Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Resurrected Lifeforms of Blood Falls

Blood Falls, Taylor Glacier, Antarctica. Image by Peter Rejcek. Much larger image here.

Exhibit ANT002: The Ecosystem of Blood Falls, Victoria Land, East Antarctica

First discovered in 1911 (the same year a Martian meteorite fell in Egypt with possible fossil evidence, as mentioned in the last post), Blood Falls gets its name from iron-rich deposits that produce a reddish runoff reminiscent of blood.

How Blood Falls work. Image by Zina Deretsky. Larger version here.

More intriguingly, recent research documents microbes and an ecosystem that were trapped in a saltwater lake two to four million years ago by the advance of Taylor Glacier, and then proceeded to adapt and produce a new ecosystem. Now, the sub-glacial water deposits are being released as the ice recedes. The microbes may utilize sulfur to process the iron oxide deposits and get small amounts of organic material in those deposits. This technique is extremely unusual. This unexpected ecosystem has serious ramifications for understanding possible extraterrestrial life in conditions on distant worlds we would find anathema to life.

You can hear more about it in an NPR review with scientist Jill Mikucki.

As with the potential alien fossils of ALH84001, we find parallels (in a similar vein the New York Times compares the case with science fiction) with the discoveries of the Miskatonic University Expedition Antarctica Expedition, as chronicled in At the Mountains of Madness

By this time the ultimate doom of the land city must have been recognized, for the sculptures showed many signs of the cold's malign encroachments. Vegetation was declining, and the terrible snows of the winter no longer melted completely even in midsummer. The saurian livestock were nearly all dead, and the mammals were standing it none too well. To keep on with the work of the upper world it had become necessary to adapt some of the amorphous and curiously cold-resistant Shoggoths to land life—a thing the Old Ones had formerly been reluctant to do. The great river was now lifeless, and the upper sea had lost most of its denizens except the seals and whales. All the birds had flown away, save only the great, grotesque penguins.


The specimens found by poor Lake did not enter into these guesses, for their geologic setting proved them to have lived at what must have been a very early date in the land city's history. .... They would have remembered an older scene, with lush Tertiary vegetation everywhere, a younger land city of flourishing arts around them, and a great river sweeping northward along the base of the mighty mountains toward a far-away tropic ocean.

The alien-like, iron-eating bacteria of Blood Falls were trapped under a glacier, sealed under the ice in lake hundreds of meters below the surface. But like the Elder Things retreating into the watery abyss, they adapted to the dark and to the cold. And like the excavated Elder Things at Lake's Camp, their resurrection and return to the surface stains the ice of Antarctica blood red, though not for quite the same reasons.

The mention of saurian livestock also brings to mind other, less subtle tales of prehistoric survival in Antarctica

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ancient Alien Fossils from Antarctica

(image from NASA, accessed from ESA Science and Technology)

Exhibit ANT001 - Martian meteorite ALH84001

In 1931, Miskatonic University's Antarctica Expedition relayed news of a tremendous fossil discovery in an Antarctic cave. As described in novelized form in At the Mountains of Madness (ebook, various formats):

"Fowler makes discovery of highest importance in sandstone and limestone fragments from blasts. Several distinct triangular striated prints like those in Archaean slate, proving that source survived from over six hundred million years ago to Comanchian times without more than moderate morphological changes and decrease in average size. Comanchian prints apparently more primitive or decadent, if anything, than older ones. Emphasize importance of discovery in press. Will mean to biology what Einstein has meant to mathematics and physics. Joins up with my previous work and amplifies conclusions. Appears to indicate, as I suspected, that earth has seen whole cycle or cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells. Was evolved and specialized not later than a thousand million years ago, when planet was young and recently uninhabitable for any life forms or normal protoplasmic structure. Question arises when, where, and how development took place."

Disaster struck the expedition soon afterward killing much of the expedition staff and destroying most of their specimens. But since that time, the notion that fossil traces of bizarre and possibly alien life forms might be found in the polar regions has recurred in speculative tales and captured the popular imagination. Not long after At the Mountains of Madness, John Campbell published his story "Who Goes There?" In turn this tale was made into one of the first flying saucer movies of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World (on Google Video here) and a later acclaimed film version The Thing, a movie often referred to as the most Lovecraftian mainstream film yet made. These are but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as there have been many novels, films, television programs, and other stories about the discovery of ancient alien life or technology in the polar regions and especially Antarctica, as well as the similar concept of discovering lost civilizations or an entrance to the hollow earth. They are too numerous to list here, but fortunately others have taken on the task, including Professor Laura Kay's polar website with lists and descriptions of polar fiction (broken into several groupings, the genre fiction page of most interest to this topic); Dr. Elizabeth Leane's Representations of Antarctica: A Bibliography; and The Antarctic Circle, with Fauno Lancaster Cordes' "Tekeli-li"Bibliography of Antarctic Fiction.

