Cemetery of headless skeletons holds key to origin of Polynesians

5:00AM Thursday March 01, 2007


Archaeologists in Vanuatu have unearthed an ancient cemetery containing the headless skeletons of what are believed to be the earliest known ancestors of Pacific Islanders.


The 3000-year-old remains are those of the Lapita people, who colonised Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa when the Pharaohs reigned in Egypt, says Professor Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University, who led the dig.


He expects tests to confirm that the skeletons belong to the ancestors of Polynesian groups like Maori, Tongans and Samoans.


"Up until now people have speculated about the origins of the Polynesians, the origins of the Lapita people, and who were the Lapita people. We've actually got the Lapita people."


The Vanuatu National Museum asked the Australian university to investigate the site after it was disturbed by bulldozers clearing the way for a prawn farm. It was excavated in three stages over 2004, 2005 and 2006.


Professor Spriggs says the remains suggest the Lapita dug up dead people and removed their heads after burial and may have believed that children "weren't real people".


This is because not one child aged between 1 and 16 was found among the 70 skeletons at the cemetery at Teouma, on the southern coast of the island of Efate.


"Did they feel that kids weren't real people yet, so they were treated differently or weren't buried in the same place?"


Another mystery is the location of the heads.


Of 70 individuals, only seven skulls have been found, including three on one man's chest, three between the legs of another man and one in a pot.


Professor Spriggs says it is likely the heads were removed after burial.


He says the fact that skulls were found in groups of three suggests that the number may have had magical significance for the Lapita.


Until about 100 years ago when European missionaries arrived in the Pacific, it was common practice for islanders to let the flesh rot away from the head of a dead person and then place the skull in a shrine.


"The head was seen as the seat of the soul, so it's the most important part."


Professor Spriggs says scientists in New Zealand and American laboratories will test the bones for traces of ancient DNA which, together with skull measurements, may solve the riddle of the origins of the Polynesian people.


He says the tests are most likely to confirm theories that the Polynesians originally came from Southeast Asia via eastern Indonesia, the Philippines and ultimately Taiwan.



'First' Sicilian woman gets face

She lived 14, 000 yrs ago in a cave near Messina

2007-02-26 18:51


PALERMO (ANSA) - The face of a late Stone Age woman who lived in Sicily has been reconstructed by a sculptor working with anthropologists at Palermo University.


The skeleton of the woman, who lived 14,000 years ago, was discovered in a cave near Messina in 1937, along with the incomplete skeletons of six other humans, presumably her family.


The face was reproduced using reconstruction techniques that calculate the appearance of features from the form of the cranium. The same techniques have been used recently to recreate the faces of Egyptian pharaohs and Italy's own Count Ugolino, a 13th-century Tuscan noble whose bones were found in 2001.


Artistic licence was used when deciding to give the ancient Sicilian the same black hair common in modern women from southern Italy.


Thea, as she has been nicknamed, spent most of her life hunting, or gathering fruit and plants. At 165 cm, she was tall for her time. Experts estimate that when she died she was about 30, much older than the normal life expectancy in the late Stone Age.


"This means that she must have had a healthy and regular lifestyle," said Valerio Agnesi, director of the 'Gemmellaro' museum where the face, along with a recreation of her cave environment, is now on display.



Early Europeans unable to stomach milk

Public release date: 26-Feb-2007

Contact: Alex Brew



University College London


The first direct evidence that early Europeans were unable to digest milk has been found by scientists at UCL (University College London) and Mainz University.


In a study, published in the journal 'PNAS', the team shows that the gene that controls our ability to digest milk was missing from Neolithic skeletons dating to between 5840 and 5000 BC. However, through exposure to milk, lactose tolerance evolved extremely rapidly, in evolutionary terms. Today, it is present in over ninety per cent of the population of northern Europe and is also found in some African and Middle Eastern populations but is missing from the majority of the adult population globally.


Dr Mark Thomas, UCL Biology, said: "The ability to drink milk is the most advantageous trait that's evolved in Europeans in the recent past. Without the enzyme lactase, drinking milk in adulthood causes bloating and diarrhoea. Although the benefits of milk tolerance are not fully understood yet, they probably include: the continuous supply of milk compared to the boom and bust of seasonal crops; its nourishing qualities; and the fact that it's uncontaminated by parasites, unlike stream water, making it a safer drink. All in all, the ability to drink milk gave some early Europeans a big survival advantage."


