Arts and Sciences

Parks Canada confirms HMS Terror found

History Blog - Tue, 2016-09-27 23:43

Parks Canada has confirmed that the shipwreck discovered in Terror Bay by the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) is indeed the HMS Terror. The crew of the ARF’s research vessel Martin Bergmann notified the government agency of their find on September 11th. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team arrived to explore the wreck on September 15th. With help from the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the team surveyed the site with side-scan sonar and a multi-beam echosounder. Underwater archaeologists dove the wreck three times.

The dives took place during difficult weather conditions and through poor visibility. The wreck’s upper deck is heavily covered by silt and marine life. Nevertheless, the divers were able to observe a number of features that were typical or unique to 19th century British polar exploration ships and the wreck has a number of design specifications that were common to both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, including three masts, iron bow sheathings and a double-wheeled helm. There are no wrecks other than HMS Erebus with these features in the region.

Comparing this solid archaeological data to an extensive research archive that includes ship plans of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team was able to confirm that the wreck is HMS Terror. The scans showed the well preserved wreck has and features matching the historic records for HMS Terror, including: the configuration of the bowsprit (the spar extending from the ship’s bow); placement of the ship’s helm; the boarding port; and deck scuppers (holes on the side of the ship to allow drainage) which differ from HMS Erebus.

The Parks Canada marine archaeologists found that the shipwreck is intact from stem to stern. No artifacts or human remains were spotted on board, but the visibility was so bad that doesn’t mean there aren’t any to be found. The thick layer of silt and marine life is obscuring anything on the deck. It’s also preserving it.

Next on the agenda is working with the Government of Nunavut and the Designated Inuit Organizations to protect the wreck site.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Luna settlement dig finds more 16th c. artifacts

History Blog - Mon, 2016-09-26 22:21

Archaeologists returned to the site of the first multi-year settlement in the United States this summer and discovered more 16th century artifacts. Discovered by a local historian almost a year ago in Pensacola, Florida, the Santa Maria de Ochuse settlement was founded by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in August 1559. The 1,500 colonists — Spanish soldiers, indigenous Mexicans and African slaves — would have been well-provisioned has six of their 11 ships not been destroyed by a hurricane a month after their arrival. They wound up having to make do on their own which did not go well. In 1561, the survivors were picked up by Spanish ships and there was no further attempt at settlement of what would become the United States until Pedro Menéndez founded the St. Augustine colony in 1565.

The settlement site was excavated this season by archaeologists and students of the University of West Florida Archaeology Summer Field School. The team focused on the center and perimeter of the settlement, and what they’ve discovered aligns very well with primary documents about the expedition found in Spain by UWF archaeologist Dr. John Worth. One find that would warm the heart of any archaeologist is a trash pit, a stuffed one at that. The pit contains food detritus — seafood like shellfish, oysters and scallops — and a deer antler that suggests the would-be colonists supplemented their fishing with hunting. The team also found a number of iron strap fragments that were probably the hoops from barrels. Once the barrels were empty of the supplies they carried, archaeologists believe, Luna’s people may have broken them up and put them to practical use, like in the forging of nails, for example, or to make goods to trade with the local Native American population for food.

The dense grouping of mid-16th century Spanish artifacts (pottery sherds, nails) in the core area of the settlement strongly points to this being the Luna settlement. The sheer amount of trash points to a large number of people living there for a significant stretch of time. The fact that the inhabitants even bothered to create a trash pit, as opposed to burning it or discarding it willy-nilly, is evidence that this wasn’t just a landing party, but a planned settlement. There is also evidence of permanent structures built on the site, something attested to in the historical archives, in the form of post molds and horizontal stretches that would have been floors and other surfaces.

One artifact may even identify one dwelling as belonging to a specific member of the expedition.

For example, in one area containing a dense concentration of artifacts, they also found a balance scale weight, made out of a copper alloy, likely used in measuring pay for soldiers. Worth says there’s only one person in the expedition, the treasurer, who was in charge of that and, therefore, would have owned a set.

“The finding of that one scale weight in that particular spot, next to a post hole, may mean that we have found the house, the residence, of the treasurer of the Luna Expedition, Alonso (Velazquez) Rodriguez,” said Worth, noting that they also have a lot of documentary accounts by this same guy about what happened during the expedition.

Worth suggests a greater level of interest to have the words of Rodriquez along with some of his possessions, “so, to dig through his house floor, or his warehouse, or his, you know, yard and get the artifacts that he handled and he used, even like, for example, a brass pin that was found in that same unit.”

A brass pin in the 16th century would have been used as a paperclip of sorts, and Worth says it’s an item that the treasurer Rodriguez might have been using this item to hold papers together in his office at the Luna settlement. “We’re finding traces of those activities, and, the documents that I’ve read in Spain may actually have been written by him in that spot.”

According to the Spanish records, the Luna settlement was going to have 140 homes, four houses to a block with streets separating them on a rectangular plan. In the middle would have been a plaza, as any self-respecting Spanish settlement would have. Settlers had begun work on their new town, clearing the vegetation and building living and public spaces, but the hurricane hit five weeks after they got started, disrupting the original plan.

The Luna Settlement Project has a blog, which unfortunately did not keep up with the excavation during the summer, but the few posts it does have are interesting examination of the documentary and artifact record this far. There are some great pictures and lots of links to coverage of the excavation on the team’s Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Skeleton with backwards feet found in Dorset quarry

History Blog - Sun, 2016-09-25 14:37

Archaeologists excavating Woodsford Quarry in Dorset have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a skeleton whose feet were bent backwards. The sarcophagus, carved out of a single large block of limestone, was found in a grave 5’11″ long, 1’10″ inches and just one foot deep. Initial osteological examine found the skeleton was that of a young man in his 20s or 30s who was about 5’10″ tall. There are no indications from the bones of disease or possibly fatal trauma.

Hills Quarry Products contracted Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) to survey the Woodsford site and excavations have been ongoing for years. At least 11 othr burials have been found at the quarry, but because the soil is highly acidic, no human remains survived. The solid limestone coffin protected these bones from the ravages of the environment, although its lid is long gone, probably destroyed by farming activity which archaeologists have found evidence of going back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Director of TVAS, Dr Steve Ford, explained why this was such a significant find. He said: “In the Roman period, burial in a sarcophagus was moderately common in Italy but very unusual in Britannia, where even wooden coffins seem to have been rare.

“A stone sarcophagus was certainly a very prestigious item, and their distribution across the country is restricted. Only around 100 are known and it is believed that this might be only the 12th to come from Dorset, with 11 others all from Poundbury.

“It is possible that the practice reflects a folk memory of a longer tradition in the South West, however, where stone lined cist burials can be traced back to the New Stone Age around 3000 BC.

