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Science
UNEARTHING MYSTERIES
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Unearthing four new mysteries.
Tuesdays 12 December 2006 to 2 January 2007 11.00-11.30am 

In the first of a new series of Unearthing Mysteries, Aubrey Manning travels to Athens to find out about the secrets of a finding which has astonished its investigators.

In the second programme Aubrey goes to Norfolk to see new evidence of human occupation hundreds of thousands of years ago. Who were these people, how did they get here and what was life like between the ice ages?

The Antikythera Mechanism

Programme 1

The Antikythera Mechanism is an intricate bronze device of wheels, dials and gears created more than two thousand years ago by the Ancient Greeks.

Found at the bottom of the sea by sponge divers on the wreck of a Roman cargo ship it has fascinated astronomers, mathematicians, engineers and historians ever since.

Crafted with precision engineering and covered with astronomical symbols and inscriptions – was it an early astronomical computer? The sophisticated technology used to make it isn’t seen until medieval clocks 1000 years later. Could its existence mean the ancient Greeks knew the Earth moved round the Sun more than a millennia before Copernicus brought it to the world in the sixteenth century?

Aubrey goes in search of who made it, what it was used for and why its existence might mean a rethink of our understanding of the history of science and technology.


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Nigel Larkin (l) shows Aubrey Manning a 600,000 year old mammoth bone
Nigel Larkin (left) of Norfolk Museums shows Aubrey Manning a
600,000-year-old mammoth bone from West Runton, Norfolk.

Programme 2

Who were the first human inhabitants of Britain? Over the last few years, a group of scientists under Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum have been trying to find out as part of AHOB – the Ancient Human Occupation if Britain project. Aubrey Manning visits the Norfolk coast to look at the latest evidence.

At Happisburgh, the cliffs are crumbling. Every storm washes more away and sea-view homes are threatened. But the residents’ misfortune brings an opportunity for archaeologists. Beneath the beach lies the Cromer Forest bed, a deposit of dark clay, rich in the remains of plants and the bones of animals.

The beach has also yielded the occasional flint hand axe. For a long time, everyone thought that they were washed down from younger deposits above, but excavations have now proved that they come from the forest bed, where some of the bones show signs of butchery.

Over the past few million years, Britain has suffered a series of ice ages, with thick sheets of ice advancing South as far as North London. They have left their mark in the cliffs and, by counting the layers of glacial deposits, it now seems that the Forest bed must be at least 650,000 years old. That’s supported by dates from snail shells and even from the teeth of voles. The conclusion: there were humans in Britain 200,000 years earlier than previously realised.

But how human were they? They were probably not our own ancestors – they were still in Africa – these were the ancestors of Neanderthals. They would have been able to walk from Europe.  People probably migrated into Britain on at least eight separate occasions, following herds of deer and mammoth. Each time except the last they were eventually driven back by the ice.

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The famous statue of Boudica in her chariot on the Thames Embankment at Westminster, and a coin depicting her husband, Prasutagus (inset)
The famous statue of Boudica in her chariot on the
Thames Embankmentat Westminster
and a coin depicting her husband, Prasutagus (© Sue White)

Programme 3

Everyone has heard of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, who rode to battle in a chariot against the Romans. But that’s not quite right. Prior to a transcribing error in a medieval manuscript, her name was Boudica. And she was probably never Queen.

She was married however. Her husband, Prasutagus, was king of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia until his death in AD 60. It is his name that is on the few surviving coins of the period.

Prasutagus was a friend of Rome – probably a Roman Citizen and it’s possible that he visited Rome, perhaps taking his wife. He was rich and prosperous, perhaps adding Roman loans or bribes to his wealth from the tribe. He was what is known as a Client King, some might say a puppet ruler.

Aubrey Manning visits Norwich Castle Museum to hear about his life, see his coins and some of the luxuries of gold and bronze that he and his wife might have used.

Even after death he tried to keep things friendly with Rome, dividing his estate between his two daughters and the Emperor Nero. But the Romans were greedy. According to Roman historian Tacitus, they seized tribal lands, flogged Boudica and raped her daughters.

Boudica could stand it no longer and led the Iceni and neighbouring tribes in a revolt that culminated in the sacking of Colchester, St Albans and London, before their final defeat in battle with the Roman legions.

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