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Touch a 1,000-year-old Viking palisade

Tue, 2017-06-27 23:34

The town of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark, was the seat of the earliest kings of Denmark in the 10th century. Today the Jelling complex consists of two large burial mounds, two monumental runestones and a small church built on the site of three earlier wooden churches going back 1,000 years. The combination of tumuli, runestones and church capture the transition from the traditional Norse religion to Christianity. King Gorm the Old, the first king of Denmark, dedicated the smaller and older of the runestones. The inscription translates to: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” His son Harald Bluetooth had the second, much larger stone raised and its runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

Within the perimeter of Jelling, the massive cultural shift from the reign of Gorm (936- ca. 958) to that of Harald (958– ca. 986) is documented in language, funerary and religious architecture. That’s why the Jelling mounds, runestones and church are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and why the site is one of the most important in Danish history.

In 2006, archaeologists were able to explore a previously inaccessible area: the bed of a pond across from Gorm’s Mound. Before a planned renovation, the pond was pumped dry giving archaeologists the opportunity to excavate the mucky bottom looking for remains of the large wooden stockade that once encircled the royal estate at Jelling. Postholes from the stockade had been found before, but no physical remains. The stockade was known to have intersected part of what is now the pond, and therefore there was a chance the thick clay and mud on the bottom of the pond had preserved the organic remains of the stockade’s timbers. Viking-era reports suggested there had been a body of water in the area when the stockade was built, so conditions for preservation of wood may have existed on site since the 10th century.

Excavation along what was believed to be the stockade line hit the jackpot almost immediately. Just over two feet under the pond bed surface, archaeologists unearthed four large oak posts. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken from three of posts found that all samples were approximately 1,000 years old. In later excavations (2012-3), archaeologists found vertical stakes also made of oak. They are 4-5 inches thick and were driven directly into the clay of the pond bed two-by-two. There was no ditch dug into the soil first as in evidence elsewhere along the palisade line. This could only have been accomplished if the site was already watery when the stockade was built in the 10th century by Harald Bluetooth who greatly enhanced the Jelling defenses.

King Harald’s stockade was a huge, kite-shaped fence measuring around 1180 x 1180 feet, totaling just under a mile of wooden palisades at least 10 feet high. There’s evidence of some sort of superstructure at the top of the fence, perhaps a parapet for defenders to patrol. It is by far the largest Viking fenced-in space ever discovered in Denmark or Scandinavia. It’s also the only kite-shaped palisade known. The discovery of the timbers has been a boon to research on the architecture and layout of Jelling. Excavations also unearthed evidence of three different longhouses and a boat burial, although no boat remains have survived.

So far, the oak posts and vertical stakes are all of the physical remains archaeologists have found of the stockade. One of their dearest wishes came true when they found a timber large enough among the thick, square planks to be dated with dendrochronological examination (i.e., tree ring counting). The wood posts and stakes were recovered from the pond site and transported to the National Museum’s Conservation Department in Brede. They were dendrochronologically dated to between 958 and 985 A.D., with 968 A.D. the likeliest year for the felling of the oak tree.

Even if the widest dates prove accurate, these years fall squarely into the reign of Harald Bluetooth, confirming the timbers found were part of Harald’s defensive expansion. After four years, the timbers have been stabilized and will go on display starting June 29th at the National Museum’s Jelling branch. The exhibition will explain to visitors the challenges in building such a huge structure in Jelling a thousand years ago. Just securing enough large oak trees for a palisade a mile long would have been enormously difficult; cutting them down, processing them and carrying them to Jelling added exponentially to the level of difficulty.