“In fact, this sarcophagus may have been reused, as it was several centimetres too short for the corpse, whose feet had to be tucked under him.”

The skeleton will be subjected to further testing to determine if possible the cause of death and a burial date. After analysis is complete, the skeleton, sarcophagus and other artifacts from the Late Iron Age through the Roman era (1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.) discovered at the site will be donated by the landowner to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tate acquires its earliest portrait by woman artist

History Blog - Sat, 2016-09-24 21:40

The Tate museum has acquired the earliest portrait in its collection painted by a woman. Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1650-5) was painted by Joan Carlile, one of very few women known to have been a professional portrait artist in 17th century Britain. Museum researchers believe she may even have been the first woman in Britain to be a professional oil portraitist.

The unknown sitter’s pose and elegant white satin appear in two of her other known portraits. This repetition of a composition lends weight to the notion of Carlile as a professional artist. In 1653 her neighbour Brian Duppa noted that ‘the Mistress of the Family intends for London, where she meanes to make use of her skill to som more Advantage then hitherto she hath don’ and in 1654 Carlile is recorded as living in London’s Covent Garden, then the heart of London’s artistic community.

Little is known about Joan Carlile’s early life. She was the daughter of one William Palmer, a senior official at St. James’s Park and its Spring Garden, now open to the public as one of the Royal Parks, but at the time still very much the private reserve of the monarch. In 1626 she married Lodowich Carlile, a playwright and courtier who was Gentleman of the Bows, Groom to the King and Queen’s Privy Chamber and Keeper of the Great Forest at Richmond Park to King Charles I. They lived together at Petersham Lodge, a perk of the Richmond Park gig, which is where they were living when Bishop Brian Duppa was their neighbor. He apparently had a high opinion of Mrs. Carlile’s talents. He wrote to a correspondent in early 1654: “I have had a long studied designe of having yr Picture, and by that Hand rather then by any else.”

He wasn’t alone. King Charles I thought highly of her work, and no lesser a figure than court painter par excellence Anthony van Dyck mentored her. Charles gifted them both with nose-bleedingly expensive ultramarine paint. Even after the beheading of Charles I, Lodowich Carlile retained his job as Keeper, which is unusual for someone who was really quite close to the late king since they had gone hunting together frequently. He kept the job throughout the Commonwealth and into the Restoration.

Their stint as bohemians living the Covent Garden life didn’t last long. They returned to Petersham Lodge in 1656. By then she had established her reputation as a portrait painter in society. Historian and courtier Sir William Sanderson included a reference to her in his 1658 survey on the history of art in England, Graphice, The Excellent Art of Painting. He named her first in a short list of four women artists notable for their oil paintings. Mrs. Carlile, says Sanderson, is a “virtuous” and “worthy” example of his maxim “that the ground of all excellencies in this Art is the Naturall fancie bon-esprite, quick wit and ingenuity, which adds and enables the elaborate.”

The couple moved to London again in 1665, this time residing in the St. James’s Market area. Lodowich died there in 1675, followed four years later by Joan. The newly acquired portrait is one of a handful of works by Joan Carlile known to survive.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient burned scroll virtually unwrapped

History Blog - Fri, 2016-09-23 22:15

In 1970, an excavation of an ancient synagogue in the town of En-Gedi just west of the Dead Sea unearthed a parchment scroll. The town was inhabited from the late 8th century B.C. until it burned down in early 7th century A.D., and the scroll bore mute witness to En-Gedi’s fate. It was found inside the synagogue’s Holy Ark and was badly charred, so severely damaged that there was no way of unrolling it to read its contents. The lightest touch would cause the carbonized chunk to crumble. Radiocarbon dating determined the scroll dates to the 3rd or 4th century A.D.

Forty-five years later in 2015, the Israel Antiquities Authority and University of Kentucky computer science Professor Brent Seales announced that high-resolution micro-computed tomography scanning and new virtual unwrapping software engineered by Seales and his crack team of students had been able to peer into the blackened, crispy scroll and read the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus. That makes the En-Gedi scroll the oldest book from the Torah found since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.) and the only ancient Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark.

The noninvasive technology works by converting the 3D scans into 2D images on which the writing is legible. Computer algorithms partition the 3D scans into segments with writing on them. The surface is then rendered into a 3D model where all textures — writing, ink — are positioned exactly where they were they found in the original scan. From the 3D model a flattened 2D version of the surface texture is generated which unwraps the rolled up surface onto a flat page.

Since last year, Seales’ team has virtually unraveled five complete wraps of the parchment scroll. While the text itself is less than thrilling (they find one scroll and it has to be Leviticus?), the implications for future research are deeply exciting.

Besides illuminating the history of the biblical text, our work on the scroll advances the development of textual imaging. Although previous research has successfully identified text within ancient artifacts, the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively.

The University of Kentucky team has worked on scrolls found at Herculaneum that were carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the town and its better known neighbor Pompeii, but that was four years ago and they were only able to pick out a single blurry unidentifiable letter. I dearly hope they give it another try now.

This video explains the virtual unwrapping process and how it worked on the En-Gedi scroll.

The full study replete with technical details has been published in Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cutting edge leather shoe found at Vindolanda

History Blog - Thu, 2016-09-22 15:31

You’d think the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall was a footwear manufacturing concern rather than a military outpost with an attached a civilian settlement considering how many shoes have been found there. Literally thousands of shoes, their leather preserved in excellent condition by the waterlogged soil, have been unearthed at the fort and settlement over the decades. This season the excavation team has added another 350 shoes to the tally since digging began in April. One of them is making headlines for its stylish resemblance to the Adidas Predator soccer cleats favored by some of the biggest names in the game like David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane.

The shoe was found in the Severan ditch, ground zero for what appears to have been a frenzied bout of closet cleaning in 212 A.D. which resulted 420 shoes being tossed into the ditch. Most of them show signs of extensive wear or were cannibalized for parts to repair shoes that survived the great purge of 212.

This leather sandal is in good condition with only a tear along the seam of the hell. The shoelaces are gone, but there’s a slot where they would have tied together. Vindolanda spokesperson Sonya Galloway:

“The boot is the modern day equivalent of around a size one, and would have been worn by a child between the ages of eight and ten.

“It is a good quality shoe. “[J]ust like the children of today, Roman children would have been very fashion conscious. The discovery of shoe, which is very well made, shows the affluence of the Romans.

“It is the kind of shoe which would have been worn by a wealthy Roman child.”

Archaeologists think they have at least one shoe for every individual who lived at Vindolanda during the 300+ years it was inhabited. The differences in quality, design and wear attest to the diversity of economic status in the fort and settlement. They provide an extremely rare glimpse into the way people from all walks of life (pun intended) lived at Vindolanda during the Roman occupation.

