Arts and Sciences

Visitor identifies plant decorating medieval chest

History Blog - Thu, 2017-12-28 00:51

The Billingford Hutch, a large and sturdily-built oak chest with heavy iron bands, hasps and locks, was used as a strongbox in the late Middle Ages. It’s named after Richard de Billingford, who was the 5th Master of Corpus Christi College (founded in 1352), mastering it for an impressively long stint from 1398 until 1432. In 1420, he started the college’s loan program, donating what was then the princely sum of £20 as seed money to loan to scholars chronically low on cash. They could withdraw funds up to 40 shillings (ca. £2) using their valuables (manuscripts, mainly) as collateral. The £20 was kept in a locked chest under the vigilant eye of three custodians until a withdrawal was made. The books or other valuables the debtor was using as collateral were then placed in the chest until the establish repayment deadline. If the debtor did not manage to pay back the loan on time, his stuff was sold immediately and the sum owed returned to the chest. If the items sold for more the amount owed, that went into the chest too. The debtor got none of it.

The university loan chest system was widely practiced in institutes of higher learning at that time. Billingford didn’t invent it; he was the first to implement it at Corpus Christi is all. Other colleges at Cambridge had chests of their own, but most of the chest themselves are long lost. Corpus Christi still has their iron and oak ACME safe, and even more rarely, it has retained the registers that recorded the cash and collateral flow for more than three centuries. It’s because of those registers that we know how frequently the loan chest was used and by whom. Every fellow and master at the college is listed as having borrowed from it, and while as you might expect manuscripts do dominate, what with them being academics and all, they also used precious religious objects, silver spoons and salt cellars.

The chest itself likely predates 1420, but we don’t know its exact age. Nobody knew why the locks were decorated with images of an undetermined leaf either. That changed in September of this year when the chest was moved to Parker Library and fell under the unblinking Sauron-like eye of one particular visitor. Check out this wonderfully nerdy chain of events:

Jeremy Purseglove, environmentalist and Cambridge resident, visited the Library during Open Cambridge in September 2017. “It was a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of some of the Library’s medieval manuscripts,” he said. “We were given a fascinating talk by Alexander Devine, one of the librarians. He showed us a massive chest that had recently been moved to the Library from elsewhere in the College. My eye was drawn to the leaf shapes in the metal work.”

The chest is made from oak planks and measures approximately 1.8m x 0.5m x 0.4m. It is reinforced by numerous iron bands and five iron hasps, secured in three locks, all operated by different keys. Each of the lock plates (the metal plates containing the locks, hasps and keyholes) is decorated with the outline of a plant punched into the metal.

No-one knew the significance of this decorative detail. Purseglove, who is passionate about plants, suspected the distinctive shape was likely to be that of moonwort, a fern much mentioned by 16th-century herbalists. He said: “I rushed home and looked it up. I found that it had been associated with the opening of locks and guarding of silver.”

It was such a strong association that herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote about it in his seminal 1653 volume The Complete Herbal. His description of the plant is as artfully rendered as the motif on the chest’s iron fittings:

It rises up usually with but one dark green, thick and flat leaf, standing upon a short foot-stalk not above two fingers breadth; but when it flowers it may be said to bear a small slender stalk about four or five inches high, having but one leaf in the middle thereof, which is much divided on both sides into sometimes five or seven parts on a side, sometimes more; each of which parts is small like the middle rib, but broad forwards, pointed and round, resembling therein a half-moon, from whence it took the name; the uppermost parts or divisions being bigger than the lowest. The stalks rise above this leaf two or three inches, bearing many branches of small long tongues, every one like the spiky head of the adder’s tongue, of a brownish colour, (which, whether I shall call them flowers, or the seed, I well know not) which, after they have continued awhile, resolve into a mealy dust.

Governed by the celestial power of our satellite, moonwort leaves were reputedly an excellent tonic against menstrual irregularities, vaginal discharge (if you’ve ever read old medical books, and I have, you’ll know that how to combat the scourge of “the whites” was a huge subject of discussion for centuries), and another other unwanted emission of body fluid. Culpepper thought it was most effective in combination with other herbs to help heal wounds. He concludes his description with a reference to its vaunted lock-picking powers:

Moonwort is an herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and those no small fools neither; but country people, that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse. Besides I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration: the herb described usually grows upon heaths.

Hmmm…Seems like it would be the opposite of something you’d want guarding the locks on your cash and saleable goods. Oh well, can’t argue with results, I suppose. The Billingford Hutch kept its secrets close for 500 years, first money and valuables, then information.

[Librarian Alexander] Devine said: “The Billingford Hutch is probably the best surviving example of its kind in Europe. To have a possible answer to the puzzle of its decorative motif is fantastic. We’re immensely grateful to Jeremy for enriching our understanding of its history. His wonderful discovery is further proof that sharing your collections with the public is the key to unlocking their secrets.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cremains of Roman soldiers found in cooking pots

History Blog - Wed, 2017-12-27 00:35

Archaeologists have unearthed remains of stone structures, Roman engineering and the cremains of several deceased legionaries in cooking pots at a Roman military camp just over half a mile south of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. The monumental base (it was around 330 yards by 550 in area) is the only permanent, full-scale legionary camp discovered in the eastern Roman Empire. There are several in mainland Europe and we know there were major bases elsewhere in the Levant and east — Jerusalem, or rather, Aelia Capitolina, built on the ruins of Jerusalem after Titus’ razing of it in 70 A.D., had a large base — but they have yet to be found.

The site is known as Legio (later Arabicized to Lajjun) after the camp built in the first half of the 2nd century A.D. and for more than a century was home to the formidable Legio VI Ferrata, meaning the Sixth Ironclad Legion. In the wake of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 A.D.), the emperor Hadrian kept them in the Legio camp to guard the strategically important supply, transport and communication lines between the coast and Jezreel Valley.

Legio VI had a proud history of fighting under some of Rome’s greatest generals. They were with Julius Caesar when he spanked Vercingetorix in Gaul, then with Marc Anthony and after his defeat in the Battle of Actium, they served under Octavian. The Ironclads were transferred from Syria to Judea just before the Bar Kochba Revolt and would remain there through most of the 3rd century. They were sent to the eastern frontier and Legio was dismantled by command of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century.

The site has been excavated regularly for years. In 2013 and 2015, archaeologists unearthed numerous ceramic tiles stamped with the mark of the Legio VI Ferrata, and even stamped with the imprints of the hobnails from their caligae, the legionary’s sandal that earned Caligula his nickname because he charmed the legions fighting under his father Germanicus when he wore a miniature pair as a little boy. They also found individual hobnails from those sandals, scales from Roman armour and the remains of infrastructure like clay pipes, sewer channels and buildings.

This season’s excavation was even more dramatic: they discovered the remains of a monumental gate that led to the base’s the principia, the religious and military headquarters.

The principia was the heart of the Roman military base, a huge complex some 100 meters by 100 meters. Grand in size and in design, it had a huge colonnaded façade as well as a grand colonnade inside.

