Solving Time's Mysteries

Puzzles left by Jefferson, James, Anastasia and Earhart yield clues to high-tech sleuths.

September 10, 2001|By J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JOE NICKELL calls them "time capsules," these rare opportunities to explore the mysteries of the past. He is a sleuth of history, a man who uses everything from a knowledge of ancient inks to carbon dating in order to answer questions about long-ago events.

Nickell, who has written a book about historical mysteries, once put together a research team that concluded that a diary purportedly penned by Jack the Ripper was bogus. He has come down on the side of research that shows the Shroud of Turin is a 13th-century fake. And his sleuthing led him to posit that 19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce wasn't killed in the Mexican Civil War but committed suicide.

"The whole concept is applying modern concepts to mysteries," said Nickell, who also investigates the occult and claims of miracles for the nonprofit Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y.

Applying modern methods to the past is a growth industry. Increasingly, science and technology are being used to answer, in some cases, centuries-old questions. The latest of these efforts is an attempt by the National Archives to restore the infamous 18 1/2 -minute erasure on the Watergate tapes. Such an effort would have been futile in 1972, when the tape was erased. But with advances in technology, experts believe it's at least worth a shot.

And, said Stephen St.Croix, an expert in sound, even if the effort proves futile, technology is advancing at such a pace that success could be the next breakthrough away. "Compared to what will be possible, we've done nothing," said the Baltimore-based St.Croix, who served on the National Archives advisory board that decided to attempt the restoration. "We're just coming off the starting line."

In the 29 years since the tapes were erased, the advances of science have changed the rules in the world of historical mysteries. The unknowable has become knowable.

The Titanic has been found, as have the lost cities of Herakleion off the coast of Egypt and Ubar in the Arabian Desert. With DNA testing, the myth that Anastasia Romonov survived the massacre of her family by the Bolsheviks has been put to rest. So, too, has the long-standing hoax by the pretender Anna Anderson, who claimed that she was, in fact, Anastasia.

Tests have shown that Jesse James is buried in Jesse James' grave, debunking the tale that the outlaw faked his death. DNA tests on a body exhumed from the Tomb of the Unknowns (in Arlington National Cemetery) in 1998 led to an identification, giving his family peace of mind after almost 30 years of uncertainty.

In one of the longest-running disputes of American history, another 1998 DNA test bolstered evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one illegitimate child by his slave housekeeper, Sally Hemings.

Certainly these discoveries don't tell the whole story. The recent raising of the Civil War submarine Hunley, for instance, doesn't give up the secret of what went on in the minutes before it sank into its watery grave near Charleston, S.C. But it should unlock the 137-year-old question of why it sank.

So what's the latest possibility? It could be finding parts of Amelia Earhart's plane.

A Maryland company thinks it has compiled enough data to start the search.

In the years since Watergate, several factors have converged to help unearth long-held and other mysteries. The first, and most prominent, is DNA testing, perhaps the most important forensic advance since the advent of fingerprinting in the early 1900s. The tool, which has been refined since testing began in the mid-1980s, can positively identify anyone, excepting identical twins, using nothing more than a speck of blood or a strand of hair.

Joining the string of DNA successes last year was proof that a dauphin, 10-year-old Louis Charles of France, did die in prison in 1795 and was not spirited to safety, as some people believed. DNA from his mummified heart matched the DNA from the hair of his mother, Marie Antoinette.

DNA has been used in recent years to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted prisoners throughout the United States.

A second factor in solving historic mysteries is the development of satellite positioning and undersea technology that has revolutionized mapping and oceangoing treasure hunting.

Finally, there have been phenomenal strides via computer.

"It's (aided the) ability to process data," said Ronald Blom, a geologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has been instrumental in using the computer to help unearth antiquities.

"With the increase in computer power, you can run data that you wouldn't have been able to before."

One of the best examples of the Space Age helping solve land-based mysteries is the 1992 discovery of the incense trading mecca of Ubar in the heart of the Arabian Empty Quarter.

The ancient city, mentioned in the Koran and "The Thousand and One Nights," was said to have been destroyed by Allah, the Muslim name for God, 1,000 years ago to punish the people for their sins.

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