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The 6 Most Iconic Ancient Artifacts That Continue to Captivate

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You’ve probably heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls and seen King Tut’s mask. But if you want to beat your family at Jeopardy, you’d better learn their backstories. Here’s our cheat sheet for six iconic artifacts from the ancient world.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf - Wikimedia Commons

(Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons)

From: Around 30,000 years ago, Austria

Now: Natural History Museum Vienna in Austria

Short, fat and nearly 30,000 years old, Venus of Willendorf is the female icon of the Ice Age. The four-inch-tall figurine bears pronounced breasts, buttocks, belly and vaginal lips, but lacks feet or facial features. Braids, or perhaps a knit cap, cover her head, and specks of pigment suggest the tan limestone artifact was once painted red.

Archaeologists found the figurine in 1908, about a week into excavations at Willendorf II, an Austrian site along the Danube River, roughly 50 miles from Vienna. Throughout the 1900s and 2000s, several other digs occurred there, with ever-improving methods, which unearthed two less-famous Venus figurines and hundreds of stone tools.

Across Europe, nearly 200 similar statuettes have surfaced from sites between 23,000 and 40,000 years old. Although modern scholars call these artifacts Venuses, after the Roman goddess of love and fertility, the actual sculptors lived at least 20 millennia before Classical Rome. It’s unclear why Ice Age people carved these figurines, with researchers proposing they served as fertility symbols, self-portraits or pornographic items. In any case, the supposed sex appeal didn’t last: On a 5 point scale from unattractive to extremely attractive, Venus of Willendorf received an average rating of 0.14 in a 2011 survey of 161 undergraduates.

Olmec Colossal Heads

From: Starting about 3,400 years ago, Gulf Coast, Central America

Now: Several Mexican museums, including Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology

Sometimes called the mother culture of Mesoamerica, the Olmec civilization rose from the swampy forests of the Mexican Gulf Coast between about 400 and 1,400 B.C. More than two millennia later, in A.D. 1862, a farmer digging the same land struck a colossal stone head. It was the first of 17 similar heads yet to be recovered, thought to be portraits of Olmec rulers.

The imposing statues stand between 5 and 10 feet tall, each weighing more than a full-grown elephant. They portray surly men with almond-shaped eyes, flat noses and plump lips. But each head wears a unique visage, expression and headdress, supporting the idea that the carved boulders depict particular leaders.

The first accidental discovery occurred at Tres Zapotes in the foothills of the Tuxtlas Mountains, which provided the basalt stone used to make them. But archaeologists later uncovered most of the heads nearly 60 miles from the basalt source, at the ancient capitals of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Though surely laborious, it remains unclear how the Olmec transported these massive boulders, eventually carved and displayed in central plazas. And, several heads seem to have been broken and buried long ago, leading some archaeologists to think ancient people deliberately destroyed old statues as new rulers seized power.

King Tut’s Funerary Mask

King Tut - Flickr

The burial mask of King Tut. (Credit: Mark Fischer/Flickr)

From: 3,300 years ago, Egypt’s New Kingdom

Now: The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt

Say pharaoh and most people will imagine the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun. The 24-pound facial replica capped the wrapped mummy of the Egyptian king, who died in 1323 B.C. at the age of 19, after ruling just 10 years. The solid gold base glints with lapis lazuli, turquoise and other semiprecious stones. The chin sprouts a tube-like beard, and the forehead displays a vulture and cobra, deities who together symbolized unification of Lower and Upper Egypt.

The mask reemerged to the modern world in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s nearly intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings, a royal burial ground along the Nile River. Over the ages, modern and ancient looters emptied most Egyptian royal tombs, so Tut’s burial chamber was the first to reveal the phenomenal wealth pharaohs took the grave.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone - Shutterstock

(Credit: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Then: 2,200 years ago, ancient Egyptian city of Rosetta

Now: The British Museum, England

Honestly, the Rosetta Stone is a boring read, a priestly decree issued in 196 B.C., affirming the divine cult of King Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. But its scribe chiseled the message into the black slab three times in a row in different scripts: Ancient Greek, Ancient Egypt’s formal hieroglyphs and its more casual, cursive demotic script. And that bilingual, tri-script inscription enabled decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, unlocking all of the ancient civilization’s writings.

Discovered in 1799 by French soldiers during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the artifact wound up in London after British troops defeated the French there in 1801. Ancient Greek was understood, so scholars and the public immediately recognized the stone’s potential for deciphering hieroglyphs. But it would be another 20 years before Jean-François Champollion successfully cracked the code.

