Arts and Sciences

A new look at an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe

History Blog - Wed, 2017-06-21 23:27

One of the oldest prostheses ever found has been reexamined by experts at the University of Basel in Switzerland using state of the art technology and it is an even finer piece of medical equipment than previously realized. One of the oldest prosthetic devices known (its precise age is unclear and there’s some overlap with the date range of the cartonnage Greville Chester toe), the Cairo toe is the oldest prosthetic discovered in situ, albeit disturbed from its original placement.

The wooden prosthetic toe was discovered in 2000 in a burial chamber in the necropolis of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna near Luxor. It was one of multiple burials found in tomb TT95, one of five rock-cut tombs built into the eastward facing hillside of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna. The tomb complex was built in the 15th century B.C. by order of Mery, High Priest of Amun under Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1401 B.C.), to hold the remains of his immediate family. Construction of the elaborate funerary chapel appears to have been interrupted by a cave-in, but the complex continued to be used for burials through the Late Period (4th century B.C.) and was adapted for use as housing in the Late Roman era. People lived in the complex off and on well into the 20th century.

A shaft tomb in the entrance hall of TT95 was one of those later internments. It dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1069 B.C.- 664 B.C.) and had been extensive looted over the centuries. The mummified remains of a 50-to 60-year-old woman named Tabaketenmut, the daughter of a high priest who lived between 950 and 710 B.C., were found disarticulated in the fill of the shaft. The front half of the right foot was discovered intact with a wooden toe prosthesis connected to a well-healed amputation site with leather laces.

Egyptians made artificial parts for burial purposes, but this toe showed signs of having been of practical use during the woman’s lifetime. The prosthetic’s design was mechanically advanced and made for movement, not a cosmetic piece meant to adorn a dead body. It was made of three pieces of wood carved to precisely conform to the shape of the foot. The wood parts had holes drilled along the boundaries and leather string threaded through them and around the side of the foot, keeping the prosthetic securely attached while allowing articulated movement. It also has signs of wear that suggests its long-term use.

The toe is part of the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Last fall, Egyptologists from the University of Basel started a new project to re-examine and thoroughly document all the remains and objects discovered in the TT95 tomb complex. The toe and the partial foot to which it was attached were part of this study.

The international team investigated the one-of-a-kind prosthesis using modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography. They were able to show that the wooden toe was refitted several times to the foot of its owner, a priest’s daughter. The researchers also newly classified the used materials and identified the method with which the highly developed prosthesis was produced and utilized. Experts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – where the prosthetic device was brought to after it had been found – and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich were also involved in this study.

The artificial toe from the early first millennium BC testifies to the skills of an artisan who was very familiar with the human physiognomy. The technical know-how can be seen particularly well in the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap. The fact that the prosthesis was made in such a laborious and meticulous manner indicates that the owner valued a natural look, aesthetics and wearing comfort and that she was able to count on highly qualified specialists to provide this.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Late medieval longsword found in Polish peat bog

History Blog - Tue, 2017-06-20 23:27

An intact late medieval longsword has been found in a peat bog in Poland. It was discovered in late May by excavator operator Wojciech Kot during drainage operations at the bog in the municipality of Mircze, 12 miles south of the town of Hrubieszów in southeastern Poland. The next day, Kot contacted the Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów and the day after that he brought the sword to the museum in person. Then he took the museum experts to the peat bog where he showed them the exact find spot which is not being revealed to keep treasure hunters from despoiling it.

The cruciform-handled sword is corroded from centuries spent in a wetland and is missing the original hilt which would have been made out of wood, bone or antler, but it is otherwise intact from pommel to tip. Its original weight is estimated to have been just 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs) which is light as a feather for a weapon that today is 120 centimeters (four feet) long. The elongated grip was intended for two-handed use which coupled with its long reach and light weight made the sword an agile weapon for armoured knights in battle. This design is typical of the 14th century.

On the back of sword is a symbol, an isosceles cross inside an heraldic shield, that Bartecki thinks is a maker’s mark engraved by the blacksmith. This was a very fine piece of craftsmanship. It is still well-balanced, in excellent condition and does not show any signs of having been deliberately discarded due to damage.

“The place where the discovery was made is a wetland and a peat bog. It is possible that an unlucky knight was pulled into the marsh, or simply lost his sword” – told PAP Bartłomiej Bartecki, director of Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów. […]

The area is first appears on the historical record in the 13th century where it’s mentioned as the site of a few hunting lodges surrounded by forest. The region was part of Ruthenia (aka the Kievan Rus) then and was absorbed by the Kingdom of Poland in 1366 century after the disintegration of the Rus. The Polish governor built a castle in Hrubieszów in the late 14th century. So at least the second half of the century offered good employment opportunity for knights. Or he could have just been riding through and made a wrong turn into the bog.

Archaeologists plan to return to the find site to do a limited excavation. They’re hoping to find additional artifacts or information related to the sword, perhaps even other pieces of the knight’s equipment.

The sword is now in Warsaw where it will be stabilized and conserved. Experts will analyze it for any marks that might help identify the owner. Engraved characters on the top of the blade beneath the handle, for example, may be associated with a particular knight or family. After conservation and study, the sword will return to Hrubieszów where it will go on display at the museum. They expect it to be back around November.

“This is a unique find in the region. It is worth pointing out that while there are similar artefacts in museum collections, their places of discovery is often unknown, and that is very important information for historians and archaeologists” – [Bartecki] noted.

Information nobody would have if it weren’t for the quick thinking and responsible actions of Wojciech Kot. Because the finder was so diligent in giving the sword to the museum and noting the find spot, museum staff will apply to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to grant him a reward or at least official thanks and recognition of his “exemplary attitude.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Record-breaking 17th c. cabinet goes on display

History Blog - Mon, 2017-06-19 23:35

An ornate 17th century cabinet with the most aristocratic of lineages inlaid with pietre dure (hard stones) and festooned with gilded figurines has gone on display at the The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty bought the cabinet at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris last fall for €2.5 million ($2,790,000), a record price for a piece of Roman furniture, and they had no qualms about spending it given its exceptional quality and previous owners.

The cabinet was produced around 1620 by an unknown maker in Rome. Made of ebony, fir, chestnut, rosewood and walnut wood, the display cabinet is around six feet tall and was designed to look like a three-tiered Baroque church facade, only in a riot of vibrant colors from finely carved inlaid hard stones, including lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, carnelian and amethyst. Only the hardest, most expensive, most difficult to work stones were used in this piece, an unmistakable message to those in the know that this was a unique, top-of-the-line luxury object that only the greatest of the great could afford.

The first level of the facade is decorated with four pairs of Corinthian columns and a set of three on either side of a nice made to look like a doorway. It’s topped with a semi-circular pediment containing the gilded coat of arms of Pope Paul V, born Camillo Borghese. More Corinthian columns, slightly smaller in scale, adorn the second level which has a triangular pediment in the middle. Two gilded female allegories flank the level. The third level is a balustrade with allegories on each end and six caryatids holding up a semi-circular pediment. Silver gilt allegories recline atop the pediment while a Roman emperor stands at the apex of the roof.

Paul V commissioned this masterpiece as an elaborate display cabinet meant to hold the family’s treasures squirreled away in its many drawers and hidden compartments. Inlaid pietre dure cabinets were de rigeur in the palaces of the crowned heads of Europe in the 17th century, fitting settings for collections of even more precious objects, jewels and heirlooms.

It remained in the Borghese family until the early 1820s when it was bought from Prince Camillo Borghese by an English art dealer, possibly W. Kent. The Neoclassical veneered ebony stand was already attached to the cabinet by that time because an 1821 Christie’s catalogue entry mentions it. It was made by French cabinet maker Alexandre Louis Bellangé who mirrored the shape and columns of the cabinet and added gilt bronze capitals and scrollwork to match its gilded elements.

The cabinet didn’t sell at that 1821 auction. The next known owner is London art dealer Edward Holmes Baldock who acquired it around 1827 and flipped it right quick. That same year, he sold it to King George IV whereupon the Borghese Cabinet entered the Royal Collection. Three labels on the back indicate the cabinet’s new home was Buckingham Palace, at one point the Green Drawing Room. The royal cypher of King George V is on one of the labels.