The team carried out DNA tests on Neolithic skeletons from some of the earliest organised farming communities in Europe. Their aim was to find out whether these early Europeans from various sites in central, northeast and southeast Europe, carried a version of the lactase gene that controls our ability to produce the essential enzyme lactase into adulthood. The team found that it was absent from their ancient bone DNA. This led the researchers to conclude that the consumption and tolerance of milk would have been very rare or absent at the time.


Scientists have known for decades that at some point in the past all humans were lactose intolerant. What was not known was just how recently lactose tolerance evolved.


Dr Thomas said: "To go from lactose tolerance being rare or absent seven to eight thousand years ago to the commonality we see today in central and northern Europeans just cannot be explained by anything except strong natural selection. Our study confirms that the variant of the lactase gene appeared very recently in evolutionary terms and that it became common because it gave its carriers a massive survival advantage. Scientists have inferred this already through analysis of genes in today's population but we've confirmed it by going back and looking at ancient DNA."


This study challenges the theory that certain groups of Europeans were lactose tolerant and that this inborn ability led the community to pursue dairy farming. Instead, they actually evolved their tolerance of milk within the last 8000 years due to exposure to milk.


Dr Thomas said: "There were two theories out there: one that lactose tolerance led to dairy farming and another that exposure to milk led to the evolution of lactose tolerance. This is a simple chicken or egg question but one that is very important to archaeologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. We found that the lactose tolerance variant of the lactase gene only became common after dairy farming, which started around 9 thousand years ago in Europe.


"This is just one part of the picture researchers are gathering about lactose tolerance and the origins of Europeans. Next on the list is why there is such disparity in lactose tolerance between populations. It's striking, for example, that today around eighty per cent of southern Europeans cannot tolerate lactose even though the first dairy farmers in Europe probably lived in those areas. Through computer simulations and DNA testing we are beginning to get glimpses of the bigger early European picture."



Unbrushed Teeth Reveal Ancient Diets

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

March 2, 2007


Ick factor aside, ancient tartar-encrusted teeth may be a biological gold mine for scientists, thanks to a new technique for extracting food particles from teeth that once belonged to prehistoric humans.


The method already has solved a mystery surrounding what early coastal Brazilians ate.


In the future, similar studies may reveal clues about other ancient diets, particularly in areas with little plant preservation from earlier times.


"There is great potential of dental calculus (old tooth tartar) analysis in past populations that inhabited tropical regions," said Sabine Eggers, co-author on a new study detailing the method.


Eggers is a researcher in the Biological Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.


After being awarded a Fulbright Commission grant, she and colleagues Celia Boyadjian and Karl Reinhard created the new tartar extraction method, which involves a "dental wash" containing four percent hydrochloric acid as the main active ingredient.


Their findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


Eggers explained that ancient tartar could reveal what an individual ate in the days or weeks before death. Evidence suggests some prehistoric populations cleaned their teeth — using fibrous foods and shell fragments as natural abrasives — but many groups simply let nature take its course.


To test the dental wash, the scientists gathered several teeth from Brazilian burials dating from 2,800 to 1,805 years ago. All were excavated at a southeastern coastal site called Sambaqui Jabuticabeira II.


The site has yielded several large piles of mollusk shells mixed with other debris, which are associated with human activity.


The researchers swirled recovered teeth in the solution to loosen the tartar. To isolate the particles in the tartar, the scientists strained and spun the solution in a centrifuge.


They found three types of microfossils. Most common were starch grains from tubers. The researchers also found diatoms, microscopic algae used as a food source by marine organisms, and phytoliths, tiny mineral particles produced by plants.


The first two microfossils suggest the individual's last meals likely consisted of shellfish accompanied by some sort of tuber.


"At the moment, we do not know where the phytoliths came from," Eggers said. "They might have been part of a plant eaten or a plant element, such as palm leaves, chewed for the production of ropes, baskets, hammocks or some kind of clothing."


Although the dental wash was successful, it made some of the ancient teeth brittle, while others turned bright white.