“The principia was not just the legionary commander’s headquarters; it was also the legion’s shrine. It included an open courtyard that housed a sanctuary for the legion’s standards, the revered symbol of the unit,” Strauss told Haaretz. […]

The principia was also the site of the treasury, the armory, and was where the scribes worked.

As is so often the case, the latrines yielded treasures of great importance. The excavation unearthed hundreds Roman coins, glass, pottery, animal bones and assorted other detritus that had been cast down with the excrement to the delight of archaeologists 1,900 years later.

They also found a hand-dug cave inside the camp that held a cooking pot filled with the ashes of a fallen and cremated comrade. It wasn’t even the only one.

“Cremation burials in cooking pots were a common practice among Roman soldiers at that time. We found this kind of burial all around the site,” Tepper told Haaretz.

Finding one’s final resting place in a cooking pot was not atypical of Roman burial practices at other Roman military sites, in Israel and around the Mediterranean, Tepper added.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A little gift

History Blog - Tue, 2017-12-26 00:04

I hope you’ve all had a grand, warm, lucrative, family-and-friends filled Christmas Day. As it has been a tad busy, I’m going to keep it short with a little gift post in the form of pretty pictures. You might recall my recent article about The Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817). As I was in the neighborhood visiting family, I popped into the Clark Art Institute to enjoy its exceptional collection of Winslow Homers, George Inneses, Renoirs, Monets, Sisleys, Alma-Tademas, Sargents, Renaissance Old Masters and about a thousand other art historical gems.

I also made a special pilgrimage to the 18th century French portraiture room to see the youth in a replica of his father’s Napoleonic uniform. He is just as sweet and soft-eyed as he looked in the official release pictures.

In that same gallery is a painting by Louis-Léopold Boiully, a portraitist and genre artist who was highly celebrated in his time and managed to thrive from the ancien regime all the way through to the July Monarchy, although he did have a little less than pleasant moment with the Committee of Public Safety over the erotic undertone of his paintings which would have cost him his life had it not been for the discovery of a properly propagandistic Le triomphe de Marat (1794) in his studio. The genre paintings capture scenes of French society, street life and current events. Most of his portraits were of middle class people and celebrities, including Robespierre.

The painting in the Clark, however, is not a portrait, even though it’s in the portrait gallery. It is a trompe l’oeil from 1785 called, appropriately, Various Objects. It depicts what looks like a pinboard with letters, a nosegay of pansies, a black and white drawing, a glass bottle hanging from a string, a leather pouch, scissors, a switchblade and a drawing compass. I think it’s pretty great, and appreciate it all the more because it was Boiully who coined the phrase “trompe l’oeil.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman coin hoard, lead coffin found by veteran’s group

History Blog - Mon, 2017-12-25 00:26

A group of military veteran metal detectorists have discovered a hoard of 250 Roman coins and a Roman lead coffin in Ilminster, Somerset, England. Detecting for Veterans assembled in an Ilminster field (the exact location is not being disclosed for its protection) this year for its annual Christmas charity dig in aid of The Veterans Charity and Talking2Minds. Member Kevin Minto made the first modest finds — a button, a fragment of lead — and then hit the jackpot when he found a Roman coin.

Being a responsible and conscientious metal detecting enthusiast, the group founder, former 1st Battalion Light Infantry Veteran, Jason Massey immediately called the county Finds Liaison Officer to determine how to proceed without harming the archaeological context. He was told an archaeological team would be on the way, but to continue to detect and dig, but to be cautious and document everything he found.

Over the next four days, Detecting for Veterans worked the field assiduously, ultimately unearthing 260 Roman coins ranging in date from 270-305 A.D., and one ring and two brooches. They were then joined by the Somerset County archaeologist Bob Croft and discovered the Roman grave site. The lead coffin dates to around 400 A.D. and archaeologists believe it a young woman’s coffin. This is an extremely rare find; just six lead-lined Roman coffins have been discovered in Somerset. Only 200 have been found in the entire country.

Laura Burnett, the Somerset finds liaison officer, said lead was a “fancy and expensive” way of being buried in Roman times.

“They’re probably using locally produced lead from the Mendips – so it might have been a bit cheaper here than in other parts of the county – but it’s an expensive thing to be buried in.” […]

There are about 200 similar lead coffins finds in the country but only six have been previously been discovered in Somerset.

“This is a very special site, a rare discovery of lead coffins,” Mr Croft said.

“Lead ones that we know go from Shepton Mallet to Wiveliscombe, and this central part of Somerset – so this one is an unusual one.

If the hoard is declared treasure trove (and it will be), local museums will be given the opportunity acquire it for the amount of its official valuation which will be divided between the finder and the landowner. That would make a great gift for the charities supported by Detecting for Veterans.

Archaeologists are still exploring the site and plan to continue into 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Queen’s gold and worker’s footprint to shine in Penn Museum’s new Mespotamian galleries

History Blog - Sun, 2017-12-24 00:51

On November 1st, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology began its first major renovation since it was founded in 1887. The building, a grand historical treasure in its own right, is in dire need of upgrades, especially systems. Most urgent is the air conditioning system which doesn’t need upgrading because it doesn’t actually exist. The museum gets hot in the summer and the body heat and moisture from visitors exacerbates the problem, putting the delicate objects on display at risk.

The three-phase renovation will create a new exhibition space with state-of-the art climate control technology and 6,000 square feet in which to showcase the Penn Museum’s stellar Near East collection. A pioneer in the field of Middle Eastern archaeology, the Penn Museum was the first in the country to send a team to explore Mesopotamian sites in 1887. They’ve been back hundreds of times since and collected more than 100,000 objects, making the Penn Museum’s Near East collection one of the greatest in the world.

More than 1,200 of those objects will go on display in the new suits of three galleries — Towards Cities, Ur: The Great City, The World of Cities — dedicated to Mesopotamian history, giving visitors a panorama of the evolution and development of culture and urban life in the cradle of civilization through objects of enormous rarity and significance.

The artifacts getting an abode worthy of them include the splendid headdress of Sumerian Queen Puabi, made from 24 feet of gold ribbon, 20 gold rings and long strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. It was found by Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in 1928. Other Royal Cemetery stand-out pieces will go back on display in the new galleries, among them the bull head fragment from an ancient lyre made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and shell, the Ram in a Thicket statuette.

It’s not all glittering gold masterpieces of luxury materials. The breadth of the collection allows the Penn Museum to tell the story of how Mesopotamia moved from villages to large cities with massive populations and an unparalleled collection of wealth. Front and center in the new Middle East Galleries will be one of the museum’s most unusual Sumerian objects: a footprint left in a piece of wet mud brick in Ur 4,000 years ago. One of the world’s oldest wine vessels will be on display (a Neolithic pot discovered at Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran, that dates to around 5400 B.C.), a baby rattle, a writing primer for children and many more objects that will give visitors a view into daily life from writing and record-keeping to agriculture, labour, meal preparation and burial practices over 10,000 years of Mesopotamian history.