The British royal family kept the cabinet until 1959 when it was sold by order of Queen Elizabeth II in an auction of objects from the Royal Collection. The buyer was Aladar de Zellinger Balkany, a businessman of Hungarian extraction. He left it to his son Robert de Balkany, a real estate developer who was even more an avid collector of objets d’art than his father. It decorated his palace, the Hôtel Feuquières, on the rue de Varenne in Paris until his death in 2015. The cabinet was auctioned off in 2016 in Sotheby’s Paris’ sale of the Robert de Balkany collection.

“The Borghese-Windsor cabinet is one of the finest examples of Italian pietre dure cabinets known. Works of this quality, craftsmanship, and historical significance are almost all in museums and princely private collections, so the opportunity to acquire one of the most renowned examples for the Getty is too good to pass up,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “The Getty Museum’s strong collection of Roman Baroque paintings and sculpture is now greatly enhanced by the addition of a major piece of furniture from the period. This unique and imposing piece will stand out even among our renowned collection of French furniture.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Major Islamic trade center found in Ethiopia

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-18 23:54

Archaeologists excavating in Harlaa, eastern Ethiopia, have discovered the remains of a major Islamic city dating as far back as the 10th century. Local farmers have been finding archaeological remains and artifacts for years — pottery, coins, some from China, and masonry structures whose large stones inspired legends that a race of giants once lived there and built appositely giant buildings for themselves. Even with this evidence that there was something of historical significance in Harlaa, the site was neglected by archaeologists. The area has such an extraordinarily rich prehistorical fossil record, particularly as regards early hominids, that its later history has been overshadowed.

An international team of archaeologists from Britain’s University of Exeter, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the University of Leuven in Belgium stepped into the breach two years ago, working with the residents who have a wealth of previously untapped knowledge. The excavation has unearthed the remains of a 12th century mosque, Islamic graves and headstones, a wide variety of beads made of glass, rock crystal and carnelian and fragments of glass vessels. The Chinese coins found by the farmers turned out to be just scraping the surface of how far ancient Harlaa’s trade networks reached. Archaeologists found imported cowry shells, coins from 13th century Egypt and pottery from Madagascar, the Maldives, Yemen and China.

Professor Timothy Insoll, from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: “This discovery revolutionises our understanding of trade in an archaeologically neglected part of Ethiopia. What we have found shows this area was the centre of trade in that region. The city was a rich, cosmopolitan centre for jewellery making and pieces were then taken to be sold around the region and beyond. Residents of Harlaa were a mixed community of foreigners and local people who traded with others in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and possibly as far away as the Arabian Gulf.”

Harlaa is 120km from the Red Sea coast and 300km from Addis Adaba. The architecture of the mosque is similar to those found in Southern Tanzania and Somaliland, showing connections between different Islamic communities in Africa.

Remains found in the dig suggest jewellers were making high-quality, delicate pieces in silver, bronze and semi-precious stones and glass beads. They used some technology usually associated in that period with jewellers in India, suggesting trade or immigration from that country to Harlaa.

The Islamic-era settlement as excavated thus far appears to have been populated between the 10th and 15th centuries and is about 500 meters (.3 miles) by 1,000 meters. The use of large stone blocks to build walls and structures is consistent throughout the site, hence the giants idea. The locals, by the way, aren’t convinced that the giants theory is wrong. They think the 300 bodies found in the cemetery may have been the giants’ children. Samples of the remains are being studied to determine the diets and health of the ancient residents of Harlaa.

The archaeological team will return next year to continue excavating. They want to dig deeper and cover more sites to discover more about the earlier history of the area.

Professor Insoll said: “We know jewellery was being made here for trading into the African interior, and materials to do this came in from the Red Sea, East African Coast and possibly India, but we don’t know what was given in exchange for that jewellery. During the next stage of our archaeological research in this era we hope to examine this by working on other sites up to 100km away.”

The Harlaa excavation was done in partnership with the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage and many of the artifacts will be go on public display at a local heritage center. It will provide jobs for the community and, the hope is, bring tourist money and a new understanding and appreciation for the Islamic history of the area and of Ethiopia in general. A selection of artifacts will be exhibited at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa where they will be in most illustrious company. The skeletal remains of the internationally famous Australopithecus afarensis Lucy are kept there (although the display version is a plaster replica).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Baby dinobird found trapped in amber

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-17 23:51


Researchers have discovered the remains of a baby avian dinosaur in a 99-million-year-old piece of Burmese amber. This is the most complete bird ever found trapped in amber, and it’s the most complete fossil of any kind found in Burmese amber. Its resinous coffin has preserved almost all of the skull and neck, a large section of one wing, one leg with perfect little claws and the soft tissues of the tail. Because so much of the bird has survived — almost half of it — researchers were able to identify it from its proportions and morphological features as a fledgling enantiornithes.

Enantiornitheans were a clade of toothed avialan dinosaurs that went extinct about 65 million years ago, at the tail end of the Late Cretaceous period and dawn of the Paleogene, one of the 75% of terrestrial organisms obliterated in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Fossils from 80 different species of enantiornitheans have been identified in every continent except Antarctica. Their diversity and wide geographical distribution indicates that at least of them were able to fly across oceans on their own wing power, the first bird-like animals to develop that ability.

Juvenile enantiornithes remains have been found in Burmese amber before, but they were just individual wings. Even from such small pieces, scientists were able to determine that enantiornitheans’ feathers shared the features of modern bird feathers, unlike other than flying dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx. This exceptional specimen provides researchers access to biology they’ve never seen before. The amount of surviving soft tissue gives them the opportunity to examine the opening of the ear, the eyelid and the scales.

In this specimen, scientists observed that while the baby enantiornithine already possessed a full set of flight feathers on its wings, the rest of the plumage was sparse and more similar to the theropod dinosaur feathers, which lack a well-defined central shaft, or rachis.

The presence of flight feathers on such a young bird is reinforcing the idea that enantiornithes hatched with the ability to fly, making them less dependent on parental care than most modern birds.

This independence came at a cost, however. The researchers point out that a slow growth rate made these ancient birds more vulnerable for a longer amount of time, as evidenced by the high number of juvenile enantiornithes found in the fossil record. (No juvenile fossil remains from any other bird lineage are known from the Cretaceous).

The amber chunk (3.4 x 1.2 x 2.2 inches) containing this exceptional specimen of enantiornithes was mined at the Angbamo site in the Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar, an incredibly rich source of amber deposits from the Cretaceous period (145.5 to 65.5 million years ago). Amber mined in Myanmar is believed to contain the greatest amount and diversity of Cretaceous animal and plant specimens. The large size and clarity of Burmese amber make the trapped remains invaluable sources for scientific study.

When the miners came across the enantiornithes preserved in amber, they thought it was some sort of weird lizard foot because of the prominent clawed hindfoot. Guang Chen, director of the Hupoge Amber Museum in Tengchong City, China, heard about the “lizard claw” in 2014 and acquired the sample. Chen alerted Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences, whose team had studied a previous find of a therapod tail trapped in Burmese amber, to the specimen. Xing and her colleagues identified it as the hindlimb of an enantiornithes, not an odd lizard claw.

Technology then helped reveal there was so much more to this little guy than just his foot.

“[I thought we had] just a pair of feet and some feathers before it underwent CT imaging. It was a big, big, big surprise after that,” says Xing.

“The surprise continued when we started examining the distribution of feathers and realized that there were translucent sheets of skin that connected many of the body regions appearing in the CT scan data,” adds team co-leader Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

The amber specimen, named Belone after the Burmese word for the Oriental skylark which is amber in color, is now on display at the Hupoge Amber Museum. Between June 24th and the end of July, it will be on display at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History.

Lida Xing and her team have published the first paper on the specimen in the journal Gondwana Research. You can read it free of charge here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Woolly dog hair found in Coast Salish blanket

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-16 23:20

Researchers at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, have confirmed that a Coast Salish blanket in its collection was woven from the fur of the woolly dog. Woolly dogs were carefully bred and husbanded for centuries by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, who sheared them like sheep and used their thick, long fur to weave textiles. Because the trait for this woollen hair was recessive, the Salish were meticulous about keeping the woolly dogs separate from their hunting dogs to ensure the continuation of the genetic line.