Since scientists hope to leave specimens in a condition as close to the original as possible, the researchers suggested the dental wash recipe requires further tinkering. They also said particles might be removed using sound waves.


Sheila Souza, a scientist at Brazil's National School of Public Health, told Discovery News that she and colleague Veronica Wesolowski have also been recovering particulate matter from ancient teeth.


"It is really new to try the washing technique proposed by the researchers," Souza said, adding that the new dental wash technique is "interesting," but problematic for the reasons the inventors cited themselves.


Souza agreed that it is important to analyze ancient teeth, however, particularly in Brazil, where early plant evidence has been sparse in some areas.


"We are really opening a big, new field to improve prehistoric reconstructions about the Sambaquis diet and lifestyle with calculus and microfossils," she said.



Forgotten necropolis

An unknown lakeside civilization reveals its hidden treasures

By Iota Myrtsioti - Kathimerini


An unknown civilization around four lakes that lasted from 6000 BC to 60 BC has been uncovered in two important excavations of a Neolithic and an Iron Age settlement in the Amyntaio district of Florina, northern Greece.


A 7,300-year-old home with a timber floor, remnants of food supplies and blackberry seeds are among the findings in a Neolithic settlement near the lakes of Vegoritis, Petres, Heimatitida and Zazari. Garments, women’s fashions and burial customs in northern Eordaia 3,000 years ago are coming to light among the hundreds of funeral offerings in a forgotten necropolis dating from the Iron Age in western Macedonia.


More than 100 years after the excavation at Aghios Pandeleimonas in Amyntaio in the Florina prefecture – known in the bibliography as the Pateli Necropolis – by the Russian Archaeological Institute of Istanbul, a systematic investigation of 12 tombs by the 17th Antiquities Ephorate has found a total of 358 tombs dating from between 950 BC and 550 BC. Although the first discovery in 1898 of 376 graves produced many findings, now in the Istanbul Museum, the necropolis between the lakes of Heimatitida and Petres has revealed hundreds more graves.


The graves, mostly rectangular in shape and placed in a circular formation, contain hundreds of funeral gifts buried with the dead. Among them are ceramic and bronze pots, jewelry, clothing accessories, iron and bronze weapons and tools and a number of other objects of unknown use.


A total of 460 locally made pots have been collected from the graves of men, women and children. Of particular interest are the pieces of jewelry, hairdressing and beauty aids in nearly all the women’s graves as well as those of little girls.


Panikos Chrysostomou, who is in charge of the dig, has attempted to depict the appearance of women in ancient Pateli, and is to present it on Saturday at an archaeology exhibition on excavations in Macedonia and Thrace.


The depiction, which refutes many of the elements in previous presentations of archaeological findings, at least those shown in the past 20 years of this annual conference, shows details of bronze ribbon diadems and bronze and gold hair ornaments, bead necklaces of stone, bronze or shell, iron, ivory or leather belts decorated with bronze, a wide variety of bracelets and bronze rings for the middle or ring finger.


Men’s graves show that residents of this town did not bear arms, as only a few weapons were found in the graves.


Inhabited from 6000 BC to 3100 BC in the region of Amyntaio, a Neolithic settlement has given up hundreds of findings. Part of a timber floor measuring 5 square meters and in excellent condition is unique in Greece and the Balkans.


A large number of objects indicate the economic activity, eating habits and daily activities of the inhabitants and include weaving looms, ceramic pots, 53 clay figurines, 25 small figures of humans and animals, a large number of jewelry items and charred remnants of plants (wheat, lentils, pomegranates and fruit seeds) which have been preserved for 7,300 years.



Hera statue follows Zeus find


Archaeologists yesterday hailed the discovery in ancient Dion, near Mount Olympus, of a 2nd century BC statue of Hera, the ancient Greek goddess of marriage and wife of Zeus, a few years after a matching statue of Zeus was found on the same site.


The headless statue of Hera, which is virtually life-sized, had been used by the early Christian inhabitants of Dion as filling for a defensive wall, according to Dimitris Pantermalis, an Aristotle University of Thessaloniki professor who has been leading excavations at Dion for more than 30 years.


“We have concluded that the statue of Hera stood next to that of Zeus in the temple,” Pantermalis said.