The Middle East Galleries will take pride of place in the renovated museum, right next to the entrance hall. It officially opens to the public on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Turkey busts massive artifact smuggling ring

History Blog - Fri, 2017-12-22 23:40

Istanbul police have recovered 26,456 ancient artifacts and arrested 19 people in the biggest anti-smuggling operation in Turkish history.

Among the items recovered were a golden queen’s crown with an inscription of the Hellenistic god, Helios, a bust dedicated to Alexander the Great’s conquest of India and a statue of a goddess dating back to the Hittite era 3,000 years ago.

The 26,456 objects recovered also included Egyptian-origin statues and Phoenician-type teardrop vials.

“The retrieved artefacts are… more valuable than the artefacts in the inventory of an average size museum,” Istanbul police said in a statement.

One of the seized artifacts is a rare bird: a 3,000-year-old Mycenaean sword ostensibly owned by the hero Achilles himself. It’s not rare that some random object would be attributed to a hero of Troy — that kind of faux relic was venerated in temples for hundreds of years — but very few of them have survived in any recognizable form.

This archaeological bonanza was the hard-won result of three months of painstaking investigative work and surveillance of key suspects. Operation Zeus switched from tracking mode to busting on December 12th when six men in northwestern Turkey’s Duzce province were arrested in the course of attempting to sell some of the trafficked artifacts. They were interrogated and named names leading to more arrests in four other provinces.

Police haven’t been to determine how such a vast number of high quality artifacts were acquired or where they came from, but we know they were intended to be sold on the black market through art dealers and shady outfits in multiple countries. Investigations are ongoing. The objects will be given to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology for further study and conservation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of large Wari temple discovered in Peru

History Blog - Fri, 2017-12-22 00:26

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient pre-Hispanic, pre-Inca Wari temple at the archaeological site of Espíritu Pampa in the jungles of Peru’s La Convención province. The team first found the walls shaped like a capital D, a characteristic design for Wari culture temples. A second, smaller D-shaped structure was found in the middle of the big D. Archaeologists believe this was likely an astronomical observatory, a key element of Wari worship and important section of the full temple. It may also have been used to perform religious rituals.

Also inside the larger temple walls, the archaeological team discovered two burial pits built with small slabs of stone. The first of these was found to contain tooth fragments from an animal. The second burial contained to large Wari ceramic vessels, a silver pectoral band and one silver crown or headdress. One of the pots was particularly striking (and very much typical of Wari craftsmanship), a stylized representation of a crowned individual with large and prominent eyes, nose and mouth. The crown is painted on and is first archaeological evidence that Espíritu Pampa was home to a ruling elite during the heyday of Wari power.

When that day no longer made hey, the last hurrah of Inca independence filled the void, and there’s evidence of that too in the physical structure of the temple. On the long edge of the D-shaped enclosure, there are architectural remains of square and rectangular design. This is Inca work. The interior confirmed this identification when archaeologists unearthed tupus, silver needles and ceramic bottles and assorted vessels used for ceremonial purposes.

This second, later habitation by the Inca had a brief but significant heyday in the 16th century. As the Spanish conquest proceeded at a precipitous rate, Manco Inca Yupanqui defied the Spanish rulers who had installed him to be their puppet king. When Francisco Pizarro left his two bratty younger brothers behind in Cusco as regents (ie, the real rulers), they were so vicious and disrespectful that Manco Inca rebelled. He fought them in open combat, besieging Cusco for 10 months. He was successful at first, but eventually left the highlands to the Spanish and moved to the remote jungle were he founded the independent Neo-Inca State in his new capital of Vilcabamba in 1539.

Not quite so new, as it happens. Vilcabamba and Espíritu Pampa are the same city. Manco wisely selected a spot that already had surviving ancient architecture (the Wari Empire lasted from around 600 A.D. to 1100 A.D.) to piggyback off on — a major advantage in the jungle — and then proceeded to do just that. The distant location did not keep the fledgling independent state safe. There was near-constant fighting in the hills, not just between Inca and Spanish, but between Spanish factions, the first civil war to break out between the conquistadores in Peru. It was that subconflict that ultimately led to Manco’s death. He was killed by members of the anti-Pizarro faction who were hiding out in Vilcabamba under Manco’s generous protection. In exchange for his support, they murdered him in 1544. Manco’s men returned the favor.

The artifacts have been recovered from the dig and are slated to get a thorough cleaning, conservation and examination by experts at the Physical Chemistry Unit of the Decentralized Directorate of Culture of Cusco.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Old bones identified as remains of one of England’s 1st turkey dinners

History Blog - Thu, 2017-12-21 00:39

Archaeologists have identified turkey bones so old that may well be the remains of one of the earliest turkey dinners in Britain. We’re talking Tudor turkey here, almost a century before the first Thanksgiving (which according to contemporary sources didn’t actually feature turkeys anyway; the Wampanoag brought deer and the British settlers migratory waterfowl). The three turkey bones in question, two femurs and an ulna, are not a new discovery. They were unearthed in 1983 on Paul Street in central Exeter during an archaeological excavation of the site of a planned shopping center and were squirreled away in storage boxes at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. At that time they were neither identified as turkey bones nor were they dated.

University of Exeter archaeologists dusted them off recently to investigate whether they could find out more about their age and background using technology and information that was not available in 1983. After a thorough examination and testing of the bones themselves as well as the pottery found next to them, researchers were able to identify them as turkey bones dating to between 1520 and 1550. That places them very early in the timeline of the bird’s introduction to Britain by gentleman navigator and future MP William Strickland who bought a half dozen wild turkeys from Native Americans in 1524-1526 and sold them upon his return to Bristol.

They were exotic creatures and the first ones were likely kept as very showy pets or estate adornment rather than immediately devoured. Turkey didn’t become popular as a poultry dish until after 1550, which, incidentally, is the year Strickland was granted a coat of arms that starred a “turkey-cock in his pride proper,” tail feathers at full spread.

Professor Alan Outram, zooarchaeologist and Head of Archaeology at Exeter, said: “As the date of these bones overlaps with the historical evidence of Strickland’s introduction of the birds, the remains of this feast may well represent the earliest physical evidence for a turkey dinner in Britain. This is an important discovery and could allow more research to be carried out about early domestic breeds and how the turkey has changed genetically since the 16th century.”

Analysis by Malene Lauritsen, a post-graduate researcher in the University of Exeter’s archaeology department, has proved from the bones that the turkeys were butchered and were probably eaten as part of a feast by wealthy people. The pottery lying alongside was also of high quality.

They were found together with the remains of a veal calf, several chickens, at least one goose and a sheep. This selection of food – some of which were very expensive at the time – suggests this was the rubbish created by a feast attended by people of high status.
“What is exciting about these turkey bones found in Exeter is that they date from almost exactly the same time as the first birds came to England. Their age certainly means it is possible that these are the remains of one of the first turkeys to come to England, or a turkey bred from this group,” Ms Lauritsen said.