Explorer George Vancouver encountered the Coast Salish and their marvelous woolly dogs in May of 1792 during his expedition to the Pacific Northwest. He was in Puget Sound on the south end of Bainbridge Island when he met a small group of Coast Salish on the move with all their earthly possessions. Their dogs squeezed into the single canoe with them. In his account of the expedition, Vancouver describes the animals thus:

The dogs belonging to this tribe of Indians were numerous, and much resembled those of Pomerania, though in general somewhat larger. They were all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England; and so compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation. They were composed of a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.

When the Europeans arrived, 1,000 years of Mendelian curation broke down irretrievably. Displacement of tribes, uncontrolled mixing with dogs brought by explorers and traders and introduced diseases devastated the breed. By the end of the 19th century, the woolly dog was extinct.

Because textiles are delicate and so many of them were sold, discarded or destroyed, the rich tradition of Coast Salish woolly dog weaving was reduced to a few items in scattered museums, and even fewer of them have been confirmed to have been made with woolly dog hair. In 2011, seven pieces in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, some collected during the Lewis and Clark expedition, were discovered through microscopic examination to have woolly dog hair in them. The Burke’s blanket is the only object in a Northwest museum confirmed to have been woven from woolly dog hair, which is enormously exciting to researchers and Coast Salish weavers who will finally have the opportunity to study an ancient craft in the place where it was developed and practiced for a thousand years.

Not much is known about the ownership history of the blanket. It was once part of the collection of Native American artifacts assembled by none other than Judge James Wickersham, who is best known today as the first federal judge of the newly formed Third District covering Alaska and his tireless advocacy for Alaskan statehood, but who was a Washington state representative before that and lived in Tacoma from 1883 until 1900. (While he lived there, he was involved in one of Tacoma’s most ignoble incidents. Wickersham was part of the mob of white residents who forcibly expelled all the Chinese from Tacoma in 1885. He was one of the ringleaders, in fact, one of the so-called Tacoma 27, who were arrested and prosecuted but never convicted.)

After Wickersham’s death in Juneau in 1939, his collection was sold to a tourist store in Alaska. Another collector recognized the historical and cultural importance of the objects and acquired them. In 1975, they were donated to the Burke Museum. The blanket has a simple design — two brown selvages on the far left and right against a creamy-buttery background — but the lucky break came in the form of a small tear.

Unlike many plaited Coast Salish blankets, the blanket is twined (meaning that the weaver used two horizontal “weft” yarns, one passing in front while the other passes behind the vertical “warp” yarn).

“As soon as I saw the warp yarns exposed by the tear, I knew this was an unusual blanket” said Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa, a Coast Salish spinning expert. Hammond-Kaarremaa received a grant through the Museum’s Bill Holm Center to study Coast Salish blankets and robes in the Burke collection. The unusual warp in this blanket is made from a combination of string, bark and sinew. As she pored over the blanket, she began to suspect the materials used to weave it may also have included woolly dog hair. “The warp caught my attention but it was the weft that posed the mystery: the weft fiber did not look like mountain goat, nor did it look like sheep wool. It looked like woolly dog hair I had seen at the Smithsonian.”

The Burke enlisted the aid of Elaine Humphrey and Terrence Loychuk from the University of Victoria Advanced Microscopy Facility to study the blanket’s fibers. They’ve examined several Coast Salish blankets using light and scanning electron microscopy. Advanced microscopic analysis confirmed the woolly dog hair.

“This exciting discovery brings attention to a fascinating piece of Northwest history, and connects the Burke’s collections to this unique, Coast Salish tradition,” said Dr. Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Burke Museum curator of Northwest Native art. “We look forward to sharing the blanket with weavers and other researchers, so that it can be reconnected to the Indigenous knowledge systems from which it came.”

The blanket will be on display this weekend as part of the Burke’s new Testing, Testing 1-2-3 exhibition. Burke ethnologists will be there on Saturday from 11:00 AM until noon to answer questions about the blanket and the Coast Salish woolly dog hair tradition.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of temple and Ball game court found in Mexico City

History Blog - Thu, 2017-06-15 23:40

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a major Aztec temple and ball game court in downtown Mexico City. The remains of the massive temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of benign rain-bringing winds, were discovered just to the north of the city’s main square, the Zocalo, behind the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. A hotel that collapsed during the catastrophic 1985 earthquake once stood on the site. The owners of the hotel realized there were ruins underneath the rubble and alerted Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), but the century would turn before a thorough archaeological excavation of the site could be arranged.

The announcement of the discovery is the culmination of seven years of excavation work spearheaded by the Urban Archeology Program (PAU) with the collaboration of INAH. Led by archaeologist Raúl Barrera, the PAU seeks to rediscover the remains of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan currently buried under historic downtown Mexico City to bring to the light the Aztec history that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés did his best to obliterate from the landscape and memory in 1521.

This temple was built 1486 and 1502, so it had only a few decades of glory before its destruction. All construction and improvements ended in 1519. Cortés and his army reached Tenochtitlan in November of 1519. Remarkably, a significant amount of the original white stucco cladding has survived. The remains of the temple attest to what a grand structure it was before it was razed by Cortés. The rectangular platform that formed its base is between 34 and 36 meters (112-118 feet) long. There are two large circular structures on top of the back part of the rectangle, the largest of which is 18 meters (59 feet) in diameter. They are separated by a walkway 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) wide.

The rectangle and circular platforms together are 4 meters (13 feet) high, a fraction of the size of the temple when it was intact. As the dozens of other monumental buildings in the sacred precinct were square, the rounded design of Ehecatl’s temple would have stood out even in an area so densely packed with architectural wonders. Archaeologist and Aztec specialist Eduardo Matos believes the top of the temple would have been carved to looked like a coiled snake, its flared nostrils acting as a dramatic entryway for priests.

About 20 feet south of the temple is another exciting find from the late Aztec period: the remains of a court where the Mesoamerican ball game was played. Archaeologists excavated a platform nine meters (30 feet) wide. On the north side is a double staircase of four steps each that was a direct path to the Temple of Ehecatl. On the south side are three overlapping walls that slope backward. These are the remains of the stands, stadium seating Aztec style.

Under the staircase, archaeologists found multiple groups of human cervical vertebrae still in their original anatomical positions. The neck bones came from 32 individuals, all of them male, all of them children ranging in age from neonates to toddlers to six-year-olds to adolescents. Cut marks on the bones indicate the children were decapitated or sacrificed as part of the ball game ritual. These are the only ritual offerings discovered in the excavation of this site, which is unique and of itself. (The Temple of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl unearthed in another part of Mexico City in 2014-2016 included the skeletal remains of more than a dozen individuals.)

These discoveries are highly significant taken on their own, but they take on even greater significance because of what they can tell us about the geographical relationships between buildings in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan.

“Due to finds like these, we can show actual locations, the positioning and dimensions of each one of the structures first described in the chronicles,” said Diego Prieto, head of Mexico’s main anthropology and history institute.

The excavation isn’t completed yet, but when it’s done, the archaeological site will be converted into a museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

It’s not over yet, but…

History Blog - Wed, 2017-06-14 19:38

I’m relieved to report that the upgrade to the newest version of WordPress went well. So far the only obvious problems are some broken media embeds, but that’s no biggie. The fix is easy; it just takes a little time. The WP upgrade was the most urgent issue because the blog would have gone down tomorrow due a MySQL upgrade on the server that is incompatible with the ancient version of WP I was running.

The installation of the new theme, on the other hand, has been bedevilling me most of the day. I’ll get it in the end, and its little dog too. Thankfully, there is no pressing emergency. In tests, the old theme looked terrible on the new WordPress version, but for some mysterious reason on the live site it looks pretty much the same as it used to with just a few wrinkles here and there. I’m chalking it up to the many ritual sacrifices you performed to all your benign deities and unpronouncable Lovecraftian horrors. Thank you so much.

We’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, rain or shine.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Programming Note (of Doom)

History Blog - Tue, 2017-06-13 15:33

You know how when Howard Carter made a little hole in the sealed entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb and peered through it and was struck dumb by all the treasures and Lord Carnarvon was all “Can you see anything?” and Carter replied “Yes, wonderful things”? Well, I can no longer put off the long-delayed software upgrade of the blog, so over the next two days WordPress will leap up like 20 versions and I will replace this sweet old theme with a new one that Google and cellphones won’t hate quite so much. Will you be able to see things? Yes, probably. If all goes well, there shouldn’t be much in the way of downtime. Will they be wonderful things? No. No they will not.