This is the first time statues of two different gods have been found in a single ancient temple in Greece, he added. He said it was also possible that a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, could have also stood in the same temple.


The statue of Zeus, identical in size to the one of Hera, was unearthed on the same site in 2003.



Greek archaeologists find Hera statue

By COSTAS KANTOURIS, Associated Press Writer Thu Mar 1, 7:59 PM ET


THESSALONIKI, Greece - A 2,200-year-old statue of the goddess Hera has been found in a wall of a city under Mount Olympus, mythical home of Greece's ancient gods, archaeologists announced Thursday.


The headless marble statue was discovered last year during excavations in the ruins of ancient Dion, some 50 miles southwest of Thessaloniki.


Archaeologist Dimitris Pantermalis said the life-sized statue had been used by the early Christian inhabitants of the city of Dion as filling for a defensive wall.


He said the 2nd century-B.C. find appeared to have originally stood in a temple of Zeus, leader of the ancient Greek gods, whose statue was found in the building's ruins in 2003. The statue of Hera stood next to that of Zeus in the temple, said Pantermalis, a Thessaloniki University professor who has headed excavations at Dion for more than three decades.


"The statue represents a female form seated on a throne, and is made of thick-grained marble like the one of Zeus," he said. "It shows exactly the same technique and size, which led us to link the two statues beyond doubt."


Pantermalis said that, if confirmed, it would be the first time two statues of different gods have been located from a single temple in Greece. He said it was also possible that a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, could have stood in the temple of Zeus. He said he was hopeful that it might be found during future excavation.


Dion was a major religious center of the ancient Macedonians. Alexander the Great offered sacrifices there before launching his victorious campaign against the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C.


Excavations so far have revealed temples, theaters and a stadium, city walls, a hotel, baths and streets with an elaborate drainage system, as well as many statues.


The area was first inhabited during the Iron Age, and survived into early Christian times, when it was the seat of a bishop.


Pantermalis will present the find on Friday, during a three-day archaeological conference that opened in Thessaloniki Thursday.



Ruins in Athens May Be an Ancient Market

The Associated Press

Saturday, March 3, 2007; 1:11 AM


ATHENS, Greece -- Archaeologists have discovered extensive remains of what is believed to be an ancient marketplace with shops and a religious center at the southern edge of Athens, the Culture Ministry said Friday. The finds, in the coastal neighborhood of Voula, date from the 4th or 5th century B.C.


"It is a very large complex," the ministry said. "It was a site of rich financial and religious activity, which was most probably a marketplace."


Building remains in southern Athens believed to be an ancient marketplace is seen in this undated handout picture provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on Friday, March 2, 2007. Archaeologists have discovered extensive remains of what is believed to be an ancient marketplace with shops and a religious center at the southern edge of Athens. The finds, in the coastal neighborhood of Voula, cover an area of 1,500 square meters (16,000 sq. feet) and date from the 4th or 5th century B.C. the Culture Ministry said Friday. (AP Photo/Greek Culture ministry)


Marketplaces _ or agoras _ teemed with shops, open-air stalls and administrative buildings, and were the financial, political and social center of ancient Greek life.


Archaeologists believe the complex belonged to the municipality of Aexonides Halai, among the largest settlements surrounding ancient Athens.


The main building was a hollow square with a rock-cut reservoir in the center. The building had 12 rooms _ probably shops _ and a small temple with an open-air altar.


Finds included large quantities of pottery, coins and lead weights that would have been used in transactions by traders.


Last month, archaeologists discovered an ancient theater in the northwestern Athens suburb of Menidi.



19th century Greek divers paved way for Lake Erie team

Tuesday, February 27, 2007



In the April 2006 issue of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A &M University archaeologist Alexis Catsambis described a longforgotten report on the first underwater archaeological survey.


In 1884, the Archaeological Society of Athens attempted a survey of the Straits of Salamis.


Using Greek divers, the team attempted to locate shipwrecks associated with the sea battle of 480 B.C. when the Greek fleet defeated the invading navy of the Persian King Xerxes.


The report languished in obscurity for so long probably because it was, according to the society’s secretary, "a complete failure."


Bad weather impeded survey efforts, and even when divers found something interesting, attempts to excavate it stirred up so much sediment that "the waters immediately become blurry and the diver remains in the dark."


