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The year's ancient mysteries (and missteps) put into perspective

New questions are being raised about whether Jesus was married after Harvard historian Karen King found an ancient papyrus with words apparently referring to Jesus' wife. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.



Long-ago lore still has the power to ignite modern-day controversies: Witness the tempests that were stirred up this year over the Maya calendar, the purported "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," a bone box linked to early Christians, a disputed dinosaur skeleton and the plan to clone a woolly mammoth.

It turned out that there was much more to each of these cases than met the eye. Or sometimes much less. Either way, we'll be hearing more about ancient mysteries in the year to come. Here's a status report on six of 2012's most controversial mysteries (and missteps) in the realms of archaeology, anthropology and paleontology.


Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Harvard historian Karen King stirred up a sensation in September with the unveiling of a papyrus that apparently quotes Jesus talking about "my wife." The claims quickly sparked questions about the murky origins of the papyrus, and the Vatican suggested that the controversial text was faked. Most other experts on textual analysis were similarly skeptical.

The Harvard Theological Review withdrew plans to publish a scholarly article about the papyrus in its January issue, and this month a spokesman for the journal said tests to authenticate the document were not yet complete. The Smithsonian Channel has delayed broadcasting a documentary on the find, pending further testing. Status: In limbo.

The Jonah box: In February, researchers announced that they used a camera-equipped robotic arm to study an ossuary, or funerary bone box, within a sealed underground tomb in Jerusalem. They said the box was engraved with a picture of a fish, as well as allusions to "Jonah" and resurrection. Their conclusion was that the inscriptions served as evidence that early Christians were buried in the tomb — but skeptics disputed that interpretation. Did the picture really show a fish, or was it an upside-down tower, or an urn? The controversy was stoked by the fact that the "Jonah box" team was also behind the even more hotly debated "Jesus Tomb" project a couple of years earlier.

Months later, the findings are still in dispute. One of the researchers behind the find is James Tabor, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He says some experts have told him privately that they agree with his interpretation, but they're reluctant to speak out because of the acrimony surrounding the original reports. One expert who has voiced cautious support for the "Jonah and the fish" interpretation is Princeton Theological Seminary's James Charlesworth. (That support, too, has come under criticism.) Tabor acknowledges that more evidence is needed. "What we really need to do is enter the tomb and bring those ossuaries out. ... But that would have to be maybe next year," he said today. Status: In limbo.

Maya calendar: 2012's most publicized ancient mystery has to do with the Maya calendar, and the fact that Dec. 21 apparently marked the end of a series of cycles — including the 394-year baktun cycle as well as the 5,126-year "cycle of creation." Somehow, those calendrical cycles got mixed up with worries about the end of the world. Did the ancient Maya really think the cosmos would blink out of existence when the calendar ended? And if they did, why should we believe them?

Nothing happened on Dec. 21, other than some New Age-style celebrations of the new age. But the controversy did attract some extra attention for archaeological finds — including the discovery of a calendar workshop that clearly referred to dates beyond 2012, and an inscription that refers to the end of a calendar cycle in 2012, but not the end of the world. Status: Case closed.

Heritage Auctions via Reuters

An 8-foot-tall dinosaur skeleton is tied up in federal court proceedings.

Disputed dinosaur: You could argue that the world's hottest dinosaur fossil is currently in federal custody in New York. The 24-foot-long skeleton, nicknamed Ty, was said to come from a tyrannosaur-like species known as Tarbosaurus bataar. Fossil dealer Eric Prokopi sold it for more than $1 million in May, but experts claimed that the bones must have been smuggled out of Mongolia years earlier. Federal authorities seized the skeleton and filed criminal charges against Prokopi.

The civil and criminal proceedings yielded some surprises: Prokopi's lawyers said the skeleton was assembled from bones that were gathered up from various sources, leading to a new nickname: "Franken-saurus." Government prosecutors, meanwhile, said they have photos and forms to back up their claims that the dealer was "a participant in the black market" in Mongolia. Just today, Prokopi pleaded guilty to the smuggling charges and agreed to give up the dinosaur skeleton. That means Ty will eventually be sent back to Mongolia. Prokopi could be sentenced to up to 17 years in prison, but today's plea may win him leniency from the court. Status: Case essentially closed.

Pyramids on Google Earth: Researcher Angela Micol made a splash in August with claims that Google Earth imagery appeared to show pyramid-type structures in the Egyptian desert. She suggested that these were previously unknown sites — but it turns out that archaeologists have known about them for decades, and have studied them up close. The most intriguing formations are natural mounds, topped by structures that may have served as watchtowers and/or wells, said Italian Egyptologist Paola Davoli.

Another formation that Micol saw in the imagery is thought to be an oddly shaped natural butte. Micol told me in September that she was working with contacts in Egypt to get a closer look, but there haven't been any new revelations lately. Status: Case close to being closed.

Cloning a woolly mammoth: Is it really possible to bring the woolly mammoth back to life, tens of thousands of years after the species went extinct? It's highly doubtful, but Korean and Russian researchers are still trying. The project, unveiled in March, would involve recovering viable cells from a mammoth specimen pulled from the Siberian permafrost, implanting the cells' genetic material into an elephant egg, creating a cloned embryo, then transferring the embryo to an elephant womb for gestation. Each of those steps is fraught with difficulty — and the South Korea scientist in charge of the project is none other than Hwang Woo-Suk, who was disgraced several years ago in a scandal surrounding faked cloning results.

Last month, The Siberian Times reported that samples of mammoth bone marrow, hair, muscles and fat tissue were taken from Yakutsk to Seoul, to find out whether living cells could be extracted. Sources at the lab in Seoul did not respond to phone or email inquiries this week, but even if the cells turn out to be viable, don't expect to see a mammoth resurrection anytime soon. Russian researcher Semyon Grigoriev said it would be "years before we learn to choose the suitable cells or to re-create an extinct DNA molecule." Status: Case not yet closed. Or should that be, "not yet cloned"?

Dinosaurs ... and more: Science writer Brian Switek (a.k.a. @Laelaps) rounded up the year's top stories in paleontology at his "Dinosaur Tracking" blog, just before shifting over to Phenomena, National Geographic's new online science salon. In an email, he highlighted a few of his favorite stories:

"I was particularly interested by Nyasasaurus (confirming an earlier origin for dinosaurs), Yutyrannus (showing that feathers were not just for small dinosaurs) and mammal bones adding new evidence that dinosaurs may have been endothermic," he told me. "In other fossil news, the two that jump to mind are: fossil turtles caught in the act of mating; and a new fossil shark species which shows that Carcharocles megalodon was not a giant ancestor of today's white shark, but a member of a different lineage altogether."

I've included the fossil turtle-sex tale in our annual roundup for the Weird Science Awards, but here are 30 more ancient mysteries that should keep you clicking into the new year:

Ten top paleontology tales from Cosmic Log and NBC News:

Ten top anthropology tales from Cosmic Log and NBC News:

Top 10 discoveries from Archaeology magazine:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.