I’ve done this in a testing environment many times and the conversion has always been dark and full of terrors, mainly in the form of seriously messed up comment threads. Major problems that interfere with the rendering of the site will be fixed promptly, and in the long-term I will address the stuff that is functional but hideous. If that means I have to manually reenter every comment from the dawn of time, then that’s what it means.

The changes will make the site much more usable. I’ll be able to do things that were cutting edge a decade ago like automatically link to new posts on my dormant Twitter account and add a donate button which many of you very kind and supportive folks have asked about repeatedly. Most importantly, the blog will be far more secure and it won’t projectile vomit errors every time the server has a MySQL upgrade or a stiff breeze blows past it.

Please keep all your fingers and toes crossed, stroke your fascinus amulets, use the Liver of Piacenza as a guide when scrutinizing your next sheep liver, do whatever ritual you can think of, the more bizarre the better, and send all the good luck this way.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Picasso portait ring of Dora Maar for sale

History Blog - Mon, 2017-06-12 23:55

A portrait ring made by Pablo Picasso for his mistress Dora Maar is going up for auction on June 21st at Sotheby’s and is estimated to sell for as much as half a million dollars. The ring’s central medallion is a portrait of Maar, one of many painted by Picasso during their tempestuous affair. It is surrounded by a garland of flowers wrapped in ribbons made of colored enamel mounted on a ring of yellow gold.

The relationship between Picasso, 20 years Maar’s elder, and the talented surrealist photographer and artist, was one of the most intense and artistically inspiring of his life, and that’s saying something because he had many lovers/muses over the years. Her hands, whose long, tapered, elegant fingers were reputed to be of particular beauty, and their adornment were at the center of several pivotal episodes in her relationship with Picasso.

Their first meeting (that he recalled; she remembered meeting him once before but apparently she didn’t make a strong enough impression on him that time) was in January of 1936 at the Café des Deux Magots in Paris. Dora Maar was sitting at a nearby table, stabbing a knife between her begloved fingers. More than once she missed the gap and cut herself, her blood mingling with the red embroidered flowers on her black gloves. Enchanted by the fearlessness and boldness of her self-destructive game, Picasso asked his friend Paul Eluard to introduce him to this raven-haired, blue-eyed beauty. He asked her if he could keep the cut and bloodstained gloves so they could take their place among the beloved mementos in his cabinet of curiosities. She agreed.

That was the beginning of their relationship. He already had a wife (Olga Kokhlova, estranged) and a mistress (Marie-Thérèse Walter) who had recently given birth to his daughter (Maya) whom he was keeping in an apartment. He kept seeing Marie-Thérèse even as his relationship with Dora Maar intensified. Dora was an important part of Picasso’s personal and artistic life during the fecund period between 1936 and 1945. (His catalogue lists more than 2,200 works made over those nine years.) She’s the one who suggested who move into the studio at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins, an attic apartment in a 17th century palazzo once owned by the Dukes of Savoy, where many of his greatest works would be painted. She was the model for The Weeping Woman, a subject Picasso returned to over and over, ultimately creating more than 60 versions of it, the last and most famous of which is now on display at the Tate Modern.

It was Dora who photographed Guernica during the month between May 11th and June 4th that Picasso spent furiously painting the monumental tribute to the horrors of war. At the behest of Christian Zervos, founder of the literary and art journal Cahiers d’Art, Maar took dozens of pictures capturing the seven main stages of the painting’s evolution. Through her photographs, you can see how Picasso’s vision developed as he progressed from outline to painting, how some of the most recognizable elements — the bull, the horse, the figure with the lamp, the person with arms raised, the dead soldier, the mother holding her dead child — were on the canvas from the beginning, but the artist altered their positions and proportions as he worked. That’s what he liked about Maar’s photographs, that together they captured the metamorphosis of creation, not a logical progression of steps.

The story of the ring takes place around this time. James Lord, an American art critic and close friend of both Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, described the event in his 1993 biography Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir:

“Dora and Picasso one day were strolling on the Pont Neuf, they had a bitter altercation in the course of which the artist reproached his mistress for having prevailed on him to give a work of art in exchange for a bauble (a cabochon ruby set in a gold and agathe ring), whereupon Dora took the ring from her finger and threw it into the Seine, silencing her lover. She later regretted having been so impulsive. A few months afterwards, the riverbed at that spot was being dredged, and for several days Dora haunted the spot, in hopes of recovering her ring. But it was lost for good. And through Picasso’s fault […] she kept at him until he created a ring of his own design for her.”

That kind of blow-up was far from rare in their relationship. Picasso could be mean as a snake, and tormenting his lovers was one of his favorite hobbies. Dora was hot-tempered and easily provoked into high emotion. While he respected her great intellect and artistic talent, Picasso also took pleasure in pushing all her buttons. In 1943, he met Françoise Gilot, a woman 40 years his junior, and she became his latest mistress. He didn’t end his relationship with Dora (or Marie-Thérèse, for that matter), but it was increasingly fraught with tension and conflict.

They remained lovers for the duration of World War II, never living together but always in close physical proximity, whether traveling or living in Paris under the Nazi occupation. Picasso was under constant surveillance by the Nazis and his studio was searched repeatedly, but he derived a significant benefit from his fame, his Spanish nationality and, frankly, his money. As a “degenerate artist” who had become increasingly involved in anti-fascist causes starting with the Spanish Civil War, he could have very well have ended up dead or deported. He was too big to be easily dispensed with, however, and Dora Maar, a long-time committed Communist, union sympathizer and, rumor had it, the daughter of a Jewish father, managed to dodge the Nazi killing machine too, probably because of her association with Picasso.

In 1946, they broke up for good. Dora had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a few weeks, receiving electro-shock therapy. She then went into a private facility where she was treated by eminent psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. When she emerged again, she withdrew from her once-vibrant social life, focusing on her art and becoming a devout Roman Catholic. She and Picasso stayed in touch over the years. They became the weirdest, creepiest pen pals you can imagine, exchanging bizarre gifts. Picasso sent her a chair made of steel tubes and rough-hewn hemp rope. She sent him a rusty shovel, which he loved, by the way.

One of his “gifts” never made it to her. It was discovered by a Canadian doctor when he was going through Picasso’s stuff in 1983. Still wrapped, it was labeled “pour Dora Maar.” The doctor tried repeatedly to contact Dora so he could finally deliver the long-delayed gift, but she never answered him. I’m guessing she knew it was something twisted in there and didn’t want any part of it. If so, she was certainly right. When the doctor opened the present he found a ring “resembling a flat signet ring with the engraved initials P-D [Pour Dora] but to my absolute amazement and horror, I found attached on the inside of the signet a large SPIKE! Thus it was absolutely impossible for anyone to wear it! I thanked my lucky stars for her refusing to accept this ‘gift’ from Picasso.”

How sick is that? I imagine it had to be at least in part a reference to the great Seine ring-toss incident that led to the creation of the portrait ring.

Dora Maar died in 1997 at the age of 89. After her death, her belongings were found to include pretty much every single scrap of everything that had come in contact with or was related to Pablo Picasso — chairs he had sat on, a scrap of paper with his blood on it, newspaper clippings, paintings and artworks, and one portrait ring. The ring was sold at the 1998 estate auction along with her large and seminally important collection of Picasso paintings. The buyer at that sale is the current owner putting the ring up for auction at the end of the month.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-11 23:33

When the National Library of Scotland acquired the balled up bundle of rags that turned out to be an extremely rare example of a 17th century world map by Dutch cartographer Gerald Valck, their first priority was rescuing what was left of it. It was in terrible condition, with large sections decayed beyond recovery and some of the surviving sections reduced to a shower of confetti on the table. Paper conservator Claire Thomson wasn’t even sure the map could be saved.

It took six months, but the conservation team accomplished the impossible, removed the canvas backing, cleaned the paper and put the cartographic Humpty Dumpty back together again. The restored map went on public display for the first time at the National Library in Edinburgh earlier this year. Due to its fragile condition, it was only exhibited for a month (March 13-April 16).

“Maps were largely symbols of power at this time,” said Paula Williams, map curator at the National Library. “They were very expensive to make and even more expensive, relatively, for people to buy. Whoever owned this map wanted to display their own power.”

As the map is Dutch, it represents a world view as seen from Amsterdam, complete with colonial ambitions. Australia, for example, appears as New Holland and the rivalry with their old enemy Spain is represented by a depiction of atrocities committed by Spanish invaders in South America.