So it is fitting that the first potential evidence for alien life taken seriously by the scientific community was discovered neither in a flying saucer in the skies, a radio broadcast from the stars (the Wow! signal aside), nor a robotic probe in the solar system, but by geological survey in Antarctica. About one-tenth of one percent of meteorites that have been discovered on Earth originated on the planet Mars, and only a handful of these were discovered in Antarctica (many have been recovered from North Africa).

The Antarctic Search for Meteors (ANSMET) recovers a meteorite (not ALH84001) in 2000 - 2001. From NASA.

And one of this handful, discovered in 1984, is the most famous meteorite ever discovered. Dubbed ALH84001 due to its discovery in the Allan Hills of Antarctica, the rock may have crystallized very early in the formation of the Solar System, about 4.5 billion years ago. After being ejected from a meteor impact on Mars 4 billion years ago, it may have rested on the planet until another impact launched it out of Mars' gravity and into space 15 million years ago, around the time Antarctica started to cool substantially and glaciers formed the polar ice cap. ALH84001 did not land in Antarctica until approximately 13,000 years ago, during the end of Earth's Pleistocene, when humans had settled most of the planet and were about to begin or were beginning plant domestication. The great megafauna of the ice ages were going extinct or were gone, but Earth was about to get one last climactic shock in the sudden return to Pleistocene conditions in the Younger Dryas for several centuries, before conditions started to resemble those of the current Holocene.

A decade after its discovery, research into ALH84001 would shock the world by suggesting chemical and fossil evidence for Martian bacteria. While the most compelling element has always been the creation and disposition of magnetite in a manner similar to that created by bacteria on Earth, the scanning electron microscopy images of these structures, possible fossils, grabbed the public attention.

The purported Martian fossils in ALH84001. Image from NASA, via Wikicommons

A good detailed overview of the discovery and research, aimed at a popular audience, is Donald Goldsmith's The Hunt for Life on Mars

Since the 1996 announcement of these findings, other researchers have suggested terrestrial contamination and other non-biological explanations for the "fossils," the magnetite structures, and other chemical and physical elements of the claim that the rock is evidence of ancient life on Mars. For much of the last decade, this has left the claims surrounding ALH84001 somewhat up in the air, the life hypothesis neither specifically refuted nor substantially strengthened. Other Mars meteorites have been examined for similar evidence. One, which landed in Egypt in 1911, the same year Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole in Antarctica, and that Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in Peru (one of the inspirations for Lovecraft's Elder Thing City in At the Mountains of Madness) has also been suggested as evidence for Martian life.

In the last month, new research with higher resolution electron microscopy has again focused on the magnetite formations, arguing that they are the product of biology. This will undoubtedly not be the last word on ALH84001, nor on the search for past Martian life. But it adds grist to the mill of a century of stories of dreams and nightmares about just such a discovery. HPL himself would have approved, between his occasional hobby of geological rock collecting, and his belief in primitive Martian vegetation. He furthermore specifically believed that interplanetary travel would be impossible, but that we might learn more of such life if some of it traveled via meteorite (he wrote as much in a letter to Nils H. Frome on February 8, 1937, a month before Lovecraft died; the letter is published in H. P. Lovecraft: Uncollected Letters. Necronomicon Press, West Warwick, Rhode Island, pp. 39 - 43, published in 1986).

At least we can be glad that so far there have been no incidents involving ALH84001 like those regarding Professor Lake's examination of the alien fossils found by the Miskatonic University Antarctica Expedition.

UPDATE: NASA thinks that they'll know for certain by the end of this year.

"We do not yet believe that we have rigorously proven there is [or was ] life on Mars." says David S. McKay, chief of astrobiology at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"But we do believe that we are very, very close to proving there is or has been life there," McKay tells Spaceflight Now.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Special Exhibit: Mysteries of the Antarctic

Phot by Hannes Grobe

In light of the freezing temperatures and winter storm conditions blanketing Arkham, the Museum has organized a special exhibition of materials pertaining to Antarctica. As you may imagine, these largely pertain to events or concepts presented in the H. P. Lovecraft novel At the Mountains of Madness. The number of developments sharing some aspect with the story is striking. For all that is made of Lovecraft's hatred of the modern, his role as fictional prophet for an age not yet arrived isn't entirely dissimilar to that of a Jules Verne, but involving bizarre natural discoveries rather than technological advances.

