Arts and Sciences

Remains of temple and Ball game court found in Mexico City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

It’s not over yet, but…

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Programming Note (of Doom)

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Picasso portait ring of Dora Maar for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Human tooth found inside H.L. Hunley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Slough hill found to be rare Anglo-Saxon mound

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The excavation is scheduled to continue for five years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British Museum conserves Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History