Dr Esther Mijers, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh said: “This map throws up more questions than it can answer. It would be wonderful if people wanted to do more research on the map and its story.”

Thankfully, a lot of people do. With the map, of just three known in the world, salvaged, researching its mysterious origin took on new prominence. When the map was first given to the National Library, it was believed to have been stuffed up the chimney of a house in Aberdeen. The story was it was discovered during the renovation of the house, rescued from the trash and delivered to the library.

It promptly became known as the Chimney Map because of its purported discovery spot, but that now appears to be a misconception. It seems to have been found under a floorboard during renovations in the 1980s. The house was formerly part of the Castle Fraser estate and since the castle is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, their researchers are in full Nancy Drew mode hoping to discover more about the history of this exceptional map and how it wound up in that house outside of Aberdeen.

The National Library is on the investigation too, and they got a hot lead thanks to their YouTube video of the conservation of the Chimney Map. Les Yule, the original finder of the map 15 years ago, and Aberdeen schoolteacher Brian Crossan, the person who gave it to the National Library in 2016, got in touch with NLS researchers. Because they’re awesome and they show their work to public in the most thorough way possible, National Library of Scotland staff starting filming Les and Brian as they look for the house, its owner and find spot. Their first meeting with conservator Claire Thomson was captured on video, as was their collaboration in sniffing out the real history of this remarkable map whose checkered, obscure past has fired the imagination of so many.

That video has now been uploaded to YouTube and it’s worth every minute of the 14:45 running time.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Human tooth found inside H.L. Hunley

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-10 23:31

Conservators at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center spent years removing the thick concretion layer coating the exterior of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley using a weak solution of of sodium hydroxide to soften the rock-hard mixture of sand, rust, marine shells and sediment. Sixteen years after it was raised from Charleston Harbor, the exterior of the iron submarine was finally liberated from its concretion prison, its original skin revealed, and the conservation team moved on to the interior.

They’ve made a great deal of progress there too. The crank shaft used to power the submarine is now clean. Researchers found textile fragments and loose metal sleeves at several of the positions where crew members turned the crank by hand to keep the vessel moving and keep themselves alive. The team believes the cloth and sleeves were protective bindings that helped provent blisters and chafing.

While cleaning the crank shaft, conservators made an unexpected find: a human tooth embedded in the the concretion at crank handle position Number 3. According to lead archaeologist Michael Scafuri, the tooth was lost after death. It fell out of the jaw when the body decayed and became stuck to the corroding iron of the crank handle. Thus human remains became part of the rich tapestry of assorted debris that made up the concretion layer.

Historical research indicates that Frank Collins sat at position Number 3. The teeth that were found with his remains showed that unlike most of his comrades, he was a non-smoker as he had no pipe notches. He did have “tailor notches,” indentations left by repeated use of metal needles like tailors would have used. Census information only refers to him as a “day labourer” before the war, and there’s very little in the documentary record about what kind of jobs he held, but was classified as a seaman when he enlisted in the Confederate Navy, he probably worked at sea at some point before then.

Collins was more than six feet tall and the crew compartment of the Hunley is less than four feet in diameter, so he must have folded himself up like origami to fit inside that tiny iron cigar. It’s a testament to his bravery that he volunteered for the position which was the most dangerous in the submarine because it was in the middle, the farthest away from both the forward and aft escape hatches. His height would have made scrambling out of there even more difficult for him than for a smaller man.

The remains of Frank Collins and the other seven crewmen who operated that handcranked death trap of a submarine and delivered the first successful sub-to-ship torpedo at the cost of their lives were buried at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery on April 17th, 2004, next to the bodies of the 13 men who had died on the Hunley‘s early test missions. We don’t know yet what will happen to the tooth, but it seems unlikely that the grave will be opened just so the one tooth can be added.

Conservation continues at a deliberate, painstaking pace. There is no deadline; it’ll be done when it’s done. The submarine is almost free of concretions now, with only a few patches remaining on the upper level of the interior. So far the cleaning process has not added any new information to explain how and why the Hunley sank.

“To be honest and upfront about it, we will always have an element of uncertainty because until we invent a time machine we’re never going to know exactly what happened,” Scafuri said.

It could be a series of complicated events, ranging from human error to “something obvious” or something not considered yet, he said.

“Everything is on the table within reason,” Scafuri said.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Slough hill found to be rare Anglo-Saxon mound

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-09 23:33


Archaeologists have discovered that a hill in Slough long believed to be a rare Norman castle motte is in fact a much older and rarer Anglo-Saxon mound. Researchers with the Round Mounds Project took two core samples from Montem Mound, a technique that allows archaeologists to examine the guts of a mound without destructive excavation. The samples revealed that the mound was artificially built from a combination of sand and gravel.

The team found charred plant material from the base of the mound and halfway up it in the core samples. Radiocarbon dating of the plant remains narrowed down the mound’s construction to some time after the mid-5th century, probably in the 6th or 7th century A.D. That makes it roughly contemporaneous with the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo, famous for the incredibly wealth of artifacts discovered in the tumulus, and the Anglo-Saxon burial mound of Tæppa at Taplow, a village neighboring Slough, which also contained high status artifacts.

Very few Anglo-Saxon mounds are known, and this one is already getting dubbed the “Sutton Hoo of Slough” even though no remains or grave goods have been discovered.

Dr Jim Leary added: “We tested material from all through the mound, so we are confident that it dates to the Saxon period. Given the dates of the mound, its size and dimensions, and the proximity to the known richly-furnished Saxon barrow at Taplow, it seems most likely that Montem Mound is a prestigious Saxon burial mound.”

Slough, a town 20 miles west of London best known to TV audiences as the home of the branch of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company run by David Brent (aka Ricky Gervais), is a thriving economic center with a growing population and high employment. As the city has grown, office buildings and parking lots have mushroomed up around Montem Mound, but thankfully the mound itself is protected from development thanks to its designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance.

The designation was based primarily on the belief that the hill was a Norman motte. This was not confirmed by excavation. It was deduced from the mound’s form — its circular shape about 92 feet in diameter and 20 feet high at its peak — even though it appears to have been significantly altered over the centuries. The shape, size and location overlooking a river suggested it was a small castle motte built by the Normans to control that stretch of the river, perhaps a fording point.

Notwithstanding all these unknowns, Montem Mound still qualified for listed status because Norman mottes are extremely rare. Most surviving Norman castles are motte-and-bailey designs (a central mound surrounded by outbuildings enclosed in a defensive embankment). Very few motte castles with just the central mound surrounded by a palisade and tower have survived in any form at all, even shaved down and modified.

Also, this one had the additional claim to historical fame of being the locus of Eton College’s famously offbeat “Ad Montem” celebration, observed regularly from 1561 to 1846, including by many generations of reigning monarchs. Its beginnings were an initiation ritual for Eton students during which they were sprinkled with salt. (Montem Mound was known as Salt Hill for centuries because of this association.) It evolved into an increasingly elaborate pageant wherein attendees gave money in exchange for pinches of salt and people flocked for miles to watch the students and faculties parade up the hill in wacky outfits.

Here’s a description of it from Knight’s Quarterly Magazine in 1823:

We have at length reached the foot of the mount — a very respectable barrow, which never dreamt in its Druidical age, of the interest which it now excites, and the honours which now await it. Its sides are clothed with mechanics in their holiday clothes, and happy dairy-maids in their Sunday gear; — at its base sit Peeresses in their barouches, and Earls in all the honours of four-in-hand. The flag is again waved; the scarlet coats and the crimson plumes again float amongst us– “the boys carry it away Hercules and his load too,” and the whole earth seems made for the enjoyment of one universal holiday. […]

“And I say, out upon your eternal hunting for causes and reasons. I love the no meaning of Montem. I love to be asked for ‘Salt,’ by a pretty boy in silk stockings and satin doublet, though the custom has been called ‘something between begging and robbing.’ I love the apologetical ‘Mos pro Lege,’ which defies the police and the Mendicity Society. I love the absurdity of a Captain taking precedence of a Marshal; and a Marshal bearing a gilt baton, at an angle of forty-five degrees from his right hip; and an Ensign flourishing a flag with the grace of a tight-rope dancer; and Sergeants paged by fair-skinned Indians and beardless Turks; and Corporals in sashes and gorgets, guarded by innocent Polemen in blue jackets and white trowsers. I love the mixture of real and mock dignity; — the Provost, in his cassock, clearing the way for the Duchess of Leinster to see the Ensign make his bow; or the Head Master gravely dispensing his leave till nine, to Counts of the Holy Roman Empire and Grand Signiors. I love the crush in the cloisters and the mob on the Mount — I love the clatter of carriages and the plunging of horsemen — I love the universal gaiety, from the peer who smiles and sighs that he is no longer an Eton boy, to the country-girl who marvels that such little gentlemen have cocked hats and real swords.