As they are added, the Antarctica items will be listed below in a quick reference index.

Ancient Alien Fossils from Antarctica

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cthulhu Guest Appearance on The Venture Brothers

Another announcement-type post

That's right. They've already referenced the Necronomicon visually/conceptually but not by name, but this takes that up a notch.

Airs on the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim at Midnight EST Sunday December 6, and then will be available on Adult Swim after that

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cthulhu December at

Not an exhibit, just a head's up.

Everyday this month, is showcasing all things Cthuluvian.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Earthquake that Uplifted R'lyeh

Exhibit RLY002 - The Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake

February 28, 1925 saw one of the strongest earthquakes in Canadian history. Dubbed the Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake (nice overview from Natural Resources Canada, source of the Le Soleil image above), it was centered in the St. Lawrence River Valley.

Damage was not severe, but was nonetheless notable, and the event caused considerable unease in a region not accustomed to earthquakes. Images and description of some of the damage.

It caused minimal damage in Providence, less so in New York where Lovecraft was living at the time. This event was the inspiration for the South Pacific earthquake of the same date in "The Call of Cthulhu," which pushes the peaks of R'lyeh above the waters of the Pacific, allowing Cthulhu's dreams to menace sensitive human minds across the globe. Aftershocks of the Canadian quake in fact continued frequently throughout this period, largely ceasing on the day the crew of the Emma do battle with the cultists of the Alert, and one day before they land upon R'lyeh itself, and in turn the continent sinks back under the waves.

We can imagine Lovecraft, the amateur astronomer, reading about the quake later that year in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Now, this doesn't add up to having any effect on the other side of the planet, but it is the thought that counts.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dunwich Mystery Monolith

Exhibit DUN001 - Stone monolith from Athol, Massachusetts

The Athol Historical Society of Athol, Massachusetts is asking the town's permission to remove and excavate under a ten-foot tall monolith in Hapgood Street Cemetery. They're not entirely certain what is under it, though a number of historical documents (including burial records for the cemetery) are known to have been buried under it.

Athol is one of the main ingredients that inspired H. P. Lovecraft to create Dunwich. He visited in 1928. In particular, according to Donald Burleson, the name of Sentinel Hill (with its stone monoliths) is taken from a hill near Athol, and the names of Professors Rice and Morgan are drawn from two prominent names in Athol history. Bloopwatch has some photos from a "Dunwich" visit to the town.

Genealogy, mysterious monoliths, cemeteries, historical societies, Lovecraft country. I guess some things don't change.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Case of Claire Nolan

Exhibit WIT001 - Portrait of Dame Alice Kyteler (images at links below)

Author has "uncanny" resemblance to unrelated hypothetical portrait of the subject of her relatively obscure book. This wouldn't be terribly interesting, except that the subject, Dame Alice Kyteler, was accused of witchcraft, including the poisoning of three husbands.

Someone please direct Ms. Nolan to "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," ASAP.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The BIOSOPE Marine Survey and the Barren Zone

Exhibit RLY001 - The BIOSOPE Marine Survey.

A four-month biological survey of the south Pacific identified and mapped in 2007 the most lifeless waters on Earth (though the area is rich in dissolved carbon, near Rapanui. The map above is a rough approximation of the area, more detailed maps can be found in media reports (here and here) and on the project website which features much more data on the anomaly.

As the map above depicts, this is a part of the Pacific with other suggestive hints, ranging from the monoliths and undeciphered records of Rapanui to the Bloop (more on that in the future) and the 1925 records of an element of R'lyeh, that perhaps there is more to this oceanic area hostile to earthly life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

John Dee's Aztec Scrying Mirror

Exhibit NEC001: John Dee's Speculum. (on loan from the British Museum).

The parent institution for the item, the British Museum, has images for perusal.

Dr. John Dee was many things, including court astrologer for Elizabeth I, scholar, bibliophile, possible intelligence agent, and most importantly for our purposes, translator of the Necronomicon, the "book of dead names" or the "book of the dead." Amongst the various items he used to aid his magical research was an obsidian mirror. Brought over from Mexico not long after the initial Spanish Conquest, Dee used the mirror to communicate with spirits.


All of this information comes from Sir Horace Walpole, 4th Early of Orford and credited as a major originator of the horror tale and the Gothic tradition. Walpole obtained the mirror in 1771, over 160 years after Dee had died.