The surviving wood planks and posts will be displayed in custom cases, protected from light, heat, fluctuating moisture levels, humans and the wide variety of damaging microorganisms we take with us wherever we go. All except for one small fragment from the palisade that would have disappeared compared to the larger pieces behind the glass. Curators therefore decided to allow guests to touch a piece of a 10th century Viking stockade that once enclosed the royal compound of kings Gorm and Harald. Since it was Harald Bluetooth who ordered this stockade built, it’s eminently possibly that he even touched that same sliver of wood that Jelling visitors will now get to touch.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Original 1953 Disneyland concept map sells for $708,000

Mon, 2017-06-26 23:50


The first map of Disneyland, created in a single frenetic weekend of 1953 by Walt Disney and Disney artist Herb Ryman, sold at a Van Eaton Galleries auction in Los Angeles on Sunday for $708,000. That’s on the low-end of the $700,000 to $900,000 pre-sale estimate — some breathless reports before the auction suggested the price could top $1 million — but it still sets a record for the most expensive Disneyland map ever sold, even though it’s not an actual map of the real life Disneyland.

The map was created to use in a pitch to a potential investor, the television studio ABC which was then just five years old. Walt Disney’s idea for a theme park nestled in the orange groves of Anaheim, California, sounded like a cockamamie scheme to most money people and Walt and his brother Roy were repeatedly turned down. Walt was so convinced this was a winning idea that he refinanced his home to raise money for the enterprise, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Construction of Disneyland would cost $17 million and to convinced financial types to invest that kind of money, Walt realized he needed to create a visual representation of his idea so they could get it without having to use their limited imaginations.

On September 26th and 27th, 1953, the weekend before Roy Disney’s pitch meeting with ABC executives in New York City, Walt Disney and Herb Ryman sealed themselves in to a room at Disney Studio a drew up a map. Disney told Ryman what to draw, and Ryman penciled his boss’ vision on a sheet of vellum. He then transferred the drawing to more durable paper and hand-inked and colored it. The map was mounted on a three-fold presentation board and Roy Disney hustled it off to New York to present Walt’s vision to the ABC people. It worked. In exchange for a Disney-produced TV series to be aired on the network, ABC agreed to finance the construction of Disneyland, still the biggest network deal in history adjusted for inflation. (Disney bought all of ABC’s shares of Disneyland in 1960 and 36 years later bought ABC itself.)

In October, Roy brought the map back to California where it was used throughout 1953 and 1954 to show designers, investors, engineers and artists what Walt had in mind. It was altered several times in 1954 — lines darkened, colors added, new cars hooked up to the train, the scroll gussied up — and was repeatedly featured in the advanced publicity materials from September 19th, 1954, until the park’s opening on July 15th, 1955.

It didn’t keep up with the planning, though. Land of Tomorrow on the map became Tomorrowland in the park. Frontier Country became Frontierland. Lilliputian Land never happened at all. Sleeping Beauty Castle, the center point of Disneyland, is way at the back of the park in the concept map. The train station and Main Street square do match up with the real Disneyland.

Even though the map had been essential to securing the funding for Walt Disney’s brainchild and in promoting it in the months before its opening, Walt gave it away without hesitation before the park was even completed. The lucky recipient was one Grenade Curran, a show business veteran and jack of all trades who worked at Walt Disney Studios.

Grenade’s father was Charles Curran, an adept with the hand-held camera who became both Clark Gable’s and Roy Rogers’ personal cameraman. His mother had been an MGM dancer in her youth and had a very successful later career in the studio’s scenic art department. With an uncle and cousin in the business as well, Grenade grew up on the backlots of Hollywood. He was buddies with some of the most famous actors of all time and their children. From the time he was a baby, he was in front of the camera in commercials and movies. As an adult, he followed in his mother’s proverbial footsteps and worked as a background dancer in classic MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Band Wagon. Over his decades in the business, he also worked behind the camera, touching every aspect of production from wardrobe to set design to direction.

In 1954 he got his first job with Walt Disney Studios working as a safety diver on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas. Several other behind-the-scenes jobs followed in Disney pictures and television shows. Walt Disney knew Curran’s family and he took a liking to Grenade, not the least because of his undeniably kickass first name. So even though he was just a regular production guy, not an executive, animator or an artist, Grenade found himself in the middle of historic events thanks to that jocular rapport he had with Disney.

After the deal was struck in New York, Walt Disney showed Grenade the first check from ABC and the check the mortgage company gave him when he refinanced his home. Grenade also saw the map, witnessing artists make changes and additions at Disney’s command. In March of 1955, Grenade asked him what he planned to do with the map and then boldly asked if he could have it. Walt said yes and Grenade Curran became the proud owner of the first map of Disneyland.