The Montem ceremony was abolished in 1846 by Eton headmaster Dr. Hawtrey as it had gotten so top-heavy that it no longer raised enough money to pay for the expense of the spectacle.

It’s interesting that in the 19th century Salt Hill was assumed to be “druidical” and therefore long predating the Norman conquest. It’s not, but the traditional association of the mound with pagan antiquity may be a holdover, distorted by a generations-long game of telephone, of its real Anglo-Saxon origin.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New fossils push back origin of modern humans 100,000 years

History Blog - Thu, 2017-06-08 23:59


New fossils of Homo sapiens discovered at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco are the oldest remains of modern humans ever found, pushing back our origins 100,000 years. An international team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Morocco unearthed fossilized Homo sapiens bones and flint blades at Jebel Irhoud, a site that has been known for its Middle Stone Age remains and artifacts since the first fragments were discovered by miners in 1961. The team discovered pieces of the skulls, teeth and the long bones of at least five people.

Dating previous Jebel Irhoud finds has been problematic, because they were not professionally excavated and dating techniques were crude and approximate. The discovery of fossils in situ, morphologically identifiable as Homo sapiens, and worked flint tools in the same sedimentary layer allowed the researchers to absolutely date the finds since all the people died around the same time as the tools were discarded. The flints had been burned, probably by cooking fires built above them. To get an exact date, researchers used the thermoluminescence technique on the flints which revealed they were burned approximately 300,000 years ago.

“Well dated sites of this age are exceptionally rare in Africa, but we were fortunate that so many of the Jebel Irhoud flint artefacts had been heated in the past,” says geochronology expert Daniel Richter of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig (Germany), now with Freiberg Instruments GmbH. Richter explains: “This allowed us to apply thermoluminescence dating methods on the flint artefacts and establish a consistent chronology for the new hominin fossils and the layers above them.” In addition, the team was able to recalculate a direct age of the Jebel Irhoud 3 mandible found in the 1960s. This mandible had been previously dated to 160 thousand years ago by a special electron spin resonance dating method. Using new measures of the radioactivity of the Jebel Irhoud sediments and as a result of methodological improvements in the method, this fossil’s newly calculated age is in agreement with the thermoluminescence ages and much older than previously realised. “We employed state of the art dating methods and adopted the most conservative approaches to accurately determine the age of Irhoud”, adds Richter.

The crania of modern humans living today are characterized by a combination of features that distinguish us from our fossil relatives and ancestors: a small and gracile face, and globular braincase. The fossils from Jebel Irhoud display a modern-looking face and teeth, and a large but more archaic-looking braincase. Hublin and his team used state-of-the-art micro computed tomographic scans and statistical shape analysis based on hundreds of 3D measurements to show that the facial shape of the Jebel Irhoud fossils is almost indistinguishable from that of modern humans living today. In contrast to their modern facial morphology, however, the Jebel Irhoud crania retain a rather elongated archaic shape of the braincase. “The inner shape of the braincase reflects the shape of the brain,” explains palaeoanthropologist Philipp Gunz from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage,” says Philipp Gunz.

Before this discovery, the oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were 195,000 years old and were discovered at the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. Because the fossil record this far back is sparse and the few finds that have been made were centered in Ethiopia, researchers thought Homo sapiens may have evolved in East Africa, dubbed the cradle of mankind, and spread out over the continent from there. The Moroccan fossils are evidence that modern humans evolved elsewhere on the African continent as well, not just in Ethiopia and environs.

A wealth of animal bones were also discovered that bore evidence of having been hunted. Gazelle bones were the most numerous, but these early Homo sapiens supped on a remarkable variety of species including wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater mollusks, snakes and a smattering of small game. They were hunted with high quality flint tools — the flint was imported from a site 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud, an indication of how capable this Homo sapiens group was of securing the best resources over long distances — and signs of butchering are evidence that people broke the long bones open to eat the marrow.

The first study of the Jebel Irhoud finds has been published in the journal Nature. A second publication also in Nature focuses on the dating. They are both behind the subscription firewall, alas, but can be rented for a few bucks.

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has made two very cool 3D composite reconstructions of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils using CT scans of the finds. You can see in the first video the different shape of the early Homo sapiens brain by the imprint of it in the blue-tinted braincase. The second video starts with a CT scan of a child’s mandible who was about eight years old at time of death. It then delves further into the skull and brain of the 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,000-year-old copper mask found in Argentina

History Blog - Wed, 2017-06-07 23:14

The Peruvian Andes have long been believed to be the origin of metallurgy in pre-Hispanic America, but an ancient copper mask discovered in what is today northwest Argentina indicates that copper metalwork was developing in the southern Andes even earlier than in the central Andes. The mask was discovered in April of 2005 in the village of La Quebrada in the Cajón Valley. The villagers found it poking out of the ground after the rainy season and notified an archaeological team that had been working in the area since the year before. Human skeletal remains near the mask were also exposed by the rains.

Thanks to the diligence and responsible actions of the villagers, archaeologists were afforded the rare opportunity to excavate the find in its original context. They found that it was a burial, as the human bones might suggest, located on a high point of the landscape near the archaeological site of Bordo Marcial. (Bordo Marcial is an important early agricultural settlement from the Formative period dating to around 1800 – 1900 years before the present.) At least 14 people were buried in this funerary context, adult men and women and children of different ages. There were no intact articulated skeletons; the bones were mixed up together.

The mask was found placed on top of the bones at the northern corner of the burial. The copper had stained several of the bones green, which confirmed the mask and at least some of the remains were buried together. The west side of the tomb is bordered by a stone wall. On the other side of a second stone wall next to it, the remains of a child between eight and 12 years old at time of death were found with a small copper pendant.

Radiocarbon dating found that the green bones from the corner of the burial date to 1377–1010 B.C. The bones of the child date to 1414–1087 B.C., so the group burial and the child burial date to the same time. This was an important transitional period in the region, when the population, still spread out in small groups, shifted from the hunter-gatherers constantly on the move to early farming settlements.

The mask is seven inches high, six inches wide and just one millimeter thick. Holes representing eyes, a nose and a mouth were punched through from the back of a mask and nine small circular holes were made on each side, at the top corners and in the middle, bottom and top margins. Archaeologists believe strings may have been tied through these small holes so the mask could be worn, of they may have connected it to a larger, multi-part artifact the rest of which has decayed over time.

A layer of corrosion covers the mask, which for its own preservation was not removed by the archaeological team. Analysis of the metal found that it was made of pure copper, with no arsenic or tin present that would indicate the intentional creation of bronze. Microscopic examination identified recrystallisation grains and annealing twins, typical features of copper worked by a technique that alternates cold hammering and reheating. The corrosion layer made it impossible to determined anything else about the metallurgic process used to create the mask.

Even though there is extensive archaeological evidence of early metalwork developing in the Peruvian Andes and spreading to other areas of Central and South America from there, there is very little evidence of early copper work in the Central Andean region, only slag associated with copper smelting and a few fragments of laminated copper. These are roughly contemporaneous with the Bordo Macial mask. None of those copper traces are evidence of the use of copper in the creation of an actual artifact. The mask bears that distinction.

This mask is the oldest intentionally shaped copper object recovered from the Andes, with an associated radiocarbon date that suggests that metalworking technology did indeed originate in more than one region of the Andes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of lost temple found in Chengdu after 1,000 years

History Blog - Tue, 2017-06-06 21:50

Archaeologists have rediscovered the remains an ancient temple in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, that has been lost for 1,000 years. The Fugan Temple was built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) and was in use through the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) when it became a casualty of the period’s wars and political instability. After years of neglect and decline, the temple fell to ruin and whatever was left of it was buried under subsequent construction. Eventually even its location was forgotten.