Catsambis writes that, in spite of the lack of results, the survey is a neglected landmark in the history of archaeology.


"The scientific practices that were adopted during this pioneering expedition … are still valid," and modern investigators, building on this foundation, have developed methods to overcome the obstacles encountered by the Greek team.


A perfect example of these new methods is a report on an archaeological survey in Lake Erie just published by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The Lake Erie Geology Group used side-scan sonar to locate and map shipwrecks surrounding Kelleys Island.


The Ohio team encountered some of the same problems experienced by the Greeks. During the two-week survey, weather conditions prohibited work on all but five days.


In contrast to the Greek survey, the ODNR team described its study as a success. The members discovered possible new shipwrecks and mapped the wrecks of the George Dunbar, Amaretta Mosher and F.H. Prince.


The ODNR report is a pilot study. It concludes with several recommendations for future work. The Maritime Archaeological Survey Team plans to follow up with investigations of the new sites. The survey team is an all-volunteer group that won a 2006 Ohio Lake Erie Award from the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.


In this light, the efforts of the Archaeological Society of Athens don’t seem like such a failure. Isaac Newton once wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."


ODNR’s success is due, at least in part, to the hard lessons learned by the Greeks in 1884.


Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.






The Guiness Book of the Ancient World

By Matthias Schulz


There was no annually published Guinness Book of Records to keep track, but the ancient Greeks and Romans were crazy about setting and breaking records. Now two Swedish archaeologists have compiled a selection.


The Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to keep records of top achievements in sport, nature, anatomy and sex.


The Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to keep records of top achievements in sport, nature, anatomy and sex.

Not long after the birth of Christ, when the most debauched phase of Roman history began, the wife of Emperor Claudius -- Messalina, 34 years his junior -- made a name for herself by challenging the city's best known whore to a sex marathon. Who can keep going for longer, the licentious wife wanted to know. She won by holding out for "25 rounds."


Details on the wanton competition can be found in the "Book of Ancient Records," compiled by Allan and Cecilia Klynne and published in Germany by the C.H. Beck publishing house. How fat was the fattest snail? What was the price of the most expensive slave? Swedish archaeologists Cecilia and Allan Klynne provide the answers, free of "academic commentary and lengthy footnotes."


The scientists combed through hundreds of old texts in their search for superlatives. Here are some of the results: The tallest man in the ancient world measured 288 centimeters (9 foot 5 inches), while the shortest (60 centimeters -- 2 feet) was barely as tall as a bedside table. Another treat from the book: The naturalist Pliny reports the case of some conserved beans that were forgotten in the cellar and retained their taste for 220 years.


"Extreme accomplishments and bizarre phenomena have always fascinated mankind," the "Book of Ancient Records" states.


Even the Ancient Greeks kept records of top achievements in the areas of sports, nature and anatomy, according to the book. The most resilient runner covered 238 kilometers (176 miles) in a day. A soldier from Alexander's army drank 13.5 liters (3.6 gallons) of wine during a drinking competition -- and then fell over dead.


Ancient Greece may also have ranked virtues and vices. The greatest sycophants are said to have sat at the table of Dionysius I of Syracuse. To make the half-blind tyrant look good, they constantly reached clumsily across the table. When he drooled, they licked the saliva from his clothes.


During the early days of the Roman empire, the appetite for whatever was "faster, bigger, further" became the general attitude towards life. The empire went in for full-scale one-upmanship. So it purchased the heaviest amber stone (four kilograms, 8.8 lbs.) and allowed per capita water consumption in the city to climb as high as 1,100 liters (291 gallons). Actress Galeria Copiola still appeared on stage at age 104. But she had an unfair advantage over other aged thespians: She specialized in mime.


Since the senatorial nobility that roamed from one party to the next in those days constantly required new subject matter for small talk, scholars sat down and compiled lists of astonishing facts. The resulting literary rubric was known as "mirabilia" ("wondrous things").


The anthologies were a source of helpful tips to toga-wearing braggarts out to woo women at the buffet. They contained information on the "most beautiful bosom" and on the catapult whose reach was 720 meters (2,362 feet). Emperor Augustus purchased a bird that crowed "Ave Caesar!" ("Hail Caesar!") for the record sum of 20,000 sestertia (some €120,000).