If it was Dee's, the idea of using it for magic is not that far-fetched. Not only does the mirror have sorcerous associations in Europe, it was tied to supernaturals in Mesoamerica (the supposed source of the obsidian and the mirror). Most commonly associated with the dark Aztec sorcerer Tezcatlipoca, the mirror has deeper time depth than the Aztecs. The Classic Maya analog for Tezcatlipoca, K'awil, regularly has it associated with images of him, to the point that one way to write his name is mostly a hieroglyph of a mirror. Older mirrors are found in association with Olmec ritual deposits.

Dee's possible Aztec mirror was not the only prized item to come across the Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Aztec featherwork best survives from royal gifts that ended up in the curiosity cabinets and musems of Europe, and Cortes sent back a ballgame team to entertain the Spanish royal court. However, the infamous crystal skulls were likely 19th century hoaxes, and not examples of early transatlantic cultural transfer. We do not know how Dee would have acquired a prized magic mirror from a Spanish colony, so one might as well throw in suggestions of pirates and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Why not?

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Taos Hum and "The Transition of Juan Romero"

Exhibit AUD001: Recording about the Taos Hum

It is generally agreed that discussion and naming of the "Taos Hum," a low-frequency sound many have claimed to hear in and around Taos, New Mexico, dates to the 1980s. Since popularization of the Taos Hum, other hums have been suggested around the globe. The Taos Hum has been blamed on any number of culprits, though a persistent one ties it to Dulce and the legends of a secret military and/or extraterrestrial underground base.

But while the story of the Taos Hum may not be that old, it bears a striking resemblance to the central feature of one of H. P. Lovecraft's earliest stories, "The Transition of Juan Romero," written in 1919 though not published until the 1940s.

Specifically in the story, the secret of a mysterious lineage comes to a head after the dynamiting of a mine in the Southwestern United States, probably Arizona, in 1894. Soon afterwards, a low rumbling sound emerges from the abysses opened by the explosion. Lovecraft writes

"It was Romero’s voice, coming from the bunk above, that awakened me, a voice excited and tense with some vague expectation I could not understand:

"Madre de Dios! - el sonido - ese sonido - oiga Vd! - lo oye Vd? - señor, THAT SOUND!"

I listened, wondering what sound he meant. The coyote, the dog, the storm, all were audible; the last named now gaining ascendancy as the wind shrieked more and more frantically. Flashes of lightning were visible through the bunk-house window. I questioned the nervous Mexican, repeating the sounds I had heard:

"El coyote - el perro - el viento?"

But Romero did not reply. Then he commenced whispering as in awe:

"El ritmo, señor - el ritmo de la tierra - THAT THROB DOWN IN THE GROUND!"

And now I also heard; heard and shivered and without knowing why. Deep, deep, below me was a sound - a rhythm, just as the peon had said - which, though exceedingly faint, yet dominated even the dog, the coyote, and the increasing tempest. To seek to describe it was useless - for it was such that no description is possible. Perhaps it was like the pulsing of the engines far down in a great liner, as sensed from the deck, yet it was not so mechanical; not so devoid of the element of the life and consciousness. Of all its qualities, remoteness in the earth most impressed me."
Things only get worse from there.

A mechanical sound, emanating from deep underground, in the American Southwest, and as noted in the story, tied into occult traditions?

That's the Taos Hum.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Preternatual Sea Monsters in Genesis: The van Wolde Bible

Exhibit ABR001 - The van Wolde Bible

Professor Ellen Van Wolde of Radboud University has created a bit of a firestorm with her new analysis of Genesis, and the press hype it has gotten. An article in the Telegraph has caused all the fuss. In essence, Professor van Wolde is arguing that the Hebrew verb bara is better interpreted not as "to create" but in this context "to separate." Meaning that rather than the god of the Abrahamic traditions creating the earth and universe, a world already existed, and this god went about separating parts of it.

The element of interest here?

She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground.

"There was already water," she said.

"There were sea monsters. God did create some things, but not the Heaven and Earth. The usual idea of creating-out-of-nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is a big misunderstanding."

Preternatural sea monsters predating the gods of Man. Yes, I believe I've heard this story before.

More traditional scholars would point to similarities with other Near Eastern myths, like that in the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. In this story, in a war of gods, Marduk defeats the sea monster Tiamat (as depicted in the Babylonian cylinder seal above), and uses the components of her body to create the earth. Such a similarity is not terribly surprising, given the famous similarities between the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis, and numerous Flood and Ark stories in the Near East.

Perhaps more surprising is the similarity to the story of the Mesoamerican Earth Monster. There are different versions, but amongst the Aztecs, ideas of this alternated between the sea monster/caiman Cipactli and the goddess Tlahtecutli (statue below), torn to bits by other gods and used to create the land, though like some other monsters in the sea, she is dead but alive, and likes to have blood sacrifices.