Buddhist temple construction flourished in the Eastern Jin, with almost 2,000 of them known to have been built during the dynasty. The Fugan Temple reached its zenith of importance during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) when it was extensively renovated and expanded. Tang-dynasty poet Liu Yuxi (772–842 A.D.) wrote a poem about the renovated temple which described its “heavenly appearance” and its great importance as a religious and cultural center. Tang Dynasty monk Daoxuan (596-667 A.D.), who recorded the biographies of prominent monks, traditions and information about temples and other sacred sites, wrote about how the temple got its name. When Chengdu was suffering from a years-long drought, an official prayer rite was held in front of the temple to pray for rain and lo and behold, the heavens opened and Chengdu was delivered. The temple was named Fugan, meaning “to feel the blessing” in honor of this miracle.

From then on, Fugan Temple was associated with rain and drought relief and became a center for people praying for water. Its decline in importance was gradual, beginning at the end of the Tang Dynasty when constant wars took a toll on the number of pilgrims visiting the temple. Fugan never really recovered from the attendant loss of prosperity, and within a couple of hundred years, it had disappeared off the map. Literally.

Archaeologists have now put it back on the map: specifically, Fugan Temple is under Shiye Street in Chengdu. Thus far they have unearthed the main temple’s foundations, the remains of other buildings in the complex, wells, roads and ditches in an area of 11,000 square meters. This was just a small section of the Fugan Temple at its largest after the Tang renovation and expansion, but it’s more than enough to give archaeologists a unique view into the temple’s architecture.

The team has also discovered a large number of artifacts attesting to the temple’s rich cultural offerings. The most stunning of them are more than 1,000 fragments of stone tablets inscribed in an elegant script with verses from Buddhist scripture including the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of the Whole-Body Relic Treasure Chest Seal Dharani. Even after more than a thousand years of destruction and ruin, there are still traces of gold powder on some of the inscriptions, a hint of the awe and reverence in which these tablets were held.

In addition to the tablets, archaeologists found more than 500 pieces of stone statues, the largest of which are more than 15 feet high. They are representations of various Bodhisattvas and of the Buddha in a wide variety of forms, each of them drawn from scripture, each of them different — zaftig Buddha, slender Buddha, solemn Buddha, peaceful Buddha, Buddha holding a lotus blossom. Archaeologists believe they were carved by different monks as a form of devotion and therefore no two of them are alike.

The dig has also revealed a wealth of remains and artifacts long pre- and post-dating the temple itself.

During the excavation, archaeologists found some 80 ancient tombs scattered near the temple, dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 B.C.). In the temple’s surroundings, they have unearthed large amounts of household tools, utensils and building materials dating back to various periods from the Song to the Ming dynasties.

Chengdu became an economic and cultural center in western China during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The temple’s discovery could greatly contribute to the study of the spread of Buddhism in China during that time, said Wang Yi, director of the Chengdu Cultural Relic Research Institute.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,500-year-old polychrome reliefs found in Lima temple

History Blog - Mon, 2017-06-05 23:50

The ancient pre-Inca archaeological site of Garagay in the San Martín de Porres neighborhood of northern Lima was first unearthed in 1959. The stone and mud brick temple’s striking high relief polychrome friezes of mythical beasts appeared stylistically linked to the Chavin culture, and archaeologists believed the Chavin art inspired the Garagay reliefs. The U-shape of the temple complex with a central pyramid 100 feet high and rectangular buildings on the sides was also reminiscent of Chavin structures.

The finds were not documented or photographed at the time, and although they were reburied for their own protection, looters and illegal construction got to them anyway, destroying the spectacular reliefs. Fifteen years would pass before funding was secured to excavate Garagay again. The 1974 excavation discovered more polychrome reliefs, thousands of ceramic artifacts, and rare surviving textiles. It also determined the age of the site. Radiocarbon dating found that the Garagay complex was built around 1800 B.C., was added to and rebuilt multiple times and remained in use until around 800 B.C. That means the early temples and their reliefs predate the Chavin culture, so if there was any influence, it was the other way around.

This time the unearthed temples were not reburied. A fence was erected around the site to keep vandals and looters out, but it didn’t work. Treasure hunters trashed the site looking for gold and easily saleable antiquities. Illegal home construction — some as high as five stories — mushroomed up between the fence and the temple in the mid-1980s. A factory was built in the main square of the complex and workers used the soil and clay from one of the arms of the U to make the bricks for the factory walls.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a high voltage tower erected at the high point of the pyramid in 1963 (the year before laws protecting archaeological sites to prevent this kind of abuse were passed) became a target of the Shining Path terrorists. They tried to blow it up with dynamite three times in the 1980s to cut off the electricity to the city. Because mud bricks are tough as hell and the ancient Peruvians were worth 20 million of those Shining Path brutes, the Garagay complex withstood the explosives, but it took heavy damage.

The site was neglected for four decades, but excavations have finally begun again. The site is currently being excavated by Lima municipal archaeologists who have added information panels to emphasize the complex’s immense archaeological significance as the largest temple complex of its kind in the Rimac Valley and the best example of architecture from Lima’s Formative Period. Because only an estimated 3% of the compound has been unearthed, archaeologists are hopeful that despite all the losses, the site has many wonders left to discover which would make it a draw for tourists (and their cash) and increase the neighborhood’s understanding of and investment in the great treasure in their midst.

This January, the team discovered a zoomorphic jaguar-like frieze in the atrium of the main pyramid. In May lead archaeologist Hector Walde announced the team unearthed new high relief polychrome friezes carved on a pilaster in the temple complex’s ceremonial entrance. They are in an excellent state of conservation, with the colors of one of them still brilliant. The figures are large anthropomorphic faces with feline characteristics. Archaeologists have also discovered access stairways connected to the main courtyard of the complex have been discovered as well.

The excavation is scheduled to continue for five years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British Museum conserves Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-04 23:40

In 2014, conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) began an extensive program of restoration of one of their two complete sets of The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental print designed by Albrecht Dürer in 1515 to glorify the family, good deeds and many victories of the Holy Roman Emperor. This was no rhinoceros print, as great as that is. Dürer’s workshop carved 195 wood blocks which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper which together depicted an enormous triumphal arch crammed full of details. When displayed as a single piece, the print is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″, the largest woodcut produced during the Renaissance and still today one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art two sets were initially acquired and maintained in loose-leaf form. One was only affixed to a backing in the 1860s so it could be displayed in all its propagandistic glory as Dürer had intended. Decades later, the paper backing was badly discolored and the ink faded from exposure to sun. It was placed in storage for its own protection until conservators could figure out how to address its many problems. With the 500th anniversary of the print coming up in 2015 and a new exhibition, Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service, in which to display it, SMK conservators painstakingly peeled the original paper off the 19th century backing and restored the massive print.

When I wrote about this story in 2015, the available photographs were deeply unsatisfactory. The print is so huge and so busy, it screams for giant pics, but there were none to be found. The only saving grace was a zoomable image of the restored Triumphal Arch on the SMK website. That image is no longer accessible (or at least it hasn’t been the last few times I’ve tried). Nor were there any decent photos of the restoration work. The British Museum has now filled the void left in me two years ago.

The BM has a first edition of the print as well. It was exhibited in autumn of 2014 and 70,000 visitors went to see it in the three months it was on display. When the show was over and the exhibition dismantled, British Museum conservators were able to study and treat the print thanks to funding from private donors. They blogged about the process for years, starting with the move to the display gallery and continuing through the conservation work, blog entries that include a passel of pictures (albeit rather small for my taste).

One night at the Museum: moving Dürer’s paper triumph
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging
Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: it’ll all come out in the wash
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: Getting the big picture

That’s nearly three years of documentation of the conservation of the Arch, a labour as oversized and impressive as the print itself. The British Museum’s website has a zoomable image of the print which is a) functional, and b) complete with annotations on highlighted sections. There are also two YouTube videos of the conservation. The first from 2016 is a time-lapse recording of conservators removing the linen backing from the paper sheets:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/X_DvVp6sOvU&w=430]

The second was uploaded just a couple of weeks ago and is by far the best view I’ve seen so far of the full print. It’s the only capture I’ve seen that truly conveys the massive proportions of the Triumphal Arch, and it features some excellent commentary from conservators on the challenges of dealing with such a huge print.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/cEK26P6r6xo&w=430]

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gold coins found in Netherlands from last days of Roman Empire

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-03 23:12

Last summer, De Vrije University asked that people who had made archaeological discoveries under the Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands (PAN) scheme report their finds to university researchers as part of a new study of such finds. One of the reports came from metal detectorist Mark Volleberg who in 2016 unearthed 23 Roman gold coins in an orchard in the village of Lienden on the outskirts of Buren in the central Dutch province of Gelderland. Metal detectorists Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol reported that they had discovered eight gold coins in the same place in 2012 when the field was cleared to make way for the planting of the orchard.