The handsome shoe will now join its leathern brethren on display at the Vindolanda Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Six paintings by Hercules Segers found in private collections

History Blog - Wed, 2016-09-21 18:03

Hercules Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) is not widely known today, but he had an enormous influence on far more famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age and the rediscovery of his works in the 19th century played a major role in the development of the modern graphic arts. Very little is known about his life. He lived and worked in comparative obscurity, experimenting with print media in a way that had never been done before and wouldn’t be done again for 400 years.

After his death, apparently from falling down the stairs while drunk, his innovative work became highly sought after, particularly by fellow artists. It was his innovative approach to printmaking that made his name. Even to contemporary eyes, his prints are incredibly fresh: moody imaginary landscapes, each print unique thanks to his constant experimentation with colored inks, tints, colored paper, cloth, textures and cropping.

There are only 183 Segers prints made from 54 plates known to survive, each of them unique. A print by Rembrandt van Rijn is actually by Hercules Segers too. Rembrandt was an avid fan and collector of Segers’ art, and reworked one of Segers’ copper plates, Tobias and the Angel, into his Flight into Egypt, keeping the landscape unchanged but altering the human figures. Rembrandt also collected Segers’ paintings, owning at least eight of them. Considering that only 12 Segers paintings were known to have survived into our time, that’s an impressive proportion.

Now that number has been expanded by 50% because researchers at the Rijksmuseum have authenticated another six paintings by Hercules Segers, all of them held in private collections. A team of specialists spent two years studying about 100 disputed or possible Segers paintings and prints for an upcoming exhibition, discovering works never before displayed to the public and confirming the authenticity of works that have been deemed doubtful at best for decades. They enlisted the latest and greatest technology in their pursuit, including infrared reflectography, X-ray fluorescence, ultraviolet photography and dendrochronological analysis on the wood panel paintings.

The three paintings, Woodland Path, Panoramic Landscape with a Town on a River and Panoramic Landscape with Two Towers, all owned privately, have never been seen before. The Mountain Landscape from Hovingham Hall in England was last shown almost fifty years ago. Alongside the four works by Segers, there are two other paintings from private collections that have long been considered doubtful but may now also be definitively added to Segers’ oeuvre. They are the River Landscape with Figures and River Landscape with a Mill. Two new prints by the artist have also been found.

The team’s extensive art historical and technical research also revealed new information about Segers’ work and materials. For instance, they found that Segers used painter’s materials in his etchings, using oil paints to make the prints. He used different paper, textiles and paints for every impression, which is why they’re all so different from each other. Hercules Segers was, researchers discovered, the first European artist to use paper from east Asia, beating Rembrandt to the punch by 20 years.

The Rijksmuseum’s research will bear fruit in an unprecedented retrospective bringing together almost all of Hercules Segers’ works. All 18 of his extant paintings and 110 of his prints will be on display at the museum from October 7th, 2016, until January 8th, 2017. At the same time, the Rembrandt House Museum will put on an exhibition, Under the Spell of Hercules Segers, about the influence of Hercules Segers on Rembrandt and other Golden Age Dutch artists, as well as his influence on graphic artists in the 20th century. After it closes at the Rijksmuseum, the Hercules Segers exhibition will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where it will open on February 13th as The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Human skeleton found at Antikythera shipwreck

History Blog - Tue, 2016-09-20 16:30

Archaeologists diving the site of the Antikythera shipwreck in the Aegean Sea have discovered human skeletal remains. The Return to Antikythera team, which has been exploring the site since 2012, found the bones under a foot and a half of pottery fragments and sand on August 31st. They recovered the cranium, a partial jawbone with three teeth, ribs, the long bones of the arms and legs and some other pieces. The rest of the skeletal remains are still embedded in the sea floor.

This isn’t the first time human remains have been found at the Antikythera wreck site. Famed marine explorer Jacques Cousteau found a smattering of bones during his two-day survey of the site in 1976. Osteoarchaeological analysis concluded that those bones were the remains of at least four people, although only three individuals could be identified: a young man, an adult woman and a teenager of undetermined sex. Having been treated for conservation purposes and exposed to a variety of temperature and environmental conditions, those bones can no longer be tested for DNA, not that they were ever prime candidates for recovery of ancient DNA.

That was a long time ago, aeons in terms of scientific technology, and this latest find isn’t just a bone here or there scattered by currents and marine life. This is the undisturbed skeleton of one person whose remains appear to have been protected by a thick debris layer, and it is the first ancient skeleton to be recovered from a shipwreck since the dawn of DNA analysis. Researchers are excited at the prospect of being able to extract a testable DNA sample from the bones, something that has never been attempted on an ancient shipwreck victim, to find out more about a crew member or passenger of the ancient merchant vessel laden with luxury objects that sank in around 65 B.C.

Within days of the find, [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution archaeologist and co-director of the excavations team Brendan] Foley invited [Hannes] Schroeder, an expert in ancient-DNA analysis from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, to assess whether genetic material might be extracted from the bones. On his way to Antikythera, Schroeder was doubtful. But as he removes the bones from their bags he is pleasantly surprised. The material is a little chalky, but overall looks well preserved. “It doesn’t look like bone that’s 2,000 years old,” he says. Then, sifting through several large pieces of skull, he finds both petrous bones — dense nuggets behind the ear that preserve DNA better than other parts of the skeleton or the teeth. “It’s amazing you guys found that,” Schroeder says. “If there’s any DNA, then from what we know, it’ll be there.”

Schroeder agrees to go ahead with DNA extraction when permission is granted by the Greek authorities. It would take about a week to find out whether the sample contains any DNA, he says: then perhaps a couple of months to sequence it and analyse the results.[...]

Schroeder guesses from the skeleton’s fairly robust femur and unworn teeth that the individual was a young man. As well as confirming the person’s gender, DNA from the Antikythera bones could provide information about characteristics from hair and eye colour to ancestry and geographic origin.

The video captures the moment of discovery and the divers’ unbridled joy.

The Return to Antikythera team 3D scan every artifact they discover so that scholars all over the world can examine their finds. Here is a 3D model of the bones in situ.

Here are the femurs recovered from the sea floor and in the laboratory.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ukraine returns five paintings stolen from Dutch museum

History Blog - Mon, 2016-09-19 18:36

Five of the 24 paintings stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, on January 10th, 2005, have been returned to the Netherlands by the Ukrainian authorities. How they ended up in Ukraine is unclear. Museum officials searched constantly for their purloined works — 17th and 18th century oil paintings by Dutch masters and 70 pieces of silverware — for years before finally spotting a picture of one of the paintings on a Ukrainian website in 2014.