Suffice to say, the reactions to Professor van Wolde's thesis have not been warm (here, here, and here). But perhaps it is better that we not voyage far from our placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, even if some sky god wants to separate it for us.

UPDATE: These illustrations of traditional Hebrew monsters are very much on topic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Fairie Cursed Goblet in H.P. Lovecraft's Family

Exhibit HPL001: The Luck of Eden Hall

Much is made of H. P. Lovecraft's ardent materialist skepticism and atheism. It was a defining element for the man. Personally, one of the great "what if's" of Lovecraft's life, in my opinion, revolves around the debunking book on superstition that Lovecraft was writing for Harry Houdini, an item we will perhaps return to in the future. But while Lovecraft may have rejected the supernatural, it doesn't mean he couldn't have a bit of magical lore in his family background.

In March 1934, Lovecraft wrote a letter to one of his regular correspondents Robert Barlow, who would go on to be an anthropologist of Mesoamerica, specializing in rare Nahuatl texts and Aztec hieroglyphic writing. In this letter, Lovecraft discusses his genealogy, including ties to the Musgrave family. While Lovecraft regularly discussed his genealogy (including jokingly producing Roman and other ancestors to satisfy his historical interests), in this case he went into the specifics of an unusual item associated with the Musgrave family: The Luck of Eden Hall. As Lovecraft put it himself:

“This is the legend of Eden Hall in Cumberland, seat of the family until quite recent times. It is given erroneously in a German poem by Uhland and thence paraphrased in a verse of Longfellow’s – but the original version of the tale is as follows: A drinking-glass was stolen by a Musgrave from the fairies, who thereafter made futile attempts to recover it. In the end, the fairies pronounced the following prophecy – indicating that disaster would overtake the house of Musgrave unless the glass was kept intact:

‘If the glass either break or fall
Farewell to the luck of Eden Hall’

In the family there actually existed an old glass, supposed to be the one of the legend, which was guarded with the most extreme care. Upon the breaking up of the estate and the sale of Eden Hall after the World War, this glass was placed in the South Kensington Museum, London. I hope no one will smash it, since that would doubtless bring me some sort of evil through my Musgrave side!”
Selected Letters: 1932 – 1934. Volume IV. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner. Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin p. 392, Letter 692

More extensive versions of the story note that the cup was found by one or more humans, possibly by a servant, who disturbed a group of fairies partying near a well. As the fairies fled, one of them (in at least one version, the Queen of the Fairies) uttered the curse.

The drawing at the top of the page appeared in the Halloween entry of Chamber's Book of Days (1869)

While not an actual magical fairie cup, the Luck of Eden Hall nonetheless has an impressive pedigree. In reality the cup is an ornate gilded and enameled drinking cup made in Syria in the thirteenth century. It seems to have left the Middle East not long after that date, as a custom case was made for it, likely in fourteenth-century France. While the manner in which it reached England is uncertain, returning participants in one of the later Crusades seems a possible option. It is not the only legend of a fairie cup, nor the only supposedly fairie item, ranging from elaborate luxury goods to "elfshot" interpretations for prehistoric projectile points.

It was clearly very carefully curated, only brought out of its case for special occasions, though there are family accounts of ancestors throwing it into the air as if to tempt fate. It can be traced back in the Musgrave family to at least a published mention of it in 1791.

While the Hall was demolished in 1934, the cup exists intact to this day in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The cup was loaned to the museum in 1926, and would later become a permanent part of the museum collection in 1956.

You can learn more about the Luck, as well as see recent color photographic images, at the Victoria & Albert Museum page on the Luck. A modern Musgrave discusses the legend here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Welcome to the Miskatonic Museum!

Welcome to the Miskatonic Museum, an institution dedicated to research and virtual curation of less-than-existing artifacts, papers, and general exhibits related to research into the eldritch history of this planet, as chronicled by the likes of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Some exhibits pertain directly to the body of lore known as the Cthulhu or Lovecraft Mythos. Others focus on more mainstream scientific and historical discoveries that reflect the weird cosmic tales of Lovecraft and his disciples.

We're still arranging the display cases and the audio guided tour devices only shriek pitiful wails, so please bear with us in these early opening days. Be sure to visit the Museum Gift Shop, where many wonderful tomes, icons, and other momentos can be purchased to commemorate your visit. And whatever you do, please refrain from entering any spaces reserved for the museum staff; everyone will be happier and saner for it.