Researchers sought out more information about this exceptionally productive property. Archival research revealed that the field has been parturient (and you thought “ensorceled” was a good one) with Roman gold since the 19th century. At least twice in the 1840s gold coins had been found on the field in Lienden which then belonged to Baron van Brakell, and more were found in 1905 and 1916. While the whereabouts of the coins from the 19th century are no longer known, extant records mention three gold solidi of Valentinianus, three of Constantine, two of Honorius and one of Majorianus.

Not counting the long-lost ones that can’t be tracked down anymore, the study found a total of 42 pieces unearthed from the orchard site over the years. They are all solidi, a pure gold coin issued in the late Roman Empire, first by Constantine and then by subsequent emperors. The coins found in Leinden were minted over the course of more than 80 years. Most of them, 29 of the solidi, date to the late 4th, early 5th century: five of Valentinian II; 10 of Honorius; 13 of Constantine III and one of Jovinus. A group from the mid-5th century consists of eight solidi of Valentinian III, one of the usurper Johannes and the most recent of them all, a solidus of Majorianus.

The variety of time periods and emperors is not unusual for late Roman solidus hoards. These coins were so valuable, they weren’t in common circulation. They were worth years of pay for most people, and were collected and hoarded for years, even generations. It’s almost certain that they were buried in a single hoard in the very last years of the Western Roman Empire.

These coins, scattered as they are in multiple finds over centuries, are of great historical significance. For one thing, taken all together, they constitute the largest solidus hoard ever found in the Netherlands. They also include the last known Roman coin tax from the Netherlands and environs: the one solidus minted by Emperor Majorianus (r. 457-461). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried around 460 A.D., a mere 16 years before Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus marking the conventional end date of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

With the discovery of the 23 gold coins in 2016, Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol, who up until then had kept their 2012 discovery of gold coins secret, alerted researchers to their 2012 finds. When the archives confirmed the field’s long history of producing Roman solidi,
archaeologists Stijn Heeren and Nico Roymans of the Free University and the National Service for Cultural Heritage determined that the site must be professionally excavated. It was a small excavation, just three trenches, and no new coins were unearthed. The team had also hoped to find remnants of a container — a pouch or box or jar or any other vessel used to hold the hoard when it was still intact — but there was no joy there either. The last item on the agenda was determining the larger context of the hoard. Was it buried in a house or settlement? Maybe a temple or in a grave? Mark Volleberg said he’d seen what looked like human bone fragments where he found the gold coins in 2016. He didn’t touch or disturb them, so archaeologists were hopeful they might be able to find those bones.

They did indeed discover human skeletal remains. Testing determined they belonged to four individuals, three inhumation burials and one cremation grave in an urn. Radiocarbon dating results dashed any hopes that they might be connected to the solidus hoard. The inhumation burials date to around 1800 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age, so way earlier than the coins. The cremains probably date to the Iron Age, but can’t be pinned down with any more precision.

While the burials don’t appear to have a direct link to the hoard, archaeologists suspect the Middle Bronze Age tomb, perhaps on what was then a hill, was used in the 5th century as a handy place marker for the hoard. It would have been a recognizable spot on the landscape, the kind of place you’d pick to bury a treasure you had every intention to come back for when the coast was clear. The hill was likely flattened in the 1840s so it could be used as farmland. That’s when the coins started turning up.

A notable number of late Roman gold coin hoards have been found in the Netherlands and Low Countries, 27 of them, to be precise, most of which date to the beginning of the 5th century. This timing is not a coincidence. Usurper Constantine III’s was fighting against Emperor Honorius while Germanic incursions crossed the Rhine into Gaul, inflicting a blow against the empire’s border defenses from which it never recovered. Desperate for aid from the Franks, who were powerful, centered in Germany and already had an established history of serving as mercenaries in the Roman army, Constantine and Honorius tried to buy them some Frankish troops. Because solidi were pure gold and not subject to the vagaries of debasement, when assorted Roman emperors, rebels and usurpers had cash transactions to make, they used solidi. This was an official payment from government to government. Roman officials would give the Frank leaders piles of gold coins and they would then distribute them as they saw fit.

The Lienden hoard doesn’t quite fit this pattern, however, because it was buried more than 50 years later than most of the other gold coin hoards. Until now, the hoard evidence suggested Rome’s last spate of interest in the Low Countries was the early 5th century, but the new discoveries suggest there was one last injection of Roman gold in the area during the reign of Emperor Majorianus. Archaeologists think the gold payoffs were likely sent by General Aegidius, Majorianus’ man in Gaul, who in the late 450s was desperate to get the Frankish kings to send him soldiers to help him fend off the increasingly successful Germanic invasions of Gaul.

It worked (for a while). With Frankish support, Majorianus and Aegidius reconquered much of Gaul, booting out the Visigoths and Burgundians. When his trusted general Ricimer betrayed and killed Majorianus in 461, Aegidius established his own independent kingdomlet in northern Gaul. Again the Franks were integral to his military success. Frankish leader Childeric and his men fought by Aegidius’ side against the Visigoths at the Battle of Orléans in 463, ensuring his victory. It was short-lived, as was Aegidius. He was poisoned in 464, leaving Childeric ideally positioned to found the Merovingian dynasty that would rule France for three centuries. It’s purely speculative, of course, but given the dates, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Lienden solidi were payment dispensed by Childeric to one of his Frankish followers.

The modern finders of the gold coins and the landowner have given the solidi on permanent loan to the Museum Valkhof in Nijmegen, which contains the largest collection of Roman finds in the Netherlands, where they are now on display, together again for the first time in decades, maybe even centuries.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dutch teacher spends the night watched by The Night Watch

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-02 23:20

School teacher Stefan Kasper was just one of thousands of people to buy his ticket to visit the Rijksmuseum on Thursday. Kasper was leading a group of his high school students from the Montessori College in Aerdenhout on a field trip to the museum when his ticket was scanned and museum staff descended upon him with celebratory enthusiasm. It turns out Kasper was the 10 millionth visitor since the Rijksmuseum’s grand reopening four years ago, as such he was granted the unique opportunity to sleep securely under the supervision of Frans Banninck Cocq, Willem van Ruytenburch, the girl with the chickens and the rest of the motley crew from Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch.

This is the first time anyone has been allowed to spend the night in the Rijksmuseum, and Stefan Kasper, still in something of a daze from being suddenly surrounded by the museum’s General Director and a camera crew, accepted the offer on the spot. His bed was already set up in the Night Watch gallery and a gourmet dinner would be provided by chef Joris Bijdendijk of the Rijksmuseum’s Michelin star-awarded in-house restaurant, RIJKS.

It was a revelatory experience for Kasper.

“I’ve slept two metres (6.5 feet) from the Night Watch. It’s magic, I still can’t believe it,” said Stefan Kasper on Friday, a Dutch school teacher and artist who bought the lucky ticket. [...]

The star-struck Kaspers told AFP he was completely left alone for the night and that the museum rolled out the red carpet for him.

“There were no guards, or they were very well hidden,” he added.

Kasper said he used the opportunity to “take some selfies and walk around in pants and socks in completely empty rooms,” before enjoying a gazpacho soup and a cheek of beef, prepared by top chef Joris Bijdendijk of the Michelin-star RIJKS restaurant.

Kasper — who said he was not in particular a fan of Rembrandt’s works — admitted he had looked at the painting “with new eyes.”

“I discovered characters that I have never seen before. They came to life in front of me. It’s an experience that is forever etched in my memory,” he said.

His opinions on Rembrandt aside, he had the good judgement to use the opportunity to slide in his besocked feet on the beautifully renovated floors of the museum (albeit with his trousers still on and no Old Time Rock and Roll playing in the background). He even got to cross the impassable boundary of the velvet rope to get up close to the art. You can see him enjoy his Night at the Rijksmuseum to the fullest in this video.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History