In July of 2015, two members of the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia contacted the Dutch embassy in Kiev claiming that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings and all the silverware. They claimed to have found the loot in the villa of one of their political enemies, a crony of the former president, and were willing to sell it back for an astronomical sum based on their groundless assumption that the art and silver were worth 50 million euros, a figure more than 50 times greater than the realistic assessment of expert appraisers.

The museum got the Ukrainian police involved, then the Foreign Ministry, then diplomatic talks ensued. No progress was made. When in December of last year they heard that the militia were looking for other potential buyers, museum officials notified the media and the whole crazy story made international news.

Since then, all kinds of under-the-radar things have been happening. Seemingly out of nowhere and with little explanation of the turn of events, in April of this year four of the 24 paintings were recovered by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU). They announced at a press conference that the recovery was the result of a special operation conducted in 10 regions of Ukraine over the course of four months, but no details were forthcoming about who had them or any legal repercussions for the thieves. All they said is they were found “in the possession of criminal groups,” which yeah, duh.

The four recovered works were The Peasant Wedding by Hendrick Boogaert, Kitchen Piece, by Floris van Schooten, The Return of Jephta and Woman World, both by Jacob Waben. These were the most prized of the stolen paintings and the museum was excited to get them back, especially since curators were concerned about their condition. Two of the paintings were still rolled up after having been cut out of their frames in the heist. Two others had been reframed.

Despite all the publicity about this caper and the artworks, the Ukrainian government dragged its heels about returning the paintings to the Westfries Museum. Officials decided they had to launch their own investigation of the pieces and who the legitimate owner was. The museum had supplied the authorities with ample documentation of their legal claim, which was doubted by nobody, not even the militia members themselves who had reached out to them directly, after all.

Then, in May, a fifth painting emerged, New Street in Hoorn by Izaak Ouwater. This one was handed in to the Dutch embassy in Kiev by an unknown buyer who apparently did not realize it was stolen when he purchased it. Again, no details were forthcoming.

Finally whatever kinks needed working out were worked out and on September 16th, all five of the paintings were formally returned to the Netherlands in a ceremony at the Dutch embassy in Kiev. Museum experts examined the works to authenticate them and assess their condition. The news for some of the works is grim.

[Museum director] Ad Geerdink: “Naturally I am very pleased about the return. But I am very sad about the condition of the paintings A Kitchen Scene by Floris van Schooten and A Peasants Wedding, by Hendrick Boogaert. For years, the paintings have been moved all over the place and they were folded or rolled up. They really suffered a lot. When unrolling them, a piece came loose. Luckily they can still be restored, but it will be a time-consuming effort. The costs will be significant, at least 100,000 Euros. As a museum, we are not able to bear these costs ourselves. We therefore hope that people will help us with the restoration by joining the crowd funding campaign. We will start the crowd funding when the paintings return to Hoorn. In the spring of 2017, we want to let the paintings shine again in full glory in the Westfries Museum.’

The paintings will be back on Dutch soil on October 7th and the museum is planning to welcome them with much happy fanfare. The five works will be briefly on display starting on October 8th and admission will be free for a week so the people of Hoorn can welcome back their long-lost prodigals.

I will post an update when the crowdfunding campaign is launched.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest known indigo dyed textile found in Peru

History Blog - Sun, 2016-09-18 18:47

In 2009, archaeologists found textile fragments at the Preceramic settlement of Huaca Prieta in the Chicama Valley on the northern coast of Peru. The desert climate preserves organic materials and a great many early textiles made from wild cotton indigenous to the area have been unearthed there. What makes these fragments so significant is the dyed blue threads which are the oldest known indigo dyed textiles in the world, 1,800 years older than the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty textiles previously believed to be the oldest indigo dye.

Occupied between 14,500 and 4000, Huaca Prieta’s large ceremonial mound was first excavated in 1946 by archaeologist Junius Bird, curator of South American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History. There he unearthed the oldest known cotton textiles with recognizable figures — humans, birds, snakes — in the Americas. Those textiles are now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Bird’s trenches are still being excavated today and a number textile fragments are visible peering through the soil. It was in of those trenches, stratum 44 of trench HP-3, that archaeologists discovered two textiles with blue dye about 6200 to 6000 years old. The fragments are weft twining with warp stripes in different colors: the natural tan of the cotton, yarn woven with a white fiber from a local vine in the milkweed family and the blue. Chromatographic analysis of the textile confirmed the presence of an indigoid dye.

Different plants can be used to make indigoid dyes. What they all have in common is indigotin, the main component in blue dye, and indirubin, an isomer of indigotin. There is no currently available test that can distinguish between the different genera of plants that are sources of indigo dye. Researchers believe the Huaca Prieta dye was derived from plants in the Indigofera genus which are native to South America and still used as dye plants today.

Early examples of the use of blue yarns that were most likely colored with indigo are known, but dye analysis had heretofore been unavailable. The composition of the indigoid dyes identified in the fabrics presented here reflects that of earlier findings in Latin American and Asian contexts, in that proportions of indirubin relative to indigotin are significantly higher as compared to European productions. To date, there is no firm evidence to explain these differences, but plant species, harvesting, dye preparation, and actual dyeing, as well as differential conservation processes of essential dye components, may have, alone or in combination, contributed to this observation. One interesting hypothesis, requiring further confirmation, is that ancient vat dyeing technologies favored the formation and uptake by the yarn of indirubin. This would have resulted in a more purplish hue produced by a reddish indirubin and a bluish indigotin.

The textile fragments are now in the Cao Museum in Trujillo, Peru.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,000-year-old pot contains burned cheese residue

History Blog - Sat, 2016-09-17 21:55

A clay pot discovered during an archaeological excavation near Silkeborg in central Jutland, Denmark, in 2012 has the residue of 3,000-year-old burned cheese coating the interior. The pot was found upside down in a garbage pit. Museum Silkeborg archaeologists were excited by the find because the pot was intact and in near mint condition, a rare find for a Bronze Age vessel made between 777 B.C. and 588 B.C. They didn’t realize until they cleaned the soil off of it that the crusty remains of some whitish yellow food substance were stuck to the inside walls.

The color and texture were not something the archaeologists had seen before. Charred grains and seeds are a more common sight in ancient cookware — the ever-tricky porridge has been getting burned to the bottom of pots for thousands of years — but the yellowish film was a mystery. Samples of the crusty substance were subjected to macrofossil analysis at the Moesgaard Museum in the hope it might identify any plants, meat or fish. The results were inconclusive. The test found the substance was a foamy, vitrified material, possible the residue of oil or sugar.