“It is extremely rare to find turkey bones from this period. Remains from the first half of the 16th century have only been found in two other sites in Britain, the oldest from at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire. I have found cut marks on the bones, showing the birds were butchered. We can only guess at who ate them, and for what reason, but turkey would have been very expensive and the same household certainly ate other pricy meat too, so this must have been a special occasion.”

The bone trio has gone on temporary display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum to give them due recognition after so many years of obscurity. In early 2020, they will become part of Exeter: A Place in Time, a much larger exhibition about the city’s archaeological record in the RAMM’s Making History gallery.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Frantically seeking a last-minute gift for the budding archaeologist?

History Blog - Wed, 2017-12-20 00:05

Look no further. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) have solved all your Bad Santa problems by creating a short but extremely sweet coloring book about archaeology for all the kids out there with visions of skeletal remains and radiocarbon analysis dancing in their head. (Don’t even pretend you weren’t one. In fact, don’t even pretend you aren’t still one.) The best part is you can get it online for free, which means you don’t even have to order it to get it. You just click on this link (pdf) and print that bad boy up.

It’s called Adventures in Archaeological Science Coloring Book and it’s just as adorably serious as it sounds. It manages to touch on some of the most important scientific techniques in use in archaeology today: the study of dental calculus to map an individual’s diet and health, DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating, analyzing microscopic food residue on the inside of pottery, stable isotope analysis and more. The issues are addressed succinctly in a few lines accompanying eminently colorable line drawings of ancient figures, animals and scientists in full gear. Actually now that I think about it that poses a significant challenge, color-wise. You’d either wear out the white pencils or throw caution to the winds and go psychedelic.

The project started out as an adjunct to a workshop on scientific illustration run by Christina Warinner and Jessica Hendy at the MPI-SHH. It has been a popular course for several years running, so when the Institute was pondering events for Germany’s public outreach evening, the Long Night of Science, Warinner had the idea to enlist her students to make a coloring book that illustrated the science of archaeology. Then, as Warriner and Hendy were adding the text and editing the final version, they realized they wanted it to have as wide a reach as possible. Enter crowdsourcing.

As we were making the final touches to the coloring book, we realized that it would be a shame to have it only accessible to English and German-speaking children. Human history belongs to all of us, and the research and discoveries we feature in the book have taken place all over the world. We thought – wouldn’t it be great if we could share this information with children everywhere – in their own native language – so that they too could experience the joy and excitement of science and archaeology? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring this book with us to our field projects so that we could explain to local children what we are doing and what the world learns by studying people from the past? And most importantly, what if we could show these children that they too could be part of this process and inspire a future generation of archaeological scientists around the globe?

One of the best things about being at an institute like the MPI-SHH is that our researchers come from all over the world. I’ve lost count of how many nationalities are represented among our students and staff, but it is more than twenty, and together we work in dozens of countries on every continent. As the coloring book was nearing completion, we asked for volunteer translators and we were absolutely overwhelmed by the response – with immediate offers for Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Croatian, Finnish, and Swedish, among others. After posting the coloring book to Facebook, we had many more offers from archaeologist colleagues and collaborators, and we now have translations underway for Hindi, Turkish, Italian, Greek, Ukranian, and Hebrew. And we’ve also reached out to the communities where we conduct fieldwork, and we will soon have translations in Nahuatl, Yucatec Mayan, Nepali, Mongolian, and Tibetan.

One of the things I have loved about the translation process is that nearly every translation is being performed by an archaeologist or anthropologist who is a native speaker of that language. This means that in addition to learning about archaeological science, the children will be introduced to someone from their own language group who is participating in this research. We hope that this will help give the children tangible role models from their own countries and communities, and to help make this connection even more clear, we are adding “cartoonified” portraits of each translator to the back cover so that children can see them, look them up, and learn more about their work.

The coloring book is available in several of those languages already — English, Chinese, Spanish, German — with many more in the planning stages. Arabic, Dutch, Italian and Nahuatl are on the cusp of being released. Many more have been assigned translators. You can keep track of their progress here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Largest group of artifacts from 18th c. coffee house found in Cambridge University cellar

History Blog - Tue, 2017-12-19 00:04

In the mid-18th century, an establishment named Clapham’s Coffeehouse served beverages and comestibles to customers in Cambridge, England. Coffee and chocolate had been sold in England since the 17th century, and were popular with people on various rungs of the social ladder from working stiffs to literary luminaries to reigning monarchs. When William and Jane Clapham opened their place in the 1740s, coffee and chocolate houses were still doing brisk business. Clapham’s quickly became a social hub, popular with students and townies alike who were always keen to enjoy the hot gossip and news served daily alongside the hot food and drink. The good times rolled at Clapham’s until the mid-1770s when Jane, widowed and ready to retire, sold the coffeehouse. It was a well-timed retirement as hot coffee and chocolate’s fortunes were by then on the decline as tea rose inexorably to become the national drink.

The building changed hands and was in-filled. Soon Clapham’s was forgotten and the one-time hotspot was left in the cold until the 21st century when Cambridge University’s St John’s College called in archaeologists to survey the area of its Old Divinity School and a cellar was found off All Saints’ Passage that had hundreds of 18th century coffeehouse artifacts. The excavations were completed in 2012. In the final accounting, archaeologists recovered more than 500 objects, several of which provided clear evidence of their former owners.

Some of the items found were still clearly marked with William and Jane’s initials. They included tea bowls (the standard vessel for drinking tea at the time), saucers, coffee cans and cups, and chocolate cups – which the researchers were able to distinguish because they were taller, since “chocolate was served with a frothy, foamy head”. They also found sugar bowls, milk and cream jugs, mixing bowls, storage jars, plates, bowls, serving dishes, sauceboats, and many other objects.

Even though Clapham’s was a coffeehouse, the finds suggest that tea was fast winning greater affection among drinkers; tea bowls were almost three times as common as coffee cans or cups.

Perhaps more striking, however, was the substantial collection of tankards, wine bottles and glasses, indicating that alcohol consumption was normal. Some drinkers appear to have had favourite tankards reserved for their personal use, while the team also found two-handled cups, possibly for drinking “possets” – milk curdled with wine or ale, and often spiced.

Compared with the sandwiches and muffins on offer in coffee shops today, dining was a much bigger part of life at Clapham’s. Utensils and crockery were found for making patties, pastries, tarts, jellies, syllabubs and other desserts. Animal bones revealed that patrons enjoyed shoulders and legs of mutton, beef, pork, hare, rabbit, chicken and goose. The researchers also found oyster shells, and bones from fish such as eel, herring and mackerel.

This sensational find gave researchers the chance to do the first comprehensive study of artifacts from a single, identifiable 18th century coffeehouse. Being able to develop a thorough understanding of the history one specific coffeehouse by examining its material culture is important because you don’t have to rely solely on period sources written sources which could be any combination of incorrect, incomplete, incompetent, ignorant, one-sided, lying, etc.

