Arts and Sciences

Boys ruin iconic skier petroglyph trying to “fix” it

History Blog - Sat, 2016-08-06 09:33

An iconic prehistoric carving of a person on skis has been irreparably damaged by two dumb kids who took a sharp object to it. The skier, part of a larger design known as Valentine Field which depicts a Stone Age hunting scene, was carved about 5,000 years ago on a rock face on the island of Tro off the coast of Nordland, northern Norway. The carvings have weathered over the millennia, making them hard to see on the dry rock. The vandals thought they could fix that problem by scratching out the lines with a sharp stone or similar object. Then they did the same to the figure of a whale that is also part of Valentine Field.

The vandalism was reported by one of the residents of a summer home on the island to Tor-Kristian Storvik, the Nordland County archaeologist, who immediately went to assess the damage. What he found was tragic.

“It’s a sad, sad story,” he said. “The new lines are both in and outside where the old marks had been. We will never again be able to experience these carvings again the way we have for the last 5,000 years.”

Experts will return to the site in September to study the skier and whale in depth and determine what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage, but as of now, there is little cause for optimism. The petroglyph appears to be irretrievably altered.

When the story broke, it made national and international news. The perpetrators, apparently chastened by the outraged reaction to their recklessness, confessed. They claim their intentions were good — to make the carvings more legible — and didn’t realize they were violating the law and every basic principle of how to interact with ancient and precious things. Their names and ages have not been released to the public.

Storvik has filed a police report on the vandalism and the boys could be criminally prosecuted as a violation of the Cultural Heritage Act, but no legal action has been taken as of yet. Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of Alstahaug, is discussing with county authorities how best to proceed. Apparently the boys are very young and remorseful, so it doesn’t seem likely at this point that they’ll have the book thrown at them. Last week they relayed an apology in a statement from the Alstahaug municipality.

The image of the skier was the inspiration for the set of pictograms illustrating the sports of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Each host city creates their own pictograms to identify events and venues by sport with an easily recognizable image. Mostly they look like very active versions of the signs on bathroom doors, but Lillehammer embraced its ancient heritage of winter sports and artist Sarah Rosenbaum created luges, hockey players and skaters that could easily have been carved on rock faces 5,000 years ago.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

6th c. walls unearthed at Tintagel Castle

History Blog - Fri, 2016-08-05 08:31

Archaeologists excavating the site of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, have unearthed the remains of massive walls built in the 6th century. The excavation is the first in a new five year archaeological exploration commissioned by English Heritage, the first major research project at Tintagel in 20 years. A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit did geophysical surveys of unexcavated terrace areas on the vertiginous headland where structures from the earliest iteration of the castle (5th-6th century) were believed to have existed. The survey confirmed there were walls and other elements of varied size from post-Roman structures underground.

Excavations began on July 18th and continued through August 2nd. Four trenches were dug on the terraces and as the geophysical survey indicated, the remains of ancient walls three feet thick emerged. The formed two rooms about 11 meters (36 feet) and four meters (13 feet) wide. This was a massive, imposing structure, at the very least a high-status building, and possibly even a royal palace complex. No similar structures from ancient Cornwall, then known as Dumnonia, have ever been found, so if these large walls can be confirmed as royal, it suggests this may have been a central, static court, as opposed to a mobile one that moved from stronghold to stronghold without a Camelot-like headquarters.

Other finds include more than 150 fragments of pottery and glass, including pieces of imported late-Roman amphorae, glass, probably imported from Merovingian France, and a rim from a bowl or serving dish made of expensive Phocaean red-slip ware made in western Turkey. They date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Tintagel was a bustling settlement in the centuries after the Roman retreat from Britain. Surveys have found evidence of almost 100 buildings, plus gardens and pathways, on the headland alone. Thousands of pottery fragments, most of them imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th to 7th centuries, attest to Tintagel’s importance as a trade center and as the home of regional rulers during the post-Roman period. Many luxury items have been identified at the side: wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Aegean, glassware made in Merovingian France, dishware from North Africa.

The settlement was abandoned in the late 6th or early 7th century, possibly due to a catastrophic occurrence like plague. Tintagel lived in memory, however, as the home of Cornwall’s early kings, which is probably what inspired its literary connection to King Arthur. The 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, tried to keep his beautiful wife Igerna from the lustful depredations of Uther Pendagron by hiding her at Tintagel. Uther’s advisor Ulfin noted that only magic could get Uther past its impregnable defenses.

“[N]o force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel[.] For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom. Notwithstanding, if the prophet Merlin would in earnest set about this attempt, I am of opinion, you might with his advice obtain your wishes.”

As the story goes, Merlin magically disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, he and the lady Igerna made sweet, fraudulent love and nine months later, with Gorlois safely dead and Uther and Igerna now married, Arthur was born.

Geoffrey made no distinction between history and legend, and his version of the Arthur story was embellished even more than it already was in his sources. There was already a tradition in Cornish and Breton folklore at the time Geoffrey was writing that associated Tintagel with the famous love story of Tristan and Iseult. That was later woven into Arthurian legend, with Tristan becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table, but in the late 12th-century it was its own tale. Tintagel was the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband.

The Arthur legend as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cornish legends of Tristan are the reason the ruins of the Tintagel Castle that still stand today exist. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, was as erudite as he was rich. He traded three manor houses for the site, which had no defensive value whatsoever, and the only castle that could be built on that rocky outcropping was rather small and inelegant for a man of Richard’s refined tastes and financial wherewithal. It was purely its association with the great ancient kings of yore that inspired Richard to build a castle there. By the 14th century it was already in decay.

Using the information and materials discovered in this year’s dig, the team will make plans for more extensive excavations next year. They’ll have a clearer picture of the footprint of the medieval structures and they’ll be able to analyze samples that may fill in more blanks about how buildings were built, when and for what purposes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tiny Viking chair-amulet found on Lolland

History Blog - Thu, 2016-08-04 03:04

A very rare and very tiny chair-amulet from the Viking era has been discovered on the Danish island of Lolland. Metal detectorist Torben Christjansen, whom you might recall from the killer Thor’s Hammer amulet he discovered in 2014, found it in a field near Nybølle on the west side of the island. He had scanned the field before, lured by its black soil which is sometimes and indication of ancient activity, and found 65 objects, but he’d never seen anything like this little piece. Christjansen brought the artifact to Anders Rasmussen, curator at Museum Lolland-Falster, who identified it as a Viking chair-amulet.

No larger than a fingernail, the amulet depicts a wide chair with an abstract figure seated on it. On either side of the back of the chair are two smaller figures meant to represent ravens. The figure may be Odin, who according to an Icelandic saga from the 13th century, sat on a great chair named Hlidskjalf and observed our mortal goings-on from there. He would send his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, to explore the world and report back on what they’d seen during their voyage.

Only 15 or 20 chair-amulets have been found in Scandinavia, and just two of them in Denmark. One was found in Hedeby, an important Viking trade center now just over the Danish border in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The other at Lejre in Zealand in 2009. They have differences in design but all date from the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The amulets from Hedeby, Lejre and Nybølle are also quite different, but they share one thing in common. Two things, actually: the clearly identifiable ravens on the back of the chair.

The ravens strongly suggest that the shape in the chair represents Odin and the Lejre amulet, which is larger with more detailed carving, certainly features Odin. So it’s a reasonable assumption that Odin is sitting in this chair too, but it’s so amorphous a shape it could represent another character from the Norse mythology, an animal or perhaps another deity naughty enough to keep Odin’s seat warm for him.

The area where the amulet was found has proven to be rich with Iron Age and Viking artifacts; jewelry, coins, rune stones and silver hoards have all been found near where the amulet was discovered. Archaeologists believe that Lolland, while not the large trade center that Hedeby and Lejre were in their medieval heyday, must have been very wealthy and prosperous for centuries.