Museum curators sent samples to the Danish National Museum next, where chemist Mads Chr. Christensen used mass spectrometry to identify the substance. He was able to narrow it down to a product made with the fat of a ruminant, likely bovine. With no similar sample to compare the mass spectrometry results, he wasn’t able to get more specific than that.

“The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter,” says [Museum Silkeborg curator Kaj F.] Rasmussen.

“It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what’s left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet,” he says.

When things don’t go according to plan and the cheese burns to the pot, the smell is pungent, to put it charitably, and attempts to scrape the foul crust off the clay pot doomed to failure. It’s easy to picture a Bronze Age cheesemaker dumping the whole mess into the trash.

I’m not familiar with brown Norwegian whey cheese. It sounds … interesting. Has anybody tried this delicacy?

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique figurine of woman found at Çatalhöyük

History Blog - Fri, 2016-09-16 13:53

Archaeologists excavating the Neolithic urban settlement of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey have unearthed the figurine of a voluptuous woman in excellent condition. More than 2,000 figurines have been found at Çatalhöyük, but very few of them intact like this one. Several of them were also Mother figures; this is the first one to be found intact and with finely crafted details. It is also unusual in that it was discovered under a platform next to a piece of obsidian where it appears to have been deliberately placed likely for ritual purposes rather than discarded in garbage pits where archaeologists have found many broken statuettes, mostly made of clay. The beautiful Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, for example, who is herself a zaftig female archetype seated on a throne and captured in the very act of giving birth, was found missing her head and the right hand rest in the shape of a leopard or panther head.

The figurine is 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) long, 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) wide and weighs one kilo (2.2 pounds), a large, heavy piece for Çatalhöyük. (The Seated Woman is 12 centimeters high.) Her hands and feet are small, markedly out of proportion to her large breasts, belly and buttocks, and her hands are placed under the breasts. She would not have been able to stand vertically on those small feet. The figurine is made of marble, another rarity, and was shaped by extensive polishing of the stone. Details — slanted eyes, a Modigliani-like flat nose, mouth, navel, etc. — were then incised on the figure.

It dates Neolithic occupation of the site, between 7100 and 6000 B.C., so the figurine is at least 8,000 years old. The exaggerated female features — breasts, hips, thighs — of such figures, carved by people for more 40,000 years, have often been interpreted as mother or fertility goddesses, but recent scholarship suggests some of them may represent venerable high status older ladies of the community.

Çatalhöyük is a fascinating site, founded in a period of transition between highly mobile hunter-gatherers and settled farming communities. No identifiable public buildings have been found thus far, just domestic structures built so close together than people had to use roofs and ladders to move between them. Residents grew a few different kinds of plants and kept cattle — not domesticated yet, mind you — for milk and meat. Large cattle horns were popular decorative features incorporated into the homes. The dead were buried under the houses; there was no dedicated cemetery or burial ground.

The Çatalhöyük Research Project has been excavating the settlement since 1993, combining excavation with in situ conservation and curation of artifacts to ensure the long-term preservation of this extraordinarily signficant site. Full details about the newly discovered figurine will be published in the team’s 2016 Archive Report later this year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

World’s oldest snowshoe found in Italian Dolomites

History Blog - Thu, 2016-09-15 13:41

On August 5th, 2003, Simone Bartolini, cartographer and head of the State Borders division of Italy’s Military Geographical Institute, was in the Pfossental Valley in the Italian Dolomites doing a topographical survey of the border with Austria when he came across an old snowshoe made by hand out of birch and twine. A birch stick about 1.5 meters (five feet) long had been shaped into a rough oval closed with twine, and then more twine stretched taughtly across the middle to support the foot. One of the twine supports was broken in the middle, but otherwise it was in excellent condition.

Bartolini thought it was maybe a hundred years old, the rudimentary work of a local farmer perhaps, and hung it on the wall of his office in Florence as a charming curiosity. That’s where it remained for 12 years until 2015 when Bartolini attended an exhibition of artifacts found in the glaciers at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano. After a conversation with museum director Angelika Fleckinger, it dawned on him that his snowshoe might be a lot older than he had realized, so he gave it to the Office of Archaeological Heritage of Bolzano for further study.

Researchers had it radiocarbon dated by two independent laboratories and their results were the same: the snowshoe was made in the late Neolithic, between 3800 and 3700 B.C. That makes it 5,800 years old, by far the oldest known snowshoe.

“The shoe is evidence that people in the Neolithic period were living in the Alps area and had equipped themselves accordingly,” said Dr Catrin Marzoli, the director of the province’s cultural heritage department.

It was unclear why people were travelling through such an inhospitable region, she said. They may have been hunting animals, fleeing enemies from a rival tribe, or visiting pagan sites of worship.

If you live in an environmentally challenging region, you adapt. People gotta move sometimes for any number of reasons. The snowshoe was found at an altitude of 3,134 meters (10,280 feet) in the Gurgler Eisjoch pass which has been used by mountain travelers for thousands of years. Ötzi the Iceman, whose naturally mummified body was found just a few miles west of the snowshoe in 1991, was treading that well-worn trail between what are now Italy and Austria when he was killed, and microscopic evidence in his bones and digestive system indicate he had trod that path many times in his life. Ötzi died 500 years after that snowshoe was made.

The snowshoe will now join the Iceman on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

HMS Terror may have been found

History Blog - Wed, 2016-09-14 16:40

Not basking in the success of its search for HMS Erebus, the flagship of Sir John Franklin during his last doomed voyage to find the Northwest Passage, Parks Canada continued its research on the Franklin expedition this season, studying the Erebus with sonar and seeking out any remains of the second ship, the HMS Terror. One of its partners in the endeavour is the Arctic Research Foundation whose vessel Martin Bergmann carries Parks Canada underwater archaeologists, side-scan sonar equipment and a remotely operated vehicle.

On September 3rd, the crew of the Martin Bergmann found a large three-masted shipwreck at the bottom of, believe it or not, Terror Bay. The sonar data was confirmed by video from the ROV which allowed the team to compare the wreck to the plans of the HMS Terror. They found the ship’s bell, but couldn’t see the name of the vessel on it. One key feature that indicates this is the Terror is the exhaust pipe which is in the same location as the smokestack on the ship’s plans. It was added to HMS Terror to vent exhaust from the locomotive engine installed in the ship’s hull so it could cut through sea ice.

The Terror was long believed to have been crushed by the hard, cold embrace of sea ice, but if this is the ship itself, it appears to be in excellent condition. Its three masts are broken, but it sits level on the sea floor about 80 feet below the surface, indicating that it sank gently. A long rope, still threaded through a hole in the deck, may have been used as an anchor line. The metal sheeting on the hull is intact. It seems the crew battened down the hatches, so to speak, as the ship was closed up tight. Of the four glass windows in the stern cabin, only one is broken. That bodes very well for the preservation of the contents.