Although coffeehouses have traditionally been associated with the increasing popularity of smoking in Britain, there was little evidence of much at Clapham’s. Just five clay pipes were found, including one particularly impressive specimen which carries the slogan “PARKER for ever, Huzzah” – possibly referring to the naval Captain Peter Parker, who was celebrated for his actions during the American War of Independence. The lack of pipes may be because, at the time, tobacco was considered less fashionable than snuff.

Together, the assemblage adds up to a picture in which, rather than making short visits to catch up on the news and engage in polite conversation, customers often settled in for the evening at an establishment that offered them not just hot beverages, but beer, wine, punch and liqueurs, as well as extensive meals. Some even seem to have “ordered out” from nearby inns if their favourite food was not on the menu.

There was little evidence, too, that they read newspapers and pamphlets, the rise of which historians also link to coffeehouses. Newspapers were perishable and therefore unlikely to survive in the archaeological record, but the researchers also point out that other evidence of reading – such as book clasps – has been found on the site of inns nearby, while it is absent here.

“We need to remember this was just one of thousands of coffeehouses and Clapham’s may have been atypical in some ways,” Cessford added. “Despite this it does give us a clearer sense than we’ve ever had before of what these places were like, and a tentative blueprint for spotting the traces of other coffeehouse sites in archaeological assemblages in the future.”

Their first research paper on the find. the excellently named “To Clapham’s I go,” has just been published in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four intact child burials found at stone quarry near Aswan

History Blog - Mon, 2017-12-18 00:53

Archaeologists have discovered four intact child burials in the 18th Dynasty necropolis at Gebel el-Silsila in the Aswan region of Egypt. Excavated by Lund University archaeologists with the Swedish-Egyptian archaeological mission in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities, first found the large necropolis last year and returned this year to explore it further.

The necropolis dates to the Thutmosid period, from the reign of Thutmose II in 1493 B.C. through that of his grandson Amenhotep II around 1401 B.C., a time when Gebel el-Silsila was in active use as stone quarry. Fewer than half of the 69 crypts and burial chambers discovered there so far have been excavated, and most of them were looted and damaged in antiquity. The four child burials, on the other hand, were not plundered which gave the team the rare opportunity to examine grave goods and human remains that are usually scattered and/or destroyed.

Burial ST59 was a crypt cut into the rock of the quarry walls in which the remains of a very young child, around 2-3 years old at time of death, were buried. The child was wrapped in linen and placed in what archaeologists believe was a wooden coffin. All that it’s left of it now is some organic crumbles so they can’t be sure what it was. The team thinks it was a wooden sarcophagus that was devoured by termites. It was covered by a sandstone lid that survived but in very poor condition. There were no grave goods and early osteological examination has not been able to determine cause of death.

Child burial ST63 was an inhumation in a wooden sarcophagus of a child between six and nine years old. The coffin was sealed with mud and positioned with the head to the east facing due north. While it was untouched by human interference, the annual flooding of the Nile, the high salt content in the air and a proliferation of beetles saw to it that the mud-sealed coffin suffered heavy damage. The beetles did extensive redecoration, in fact. They moved nefer-amulet from one location to the child’s chest where the archaeologists found it. Other grave goods buried with the little one included bronze bracelets and four scarabs amulets on the left wrist, a bronze razor wedged under the back of the head and an impressive collection of 10 ceramic vessels (beer jars, colorful bowls, plates).

ST64 was the inhumation of a child around 5-8 years old. There was no coffin, present or suggested. The body was wrapped in linen and laid to rest at the bottom of the tomb on a reed mats. The child was buried with three scarabs and one ceramic piece that at some point had moved and was no longer in its original spot.

The last child burial, ST69, was of a child between five and eight years old. It was a neglected burial, done with little care in an area that was still being quarried at the time. The body was put in the grave without goods, coffin or even a shroud and the grave filled in with rock spoil from the quarry work. Osteological examination found signs of illness.

“The team is excited about continuing the osteological analysis of the remains, which will hopefully provide us with more specific details regarding nutrition and the general health and well-being of the children,” lead archaeologists Maria Nilsson and John Ward of Lund University in Sweden wrote in an email to Live Science.

Gebel el Silsila was once thought to be a place where workers toiled and not much else happened — a site of “slaves and simple workers,” Nilsson and Ward said. But the excavations on the east bank of the Nile River have revealed a much richer picture of life at the quarry. In 2016, the same researchers reported the discovery of 42 tombs, mostly empty, and a shrine. They’ve also discovered the carved statues of a man named Neferkhewe and his family. In total, Nilsson and Ward said, the team has excavated almost 30 of the 69 tombs discovered, including two belonging to infants. […]

The research team plans to further analyze the bones found in the graves, Ward and Nilsson said.

“The importance of these child burials is first and foremost that they provide the team with a possibility to study completely preserved inhumations, giving insights into the burial customs and pathological information, but they are also a strong indication of the existence and activity of complete families on site,” they wrote to Live Science.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cist grave points to Bronze Age burial ground near Loch Ness

History Blog - Sun, 2017-12-17 00:53

Archaeologists surveying a site in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness in Scotland have discovered a 4,000-year-old cist grave. There were no human remains in the stone-lined pit because it had become filled with soil and any organic materials decayed into nothingness, but there was a single carinated beaker found intact on the cobbled floor. The geometric decoration of the pot identified it as dating to and 2200-1900 B.C.

The find is all the more significant because it’s not the only one. Another cist burial was unearthed on land adjacent to the current site in January 2015 after archaeologists were called in on an urgent salvage mission. Workers building a new health center in Drumnadrochit raised a large stone slab and found a stone-lined burial cist containing human skeletal remains in a crouched position. Preliminary study assessed the bones to date to the Bronze Age and a full archaeological excavation ensued. It revealed a partial skeleton of an adult. The remains weren’t in great condition, but three feet away from the inhumation, archaeologists found an oval pit with sherds from a beaker.

These were the first Bronze Age artifacts and human remains found in the location between the Coilte and Enrick rivers. At the time, archaeologists thought that might be significant, that the proximity to an ancient river channel made the site appealing to Bronze Age people as a site for funerary ritual. The area has long since been drained to make way for farming and it’s likely that centuries of agricultural activity damaged any other burials. The discovery of the intact beaker pot in a cist, even without a body, supports the contention that the spot had special meaning 4,000 or so years ago.

Mary Peteranna, Operations Manager for AOC Archaeology’s Inverness office, said: “The discovery of a second Bronze Age cist on the site provides increasing evidence for the special selection of this site in the prehistoric landscape as a location for ceremonial funerary activity.

“This cist, along with the medical centre cist and a second burial pit, is generating much more information about the prehistory of Glen Urquhart.”

Mrs Peteranna added: “Historically, there was a large cairn shown on maps of the area but you can imagine that centuries of ploughing in these fields have removed any upstanding reminders of prehistoric occupation.