The amulet is heading to the National Museum where it will be examined by experts to determine whether it should be declared treasure trove (it will be). The finder will be compensated based on the valuation of the piece and then the local museum, in this case the Museum Lolland-Falster, will be given the amulet for study and display.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

80 shackled skeletons found in ancient mass graves

History Blog - Wed, 2016-08-03 02:04

Archaeologists excavating the Falyron Delta necropolis in Athens, Greece, have unearthed two mass graves containing the skeletal remains of 80 people, some with iron shackles still clamped to their wrists. In one mass grave, the bodies had been laid carefully side by side in a long line. In the other, they were more haphazardly tossed into the pit, their skeletons found one on top of the other. Analysis of the teeth indicates these are the remains of young, healthy men.

The cemetery was in use from the 8th to the 5th century B.C., and two small vases found in the mass graves date to between 675 and 650 B.C., a time when the city was in the grip of series of political crises. Archaeologists speculate that the young men were executed during one of those crises.

“They have been executed, all in the same manner. But they have been buried with respect,” Dr. Stella Chryssoulaki, head of excavations, said.

“They are all tied at the hands with handcuffs and most of them are very, very young and in a very good state of health when they were executed.”

The experts hope DNA testing and research by anthropologists will uncover exactly how the rows of people died. Whatever happened was violent — most had their arms bound above their heads, the wrists tied together.

But the orderly way they have been buried suggest these were more than slaves or common criminals.

One possibility the archaeologists are batting around is that these might have been the supporters of a failed would-be tyrant named Cylon. In 632 B.C., Cylon, an Athenian aristocrat and champion of the double-stadion race (ca. 400 meters) at the 640 B.C. Olympic Games attempted to take Athens with the backing of his father-in-law, Theagenes, tyrant of Megara. He had consulted the Oracle of Delphi and Apollo’s mouthpiece assured him that he should conquer the citadel of Athens during a festival of Zeus. Prophecies are tricksy things, though, and the ancient sources report that he picked the wrong festival and he and his select cadre of noble young fighters met unexpected resistance. With their coup attempt quickly defeated, Cylon and his supporters took sanctuary near the statue of the goddess in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis. Cylon and his brother managed to sneak out, but the rest of his followers were stuck in the temple.

Thucydides describes the result of the failed coup in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.126).

Now those that were besieged with Cylon were for want of both victual and water in very evil estate, and therefore Cylon and a brother of his fled privily out; but the rest, when they were pressed and some of them dead with famine, sat down as suppliants by the altar that is in the citadel. And the Athenians, to whose charge was committed the guard of the place, raising them upon promise to do them no harm, put them all to the sword. Also they had put to death some of those that had taken sanctuary at the altars of the severe goddesses as they were going away.

The killing of suppliants was considered a profane act, a sacrilege that would take generations to expiate. The archon Megacles, who ordered the executions, and his extended family, the Alcmaeonidae, were exiled from Athens and cursed with a miasma, a “stain” that would taint the Alcmaeonidae for generations even after the archon Solon allowed them to return to Athens in 594 B.C. Pericles, the great statesman and general of Athens, was Alcmaeonid on his mother’s side and the miasma still caused him political trouble well into the 5th century.

If archaeologists are able to successfully extract DNA from the remains, it’s possible they may be able to help narrow down who they were, although I seriously doubt they can pinpoint participants in the Cylonian Affair. Best case scenario they figure out the method of execution, probably through osteological analysis. They didn’t die in a plague, that’s for sure, and there’s no way of doing any kind of kinship analysis, so I don’t see how DNA can link them to Cylon.

More than 1,500 bodies were buried in the Falyron Delta necropolis during its centuries of use. It was the cemetery for regular people; Athens’ rich and famous were buried in the Kerameikos cemetery. Now part of a vast park in the shadow of the new opera house and library between downtown Athens and the port of Piraeus, the necropolis continues to be excavated. Chryssoulaki hopes it will eventually become an open-air museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

V&A acquires largest peepshow collection

History Blog - Tue, 2016-08-02 02:48

The Victoria & Albert Museum is the new proud owner of the country’s largest collection of peepshows, not the Madonna Open Your Heart video kind of peepshow, the paper kind that staged scenes from history, literature, landscapes, buildings, military parades, architectural and engineering wonders. They’re like pocket dioramas, with cutouts and multiple panels that convey complex scenes and hives of activity in some, sometimes in much, depth of field.

The collection of more than 360 peepshows was given to the nation by collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner under the Cultural Gifts Scheme which allows UK taxpayers to donate artworks or other objects of important cultural patrimony. In return, donors get a tax deduction in the amount of a set percentage of the object’s value. An advisory panel then recommends which institution should receive the donated item.

The Gestetner collection covers the full history of the paper peepshow from the earliest examples in the 1820s to the present day. The oldest piece in the collection is called Teleorama No. 1 and was made in Austria by Heinrich Friedrich Müller around 1824-25. Müller was a pioneer in the printing of high quality picture books for children. He rejected the more rudimentary style of illustration prevalent in the children’s books of the time, and starting in 1811, turned to master artists, engravers, colorists and painters to create lesson books, educational workbooks, texts and readers with beautiful color illustrations.

His picture books were massively successful and other printers fell all over themselves to copy him. Meanwhile Müller kept it moving, expanding his business to other fine color-printed products including board games, embroidery panels and peepshows. The peepshows captured the consumer imagination swell, first in Austria and Germany, then outwards to northern Europe and Britain. Thousands of the detailed depictions of idyllic exteriors and luxurious interiors were bought by foreign buyers.

British printers got on the bandwagon and peepshows celebrating momentous national events or the latest marvel of the Victorian era soon became popular souvenirs. The Thames Tunnel and Crystal Palace were particularly popular subjects, if the Gestetner collection is any proof. There are more than 60 peepshows on those two wonders of the age.

Some of the related optical artifacts in the collection predate the peepshows. The oldest object beats Mr. Müller’s work by almost a century. It’s a boîte d’optique of British manufacture, made ca. 1740, a precursor to the peepshow. It’s a mahogany box with a lens. A print of something exotic would be placed in the box and viewers would pay to see the subject in full-screen.

The range of sizes is enormous. The longest peepshow wasn’t the work of a professional printer. It was handmade and handpainted in around 1910 and depicts riflemen on manoeuvre over nine panels that when stretched all the way is more than 6.5 feet long. The smallest is an Italian work from ca. 1900. L’Onomastico (“The Name Day”) is tiny, just the size of a small matchbox, but it holds large wonders. When stretched all the way out, it’s almost eight inches long and depicts the revelries of a name-day street party.

Dr Catherine Yvard, Special Collections Curator at the National Art Library, on the V&A’s new baby:

“This collection is a real treasure trove and makes a wonderful addition to our holdings, which focus particularly on the art of the book. Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history. Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply, it is a miracle that so many have survived.”

For now the peepshows can only be viewed in person by appointment at the Victoria & Albert’s National Art Library. They will soon be digitized and available to search both in the National Art Library Catalogue and in the V&A collection database.

NB: All of the objects pictured in this post were accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from the collections of Jacqueline Gestetner and Jonathan Gestetner and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Smithsonian seeks beer historian

History Blog - Mon, 2016-08-01 02:00

This is a real job posting and it’s a great one. The Smithsonian is looking for a historian to research the history of American brewing, with a particular emphasis on craft brewing. The new hire will be part of the National Museum of American History’s American Brewing History Initiative, a three year project to collect and conserve documents and artifacts relating to the history of beer and brewing in the United States, and to explore the connections between the history of beer and broader themes of American history including industry, advertising and social issues like the temperance movement. It is funded by a donation from the non-profit trade association the Brewers Association of Boulder, Colorado.

