the pirating and the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which controls most of southern and central Somalia and both the U.S. and U.N. accuse of having links to al- Qaeda.

The obvious concern is that the rag-tag pirates are grabbing small private yachts and cargo boats loaded with lawn tractors may be providing a working model for the terrorists more interested in hijacking tankers loaded with chemicals and cargo boats carrying weapons.

The fact that the pirates seem to be getting more brazen, and successful, is not helping to deter others hoping to follow in their footsteps.

In 2010 pirates hijacked a record 53 ships and took 1,181 crewmembers from 30 countries hostage. Ninety two percent of the attacks took place off the coast of Somalia. According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau losses topped $7 billion in shipping revenue, higher insurance premiums and the expense of deploying naval warships to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Last year alone NATO spent $2 billion on efforts to safeguard the international sea-lanes off the Horn of Africa.As attacks move further eastwards, toward Oman and India, concern mounts. A few days ago an unusually large group of 30 to 50 Somali pirates seized an Indonesian cargo ship on its way to Suez, Egypt, with 20 sailors onboard. The next day they used the captured ship to attack a Liberian-flagged chemical tanker but were repelled after “an exchange of fire” with security crew on board.

The two Danish families grabbed off their yacht three weeks ago, including three teenagers, are still being held – despite that the Danish Navy has a warship parked just off shore and its government is negotiating hard for their release.

A handful of governments say the reason they pirates are flourishing is because penalties, even if caught, are insufficient. According to Jack Lang, advisor to the U.N. Security Council on piracy issues, nine out of 10 captured pirates are released because there isn’t sufficient capacity to prosecute or incarcerate them.

Some think imposing firm, tough sentences is the answer. Russia, for example, has asked the U.N. Security Council to demand that all nations enact laws to criminalize piracy. It has “urgently” encouraged creation of three distinct courts for piracy cases and construction of two prisons for convinced pirates. The idea is to build these specialized courts in the semi- autonomous regions of Somalia — Somaliland and Puntland — and a third with Somali jurisdiction in Tanzania.

In March, China agreed, leading a Security Council meeting that called for a more comprehensive international strategy for dealing with political instability in Somalia, piracy and the threat posed by the al- Shabaab militia. It suggested the U.N. needs “a comprehensive approach to tackle piracy and its underlying causes.”

In a statement, China “strongly urged” Somalia’s transitional government to operate in a more “constructive, open and transparent manner that promotes broader political dialogue and participation.” It also asked U.N. member governments for greater support for the 8,000 African Union troops trying to defeat the insurgents.

[flickr image via Gui Seiz]

How to pirate-proof a ship

Razor wire, Gurkhas and sonic weapons are being routinely deployed on ships sailing in the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa in an attempt to pirate-proof ships of all kinds. While ships try to go through the Suez Canal, pirate attacks on pretty much anything sailing off East Africa are rising and extra measures are being taken to protect the ships and their passengers.

A 25-nation naval presence is helping but earlier this year the Saga cruise ship Spirit Of Adventure was chased by and eventually outpaced pirates in the Indian Ocean.Shipping companies and cruise lines won’t say exactly what they are doing to deter pirates but Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth has been deploying razor wire to make boarding from the sea all but impossible. A Cunard spokesman told Express.co.uk “When we are in the at-risk area we deploy lookouts all around the ship to ensure that no boats are trying to get close. “On the stern, which is the pirates’ favoured point of access, we have used razor wire. The passengers can see it but it can’t harm them as it is fenced off.”

Cruise ships typically monitor the sea with radar and use speed of their ships and the height of their lower decks to thwart pirates. Sonic weapons are also being used that put out a debilitating sound that turns pirates away as are high-power water hoses to knock pirates back down to water level.

“Our ships are fast and have a lot of people on board – 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew on the Queen Elizabeth – so the chances of pirates even attempting to tackle a ship like that are very low” Cunard said.

Flickr photo by expertinfantry

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