“During the work, we actually found a displaced capstone from another grave that either has not survived or has not yet been discovered. So it’s quite likely that these graves were covered by stone cairns or mounds, long-since ploughed out.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rock art may be 1st depiction of leashed dogs

History Blog - Sat, 2017-12-16 00:36

Intricately etched rock panels in the Saudi desert include some of the earliest known depictions of dogs and humans hunting together and of canines being handled by people with leashes. A recent study of some 1,400 rock art panels at the sites of Shuwaymis and Jubbah in northwestern Saudi Arabia found 147 scenes of packs of dogs helping people take down prey like equids (likely African asses), lions, ibex, gazelles and leopards. The canines did front lines duty, assault the prey with overwhelming forces to weaken them before the humans came in with bows and arrows to deliver the killing blows. In one scene in which 21 dogs surround an equid mother and her young, two of the dogs have a thick line carved from their necks to their humans’ hip, the earliest known evidence of this familiar link in prehistory.

The dogs are morphologically similar to modern-day Canaan dogs with pointed ears and curly tails, but there’s no way of knowing if they are an ancestor of the breed, or even if they were imported to the area of descendants of native tamed wolves. The fact that some of the dogs were leashed suggests there were already being utilized and trained for different jobs on the hunt. The exact date of the rock art is also unclear. Archaeologists believe they date to the Holocene, about 8,000-9,000 years ago, but there was no material at the rock art sites that could yield precision dating.

“This is the first imagery of a dog with a leash,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany, and an author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and was first reported by Science. He said that because of where the lines were on the dog and human’s anatomy, they most likely represented actual leashes and were not mere symbolic lines.

Dr. Petraglia added that the rock art most likely dated to the early Holocene period, which began around when the Paleolithic ice age closed. But he acknowledged that the team was unable to date it directly because the etchings left little indication for when they were carved. Instead the team correlated the rock art with nearby archaeological sites that they had dated.

The team also found that the dog images were carved beneath images of cattle, which they said indicated that the dog images came earlier. They said earlier evidence had suggested these particular ancient humans had domesticated dogs before they began keeping cattle. They added that the transition from being hunter-gatherers to herding most likely occurred between 6,800 B.C. and 6,200 B.C., which they used to hypothesize that the rock art featuring dogs appeared before humans began herding.

“We can now say about 9,000 years ago people already controlled their dogs and had them on leashes and used them for really complex hunting strategies,” said Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and lead author.

The dating is tenuous, however. Until they find direct evidence of the age of the rock art, they can’t confirm with certainty that this is the earliest leashed dog depiction or what it says about the development of human-canine cooperation before the Neolithic. The study has been published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and can be read free of charge online.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

More preserved organic material found at ruins of Lechaion

History Blog - Fri, 2017-12-15 00:15

Lechaion, the main harbour town of the rich and powerful city of Corinth at the north end of the strategic isthmus connecting the Peloponnese peninsula to mainland Greece, was a bustling hub of Mediterranean trade from more than 1,000 years (with a brief interruption courtesy of the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. Julius Caesar had it rebuilt in 44 B.C., and the shinier, bigger Lechaion, aka Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis, got right back to business until it was destroyed in an earthquake in the late 6th century A.D.

The harbour structures, including massive ones from the Roman era, have been fully submerged, most of them deep under layers of sand and sediment, ever since and were barely explored despite their historical significance until 2014 when the Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP) took on the long-delayed task of surveying the site. The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute at Athens have been collaborating on this ambitious project, sending teams of marine archaeologists to explore the physical ruins and geologists with the latest scanning technology to detect the buried remains that can’t be seen.

In 2015, LHP researchers discovered extremely rare surviving remains: large sections of six wooden barges, a total of 187 feet of wood, used as caissons to protect the harbour from heavy wind, surf and sedimentation. The warm brine of the Mediterranean is a welcoming environment for woodworm which can reduce timbers to nothingness in weeks. The odds of finding organic remains of any kind from thousands of years ago, never mind on so grand a scale, are vanishingly small. It gave rise to the hope that the team might someday find actual ship remains, maybe even a trireme, much sought but never found.

No trireme has turned up yet, but this season’s archaeological survey has found more organic material, including a worked wood post in jaw-dropping condition, seeds, nuts, twigs, fruit pits and bones. The caissons were part of two Roman-era monumental piers, dubbed Mole L-M1 and Mole L-M2, whose massive stone block are the only remains of the Outer Harbour still visible just above the water line.

“During the 2017 excavations, the first Roman-period harbour structures at Lechaion have come to light. The mysterious island monument in the middle of Harbour Basin 3 – an area of the Inner Harbour measuring 24,500 m2 – was dated to the early 1st century AD. It was likely built as part of a Roman building program designed to help restore Corinth, just as the enormous 45 metres long, 18 metres wide and 4 metres high mole was constructed on exactly the same orientation as the mysterious island monument. Also, we identified a new roughly 40.000 m2 large harbour basin in the Outer Harbour (probably 6th century AD), another 40.000 m2 basin in the Inner Harbour dated to the mid-1st century AD, and the possible foundation for a lighthouse,” reports University of Copenhagen archaeologist Bjørn Lovén who co-directs the Lechaion Harbour Project.

“We have excavated archaeological layers where almost everything is preserved. Consider the pristine preservation of the roughly 2000-year-old wooden post (see video) and imagine how well-preserved wood and other organic materials that still lie at the bottom of this harbour,” says Bjørn Lovén.

The wooden post probably served as either a part of the foundations for the structure itself or perhaps as a bollard for mooring ships. The team also unearthed a variety of seeds, bones with cut marks, a roller from a wooden block, and fragments of worked wood.

“As a part of our research the Centre for GeoGenetics will extract and analyse the ancient environmental DNA from the important archaeological deposits and attempt to reconstruct the past environment genetically. Recently, they have shown that ancient DNA in deposits can identify a wide variety of organisms, everything from bacteria to plants and animals. Hence, they will characterise what lived in the area of Lechaion during the various phases of Antiquity, including the Roman period. We are discovering everything from DNA evidence to monumental moles constructed of five-ton blocks,” concludes Lovén.

This video has some phenomenal footage of the moles from above and under the water, including shots of mud lines and trident marks carved into the massive five-ton blocks, plus the island monument in the Inner Harbour and its glossy golden wooden post.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

How to kill with a Neolithic club

History Blog - Thu, 2017-12-14 00:28

University of Edinburgh researchers have gone full CSI to discover how a Neolithic artifact could have been used to inflict fatal damage on a human skull. We don’t know much about what kind of weapons Neolithic people deployed to kill each other. Skulls have been found bearing the tell-tale signs of blunt force trauma, but objects that are clearly identifiable as weapons are thin on the ground. There are all kinds of weapons in the archaeological record from the Bronze and Iron Age periods — daggers, swords, pointy things made for the express purpose of person-to-person combat — but Stone Age objects like bows and arrows, clubs and axes are more ambiguous. They could be hunting tools, intended to injure or kill animals, or work tools.

There hasn’t been a great deal of research into what implements might have inflicted the cranial blunt force trauma wounds seen in the Neolithic osteological record, so the UoE’s Meaghan Dyer and Linda Fibiger turned to experimental forensic testing not unlike the methods dramatized in more or less ludicrous ways on TV shows like CSI. They chose not to opt for animal carcasses (of questionable accuracy) and human cadavers (of questionable medical ethics). They took a more cutting edge approach, employing a synthetic polyurethane “skin-skull-brain” model which unlike the animal carcasses accurately replicates human cranial morphology and unlike the cadavers does not require the violent treatment of human remains. This is the first use of the synthetic model in an experimental investigation of Neolithic blunt force trauma.