The most popular item in the British Museum today, the relic measures 3 feet 9 inches and weighs 1,680 pounds, though about a third is missing, knocked off over the ages. The full text is still known, however, because other monuments bear the same decree.

Terracotta Army

Terracotta-Army.jpg

From: 2,200 years ago, Shaanxi Province, China

Now: Museum erected at the site, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum

Imagine building your tomb for more than 30 years — fueled by limitless power, resources and yearning for immorality. Even then your mausoleum might not compare to the complex commissioned by Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to rule a unified China from 210 to 221 B.C. According to ancient Chinese texts, more than 700,000 laborers worked for the site, which sprawls 22 square miles, far more land than most college campuses (all but three in the U.S., in fact).

The site features statues of dancers and acrobats, gold-embellished carriages and bronze waterfowl in diorama-like canals. But it’s perhaps best known for the Terracotta Army, thousands of life-sized clay warriors, lining trenches in military formation. In 1974, farmers digging a well discovered the first statue. Since, three major excavations have uncovered 2,000 additional soldiers, although another 6,000 likely remain buried. Each statue seems to portray a real soldier in Qin Shihuang’s force, based on their individual hairdos, caps, tunics, facial hair and functioning bronze weapons, which remain remarkably sharp to this day. Even their ears are unique, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Dead Sea Scrolls

From: About 2,000 years ago, Dead Sea shores in West Bank and Israel

Now: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

In 1947, Muhammed ed-Dib, a Bedouin shepherd, went searching for a stray goat along craggy cliffs banking the Dead Sea. What began as a goat pursuit resulted in one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century: In a narrow cave, ed-Dib discovered clay jars stuffed with ancient scrolls — the first of nearly 1,000 tattered texts written between 300 B.C. and A.D. 70 that comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls.

About 230 of the scrolls transcribe stories in the Hebrew Bible or Christianity’s Old Testament — though these copies likely predate the Bible’s compilation. The rest contain other religious texts, like prayers, hymns and rules. Though mostly written in Hebrew, the archive also features older paleo-Hebrew, several Aramaic dialects, Greek, Latin and Arabic.

Over the years, archaeologists have recovered many more scrolls from 12 caves near the first trove and a few more distant spots. Thanks to the briny desert conditions, some scrolls aged intact. But most deteriorated, constituting a corpus of more than 25,000 bits of parchment and papyrus. Like a jigsaw puzzle — with innumerable missing pieces — fragments have been painstakingly reassembled by matching handwriting and materials. In the future, DNA sequencing could help because many scrolls are made of animal skins. The method, tested on 26 fragments in a 2020 Cell paper, successfully matched scraps from the same creature.

From what can be read, researchers debate the scrolls’ authors. Some say the texts came from diverse sources; others attribute them all to a Jewish sect that lived near the 12 caves in the first century A.D.

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Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Environment

Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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on

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Trump Administration Penalizes Chinese Officials for Hong Kong Crackdown

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday imposed sanctions on 11 senior Chinese Communist Party officials and their Hong Kong allies, including chief executive Carrie Lam, over their role in cracking down on political dissent in the southern Chinese territory.

These are the first sanctions against officials from China and Hong Kong over suppression of pro-democracy protests and dissent in the territory. They are being imposed as actions following an executive order President Trump signed last month seeking to punish China for its repression in Hong Kong.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said in a statement.

The action is another in a series of measures the Trump administration has taken in recent months to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. Last month, the administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese government, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority.

Beijing announced in June that it was imposing a new national security law in Hong Kong to grant security agencies expansive powers to crack down on dissent.

Since then, American officials have debated how to get Beijing to roll back the law or how to penalize the action.

Last month, Mr. Trump signed an executive order ending the special status that the United States grants Hong Kong in diplomatic and trade relations, saying Hong Kong was no longer an autonomous entity, and officials are now beginning to treat the territory like mainland China.

Some administration officials had wanted Mr. Trump to announce during the signing that his government was imposing sanctions on Ms. Lam and other officials in China and Hong Kong. The president declined to do so then.

The current flurry of actions against China dovetails with a core part of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy. His campaign aides are trying to show Mr. Trump is hitting China hard in order to shift the national conversation from his failures on managing the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.

The initial virus outbreak began in central China, and Mr. Trump has blamed Chinese officials for failing to contain it, though he also praised China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for efforts this winter.

Some of the administration’s China hawks are trying to set the two nations on a course for long-term confrontation and ensure that relations remain in a state of open rivalry even if Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the November election.

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