The National Museum of American History owns several collections of brewiana, mostly from the second half of the 19th century through the 1960s. There are artifacts from the brewing industry, instruments, ads, bottles, taps, technical documents, photographs, many of them collected by former Brewmaster Walter Voigt of Ruxton, Maryland. Just over a hundred items related to beer and brewing in the Smithsonian collection have been digitized.

“Brewing has a long and deep connection to our country’s history, and the museum’s collections explore the history of beer from the late 19th to early 20th centuries,” said John Gray, the director of the museum. “The support of the Brewers Association allows our staff to collect the more recent history, including the impact of small and independent craft brewers who continue to advance the U.S. beer culture and inspire brewers worldwide.”

The new staff beer historian will be working on that. Here is the full job posting (pdf):

Historian / Scholar
American Brewing History Initiative
IS-11 ($64,650 plus benefits)

The Smithsonian Food History project at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, DC, is seeking a professional historian / scholar to conduct archival and field research for a new initiative on American brewing history, with special emphasis on the craft industry. The position is located in the Division of Work and Industry and will be a three-year appointment. The successful candidate will have proven experience in scholarly research, organizing and conducting oral history interviews, writing for both scholarly and general audiences, and knowledge of material culture and archival materials. The candidate will work with members of the curatorial staff on collections work and develop content for a wide variety of programs and applications, including digital formats. Candidates with an advanced degree in American business, brewing, food, cultural, or similar specialization within history are encouraged to apply. Must be able to travel, work independently as well as within a team environment, to meet deadlines, and to communicate effectively with co-workers and the public.

So you have to have a solid grounding in scholarly research, not just beer research. Your degree doesn’t have to be in history per se, but it does have to be in a related field and you have to have experience using both archival and material resources in your research. As long as you have that background, all those years you’ve spent slaving over the minutiae of craft beers entirely of your own volition can finally pay off in more than just outré flavor adventures.

If this sounds like your dream job, send your CV, a cover letter, and names of three references to Abigail Karow at by August 10th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

NYU student finds 12th c. brooch on Irish beach

History Blog - Sun, 2016-07-31 14:25

An American film student at New York University discovered a rare 12th century brooch during a field trip in Ireland earlier this month. McKenna McFadden was on a walking tour of Omey Island in Connemara, western Ireland, led by archaeologist Michael Gibbons when she spotted the back of a metal brooch while exploring rabbit burrows on the shore.

“When I first looked at it, I really thought nothing of it! It was really pretty and I thought someone had possibly dropped it,” [McFadden] recalled, not thinking that whoever dropped it did so centuries ago.

“I kept it with me until I caught up with Michael and he was very intrigued. He had me take him back to the site at which I found it. I didn’t fully realize how important the find was at the time. Now, I’m amazed and surprised and I’m very happy that I was able to place it in the hands of people who would appreciate it.”

A local radio personality took umbrage at an American making such a discovery in between stops on her bus tour of tourist traps. They worked it out with Ms. McFadden later after their listeners took them to task for being mean, but she didn’t get a chance to explain on the air that while it is her first time in Ireland, she’s gone quite a bit beyond the cheesy leprechaun-logo tour. McFadden is enrolled in NYU’s Summer in Dublin, a six-week program based at Trinity College, Dublin, in which students study Irish culture through multi-disciplinary classes in sociology, history, literature, Irish language, creative writing and faculty-led educational and cultural excursions like the one she was on when she stumbled on a 12th century kite brooch poking out of the sand.

The radio people went off on a goofy fantasy ramble about the great diplomatic incident that would ensue should McFadden have kept the brooch, but there was never any question of that. According to Ireland’s National Monuments Act, all archaeological objects found in Ireland belong to the Irish state. Anyone who makes an archaeological discovery must report it to the government or face a fine of up to 60,000 euros and five years in prison. Of course Connemara-born Michael Gibbons, a professional archaeologist with 30 years experience, was well aware of the legal requirements, and McFadden was just delighted to have found so beautiful and significant an archaeological treasure on her archaeology field trip to Omey Island.

They reported the piece to Galway city heritage officer Jim Higgins who identified it as a kite brooch from the 12th century. These types of pins were used to fasten cloaks and shawls 900 years ago. Only a handful of them have ever been found in Ireland. The brooch is now at the National Museum of Ireland where it will be studied and conserved.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I saved!

History Blog - Sat, 2016-07-30 13:00

Thanks to an outpouring of support from the public and big donations from private organizations, the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has been purchased by the Royal Museums Greenwich for £10 million ($13,225,500). It will now enter public ownership for the first time in its more than four centuries of existence.

The Royal Museums Greenwich and the Art Fund launched the campaign needing to raise £8.6 million ($11,374,000) to meet the asking price for the painting. The museum had contributed its entire annual acquisitions budget, £400,000 ($530,000), the Art Fund £1 million, but unless they could come up with the full asking price, the painting would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Painted in around 1590, the oil-on-panel depicts Queen Elizabeth I presiding serenely over a vast new global empire while in the windows behind her the English navy and divine intervention in the form of great winds defeat the Spanish Armada. The unusual landscape orientation, the queen’s lavish adornment, the famous sea battle in the background have made this portrait iconic, used in textbooks and period movies alike as a classic image of Elizabeth’s rule and the English Renaissance.

Two other versions of this portrait, probably by different unknown artists, are already in public museums, but this version is exceptional because it was owned by Sir Francis Drake, who probably commissioned it. Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet when it went up against the great Spanish Armada in 1588, so he was in the thick of the action depicted at Queen Elizabeth’s back. The painting has been passed down by his descendants ever since, for 425 years. When they decided to sell, the Tyrwhitt-Drake family offered the state first crack at it.

The campaign was launched on May 23rd and quickly captured the public’s imagination. Prominent historians vocally supported the cause. Seven-year-old Christina Ryder threw a bake sale at her school to donate to the fund, making cupcakes with an awesome frosting Elizabeth I on top inspired by the Armada Portrait.

An overwhelming response from the public saw 8,000 donations in just 10 weeks, with every donation matched pound for pound, raising £1.5m in total. Major contributions were made by the Linbury Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Headley Trust. In total, £10.3m has now been raised. The extraordinary level of support from the public makes this one of the most successful campaigns ever for a work of art.

Stephen Deuchar, Director, Art Fund, said, ‘This campaign has been a triumph of popular will. The painting captured the national imagination in 2016 as surely as the defeat of the Armada itself had done in 1588. Record numbers of donors, large and small, stepped forward with determination and generosity, creating an irresistible momentum that has brought this great work into public ownership at last.’

A big grant of £7.4 million ($9,787,000) from the Heritage Lottery Fund took them over the top.

The portrait will go on display at the newly renovated Queen’s House (construction completed in 1635), today part of the Royal Museums Greenwich. Designed by Inigo Jones, the Queen’s House was built just south of former Greenwich Palace, demolished in the 17th century, where Elizabeth I was born. The renovated museum will be able to maintain the fragile work in ideal environmental conditions. On October 11th, the portrait will be the star of the official reopening of the Queen’s House.

After a brief showing, the portrait will spend 2017 in treatment. It’s in dire need of conservation. It spent most of its life hanging over the mantlepiece of a fireplace in Shardeloes, the Buckinghamshire country house built for William Drake in the 18th century, ravaged by constant heat and moisture fluctuations, never kind to panel paintings. The all-important background was overpainted at same point in its past. There are areas of paint loss and varnish discoloration has given it an overall bilious hue. Once the Armada Portrait is conserved, cleaned and stabilized, it will go on permanent display at Queen’s House.