When woven elegantly into conversation, such factoids always worked. So the mirabilia authors provided ever new catalogs of eccentric records. Pliny put together a list of the most painful diseases. Kidney stones are given first place by him, followed by stomach ulcers and migraines.


The Romans didn't even stop short of the obscene. The cleanest sodomist was a shepherd from southern Italy said to have made his favorite goat gargle rose water because of its halitosis. Architects also inclined towards excess in those days. They built an aqueduct 48 meters (158 feet) tall near Nimes in what is today southern France. The largest race track for horses had room for an audience of 250,000.


Nero's gold-plated villa on the Palatine Hill was considered the most expensive palace of all times. A hall of pillars 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) wide stretched in front of the main building. Pipes running across the ceilings of the dining rooms sprayed flower blossoms or perfume down onto the guests.


But Rome's gossip-hungry nobility had nothing but derision for the inhabitants of the empire's fringe regions. The Germans were considered the most primitive people in the world, while geographer Strabon (63 BC-23 AD) attributed the most eccentric personal hygiene habit -- storing urine in cisterns and bathing in it -- to the natives of Spain.


But its doubtful if these kinds of negative records always corresponded to reality. Stopwatches and official inspectors were unheard of at the time. The editors of the "Book of Ancient Records," Allan and Cecilia Klynne, have their doubts as to whether a certain Marcus Aponius really lived to be 140, just as they're skeptical about extremely handicapped people who were unable to walk despite having legs.


The reason they couldn't walk? Their feet pointed backward.



Archaeologists unearth gasworks


Investigators have uncovered a major example of Scottish industrial archaeology in the middle of Edinburgh.


They have found the remains of the capital's original gasworks, which was opened almost 200 years ago.


The site, which was discovered during redevelopment of the area, lies to the east of Edinburgh's Waverley station.


Edinburgh City Council's archaeologist, John Lawson, said Edinburgh's history was more normally associated with medieval times.


The gasworks began production in 1817 when the fuel was a new discovery.


At its peak, its workforce totalled about 200.


It was partially demolished and covered over to make way for a bus depot in the 1930s.


The area is being cleared for the building of new residential and commercial properties.


Experts are spending six months examining the scene.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2007/02/28 11:46:52 GMT




March 03, 2007

Sir John Smith

Imaginative banker who set up the Landmark Trust and supported a host of heritage initiatives

April 3, 1923 - February 28, 2007


John Smith was at once a visionary and a man of action, and over more than half a century proved to be the country’s most resourceful, effective and successful champion of preservation. A man who in his own phrase loved “burning decks”, he was the first to come comprehensively to the rescue of what the French call the petit patrimoine, minor but delightful buildings such as lighthouses, Martello towers, garden temples and follies, gatehouses, banqueting halls, mills, quirky cottages and even a Doric pigsty. Smith also had a sustained interest in military buildings, artillery forts, gun batteries and dockyards, which he saw as superb essays of construction.


The spark for the Landmark Trust came from Smith’s experience in advising the National Trust, which, he realised, could take on only buildings with endowments. Smith intended his charges to earn their keep. He explained his philosophy in the first Landmark Handbook “by living there, however briefly, people get far more out of a place than just by looking at it; they can study it at leisure, be there early and late, in all weathers and lights, and get the feel of its surroundings”.


The Landmark Trust was very much a joint creation with his wife Christian and in the early years an extension of his household. She supervised the furnishing of the Landmarks and curtains and soft furnishings were made in the home farm at Shottesbrooke, near Maidenhead, the house of the Vansittarts, which he inherited from cousins and reduced in size to make it more manageable. One of his favourite sayings was: “Buildings are seldom improved by additions but very often by subtraction.”


Smith’s genius lay in setting up the Manifold Trust to make the money and the Landmark to spend it. He made money for Manifold by buying up the tail end of Belgravia leases, which few would touch because of the potentially large reparations due to the landlord when the lease fell in. These properties could be let very lucratively to diplomats and businessmen, but Smith cautioned that “you could lose as much on one as you could make on 30.”