The weapon of choice for this test was a replica of the Thames Beater, an alder club recovered from the River Thames near London’s Chelsea neighborhood that was radiocarbon dated to 4660 ± 50 before the present, towards the end of the Neolithic period (about 7000 to 2000 B.C.). It was a very rare find, one of only a small number of Neolithic clubs to survive in Britain until the present, and is now in the Museum of London. Cracked and chipped from its advanced age, the Thames Beater is reminiscent of a busted cricket bat with an angled wooden blade tapering down to a thinner barrel and capped with a round pommel. It was more than two feet long when it was made.

The research team commissioned master carpenter David Lewis of Pelynt, Cornwall, to recreate the piece as it was 4600 years ago. He used alder wood and reproduced the weight, shape, dimensions and every other known aspect of the object to make the experiment as accurate as possible. Two skin-skull-brain models of different thicknesses to account for human variance (one 5mm thick, one 7mm) were created in Switzerland from polyurethane spheres coated in rubber skin. They left a hole open in the bottom for the researchers to introduce brain-simulating ballistics gelatin.

Then it was show time. One of the research assistants was the lucky wielder of the replica Thames Beater.

Once constructed the skin-skull-brain spheres were placed on an elevated platform 108.0cm high, supported on a cork ring 3.1cm tall and 13.8cm in diameter. The hole in the sphere was placed facing down. A right-handed adult male, 30 years old, 193.0cm tall and 88.5kg carried out the strikes.

Two types of blows were used to investigate any variable fracture patterns produced by different areas of the club. Figure four shows the hand positions for the pommel blow and the double-handed blade strike. For the doubled handed strikes with the blade, the club was swung into the air and down onto the skin-skull-brain model, contacting at the end of the blade. The blows with the pommel end of the club, had the club drawn up and the pommel aimed at the skin-skull-brain model. The strikes with the pommel had a notable decrease in force.

The skin-skull-brain models amply proved their worth, producing depression fractures deep enough to displace bone and radiating fractures that spread around the spheres. These are the wounds you’d expect to see in blunt force trauma. The pommel blows were particularly effective, creating large linear fractures extending outwards from the impact point. When the results were compared with the trauma evident on Neolithic skulls, they matched, in one case all but perfectly.

The depression fractures formed by the double-handed blade strikes to the skin-skull-brain models have significant resemblance to examples of diagnosed intentional blunt force trauma in the Neolithic osteological record. The fracture morphology, shape of displaced fragments and the beveled fracture edges produced in both spheres match very closely with trauma hypothetically linked to wooden club weapons (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Schulting and Wysocki 2005: 125; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 108). This experimental study successfully demonstrates the accuracy of this summation, most notably with the remarkable match found in the 7mm thick sphere.

The fractures present on the 7mm sphere bear remarkable similarity to injuries in Individual 3, a 35-40 year old male from the Neolithic Austrian site of Asparn/Schletz (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 107). As seen in Figure 8, both skulls have a long thin depression site near the top of the skull, with several radiating fractures. The impact sites on both also have one straight and one slightly curved border. This is a remarkable match between the archaeological record and the experimental results.

The study breaks as much ground as it did polyurethane spheres. It confirms the viability of the models in doing this kind of experimental testing and can be applied to osteological remains from many time periods and contexts.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First the dinobird, now its ticks found in amber

History Blog - Wed, 2017-12-13 00:22

The rich deposits of amber mined in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have produced another stellar example of Cretaceous creatures frozen in a dramatic and scientifically significant posture. Earlier this year researchers found the remains of a baby avian dinosaur of the enantiornithes species which was uniquely well-preserved having spent 99 million years encased in amber. The discovery shed new light on the animal’s growth and development, and now the same can be said for a long-extinct tick. A nymph tick of the Cornupalpatum burmanicum species has been found in resin caught in the act of grabbing onto the feather of an avian dinosaur.

Modern ticks feast mightily on the blood of mammals, but their ancestors didn’t have the smorgasbord of mammal species to enjoy that exist on the planet today. Mammals only got so numerous, large and varied after the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction event 65 million years ago. What animals were their primary source of food in the Cretaceous? Most scientists thought reptiles, amphibians and the little mammals that were scurrying about at the time were likely sources. For one thing, there were enough of them to support an extensive parasitic population, unlike avian dinosaurs.

Researcher Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History thought the avialans worth exploring as prospective tick drive-thrus, and spent years studying ticks trapped in amber for evidence of their environment.

The tick-and-feather pair support a theory that Pérez-de la Fuente had already spent years developing, based on other ticks trapped in amber from the same period. Those ticks didn’t have dinosaur feathers encased with them, but there were little hairs. The hairs resemble those left behind by a type of beetle larva that, today, lives in bird nests.

“We had this indirect evidence about the relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs,” Pérez-de la Fuente says, but the researchers didn’t have any direct evidence for the relationship until they saw the tick and feather trapped together in amber. […]

Now, just because there’s a feather and a tick holding on to it during the resin flood that would kill it doesn’t make it incontrovertible proof that they fed off the avian dinosaurs. Other animals lived in nests (viz the above-mentioned beetle larva) and the feather could be an accidental floater that seems more suggestive than it is.

Pérez-de la Fuente acknowledges there is more work to be done to clarify the ancient origins of ticks and their blood-sucking behaviors. For example, one amber specimen contains a tick engorged with blood, but Pérez-de la Fuente and his co-authors couldn’t figure out how to analyze that blood because the tick wasn’t entirely encased in amber, so the iron in the blood was contaminated with minerals.

USE FROG DNA!11 What could possibly go wrong? Seriously, being able to purify and analyze prehistoric blood, even blood that has been contaminated environmentally, would open up intriguing new avenues of exploration. Give the leaps in analytic and DNA technology over the past few decades, it’s not inconceivable that someone will figure out how to study the blood of these kinds of specimens.

Interesting side note: we don’t know exactly where in Myanmar the amber ticks used in the study were found. The specimens were sold online to private collectors, but in something of a watershed event, one collector donated his amber to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the other actually participated in the study. He has an author credit on the newly published study in the journal Nature Communication.

“We actually broke the wall between private collectors and scientists which is very uncommon, especially in paleontology,” Pérez-de la Fuente says. “That by itself is a success.”

May it be the first of many.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ice Age fossils found in LA subway construction

History Blog - Tue, 2017-12-12 00:28

The expansion of the subway system in Los Angeles, California, has an unexpected commonality with Rome’s tortured endeavors to build a new line through the historic center: the ground under these cities is crammed full of the remains of the current residents’ predecessors. In Rome’s case it’s ancient archaeological materials, while Los Angeles’ specialty is Ice Age fossils. The company that has LA’ contract for digging the new tunnels keeps a paleontologist on call at all times so that whenever they find something, which is often, it can be properly handled and recovered by a professional. It’s a state regulatory requirement that has ensured the protection of cultural and natural historic patrimony since subway construction first began the 1990s, an attempt to right the many wrongs done to Los Angeles’ history and prehistory during its earlier spurts of rapid growth.