Construction on the park began in 1954 and on July 15th, 1955, Disneyland had its World Premiere Invitational Opening broadcast live on television and hosted by Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummins. Walt Disney assigned Grenade Curran to drive one of the Autopia cars in the very first Main Street Parade led by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Actor Don DeFore road in the car with him.

The opening was supposed to be an invitation-only preview, a show for celebrities and tantalizing glimpse brought to the rest of the country by ABC, but word got out and the public showed up in droves. The park, which was still under construction as of that morning, wasn’t even remotely ready for the 50,000 people who clamored to ride the teacups, moon over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and squeal with delighted horrors through Snow White’s haunted forest. The asphalt on the streets melted in the 100 degree Anaheim heat. The toilets backed up. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And yet, the massive failure of the opening day was also proof that Disneyland was a major draw, would make all of its costs back lickety-split and basically turn out to be a license to print money.

Curran knew when he got the map that it was significant as a piece of history and a unique example of Walt Disney’s creativity and his team’s artistry. When Disneyland’s success birthed a myriad theme parks all over the world, he realized the map marked the beginning of a global cultural phenomenon. He kept it for 25 years before selling it to avid Disney collector Ron Clark. Clark has had it in a vault ever since. The map went on display for the first time in more than 60 years earlier this month at the auction preview.

The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous but appears to be a private collector. Clark had hoped the map would be acquired by Disney so it could go home, but they must not have been bidding because there’s no way a company with pockets as deep as Disney’s wouldn’t push the hammer price above the low estimate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Large collection of Nazi objects found in Buenos Aires

Sun, 2017-06-25 23:51

Argentina’s federal police and Interpol discovered a secret cache of Nazi artifacts in a Buenos Aires home earlier this month. It was an accidental find. The police were looking for smuggled Chinese art, antiquities and mummies but instead found around 75 Nazi objects in a room at the end of a secret passageway whose entrance was hidden behind a bookshelf. The collection is varied but appears to be of very high end material — magnifying glasses, telescopes, firearms, medals, an award from Krupp, a Reichsadler (imperial eagle) manufactured by Carl Eickhorn of Solingen, busts and reliefs of Hitler, a presentation dagger with carved antler handle and swastika medallion, swastika-branded toys like board games and harmonicas to help raise good Nazi children. It is the largest collection of Nazi tat ever found in Argentina.

Officials believe these pieces may have been entered Argentina with one of the high-ranking Nazi officials who traveled to the country either during the party’s heyday or who fled there after Germany’s defeat. The monster/doctor Josef Mengele who used Auschwitz inmates as guinea pigs in his sickening and usually fatal experiments lived in Buenos Aires for more than a decade from 1949 until 1960. Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust who was “just following orders,” was captured by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960, tried in Israel, convicted and executed. The home where the secret trove was found is in Beccar, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires. Both Mengele and Eichmann lived in Beccar during their sojourns in the Argentinian capital.

The name of the homeowner has not been released. All the authorities will say about this individual is that he is a collector who claims to have acquired the Nazi memorabilia in a single purchase 25 years ago from an Argentinian national. He has an eclectic group of 17 different collections, including a collection of erotica which features highly decorative Russian dildos from the Tsarist era. The collector has yet to be charged for any crime, but he is accused of smuggling (charges unrelated to the Nazi artifacts) and is being investigated for illegal sale of Nazi propaganda. He insists he wasn’t selling any of those objects and his ownership of them is not against the law.

Meanwhile, the objects have yet to be authenticated. No matter what he was doing with them, if they’re fakes, it’s not illegal even if he was trying to sell them. The police have called in historians to study the pieces and help determine their origin.

“Our first investigations indicate that these are original pieces,” Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told The Associated Press on Monday, saying that some pieces were accompanied by old photographs. “This is a way to commercialize them, showing that they were used by the horror, by the Fuhrer. There are photos of him with the objects.” […]

Police say one of the most-compelling pieces of evidence of the historical importance of the find is a photo negative of Hitler holding a magnifying glass similar to those found in the boxes.