Here is historian David Starkey explaining the significance of the painting:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Grave of early Celtic woman found in Germany

History Blog - Fri, 2016-07-29 02:17

The burial an early Celtic woman with rich grave goods was unearthed last August at Kirchheim unter Teck, 20 or so miles southeast of Stuttgart in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. State Conservation Office archaeologists had been excavating the site slated for development on the outskirts of city since July of 2014, a comprehensive and thorough salvage operation to recover any remains from a Neolithic settlement from the sixth millennium B.C. that was known to have been at that location. They were shocked to find a far more recent archaeological treasure.

No skeletal remains have survived due to the high levels of lime in the soil, but archaeologists were able to get some idea of the layout of the burial from the position of the artifacts. Immediately visible were three small gold rings which may have been earrings and/or hair jewels, so they marked where he head would have been. Underneath the presumed skull area were two round objects made of sheet gold. Archaeologists believe they were part of a headpiece or hood of some kind which has not survived. A pair of bronze anklets and a bracelet of jet beads were also found.

The style of the gold jewelry dates the grave to around 500 B.C., which puts it within a few decades of the fabulously rich chieftain’s grave mound discovered at Hochdorf, less than five miles north of Kirchheim unter Teck, in 1978. Very few graves of Celtic women from such an early date have been found, even fewer with such high quality goods. It’s possible she too may have had a burial mound marking her grave. It has eroded to nothingness, but there are discolorations in the soil which suggest the was once a burial mound surrounded by a rectangular enclosure. She may not have been alone either, as evidence of two more enclosures was found nearby, but there were no artifacts or remains of any kind within them.

To preserve whatever microscopic fragments of organic material might be present and make sure they covered as much ground as possible, the team excavated a big soil block weighing 500 kilos (1100 pounds) which encompassed the artifacts. The block was then moved to the State Conservation Office in Esslingen where archaeologists could excavate it punctiliously in laboratory conditions. Quite literally punctilious, in fact, since among the tools used to excavate the artifacts from the soil block were porcupine quills.

It took two months to dig through the thick soil block with quills and small spatulas. They unearthed a total of six ornate gold rings and five sheet gold spherical objects. The pressure of being underground for 2,500 years has deformed the sheet gold artifacts, but the gold rings are in very fine condition.

The excavation of the Neolithic settlement ended in September of last year and the development of the industrial park on the site went forward. The artifacts from the Celtic woman’s grave will likely go on display at a museum in Kirchheim near where they were found.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Spanish colonial adobe bricks found at the Alamo

History Blog - Thu, 2016-07-28 10:07

The Alamo Mission of San Antonio, location of an 1836 battle during the Texas Revolution that has attained legendary status and given the site reputation as “the shrine of Texas liberty,” is Texas’ greatest tourist draw, with approximately 2.5 million visitors a year. It isn’t in the greatest condition, however. Many of its walls were torn down and outbuildings burned by the retreating Mexican army when the war ended a few months after the Battle of the Alamo. Later construction, poor moisture control and political conflicts over ownership and restorations have left the complex in need of extensive refurbishing to emphasize its historical features. In conjunction with the 180th anniversary of the famous siege, the Reimagine the Alamo project seeks to effectuate much-needed renovations, repairing rotting wood beams and roof damage, removing eyesores like random storage shacks attached to the historic walls and condenser units and building new visitor and museum facilities.

As part of the Reimagine project, earlier this month archaeologists began the first systematic archaeological study of all five and a half acres of the Alamo complex. Only the the church and the lower floor of the long barracks of the 1836 fort still stand above ground. The project’s aim is to rediscover the footprint and any remains of the original 18th century Spanish mission, the Mission San Antonio de Valero, and the 19th century fortress, particularly the mission’s western and southern walls. They also hope to find materials from the mission period — ceramics, trash, glass, personal items — and from its military days — weapons, ammunition, household goods. The archaeology is integral to determining where the new facilities will be built and in the accuracy and rigor of the historical interpretation of the Alamo which last year was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The team started with a geophysical survey of the complex, using ground penetrating radar to narrow down areas of interest. Then they raised the flagstone pavers and began digging. On July 22nd, the excavation team unearthed the remnants of an adobe brick wall 23 inches below the surface. The Spanish colonial adobe bricks were found in what archaeologists believe was the location of the original mission’s west wall.

Discovery of the bricks on Friday marked a major step toward uncovering the construction history of the world-famous Texas landmark.

“Because we’ve got something from the Spanish colonial period, we know we are digging in the right place,” archaeologist Nesta Anderson said in a press conference Monday. “Now we know we can get information from the ground over here that will support the master plan and the reinterpretation.”

Adobe is very delicate and soft and these bricks have been hard-used by centuries of conflict and the elements. The team is studying the bricks to confirm their Spanish origin, pin down the date of construction and determine the wall’s place in the structure of the 18th century mission. As far as we know, the mission didn’t have a full exterior wall around its perimeter. Instead, the walls of some of the buildings became defacto outside walls. If the adobe bricks were not part of the western wall, they could have been part of another building on the mission grounds or even one of the Native American dwellings that grew up around the mission.

Here’s a short video of an archaeologist pointing out the adobe bricks in the trench.

The excavation is scheduled to last four weeks. For regular updates on the dig, follow Reimagine the Alamo’s Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stinky cheese found on 17th c. Swedish shipwreck

History Blog - Wed, 2016-07-27 15:09

Divers have recovered a tin of very old, very stinky cheese from the wreck of the Swedish royal ship Kronan off the coast of Öland in the Baltic Sea. The ship went down in 1676, so the cheese is 340 years old. (One hopes it hadn’t been on the ship a full year or more before it went down.)

“It looks a bit like some kind of granular Roquefort cheese. It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years – we’re not talking Tutankhamun’s burial chamber,” [Lars Einarsson of the Kalmar County Museum] said.

Einarsson said the thick, gooey find smells strongly of cheese and yeast.

“I think it smells quite nice, because I like exotic food. But I would not want to taste it.”

I wonder why. What, you can’t handle 340-years worth of bacterial growth in unpasteurized cheese, Mr. Einarsson? Somebody get Andrew Zimmern over there.

The cheese is being kept cool at the Kalmar County Museum for now. It will be subjected to a battery of scientific test to identify it first as cheese (it’s almost certainly a dairy product, but it could have gone bad and been contaminated by God knows what to make it clumpy and smell like cheese), and then perhaps what type it is.

The royal ship Kronan was built by shipwright Francis Sheldon who had fled England after participating in a failed attempt to free King Charles I from prison. He was received in Sweden most warmly by King Charles X Gustavus who promptly put him to work building ships for his navy. In 1655, the Swedish admiralty hired Sheldon as master shipwright of the navy. He was in the right place at the right time. In the 1660s Sweden began a program of replacing its aging fleet with new warships, larger, more heavily armoured and armed, capable of withstanding the popular tactic of brutal broadside attacks that had replaced the old-fashioned style of short-range artillery exchanges culminating in boarding the wounded but functional enemy vessel.

Construction on the Kronan began on October 27th, 1665, when the keel was laid in Stockholm’s royal shipyard. It was meant to replace the previous flagship and bearer of the name which was by then 33 years old. Made entirely out of oak (about 20 acres of a 100-year-old oak forest was cut down to make the ship), the Kronan was 197 feet long and 42 feet wide, the third or fourth largest ship in the world at that time. It took another three years before the hull was laid. The admiralty and Sheldon fought the whole time, them accusing him of delaying construction by working on private projects, including a lucrative side business selling some of that oak to England; he accused them of holding back promised funds making it impossible for him and his crew to do the job.