The money made by Manifold enabled Smith to espouse pioneering causes on an unprecedented scale. Through his friendship with L. T. C. Rolt, father of industrial archaeology, Smith became involved with canal restoration. He bought a stretch of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal running through the park at Charlecote, that he persuaded the National Trust to take on, and Landmark also took on several lock-keeper’s cottages in its early years.


Smith also made a surpassing contribution to the preservation of historic ships — notably Brunel’s SS Great Britain, returned to Bristol from the Falkland Islands in 1970, and then to the wartime cruiser HMS Belfast, moved to her permanent berth on the Thames in 1971. Most important of all was HMS Warrior, Britain’s only preserved Victorian battleship. Napoleon III described the 1860 iron-hulled, steamship as “a snake among the rabbits”, outgunning and outrunning the opposition by such a margin that it never had to fire a shot in anger.


Since the 1920s Warrior had been a floating jetty at Pembroke Dock. In 1979, when the oil depot closed, the Ministry of Defence gave her to the Warrior Preservation Trust (set up by Smith for the purpose). He then contributed £10 million to a comprehensive restoration of this ship, correct in every detail. His intention, he said, was that it should appear to the visitor like the Marie Celeste, as if the entire crew had gone ashore a few minutes before.


Another imaginative gesture was to buy Captain Oates’s medals at auction and give them to his regiment, the Royal Iniskilling Dragoon Guards.


Having bought a house at 21 Dean’s Yard, Westminster, Smith was rapidly drawn into the life of the Abbey. When he heard that Westminster School was no longer staging the traditional Greek play because the magnificent backcloth — a panorama of ancient Athens — had rotted, Smith paid £5,000 to have it restored.


He was a great traveller and prided himself on being the first man to visit all the explorers’ huts in Antarctica.


Smith’s financial backing kicked off the rescue of Barlaston Hall at a time when the National Coal Board was refusing to pay compensation for mining subsidence damage.


Incensed by the treatment of historic buildings on Gibraltar, he financed a list of 1,100 historic buildings that the Government should protect (it has never done so). He also sent a £25,000 donation (the largest) to start a museum at St Helena.


Smith regularly clashed with officials who frustrated his restoration plans — English Heritage was portrayed as a sinking ship “holed” by a broadside from Warrioron the plate commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Landmark Trust.


Always dapper, Smith was impatient and demanding. His astuteness ensured that he was much sought after for committees but he rarely remained long, doing two years at the Redundant Churches Fund, two at the National Heritage Memorial Fund and three as Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire. Similarly, his tenure as MP for the Cities of London and Westminster lasted just five years.


John Lindsay Eric Smith was born in London in 1923 and grew up in Sussex. His parents had reduced their sprawling Victorian house, Ashfold, from 40 bedrooms to 24. The works there gave the young John his first taste of a building site. He used to frequent the estate carpenters’ shop and became fascinated by tools and materials.


The Smiths were the oldest and grandest of banking families. Their firm had emerged in Nottingham in 1658, even before the Hoares. After the First World War the firm merged with the National Provincial Bank. John Smith’s father, Eric, became chairman of this merged bank, and Coutts was one of its subsidiary businesses. John Smith thus became the ninth generation, in unbroken succession from father to son, to work in the Smith bank or its successors.


After Eton he joined the Fleet Air Arm and was a navigator in the dive-bombing raid on the battleship Tirpitz in Kvaenangen fjord, Norway, in July 1944 (his Barracuda was holed by flak and ran out of fuel as it landed on its carrier). He was serving in Ceylon when the war ended.


At 22 he went to Oxford, a city for which he never lost his affection. There began his lifelong friendship with Teddy Hall, the father of carbon dating. In 1950 Smith became a director of Coutts, turning his back on his long-held ambition of becoming an architect. Yet he remained close to several of the finest but more traditionally minded architects of his day, including Raymond Erith, Francis Pollen and Philip Jebb.


Appointed CBE in 1975, Smith was knighted in 1988.


A favourite phrase of his was: “I mustn’t bore you but . . . ”, always the prelude to an interesting anecdote or unusual fact. In recent years he had devoted much time to his diaries — it is not yet known whether they will be published.


Smith is survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters; a third daughter predeceased him.


Sir John Smith, financier and philanthropist, was born on April 3, 1923. He died on February 28, 2007, aged 83