On Sunday, a team from the charitable Arctic Research Foundation manoeuvred a small, remotely operated vehicle through an open hatch and into the ship to capture stunning images that give insight into life aboard the vessel close to 170 years ago.

“We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the Guardian by email from the research vessel Martin Bergmann.

“We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

As with the discovery of Erebus, here too Inuit knowledge of the area played a pivotal role. The Martin Bergmann was headed to the north end of Victoria Strait to join the other ships on the Parks Canada mission when one of the crew members, Sammy Kogvik, told a story about how on a fishing trip six years ago he saw a large vertical piece of wood poking through the ice covering Terror Bay. He took some pictures of himself hugging the mast-like timber but lost the camera on the way home.

Taking the loss of the camera to be a bad omen — the Inuit have thought King William Island to be plagued with bad spirits since the death of everyone on the Franklin expedition — Kogvik told nobody of his find until he told Adrian Schimnowski on board the Martin Bergmann. Breaking from the lost history of explorers discounting Inuit evidence, the crew decided to take a detour from their destination and check out Terror Bay.

So it seems the Inuit are two for two on the Franklin expedition ships. Nice stats for people Lady Jane Franklin contemptuously dismissed as “savages” and their information, now proven to be accurate on pretty much every point, as “gossip” that should never have been repeated because it included reports of survival cannibalism among the crew.

The identification is not a sure thing yet. This ship was found a full 60 miles south of where the Terror was thought to have been destroyed based on the only known official records of the expedition ever found: an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island that noted the coordinates of where the two ships had been abandoned to the sea ice. But then again, Erebus was found much further south than expected too. Jim Balsillie, co-founder of the company that created the Blackberry and founder of the Arctic Research Foundation, has an idea of why this might be.

“Given the location of the find [in Terror Bay] and the state of the wreck, it’s almost certain that HMS Terror was operationally closed down by the remaining crew who then re-boarded HMS Erebus and sailed south where they met their ultimate tragic fate.”

Sounds reasonable. Parks Canada is circumspect about the find. They’re excited about it and recognize the significance of the find particularly in highlighting the inestimable value of the Inuit contribution, but they aren’t ready to call the Terror found until they’ve examined the details and confirmed it’s the real deal.

This CBC News story includes video of the shipwreck taken by the remotely operated vehicle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Studies of Brazilian fauna by 17th c. Dutch artist found

History Blog - Tue, 2016-09-13 11:25

In 1636, Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen, (if the name rings a bell it’s because his house in The Hague is now the magnificent Mauritshuis museum) was appointed the Dutch West India Company (DWIC) governor of what was then the Dutch colony of Brazil. His mission was to stabilized the new colony, wrested from Portugal after nine years of war, expand its territories and increase the number of sugar plantations putting money in the DWIC’s coffers. He landed in Recife in January of 1637 with a large retinue including scientists and artists to document the people, environments, plants and animals they came across.

One of those artists was Frans Post. Born in Haarlem in 1612, he was the son of a noted glass painter and brother of one of the premier architects of the age both of whom taught him to draw and paint when he was a youth. His brother helped him secure a post at court where he spotted by Maurits who invited him to join him in Brazil. Post traveled throughout Dutch Brazil until 1644, sketching and painting landscapes, flora and fauna. He was the first European artist (professional anyway) to paint New World landscapes.

He only completed six paintings (later gifted by Maurits to Louis XIV of France) while still in Brazil, but he continued to paint Brazilian landscapes after his return to the Netherlands for another 25 years. They were very popular and sold briskly, eventually entering the collections of several museums. Art historians suspected that Post must have used studies done during his time in Brazil to create the paintings made in the Netherlands, but not a single sketch or drawing of Brazilian flora or fauna by Post was known to exist.

That changed in 2010 when Alexander de Bruin, curator of the image collection of the Noord-Hollands Archief in Haarlem discovered 34 previously unknown drawings by Frans Post. He found them in a 17th century album of bird drawings by Pieter Holsteijn the Elder and the Younger that he was looking through for a digitization project. The album had been donated in 1888, but nobody noticed the pencil sketches and gouaches of capybaras, jaguars, tapirs, sloths, caymans and other South American animals until de Bruin.

Because the discovery was unprecedented, experts from the Noord-Hollands Archief, the journal Master Drawings, and the Rijksmuseum put their heads together to confirm that the really were the long-suspected Frans Post Brazilian studies. They compared the subjects — individual animals captures in 24 watercolor and gouache drawings and 10 graphite ones — to animals in finished paintings and found that they were indeed studies used in his landscapes. One of the paintings he did in Brazil, for example, now in the Louvre, prominently features a capybara who appears in both a graphite sketch and a gouache. The graphite sketches are captioned in Post’s own hand; the gouaches in an unknown 17th century hand which assures us that armadillo tastes like chicken.

Alexander de Bruin on the find:

“These drawings with their inscriptions have a immediacy about them that makes you feel as if you were looking over Frans Post’s shoulder, as he recorded the fascinating fauna of the New World. The animal studies provide the missing link between Post’s seven-year Brazilian adventure and the paintings he produced on his return to Haarlem.”

The drawings will go on display for the first time in the upcoming Rijksmuseum exhibition Frans Post. Animals in Brazil. Six of his paintings and all of the studies will be exhibited alongside taxidermied specimens from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden of the animals Post drew. The exhibition opens October 7th and runs through January 8th, 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

22 ancient inscribed gold plates found in Java

History Blog - Mon, 2016-09-12 00:10


Construction workers in the Indonesian province of Central Java have unearthed 22 inscribed gold plates from the 8th century. The crew was digging for an aquifer project in the village of Ringinlarik when they came across a stone box in a rock pile. A small container at 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) long, 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) wide, and six centimeters (2.4 inches) high, the box was intact with its lid still on — one of the workers thought it looked like a jewelry box — and its contents apparently undisturbed.

Gutomo, an official with the Central Java Heritage Conservation Agency (BPCB) confirmed the gold found was 18 carats. Each plate has an inscription in ancient Javanese letters. The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

“We recorded eight names of wind Gods. We have also declared the location as a heritage site,” Gutomo said.

Dewas, also known as devatas or dewatas, are minor Hindu deities that govern specific areas of nature and humanity. The Devata Lokapala are the Guardians of the Directions, overseers of the four cardinal points — Indra (east), Yama (south), Varuṇa (west) and Kubera (north) — and four ordinal points — Agni (southeast), Nirṛti (southwest), Vayu (northwest) and Īśāna (northeast). Javanese Hinduism includes a ninth member of the party, representing the center point, and calls them the Dewata Nawa Sanga, or Nine Guardian Gods.