Finally in 1672 the Kronan was finished. The gaudy ship, so known because of the decorative style meant to intimidate the enemy with gloriously gilded details, sailed for the first time in December in the celebration of Charles XI’s coronation. When loaded for bear, the ship carried 126 bronze cannons on three decks. It was manned by a large crew of 500 sailors and 350 soldiers. In 1675, the new Kronan officially became the flagship of Sweden’s royal navy. It only had a year to live.

During a storm before the beginning of an action at the Battle of Öland on June 1st, 1676, the Kronan capsized after making a sharp turn with too much sail unfurled. The gunpowder stores ignited and the bow of the ship exploded. Laden with cannon, coin, weapons and the personal items of nearly a thousand men who called it home much of the year, the Kronan sank rapidly, taking 800 souls with it. Only 50 men survived. Its fellow gaudy ship the Svärdet, whose wreck was found in 2011, sank after a fireship attack in the same battle, an immense toll on Sweden’s navy inflicted in just one encounter.

Some of the cannons were salvaged from the Kronan wreck in the 1680s, but it wasn’t until 200 years later that the wreck of the Kronan was rediscovered off the southwest coast of Öland and fully explored by maritime archaeologists. It was found by Anders Franzén, famous for having found the exceptional wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm harbour, and has been dived regularly ever since. In the 36 years since its discovery, more than 30,000 artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site, including Sweden’s largest ever find of gold coins — 255 ducats minted in Sweden, central Europe, Egypt, Syria and Turkey — and Sweden’s largest ever find of silver coins.

The dives this month that discovered the cheese also found another 14 gold coins, the most that have been recovered the Kronan in 16 years, a large number of pharmaceuticals, many of them for gastrointestinal illnesses (cheese, we’re looking in your direction), and a very rare gold and diamond ring. A jeweler in Kalmar who examined the ring said it was the oldest diamond ring he’d ever seen.

The wreck is about 90% mapped now. Lars Einarsson estimates it will take another three years of summer dives to complete the survey, which means the Kronan will have provided archaeologists with fascinating new material every year for 40 years. The Kalmar County Museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Kronan with many of the artifacts recovered from wreck on display. Visitors can even load one of the cannons.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Canal system found under Pakal’s tomb

History Blog - Tue, 2016-07-26 11:30

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a system of canals that was built underneath the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque where the Maya king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (603-683 A.D.) was buried. The main canal is made of rows of large cut stones, clay and rubble. It has a limestone floor and is capped by a roof made of larger stones. It is a near square at 50 x 40 cm (1.6 x 1.3 feet) and is about 17 meters (55.8 feet) long. The main channel follows a straight line south under the temple, eventually widening into a basin 80 x 90 x 60 cm. To the southeast, there’s a second smaller channel (40 x 20 cm) that runs parallel to the main channel but about 20 cm higher level. The second channel eventually joins the main one which changes direction to the southwest and goes on at least another five meters (16.4 feet).

Because the canals are so small, archaeologists could only explore them by sending a remote-controlled vehicle equipped with a camera. The vehicle could not go around the sharp turn in the main canal, so as of now we don’t know where the canal ends. Archaeologists believe they are connected to an active water source as there is still running water in the canals today. Construction dates to the Maya late Classic Period (600-900 A.D.).

Excavations began in 2012 after a crack developed in the pyramid. A geophysical study found anomalies under the pyramid’s front steps. Concerned there might be a sinkhole or weak spot that could lead to serious structural damage to the pyramid, archaeologists dug test pits at the bottom of the temple’s main facade. They encountered a layer of large stones sealed together with clay. Underneath that was another layer of heavy stones packed with mud, and then a third and fourth layer of the same. It was under the fourth stone layer than the channel was found. The stone layers are all level and their width matches that of the north wall of Pakal’s burial chamber.

Pakal, who ruled the city-state of Palenque for 68 years, the longest known reign of any ruler in the Western hemisphere and the 30th longest reign in the world, began construction of his funerary monument in the last decade of his life. After he died, Pakal was deified and the temple completed by his son and successor K’inich Kan Bahlam II. When the tomb was discovered by archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1952, Pakal’s remains were found in a sarcophagus with an elaborately carved lid. His face was covered by a jade death mask with large ear flares, also made of jade. The ear pieces have an inscription that claims that in order to be received by the god of the underworld, Pakal had to submerge himself in the waters of the rain god Chaac.

One of the newly discovered canals run directly underneath Pakal’s burial chamber, and the matching dimensions of the stone cap layers are probably not a coincidence. Archaeologists believe the canals were built first, tapping into the unknown source that is still supplying fresh water to the tunnels today, and the funerary pyramid constructed above them. One possibility is that they were originally built to drain rainwater from the terraces of Temple XXIV, just south of the Temple of the Inscriptions, but they wouldn’t need a river or spring source for that purpose. Although there has been no vertical conduit found connecting the burial chamber to the canal below, archaeologists believe there was a religious significance to the canals in keeping with the inscription on the ear flares on top of any practical purpose. The builders may have directed a river to flow under his tomb so that the king’s soul could travel unimpeded to the underworld via the waters of Chaac.

Investigations into the channel system will continue. Archaeologists would like to explore the main channel to its end, if not by remote camera that by using geophysical tools like ground penetrating radar to track the underground architectural features.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Explore the Apollo 11 Command Module

History Blog - Mon, 2016-07-25 02:20

The Smithsonian’s 3D model of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia is complete and ready to explore with a click of a mouse. The incredibly close quarters were home to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage from the launch of the Saturn V rocket on July 16th, 1969, until splashdown on July 24th. (Armstrong and Aldrin spent a day or so on the Lunar Module Eagle.)

The creation of the model was challenging thanks to the reflective aluminium surfaces and the intricacies of the interior dashboard. All the buttons, toggles and gizmos put the laser scanners through their paces, so much so that the technology used by the institution to scan other objects in its collection couldn’t quite cut it. The Smithsonian partnered with Autodesk Inc. whose experts created custom scanning equipment and whose advanced software converted the scan data into a model that is pretty damn amazing, to my civilian eye.

Now you can turn around in the cramped space, examining every detail in high resolution. You couldn’t get anywhere near that close at the National Air and Space Museum. You can’t see inside the Command Module at all, in fact. Click the quote bubble icon on the top left of the screen to get a diagram and annotations about the compartment. If you also click on the marker icon (the one that looks like a Ouija paddle), labels will pop up throughout the space. Click on the labels to get more details. The globe icon at the top gives you an excellent guided tour through the labeled areas. That was my favorite because of how smoothly it moves from stage to stage.

The Smithsonian has also made 3D print ready files available for download should you wish to print up a your own miniature Apollo 11 Command Module, and virtual reality renders for viewing with VR goggles. They have also some of the raw data available in medium resolution. They’re working on getting the highest resolution models available.

This video gives an overview of the complex laser scanning process of the Command Module.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

40,000-year-old rope-making tool found in famed German cave

History Blog - Sun, 2016-07-24 01:06

Archaeologists excavating the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany have discovered a 40,000-year-old tool used to make rope. The piece was unearthed in August of last year by an international team led by Prof. Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen. Carved from mammoth ivory, the object is eight inches long and the wider side is dotted with four holes 7-9 millimeters in diameter. The holes are incised with deep spirals which are not decorative, but practical features that help thread plant fibers into strong rope.

Some of the most important Paleolithic artifacts in the world have been found in the Hohle Fels Cave, including the Venus of Schelklingen, the oldest known human figurative art, and the world’s oldest flutes. The recently discovered tool was found in the same layer of the cave as the Venus and flute, which is how it was dated to around 40,000 years ago.

Rope or string prints have been found before in Paleolithic clay and there are some depictions of ropes in artwork from this period, but next to nothing is known about the process by which the first anatomically modern humans in Europe produced rope.