“We have turned to historians and they’ve told us it is the original magnifying glass” that Hitler was using, said Nestor Roncaglia, head of Argentina’s federal police. “We are reaching out to international experts to deepen” the investigation.

Militaria expert and appraiser Bill Panagopulos of Alexander Historical Auctions disputes the police’s initial conclusions in the strongest possible terms, calling the objects “carnival-quality garbage” and “a bunch of ersatz liverwurst.”

There’s no question that authentication is going to be challenging, if not impossible. The Eickhorn company still exists today in Solingen, for example, but their records are patchy thanks to the disruption war and several bankruptcies. They found nothing in the archives matching the Eickhorn pieces found in Buenos Aires, and counterfeits abound.

Once the investigation is complete, the plan is to give the artifacts to the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen. If they prove to be fakes, the museum may not be interested, and even if they are authentic, this could well end up in civil court if the collector files a claim of legitimate ownership.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient cemetery found during work on new Managua stadium

Sat, 2017-06-24 23:11

A few days ago, workers with Nicaragua’s National Electric Transmission Company (Enatrel) discovered six large pottery vessels while digging a ditch for a substation to power the new National Baseball Stadium currently under construction in Managua. They called in experts from the archaeological department of the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture (INC) who excavated the site further and discovered more than 30 of those large vessels. They also found the vestiges of inhumation burials, skeletal human remains and smaller pieces of pottery. Archaeologists believe this was a Pre-Columbian cemetery dating to sometime between 800 and 1350 A.D., although those dates have yet to be confirmed.

The skeletal remains are few and scattered. One of the most intact skeletons has a skull with some teeth still in the jaw (important features if there’s any hope of stable isotope analysis or DNA extraction), ribs, arm and leg bones. Its hand and feet, however, are missing.

Some of the large pottery vessels contain human remains as well, and while their contents haven’t been thoroughly examined in situ, these were almost certainly Pre-Columbian funerary urns. Even though they were found buried less than three feet under the surface, many of them are in excellent condition, complete with fitted lids, reliefs and engraved images of animals like iguanas and human faces. Some even have traces of the original polychrome paint. They come in a variety of shapes — squashed spheres, pot-bellied, horizontal alien egg with the lid all the way to one side.

According to INC Director of Archeology Ivonne Miranda, this is a finding of national significance. It’s the first funerary complex found in Nicaragua with such a density of burials in the same small area. The ancient cemetery site hasn’t been populated in modern times, which is damn good luck because there’s no way these delicate remains and ceramics would have survived major construction just a few feet underground, but centuries ago the indigenous people who lived in what is now Managua settled there because of the ample sources of water from a nearby lake and rivers.

Other objects from the period have been found in Masaya and Granada, about 20 miles southeast of Managua, and in Rivas, about 56 miles south of the capital. Archaeologists hope this historic find will shed new light on the population and culture of the region.

“This allows us to understand a little better how the dispersion of these materials in the same space of time … and try to rescue the cultural identity of the old settlers of Managua,” Miranda said.

The archaeological discovery also “helps us to know about the behavior of our pre-Hispanic societies,” Miranda said.

Excavations are still ongoing. The urns, remains and other artifacts will be transferred to the National Palace of Culture where they will be analyzed in the National Museum’s laboratory.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Vomitorium, small horse hoof found at Colchester Roman circus

Fri, 2017-06-23 23:14

A three-week excavation on the site of the Roman circus in Colchester, southeast England, has unearthed the remains of one of the circus’ passageways and the hoof bone of a small horse. The Colchester circus was built in the 2nd century A.D. as a venue for chariot racing. It is the only Roman circus ever discovered in the UK and it’s the only one ever found north of the Alps. Its characteristic U-shaped arena was 450 meters (1476 feet) long had eight starting gates plus a monumental archway at the flat end of the U. There were three tiers of bleachers around the arena with one large entrance passage at the curved end and multiple other passageways through which the estimated 8,000 spectactors attending the races could enter and leave the stands. These entrances/exits were known as vomitoria in Latin because of the crowds that spewed forth from them. Some were also used by the staff for the quick removal of mangled bodies, human and equine, and chariots from the arena floor.

The Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT), which raised funds to save the circus from being buried under a housing development and then even more funds to buy the adjacent Victorian barracks to expand the excavation and build a new visitor’s center, has been excavating the site for more than a decade and still don’t know precisely how many passageways the circus had. They estimate there were 12 of them. The newly discovered vomitorium is only the fifth unearthed so far and it is the best preserved of the five. Six Roman feet (5.8 feet) wide, it has a north-south orientation and led from outside the arena to the southern stands. Archaeologists thought the passageway in this section was about 20 feet east of the one they found, so the discovery came as a surprise.

Another happy surprise was a small but significant find: a small hoof bone. Just 6 cm (2.4 inches) wide, 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) high and 4.2 cm (1.7 inches) deep, it’s the coffin bone, aka the distal phalanx, the core of the hoof. Its diminutive size — comparable to a large Shetland pony’s — suggests it came from a small female horse or a pony. The clean symmetrical shape and lack of wear indicates this was a young horse, but there is evidence of arthritis which would not be present in a young horse unless it was subjected to major physical strain. The sharp turns and hard running of the chariot races — each race required competitors to do 14 turns around the central spina and breakneck speed — would certainly qualify.

The bone was found inside the passageway. If this particular passageway was used for the removal of charioteers, horses and equipment that met a Ben Hur-like end in the arena, the little hoof could be all that remains of one of the equine athletes.

Mr Crummy said: “It is another exciting find but quite ambiguous as to what it means.

“There has been a long-running debate about the size of the horses which would have been used to race the chariots and this discovery suggests they would have been quite small.

“It suggests it would have been about nine hands quite is small but the bone has not been looked at properly yet.”

Even if the horse wasn’t part of a chariot team, the bone is a significant find because horse remains are very rarerly discovered on the site of a Roman circus. Other ancient hoof bones have been found in Colchester, but not in the circus itself. They were also larger.

You can explore the newly discovered circus entrance in this 3D model:

Entrance
by Alec Wade
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Previously unknown daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau gifted to museum

Thu, 2017-06-22 23:57

The Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts, has an extensive collection of artifacts from Concord’s Native American, Colonial, Revolutionary and 19th century history. The town’s pivotal role in the opening salvos of the War of Independence, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, is represented by, among other treasures, the lantern Paul Revere had hung in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church to warn the colonial militia that the British regulars were coming by land, and the Amos Barrett powder horn which was used at the Battle of Concord on April 19th, 1775.

Concord is just as prominent in 19th century literary history. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose father was raised in Concord, moved there in 1835 and his circle of Transcendentalist writers and thinkers grew around him. The likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott wrote seminal works as part of Emerson’s Concord crew.

It’s Henry David Thoreau, however, who left his greatest mark on Concord and its museum. He was one of Emerson’s circle, but he didn’t follow him to Concord; Thoreau was a native Concordian, the son of a local pencil maker father and committed abolitionist mother. Their family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Walden Pond, where he lived in a little cottage for two years and wrote his seminal work Walden is in Concord. He wrote Civil Disobedience after spending a night in Concord jail for refusing to pay taxes in protest of slavery.

Unlike Emerson’s, Thoreau’s writings were largely dismissed during his lifetime, especially his political essays which would have such a profound influence on world-changing figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. His writings on natural history, primarily Walden, got more attention, but they received mixed reviews at best. Even though his friend and literary luminary Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the eulogy at his funeral after he died of tuberculosis in 1862, Thoreau didn’t even get his own individual obituary. It was lumped in with a group of other people who had recently died.

His younger sister Sophia, an accomplished botanist whose precision and artistry in mounting specimens was and is staggering, took on the responsibility of maintaining her brother’s legacy. They had been very close — Thoreau was no social butterfly and could be a cantankerous cuss even with his close friends, but he was a loving and warm sibling — and enjoyed their shared interest in naturalism. He recorded several times in his journals that she had discovered botanical specimens he’d never seen before. Her particular skill was in pressing and attaching plants to a backing sheet with strips of paper that were entirely invisible once she was done. They were so good that a professional like Louis Agassiz, Harvard’s first professor of botany, acquired some of Sophia’s specimens. Several of her specimens now in the Concord Museum include tributes to great authors including Emerson, Shakespeare, and of course her beloved brother. She wrote verses from their poetry in ink on pressed leaves.

