Produced by two young documentary-makers, George Richards and Tristan Summerscale, for Square Bracket Productions, Gleaming in the Dust explores the tragedy of how antiquities have been dug out of the desert in post-revolutionary Egypt, smuggled into the West, and sold illegally by well-known auction-houses and antiquities dealers.
Featuring interviews with leading Egyptologists, the Egyptian government, the British Museum, antiquities dealers and lost-art investigators, Gleaming in the Dust uncovers the murky world into which artistic wonders of mankind’s distant past are being lost forever.
After the tumultuous fall of President Mubarak, the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the restoration of military rule, Gleaming in the Dust asks whether a combination of the new Egyptian government, academic institutions, and the legitimate international antiquities trade work together to stop the looting of Egypt’s ancient past.
Since the events in Egypt that inspired Gleaming in the Dust, the crisis of antiquities looting has spread far beyond the confines of Egypt – the cultural heritage of the wider Middle East is under grave threat from looting and destruction. The state of civil war now prevailing in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq has opened up these countries’ ancient sites to plundering by thieves and by Islamic extremists who believe they have a religious duty to destroy art belonging to any sect or religion other than their own.
In Syria, entire ancient cities have been destroyed with mechanised diggers and all six World Heritage Sites have suffered damage. Satellite imagery shows ancient sites, many hectares in size, peppered with small holes burrowed into the ground by looters. In Iraq, the Islamic State has systematically destroyed ancient temples and shrines belonging to Shi’a Muslims, Christians and a range of other minorities, including the Yezidis. The Islamic State is also selling Iraqi and Syrian antiquities on the black market in order to finance its military campaign.
This is an issue that continues to afflict the Middle East, and Egypt remains one of the worst affected countries — Gleaming in the Dust tells this story.
The discovery published online Wednesday in the journal Nature contradicts several longstanding interpretations of multicellular fossils from at least 600 million years ago.
“This opens up a new door for us to shine some light on the timing and evolutionary steps that were taken by multicellular organisms that would eventually go on to dominate the Earth in a very visible way,” said Shuhai Xiao, a professor of geobiology in the Virginia Tech College of Science. “Fossils similar to these have been interpreted as bacteria, single-cell eukaryotes, algae, and transitional forms related to modern animals such as sponges, sea anemones, or bilaterally symmetrical animals. This paper lets us put aside some of those interpretations.”
In an effort to determine how, why, and when multicellularity arose from single-celled ancestors, Xiao and his collaborators looked at phosphorite rocks from the Doushantuo Formation in central Guizhou Province of South China, recovering three-dimensionally preserved multicellular fossils that showed signs of cell-to-cell adhesion, differentiation, and programmed cell death — qualities of complex multicellular eukaryotes such as animals and plants.
The discovery sheds light on how and when solo cells began to cooperate with other cells to make a single, cohesive life form. The complex multicellularity evident in the fossils is inconsistent with the simpler forms such as bacteria and single-celled life typically expected 600 million years ago.
While some hypotheses can now be discarded, several interpretations may still exist, including the multicellular fossils being transitional forms related to animals or multicellular algae. Xiao said future research will focus on a broader paleontological search to reconstruct the complete life cycle of the fossils.
Xiao earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Beijing University in 1988 and 1991 and his doctoral degree from Harvard University in 1998. He worked for three years at Tulane University before arriving at Virginia Tech in 2003. He is currently active in an editorial role for seven professional publications and has himself published more than 130 papers.
The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biological sciences, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college offers programs in cutting-edge areas including, among others, those in energy and the environment, developmental science across the lifespan, infectious diseases, computational science, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The College of Science is dedicated to fostering a research-intensive environment that promotes scientific inquiry and outreach.
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