Similar finds in the past have usually been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments. Thanks to the exceptional preservation of the find and rigorous testing by the team in Liège, the researchers have demonstrated that the tool was used for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels. “This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic”, says Veerle Rots, “a question that has puzzled scientists for decades.”

Excavators found the rope-making tool in archaeological horizon Va near the base of the Aurignacian deposits of the site. Like the famous female figurines and the flutes recovered from the Hohle Fels, the rope-making tool dates to about 40,000 years ago, the time when modern humans arrived in Europe. The discovery underlines the importance of fiber technology and the importance of rope and string for mobile hunters and gatherers trying to cope with challenges of life in the Ice Age.

Researchers from the University of Liège in Belgium demonstrate how the tool was used to make rope from green plants:

Researchers test the durability of the finished rope:

The ivory tool went on display yesterday at the Blaubeuren Prehistoric Museum where the Hohle Fels Venus and three bone and ivory flutes are already on view to the public.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman coin hoard found by students in Spain

History Blog - Sat, 2016-07-23 04:00

A team of archaeology students has unearthed a Republican-era Roman coin hoard at the Empúries site on the Costa Brava of Catalonia, northeastern Spain. The hoard was discovered secreted in a hole in the ground inside a 1st century B.C. domus. A small ceramic pot shaped like an amphora contained silver denarii from the same period as the home. This was a great deal of money in the 1st century B.C. when a soldier’s yearly pay was 225 denarii and two denarii would pay rent for a month. There is evidence of a fire destroying the property shortly thereafter, likely making the treasure irretrievable.

The vessel still holding its hoard of coins was carefully excavated in a lab. Much to the archaeologists astonishment, the little amphora held 200 coins, the largest group of coins ever found in the Roman city of Empúries. They appear to be in good condition. Once the coins are cleaned and conserved, they will be identified and catalogued.

The ancient city of Emporion was founded in the 6th century B.C. by Greek colonists from Phocaea in western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Its coastal location between Massalia (Marseille), also founded by Phocaeans, and the major trade center of Tartessos in southwestern Iberia, made Emporion a prosperous town. Its population boomed when the Phocaea was conquered by Cyrus II of Persia in 530 B.C. and refugees moved to the colony, making it the largest Greek settlement on the Iberian Peninsula.

When much of the rest of Iberia was conquered by Rome, Emporion was allowed to remain independent, but the city backed the wrong horse during the civil wars of the 1st century B.C., and when Pompey was defeated by Caesar, Emporion was occupied by Roman legions. A new city, Emporiae, was built adjacent to the Greek town and populated by Roman veterans. The domus and insula are part of the Roman city.

The students are part of the Empúries Archaeology Course offered by the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia. It’s open to students working on an Archaeology or History degrees and graduate students, ideally with excavation experience. The program has been running every year without interruption since 1908. This year, the 30 students enrolled in the course have been excavating the tabernae (shops) and living spaces on the southern side of an insula (apartment building), with a particular focus on ceramics from the Late Republican period. The domus and its wine cellar occupied the southern side of Insula 30 in the earliest days of the Roman city. The room with the hoard was on the southwest side of the building.

The pot in which the denarii were stashed puts the discovery of the hoard exactly on topic, plus a nice bonus of 200 silver coins. Even more on topic, the team also found 24 wine amphorae of Italian origin and a bronze simpulum, a long-handled ladle used to extract wine from the large vessels, in the wine cellar of the domus.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gems of Australia’s rich quilting history

History Blog - Fri, 2016-07-22 06:01

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria is putting on display an exceptional collection of quilts and related pieces from Australia’s rich history of patchwork. Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 brings together almost 100 quilts, blankets, coverlets, and patchwork clothes from museums and private collections all over the country. They date to the first decades of English colonization through the middle of the 20th century. Some of the pieces have never been on public display, like the Hexagon quilt made in 1811 by Sarah Wall (nee Litherland or Leatherland), an English convict who arrived in Australia about the HMS Earl Cornwallis in 1801, 13 years after the first convicts arrived in Botany Bay and eight years after the first free settlers. Hers is the earliest known pierced hexagon quilt made in Australia.

Others are so fragile they’ve only been shown very rarely. The most signficant of these is The Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by the female convicts transported to Australia aboard the HMS Rajah. It is the only known surviving quilt made during the voyage from London to Van Diemen’s Land. The necessary supplies were donated by The British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Founded in 1821 by the Quaker prison reform advocate Elizabeth Fry, the society distributed bibles, combs, sewing supplies for personal use and all the materials needed for a collaborative quilt — 100 needles, pins, white, black, red and blue cotton thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, and two pounds of patchwork pieces — to female convicts, first at Newgate prison, and then to transportees.

Elizabeth Fry had a great impact on the way women sentenced to transportation were treated. She ensured they were taken to the ships in closed carriages so they wouldn’t be subject to the stone-throwing, filth projectiles and derision of the public. Loaded onto ships weeks before they sailed, the prisoners were horribly neglected. Fry and the ladies of the Society visited them every day, tending to their needs and giving them care packages that included the needlecraft supplies.

Fry thought patchwork in particular was ideal employment for women prisoners, because it taught them how to sew and, because it’s so complex and time-consuming, it gave them something to focus on during the long dreary hours of confinement. At the end, they’d have new skills and a beautiful result to show for their hard work. Patchwork converted the drudgery of a prison sentence, or a dangerous, unpleasant three-month ship voyage across the world, into productive time. It also had a meditative quality, an inward-looking contemplation which in Fry’s Quaker philosophy led to spiritual salvation.

The 180 female convicts on the Rajah were given patchwork materials by the Society and guidance in the person of Miss Keiza Hayter. Hayter was not a convict. She had worked with Fry at the Millbank Penitentiary, and Fry recommended her to Lady Jane Franklin to help found the Tasmanian Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Yes, that Lady Jane Franklin. John Franklin was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land when the Rajah unloaded its women convicts and their quilt, and Lady Franklin was in regular contact with Elizabeth Fry. It was Fry who inspired her prison reform efforts in Tasmania, a colony largely populated with current and former convicts, although Jane did not share Fry’s focus on rehabilitation. Lady Franklin believed hard labour, long stretches of solitary confinement and shaving female prisoners’ heads were more effective means to instill “corrective discipline” than contemplation and job training.

Keiza Hayter’s mission on the Rajah was to instill useful values and skills in the transportees. Part of that was the improvement of their minds and characters through needlework. Experts believe Hayter oversaw the design of the quilt. It has a central square of Broderie Perse (appliquéd chintz that resembles Persian embroidery) from which twelve frames radiate forming a medallion quilt. Florals and birds decorate the center and frames. Experts believe at least 29 of the transportees worked on the quilt. The passenger manifest lists 15 women whose professions were tailoring/needlework, but there’s evidence on the quilt itself that novices worked on it as well. Small bloodstains were probably left by less experienced women when they stuck themselves with needles.

A silk yarn inscription expresses the convicts’ proper sentiments of gratitude and industriousness.

of the
Convict ship committee.
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans Land is presented as a
testimony to the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also as proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonition of being industrious.

June 1841

The quilt is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It has survived in remarkable condition, all told, but it is very fragile and light-sensitive so for conservation’s sake, it is only displayed once a year.