The latest fossil bumper crop has been springing up since 2014 when construction on the extension of the Metro Purple Line started. Paleontologist Ashley Leger of Cogstone Resource Management (CGM) was contracted to examine any finds made by work crews excavating tunnels. Whenever they found something, they’d stop what they were doing, call her and move over to another location to continue work on the project. That gave her the space she needed while still keeping the extension on some semblance of a schedule. The construction crews even pitch in when help is needed.

Most of the finds haven’t required their aid. Leger has unearthed, among other remains, fragments of a rabbit jaw, one mastodon tooth, the foreleg bone of a camel, several bison vertebrae, one tooth and one ankle bone from a horse. But, appropriately for a show business industry town, Los Angeles had something far more spectacular saved up for her. Last year, she got a late night call from one CGM’s site monitors. He said they’d found something and that “it looks big.”

The next morning, Leger knelt at the site and recognized what appeared to be a partial elephant skull.
It turned out to be much more. After 15 hours of painstaking excavation, the team uncovered an intact skull of a juvenile mammoth.

“It’s an absolute dream come true for me,” said Leger, who spent the previous decade at a South Dakota mammoth site with no discoveries even close to the size of the one in Los Angeles. “It’s the one fossil you always want to find in your career.” […]

From there, the skull was hauled a mile or so to Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, home to one of America’s most fossil-rich sites.
Assistant curator Dr. Emily Lindsey called it a “pretty remarkable find,” noting that while thousands of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat remains have been uncovered in L.A., there have been only about 30 mammoths.

A few hundred pounds and the size of an easy chair, the skull is especially rare because both tusks were attached. It’s being studied and is available for public viewing inside the museum’s glass-walled Fossil Lab.

The skull with its glamorous attached tusks and those crazy mammoth teeth with the Golgi Apparatus-looking molars was named Hayden after the actress Hayden Panettiere who was apparently on TV when the CGM monitor first spotted the big head.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Two unopened tombs rediscovered in Luxor

History Blog - Mon, 2017-12-11 00:30

Luxor’s Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis has capped a year of sensational finds with another compelling rarity: two unexplored tombs discovered in the 1990s but never opened or excavated. They were first unearthed by German Egyptologist Friederike Kampp-Seyfried who recorded their existence and named tem Kampp 150 and Kampp 161, but he did not explore them. He excavated Kampp 150 only up to the entrance, and he didn’t get to Kampp 161 at all. They were forgotten and neglected and only rediscovered by Egyptian archaeologists who have been exploring the necropolis

In less than 10 months, archaeologists excavating the necropolis have found more than a thousand ushabti figurines, eight mummies, 10 wooden sarcophagi with still-vibrant polychrome paint, all in the tomb a magistrate named Userhat, the first funerary garden ever discovered and the tomb of a New Kingdom goldsmith named Amenemhat. All of the tombs unearthed this remarkable year date to the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550-1292 B.C.) when Luxor, then Thebes, was the capital and the primary religious and administrative center of the kingdom. The people buried at Draa Abul Nagaa originally were likely priests, courtiers and government functionaries.

Neither of the newly-opened tombs include inscriptions specifically identifying the deceased as such, so we can’t be certain who was buried there or what function they may have performed at the pharaonic courts. The earlier tomb, Kampp 150, a mud-brick and masonry structure, is about 3,500 years old. It is larger than Kampp 161, with five entrances that open onto a courtyard that has two shaft burials on the north and south side.

Archaeologists found a significant number of artifacts inside, including painted wood funerary masks, funerary cones, earthenware vessels and around 450 painted wood figurines. They also found human remains: a mummy with intact linen wrappings indicating he was an individual of rank and ministerial importance. On the ceiling is a cartouche of the pharaoh Thutmose I, which dates the tomb and indicates the deceased may have been an official in his government. We do have one potential clue to the occupants of the tomb. Funerary seals in the courtyard bear the names of Maati and Mohi, a scribe and his wife. It’s not as precise as an inscription or dedication, but the presence of multiple seals naming the same couple does suggest they might have been buried there.

Kampp 161 has a single shaft burial but no remains were found there. There is no tell-tale cartouche to date it, but stylistically the tomb is comparable to its neighbors built in the reigns of Amenhotep II or Thutmose IV, around 3,400 years ago. The crown jewel of the tomb’s decoration is a mural on the western wall that has had some paint loss but not much. What’s left is a richly colored banquet or ritual during which people present offerings to the deceased and his wife. Archaeologists unearthed wooden funerary masks, intact and fragmentary, pieces of wooden furniture, and a painted coffin in the tomb.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Puttin’ on the Rijks

History Blog - Sun, 2017-12-10 00:30

Why yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist on the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Massive Venezuela petroglyphs mapped for the first time

History Blog - Sat, 2017-12-09 00:25

Large rock art panels discovered recently on islands in the Atures Rapids in the Amazonas region of western Venezuela have been thoroughly mapped and studied for the first time by researchers from University College London (UCL). The engraved images of animals, people and symbols were carved by local people up to 2,000 years ago. (Shortly after the Spanish arrived, Jesuit missionaries identified the Adoles as the inhabitants of this area, but we don’t know who was there before.) Thanks to the historically low level of the Orinoco River, more petroglyphs have been exposed. Researchers found eight groups of rock art on five islands. Some of these engravings, individual and as a group, are huge. One panel is festooned with 93 petroglyphs over an area of 3270 square feet. A horned snake from another panel is 100 feet long just on its own. These are some of the largest rock art panels ever found anywhere in the world.

It was a challenging task recording such large and spread-out petroglyphs carved into high rock faces in the middle of the Orinoco River. That’s why this study is unprecedented. Others have studied the artworks, but were not able to get anywhere near as close and as a detailed a view as the University College London archaeologist. The team employed robot aides in the form of drones to take aerial overhead pictures of the engraved surfaces that were out of puny human reach. Every petroglyph was documented in photographs and their dimensions and positioning measured using photogrammetry (a technology that derives precise spatial data from photographs by creating 3D renderings of the pictures). Researchers also studied the relationship between the Atures Rapids petroglyphs, their archaeological and cultural context and the links they suggest between the locals who carved them and other indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Latin America.

The paper’s author Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times.”

“While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday – how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary.” […]

In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.

The research is part of the Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal Investigator, Dr José Oliver (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “Our project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted in this area over the course of two millennia before European colonization. The project’s aim is to better understand these interactions.”

“Mapping the rock engravings represents a major step towards an enhanced understanding of the role of the Orinoco River in mediating the formation of pre-Conquest social networks throughout northern South America.”

The UCL research team’s findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here. It’s openly available for now (be warned: that could change) and makes a fascinating read.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History