Their bond and love of nature is sweetly illustrated in this passage from Thoreau’s journal dated May 22, 1853.

When yesterday Sophia and I were rowing past Mr. Prichard’s land, where the river is bordered by a row of elms and low willows, at 6 P.M., we heard a singular note of distress as if it were from a catbird — a loud, vibrating, catbird sort of note, as if the catbird’s mew were imitated by a smart vibrating spring. Blackbirds and others were flitting about, apparently attracted by it. At first, thinking it was merely some peevish catbird or red-wing, I was disregarding it, but on second thought turned the bows to the shore, looking into the trees as well as over the shore, thinking some bird might be in distress, caught by a snake or in a forked twig. The hovering birds dispersed at my approach; the note of distress sounded louder and nearer as I approached the shore covered with low osiers. The sound came from the ground, not from the trees. I saw a little black animal making haste to meet the boat under the osiers. A young muskrat? a mink? No, it was a little dot of a kitten. It was scarcely six inches long from the face to the base — or I might as well say the tip — of the tail, for the latter was a short, sharp pyramid, perfectly perpendicular but not swelled in the least. It was a very handsome and precocious kitten, in perfectly good condition, its breadth being considerably more than one third of its length. Leaving its mewing, it came scrambling over the stones as fast as its weak legs would permit straight to me. I took it up and dropped it into the boat, but while I was pushing off it ran to Sophia, who held it while we rowed homeward. Evidently it had not been weaned — was smaller than we remembered that kittens ever were — almost infinitely small; yet it had hailed a boat, its life being in danger, and saved itself. Its performance, considering its age and amount of experience, was more wonderful than that of any young mathematician or musician that I have read of.

Sophia edited The Maine Woods, a collection of articles he’d written about his travels in what was then an unspoiled wilderness, and Cape Cod and saw them through publication. She also preserved Thoreau’s belongings, manuscripts and journals. Practically everything of Thoreau’s in museums and collections today is a result of Sophia’s commitment to her keeping her brother’s memory and literary legacy alive.

Today the Concord Museum has the largest collection of Thoreau-related objects in the world. More than 250 pieces of his furniture, glassware, books, pictures, manuscripts, pottery and textiles are in the Concord Museum, including the green pine desk on which he wrote Walden and Civil Disobedience. Fully half of the objects in the Concord Museum’s Thoreau collection came directly or indirectly from Sophia. The rest came from donations and purchases over the past 50 years.

July 12th is the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. The Concord Museum has even more cause to celebrate because a previously unknown daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau has come to light and has been donated to the museum. It was bequeathed to the Concord Museum by the Geneva Frost Estate in Maine. Curator David Wood and collection’s manager Tricia Gilrein went to Maine and retrieve the rare image.

The daguerreotype of Sophia will go on display at the Concord Museum in This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, the first major exhibition dedicated to Henry David Thoreau, which opens in Concord on September 29th, 2017. The exhibition is currently at the Morgan Library & Museum, collaborators with the Concord Museum on this very special show. Thoreau journaled his entire adult life, recording his thoughts, observations of his surroundings, books he’d read, and botanical data from Walden that scientists are still studying today. When the exhibition opens in Concord, the new image of Sophia will be displayed next to her brother’s quill pen, one of the many artifacts that she preserved for posterity. It still bears a tag with labelled in Sophia’s own hand: “The pen that brother Henry last wrote with.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A new look at an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe

Wed, 2017-06-21 23:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Late medieval longsword found in Polish peat bog

Tue, 2017-06-20 23:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Record-breaking 17th c. cabinet goes on display

Mon, 2017-06-19 23:35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Major Islamic trade center found in Ethiopia

Sun, 2017-06-18 23:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Baby dinobird found trapped in amber

Sat, 2017-06-17 23:51


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Woolly dog hair found in Coast Salish blanket

Fri, 2017-06-16 23:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of temple and Ball game court found in Mexico City

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…

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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