That’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful works on view at this exhibition which opens today and runs through November 16th. Because the museum was kind enough to supply outstanding photographs of many stand-out pieces and because I know there are many needlework afficionados reading this, here’s a generous complement of quilt porn to take you into the weekend. And not just quilts either. The Press Dress, an unbelievable ball gown worn by Mrs. William W. Dobbs to the the Mayor of Melbourne’s fancy dress ball in 1866, was made of silk satin printed with pages of 14 different Melbourne newspapers, including The Age, The Australasian, Herald and Punch. I love the table cover made from cigar silk, too. Oh! And the Westbury Sampler quilt! It’s all deadly.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Indigenous, colonial interaction writ on Caribbean cave walls

History Blog - Thu, 2016-07-21 04:16

A team of British and Puerto Rican archaeologists have discovered a collection of early colonial inscriptions alongside earlier indigenous iconography on the walls of a cave on the Caribbean island of Mona. It’s a unique document of the interaction between indigenous and European culture and at the time of their earliest interactions.

Columbus first encountered Mona, a small island between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, on his second voyage in 1494. Its location within a day’s canoe trip of the larger islands ensured the indios of Mona were well-connected to interregional trade networks, and when the Spanish arrived, the island found itself on one of the main Atlantic routes to and from the Indies. The indigenous population sold supplies to the ships — cassava bread, water — and produced consumer goods like cotton shirts and hammocks to the first settlers. Thus the people of Mona were involved with Europeans from the beginning, modifying their own behaviors and traditions in response to first contact and colonization, and in turn having an impact on the Spanish as they and their children began to forge a new American identity.

The archaeology of Mona reflects this cultural blending process. European glass beads, storage jars, ceramics, coins and the remains of livestock from 1493 through 1590 have been found on the island mixed with indigenous artifacts — ceramics, tools — and equipment for the processing of food. The vast cave networks dotting the Isle of Mona display the same mixing of cultures in the form of art and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings.

Mona is practically more cave than anything else. Sheer limestone cliffs line the shores, peppered with more than 200 cave systems. Because the surface of the island is thick with plant life, the cool, rocky caves became a sort of subway system where the locals could travel to other points without having to hack their way through dense vegetation. The caves were also the island’s sole source of fresh water. Clear indications of indigenous usage has been found in 30 of the 70 cave systems on the island that have been studied by archaeologists since 2013.

The caves of Mona have the greatest variety of surviving indigenous iconography in the Caribbean. Symbols including geometric shapes, swirling meanders, anthropomorphic and anthrozoomorphic figures have been found on the walls and ceilings of cave chambers. The inscribed caves are hard to get to, their entrances small, person-sized holes high up on the cliff face, and the indigenous artwork only appears in the deep dark inside the caves, far from the light of the entrance. These were likely deliberate choices, as caves and the iconography held religious significance. The Europeans followed, perhaps literally, in indigenous footsteps to add their own religious spin to the sacred spaces of Mona.

In Cave 18, archaeologists found 250 indigenous works on the walls and ceilings 10 chambers and tunnels. The soft, swirling motifs were made by “finger-fluting,” ie, dragging one or more fingers through the mineral and organic deposits on the surfaces, and have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th and 15th century. More than 30 inscriptions in Spanish and Latin followed, applied to the same areas. They include proper names, dates and Christian symbols like crosses and the IHS Christogram.

Unlike the locals who climbed and crouched to apply their artwork to a variety of locations, the Europeans added their stuff where they stood, at about 1.8 meters — average height for Europeans at that time — above the floor. Also unlike the locals, they carved their inscriptions with edged tools into the limestone.

Three inscribed phrases are present in chambers H and K: ‘Plura fecit deus’, ‘dios te perdone’ and ‘verbum caro factum est (bernardo)’. Palaeographic analysis of letter forms, the use of abbreviation and writing conventions place these in the sixteenth century…. ‘Plura fecit deus’, or ‘God made many things’, is the first inscription encountered after entering chamber H. There is no obvious contemporary textual source; the commentary appears to be a spontaneous response to whatever the visitor experienced in the cave. There is a strong spatial inference that ‘things’ is a reference to the extensive indigenous iconography present. The phrase may express the theological crisis of the New World discovery, throwing the personal human experience and reaction into sharp relief. [...]

Particularly striking are two depictions of Calvary. The first consists of three crosses, the central one with the Latin inscription ‘Iesus’ (Jesus) set at a height of over 3m in chamber G…. Stylistically, all three are barred cross-on-base motifs, in use in the sixteenth century; similar examples are found from contemporary contexts in Europe and South America…. A second Calvary panel is made up of two crosses, one of which is a barred cross-on-base, the other a simple two-stroke Latin cross. These flank a pre-existing indigenous anthropomorphic figure. This triptych has clear compositional parallels with representations of Calvary in which the central figure is strikingly cast as an indigenous Jesus.

There are 17 more crosses in the cave, from simple downstroke-and-crosstroke Latin crosses to more complex Potent and Calvary crosses. Some are finger-drawn, probably by converted indios. Many of them were made near and above pre-existing indigenous iconography.

We know it wasn’t indigenous converts doing the carving because several of the Spanish artists did us the courtesy of leaving their Kilroy Wuz Here. From the mid-16th century, Myguel Rypoll, Alonso Pérez Roldan el Mozo and Alonso de Contreras signed the wall. The above-mentioned Bernardo signed off on his “verbum caro factum est” line, and one Capitán Francisco Alegre, a royal official in Puerto Rico in the mid-16th century, signed his name. It’s actually quite impressive considering he was carving it in the wall how similar it is to his actual signature on a page.

[Dr. Alice Samson from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History] said the marks were made by some of the earliest colonisers to arrive in the Americas. These colonisers would have been taken to the caves, places considered particularly sacred, and were responding with respect to what they saw, engaging in a religious dialogue.

“We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions.

“What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”

You can read the full paper published in the journal Antiquity free of charge here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

History Blog - Wed, 2016-07-20 04:39

Dating to around 2600 B.C., the harbor at Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea in Egypt is the oldest port complex ever discovered in the world. It was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2620–2580 B.C.), the founder of the 4th Dynasty, and was primarily used for boat travel to the Egypt’s main copper and turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula. An L-shaped pier extended east from the shore into the water for 160 meters (525 feet) before turning southeast for 120 meters (394 feet). Its remains are still clearly visible at low tide. The pier created a breakwater and large sheltered area where ships could be moored. This was confirmed when a group of at least 22 limestone ship anchors were found south of the east branch of the pier.

Carved into limestone hills next to a water spring, archaeologists found a warehouse system of 30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long. They average about 10 feet wide and eight feet high. The galleries were used to store boat parts, shipping materials and food and water supplies for the seafaring voyages. They were also used to make repairs on ships. There are pottery kilns nearby and large quantities of pottery believed to have been used as a water containers have been found in the galleries.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyrus fragments, some of them more than two feet long. The papyri had been deposited in front of galleries G1 and G2 where large blocking stones were placed to close off the entrance to the galleries. Written in hieratic (simplified hieroglyphics used by priests and scribes), several of the papyri were dated to the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2580–2550 B.C.). One of the documents was very specific, noting it was written the year after the 13th cattle count of Khufu’s reign. The cattle count was done every other year, so the year after the 13th cattle count was the 27th year, which according to our current best information was the last year of his reign. The precise dating identifies this papyrus as the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

There are two types of documents in the papyrus group: accounts organized in tables anyone who has ever worked in Excel will immediately recognize, and the logbook of a Memphis official named Merer. The accounting tables record deliveries of food from areas elsewhere in Egypt including the Nile Delta. Revenue is recorded in red; outlay in black. Merer’s archive recorded the daily activities of his team of around 200 men, and as archaeological luck would have it, most of the surviving papyri don’t cover the minutiae of their operations at Wadi al-Jarf, but rather their work relating to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. There are descriptions of quarrying the limestone, the transportation over the Nile and canals of massive blocks of stone from the quarries of Tura to the “Horizon of Khufu,” meaning the Giza construction site. These limestone blocks were probably used for the outer layer of the Great Pyramid, now lost, but which would have glowed white in the Egyptian sun.