The Guardians are often found painted or carved on the walls and ceilings in Hindu temples, but Java has an even stronger historical connection to these deities because they appear on the Surya Majapahit, a symbol associated with the great Majapahit Empire which ruled over what is now Indonesia from 1293 to 1500. (Old time readers might recall the wonderful Majapahit piggy banks made centuries before pigs became a popular home savings motif in the West.) The Surya Majapahit has been found carved on many Majapahit structures, enough that archaeologists believe it was an emblem of the empire. It’s an eight-pointed star representing the rays of the sun with the major Hindu deities in the circular center and the Guardians on the outer perimeter next to the rays that point in the cardinal or ordinal direction they guard. The plates predate the Majapahit Empire by at least five centuries so they’re not related, but they do attest to the regional significance of the deities.

It’s not clear on what grounds the gold plates have been provisionally dated to the 8th century, but one big clue is a discovery made at the same work site earlier this year: the remains of a candi, the Indonesian word for a stupa, a Hindu or Buddhist temple. The use of volcanic rock and the structure of the temple indicated to archaeologist that it was younger than the Candi Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple about 40 miles southwest of Ringinlarik. Metal plates inscribed with incantations and prayers were placed in containers and buried under the foundation of temples along with other offerings to bless the temple, so it’s highly probable these 22 plates were in place when construction on the candi began.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

CBS This Morning to preview National Museum of African American History on Monday

History Blog - Sun, 2016-09-11 10:54

CBS This Morning will broadcast live from the Smithsonian’s new National Museum Of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on Monday, September 12th. The much-anticipated and hard-won museum doesn’t officially open until September 24th and the crowds are certain to be enormous for the forseeable future, so this is a chance to get a preview tour of the museum, and a thorough one at that. Guests include museum director Lonnie Bunch, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Civil Rights icon Representative John Lewis, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, historians and donors.

The 2-hour broadcast will be presented with limited commercial interruptions and feature interviews with lawmakers, historians, and curators who were part of bringing the museum to life.

Viewers will get a preview of the roughly 36,000 artifacts highlighting African American life, music, sports, and politics.

“It’s going to take you on a historical journey. They’re going to have a slave house. Slave ships. Emmett Till’s coffin. So you go from that, to the election of President Barack Obama all in one building,” said host Gayle King.

CBS This Morning streams live here. I don’t know if the full broadcast will be made available on the website after broadcast or if they’ll save it for CBS’ subscription streaming service.

The museum will be throwing a three-day music festival on the grounds of the Washington monument the weekend before the opening. Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration features musicians from a panoply of African American musical traditions including jazz, gospel, R&B, brass band and hip-hop. The lineup includes Public Enemy, The Roots, Living Colour and Meshell Ndegeocello. The food concessions look to be scrumptious too.

Tickets to the National Museum Of African American History and Culture on grand opening weekend (September 24-25) are no longer available. Free timed passes were offered through ETIX, but they flew off the proverbial shelves. Because interest is so high and the crowds sure to be huge, the museum is continuing to issue timed passes through the end of the year to ensure visitors can enjoy the experience without being crushed and buffeted in the traffic. Starting Monday, September 26th, visitors can get a timed pass at the museum when they show up on the day, but of course they’ll have to wait until their allotted time, and that’s no guarantee they won’t have a long line to wait in or that they’ll be ushered in the doors precisely on schedule. Advanced passes for September and October released on September 6th, and have already all been snapped up. ETIX only has passes available now for November and December.

The NMAAHC’s website was redone recently and is excellent, with large swaths of its collection digitized. Very much worth a long, leisurely browse.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique 3rd c. epitaph of Jewish woman translated

History Blog - Sat, 2016-09-10 01:16

An Egyptian epitaph from the 3rd century A.D. has been recently translated revealing a unique combination of descriptors. The epitaph is part of a collection of Greek and Coptic artifacts in the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. The collection was donated to the library in 1989 after the death of the collector, Doctor Aziz Suryal Atiya, an eminent Coptic historian who taught history at the University of Utah and founded the university’s Middle East Center in 1959. The Aziz S. Atiya Middle East Library, an internationally renown center for research in Middle Eastern history with the fifth largest collection in the United States, has hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and rare artifacts.

The inventory note for the epitaph described it as a “Coptic inscription, dating from the dawn of the use of the Greek alphabet, not earlier than the second century, but not later than the third.” The small limestone slab, seemingly unremarkable, was left untranslated for more than 25 years until it caught the eye of Brigham Young University adjunct professor of ancient scripture Lincoln H. Blumell. He realized the description was wrong, that the inscription was in ancient Greek, not in Coptic using Greek letters.

The inscription reads:

In peace and blessing Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.

It’s the combination of the honorific “Ama,” a title used to describe Christian women, mainly nuns, in late ancient Egypt, with her Jewish identification that is unprecedented.

“I’ve looked at hundreds of ancient Jewish epitaphs,” Blumell said, “and there is nothing quite like this. This is a beautiful remembrance and tribute to this woman.” [...]

Considering the unique use of dual-faith identifiers and the timeframe alone, the epitaph is unique with no known parallels.

Additionally, Blumell notes there is even more to the inscription. Scholars have noted from other inscriptions that Egyptian women during this timeframe had a life expectancy of 25 years. To live 60 years, as noted in the inscription, was incredible. Also, during a time when any sort of social programs were unavailable to orphans, taking care of them was seen as a very noble pursuit. Serving the widows and orphans is a common call to action in the New Testament.

I had doubts about that life expectancy statistic. I thought it might be a misinterpretation of average life expectancy, an average which is extremely low in places and times when infant and child mortality was high. The average age of death skews far younger because so many children died young. Once people managed to survive to adulthood their real life expectancy was significantly higher. I was wrong. According to ancient census data from Egypt in the first three centuries A.D., fully 61% of women were dead by the age of 30. Men had it only slightly better with 59% dying before they hit their 30s. Helene was one of fewer than 6% of Egyptian women from this period who lived to see 60.

Blumell has published his findings in the forthcoming issue of the Journal for the Study of Judaism.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Long-disputed Grolier Codex is genuine

History Blog - Fri, 2016-09-09 03:40

A new study of the Grolier Codex, a pre-Hispanic book of Maya hieroglyphics whose authenticity has been in doubt since it first came to light under extremely shady circumstances in 1971, has determined that it is genuine and may even be the oldest of only four ancient American codices known to survive.

The earliest conclusively dated Maya text, painted on pyramid walls in San Bartolo, Guatemala, dates to 300 B.C., and since the writing system was well-developed by then, it goes back even further. There is evidence of Olmec writing and paper production from the first millennium B.C. Murals and carved reliefs are most of what remains today, even though for centuries Maya scribes recorded astronomical observations, histories, religious texts, mathematical calculations, calendars and much more on pages made of the inner bark of fig trees. The Spanish conquistadors were suspicious of what they didn’t understand, so naturally they destroyed it, sending the Maya’s long, rich literary tradition up in smoke.

Diego de Landa Calderón, future bishop of Yucatán, saw heresy and idolatry everywhere among the freshly converted and in their mysterious hieroglyphic texts. When he and his inquisitors weren’t torturing literally thousands of Maya nobles and commoners alike, they were burning their books.

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

He wasn’t alone in his zeal. On top of that, the Spanish occupiers outlawed the production of paper, ensuring that what was lost could not be easily recreated. A handful of Maya codices were sent to Europe as curiosities. Today three of them are extant: one in Dresden, one in Madrid and one in Paris.

In 1971, a previously unknown Maya codex was displayed at the Grolier Club in New York City. Eleven pages of fig bark paper, each stuccoed on both sides but painted only on one, had numerical and calendrical glyphs on the left side of every page and a single large illustration of a figure on the center right. The text describes the movements of Venus.

The codex was part of an exhibition curated by archaeologist Michael Coe who had a crazy story to tell about how he managed to get his hands on such an incredible rarity. A friend told him that Mexican collector Josué Sáenz had acquired what seemed to be a genuine Mayan codex in 1966. Coe went to Mexico City, met with Sáenz and examined the codex, ultimately finding it plausibly authentic. He asked the collector how he had found it and Sáenz told him quite the origin story.

Someone had contacted Sáenz, goes the tell, offering to sell him an ancient codex if he would fly to an unnamed destination to see it and tell nobody. So, accompanied by two men, he clambered into a tiny plane whose compass was covered with a cloth. This rudimentary device to hide the location failed because Sáenz recognized the destination as the foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas. (Blindfolds, people. Have TV and movie kidnappings taught us nothing?) There he was shown the codex, a wooden mask and a sacrificial knife the sellers claimed to have found in a dry cave somewhere undetermined. Even though his expert considered the codex and artifacts fakes, Sáenz went with his gut and bought them.

Eventually the Mexican government made a legal claim on the codex and Sáenz donated it to the nation. It has been kept at the National Museum in Mexico City ever since, out of public view for its own protection.

The only pre-Hispanic codex found in the 20th century, the discovery of one that survived the conflagration without having been shipped across the Atlantic was explosive, but immediately its authenticity was questioned, and indeed how could it not be when it sprang up out of nowhere courtesy of looters, and that’s assuming the cloak-and-dagger background story was accurate. There were anomalies in the document as well. The figures are drawn in Mixtec style with Toltec attire, and the numbering system is inconsistent. Also, none of the three confirmed authentic codices are painted only one side of the pages.

Radiocarbon dating of the bark paper found it was made around 1230, so it was definitely genuine, but it was always possible that looters had found blank pages and had someone draw something Mayanesque on them to make them saleable. Michael Coe published the results of his investigations into the codex in 1973 (pdf).

The debate has raged ever since. Now researchers, led by Brown University’s Stephen Houston, have reexamined everything about the codex in an attempt to answer all the questions raised about it.

The Grolier’s composition, from its 13th-century amatl paper, to the thin red sketch lines underlying the paintings and the Maya blue pigments used in them, are fully persuasive, the authors assert. Houston and his coauthors outline what a 20th century forger would have had to know or guess to create the Grolier, and the list is prohibitive: he or she would have to intuit the existence of and then perfectly render deities that had not been discovered in 1964, when any modern forgery would have to have been completed; correctly guess how to create Maya blue, which was not synthesized in a laboratory until Mexican conservation scientists did so in the 1980s; and have a wealth and range of resources at their fingertips that would, in some cases, require knowledge unavailable until recently. [...]

The codex is also, according to the paper’s authors, not a markedly beautiful book. “In my view, it isn’t a high-end production,” Houston said, “not one that would be used in the most literate royal court. The book is more closely focused on images and the meanings they convey.”

The Grolier Codex, the team argues, is also a “predetermined rather than observational” guide, meaning it declares what “should occur rather than what could be seen through the variable cloud cover of eastern Mesoamerica. With its span of 104 years, the Grolier would have been usable for at least three generations of calendar priest or day-keeper,” the authors write.

That places the Grolier in a different tradition than the Dresden Codex, which is known for its elaborate notations and calculations, and makes the Grolier suitable for a particular kind of readership, one of moderately high literacy. It may also have served an ethnically and linguistically mixed group, in part Maya, in part linked to the Toltec civilization centered on the ancient city of Tula in Central Mexico.

The study has been published in the journal Maya Archaeology. It includes a facsimile of the entire codex.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Athena Parthenos moved to new digs in New York

History Blog - Thu, 2016-09-08 03:48

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented more than 265 artifacts from the Hellenistic period in the exhibition Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. As the title suggests, most of the pieces on display came from Pergamon, an ancient city of the Aegean which is now in western Turkey. The largest and most dramatic object on display was a monumental statue of the goddess Athena, on loan from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

The exhibition closed on July 17th, but the Pergamon Museum agreed to extend the loan of Athena and another colossal piece, the fragmentary head of a youth, for two more years. The Berlin museum is currently undergoing an extensive refurbishment and will be closed until 2019, so this arrangement is advantageous for both parties.

On August 4th, the statue of Athena was moved to the southern side of the Met’s Great Hall and the installation process was filmed because it’s cool.

The statue was modeled after the famous monumental gold and ivory statue of Athena by Phidias that stood inside the Parthenon in Athens for a thousand years from the 5th century B.C. until the 5th century A.D. Phidias’ vision of the patron goddess of Athens was iconic in antiquity and it was widely copied for centuries. This version was made around 170 B.C. and it’s not an exact replica. It’s smaller in scale — 12 feet high to the original’s 40 feet — with a more simple helmet, no shield, no column on the side and therefore probably no small figure of Nike in Athena’s hand outstretched just above the column, and no serpent sidekick which was a symbol of Athena as protector of the Acropolis and thus not relevant to Pergamon’s interests. On the base is a carved relief with six figures depicting the birth of Pandora, as on the pedestal of the original. The base of the Pergamon statue is heavily damaged, however, with significant chunks of the relief missing.

It was discovered in the Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon in 1880. The body was found behind the North Stoa in front of the largest rooms in the sanctuary which may have housed the Pergamon Library. The head was found in a courtyard in front of the remains of the North Stoa. The body, head, base and arms of the statue were made separately and joined together, which is why the head fits in like a puzzle piece as you can see in the installation video. The arms are now lost.

The monumental statues will be on display in the Great Hall until fall of 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History