Merer’s logbook was found in the same archaeological context as the 13th cattle count document. It confirms that in Khufu’s last regnal year, the pyramid was in the final stage of construction. It also identifies the role of a major player, the pharaoh’s half-brother Ankh-haf who as “chief for all the works of the king” was in charge of this last phase of the Great Pyramid’s construction.

A selection of the papyri, including the 13th cattle count document, the largest pieces of Merer’s journal and the accounting spreadsheets have gone on display for the first time at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It will be a lightning quick exhibition, unfortunately, so unless you’re in Egypt right now or plan to be there in the next week or so, you’ll miss it. It opened on July 14th and closes on July 29th.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Museum acquires rare 17th c. stained glass window

History Blog - Tue, 2016-07-19 01:45

M – Museum Leuven and the City of Leuven have acquired an early stained-glass window by 17th century Flemish master Jan de Caumont. Leuven was a center of stained glass production, and while the museum has an extensive collection of pieces from the 15th through the 19th century, it had no single important stained glass window by Jan de Caumont. This piece plugs a major hole in its collection and will join its series of 27 Caumont glass medallions on display.

Jan de Caumont was born in Doullens, Picardy, northern France, in around 1577. He moved to Leuven, then in the Duchy of Brabant which was part of the Spanish Netherlands, and became a citizen in 1607. He married a local girl, Anna Boels, whose family owned a prominent glass workshop. Jan went to work for his wife’s uncle Simon in the workshop and made a name for himself as a glass painter. In 1626, he took over the company and was appointed the official glass painter of the City of Leuven.

He was commissioned to make stained glass for churches and monasteries in Leuven and all over the duchy. His most famous work was a series of 41 windows he made for the Premonstratensian cloister of Park Abbey, a monastery in Heverlee, two miles south of Leuven. Abbot Jean Maes commissioned the windows depicting scenes from the life of Saint Nortbertus, founder of the order, in 1635. Installation was complete by 1644. The monastery was disrupted by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, so much so that in order to revive its fortunes, the monastery sold all 41 windows in 1828. They wound up dispersed in museums and private collections in the UK and US. In the 20th century, three complete windows and several pieces were returned to Park Abbey and are now back in the clerestory bays.

The stained glass produced in the Low Countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was different from the medieval style in that artists actually painted on the glass rather than composing a mosaic from pieces of different colored glass. This approach allowed painters to create fine details on panes of glass without thick black lead lines. Jan de Caumont painted grey monochrome details (a technique known as grisaille) on both sides of the glass. On the outside, he applied several shades of silver stain and translucent flesh tones. On the inside, he used shades of blue and purple enamel and opaque red paint. To make green, he combined blue enamel on the inside and silver on the outside.

Those techniques are in fine evidence on the window acquired by the M. Made in 1618, it is a rare example of a window from the early part of his career before his appointment as the city glass painter. It’s a donor window, which makes it even more rare since there are few Flemish donor windows and they’re usually smaller than this one or part of a historical building. The donor in question was Margaretha Vekemans, wife of Alexander van den Broeck, a treasurer of Antwerp and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Margaretha and her daughter are depicted in the window. Dressed in the most fashionable finery of the era, with ermine sashes, lace cuffs, majestic ruffs and jewelry, the ladies are on their knees praying. Behind them stand St Agnes and St Elizabeth of Hungary, respectively embracing mother and daughter.

There is a corresponding window featuring Alexander van den Broeck with St John the Baptist. It is now in the church of Saint Gwenllwyfo in Llanwenllwyfo, Anglesey, Wales. Originally both windows are believed to have been donated by the Vekemans/van den Broeck family to the Carthusian monastery in Lier. It was a common practice for wealthy donors to give something beautiful, expensive and very clearly identifiable as coming from them to their favorite church or monastery.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Must Farm excavation concludes

History Blog - Mon, 2016-07-18 04:04

The excavation of the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens comes to an end this week, alas, but so many archaeological remains in exceptional condition have been found, they will be studied for years to come. The unique conditions of the site — round houses built on stilts on the Nene River channel around 3,000 years ago that caught fire and fell into the river where the fire was extinguished and everything was enveloped in the mud of the rising fen — have preserved the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in Britain.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said “Over the past 10 months Must Farm has given us an extraordinary window into how people lived 3,000 years ago. Now we know what this small but wealthy Bronze Age community ate, how they made their homes and where they traded. This has transformed our knowledge of Bronze Age Britain, and there is more to come as we enter a post-excavation phase of research. Archaeologists and scientists around the world are learning from Must Farm and it’s already challenged a number of longstanding perceptions.”

We now know that the homes in this Bronze Age settlement were kitted out with enough household products to put Bed, Bath and Beyond to shame. We know they ate a rich and varied diet include wild animals (boar, red deer, freshwater fish) and domesticated (lambs and calves), plus plants and grains including emmer wheat and barley. We know the roundhouses were recently constructed, only around six months old when tragedy struck and they collapsed into the river.

Earlier this year archaeologists found a complete wood wheel, the oldest in the UK. Since then, they’ve discovered even more thrilling artifacts. The textiles alone are unprecedented, an extensive collection of woven fibers from various stages of production. Some of the linen fibers are as fine as a human hair and are incredibly tightly woven.

Must Farm also has one of the largest collections of Bronze Age glass ever discovered. A large number of beads have been found, many of them glass, others made of amber or jet. One cluster of beads were found grouped together probably because they were once on a necklace. There’s even something threaded in between them, so once the beads are examined in the laboratory, the full necklace may reveal itself. Jet and amber could not be sourced locally; they were likely traded from continental Europe and the Middle East.

A wealth of household goods has been recovered, everything from wooden buckets to large platters to loom weights. Whole groups of pots were found in place, left behind mid-use when the fire broke out, some with food still in them. The Must Farm pots come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. The largest examples are coarseware, thick-walled clay reinforced with grog, shell and crushed pieces of fired clay. They were used for storage and cooking. The fineware pieces have thin, delicate walls tempered with sand or very fine shell fragments. While very few are decorated and those only with incised lines, many are polished or burnished. The smallest fineware vessels are little round cups no more than six centimeters (2 inches) high. All of the clay pottery was made with the simple technique of coil building (stacking coils of clay) and then turned (rotated on a board and smoothed with fingers). Some of the fragments and pots still have the marks of fingertips on the surface.

The metalwork discovered at Must Farm is exceptional as well, both in terms of preservation and in the discovery context. Most of the Bronze Age metal weapons and tools found come from sacrificial deposits or some other context divorced from daily use. The pieces at Must Farm, on the other hand, were inside the dwellings when they collapsed into the river. They are domestic objects still in the home, not offerings or discards. Add to that the fact that some of the wood sections, like the hafts of axes and spears, have survived and it gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to examine metalwork as it was actually used. One bronze socketed axe with its wooden haft intact, albeit charred by the flames, may be the most beautiful prehistoric axe I’ve ever seen.

The site is just feet away from a working quarry, so it cannot be converted into an open-air archaeological park. The wood timbers from the roof and floor and the wattle panels of the walls of the most intact of the roundhouses have been recovered for conservation and perhaps a future reconstruction, but the site will be reburied to preserve the rest. There are no current plans for a museum exhibition, but discussions are ongoing. So many great artifacts have been recovered there’s more than enough material to populate a whole new museum dedicated to Must Farm.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Must Farm excavation has one of the greatest online presences for an archaeological project I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest. Their Twitter, Facebook and website are neverending sources of fascinating material and photographs. They will continue to be updated as the artifacts are examined, so just because the excavation is over doesn’t mean it’s too late to follow them.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History