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Girl with a Pearl Earring and a macro-XRF scan

Mon, 2018-03-05 00:31

Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring will be introduced to the latest and greatest technologies in a new study that will take place in the glorious Golden Room of the Mauritshuis in full view of the public. The Girl in the Spotlight project will examine Vermeer’s iconic bejeweled maiden using state-of-the-art scientific tools and methodologies. It’s the first time the painting has been examined since it was last conserved in 1994, and while no new conservation needs have developed in the 25 years since then, researchers want to take advantage of the great leaps forward in technology to learn more about how Vermeer painted the work and the materials he used.

The project began on February 26th and runs through March 11th. The research team includes experts from the Rijksmuseum, the Delft University of Technology, the University of Antwerp and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) as well other international institutions and the Mauritshuis’ own researchers. The first step is an intensively detailed scan over the course of several days with a macro-X-ray fluorescence scanner. The MA-XRF machine scans the painting one millimeter at a time creating a detailed map beyond anything that could have been conceived in 1994.

Because Girl will not be in her usual place in the gallery during the two weeks of the study, the Mauritshuis created a glass-walled studio within its Golden Room so that visitors could still catch a glimpse of her. She will be difficult to see at times, depending on what analysis she’s being subjected to, so museum staff put a 3D reproduction of the painting up in her regular spot to give visitors something interesting to view up close and capture in pictures even as they enjoy the unique opportunity to see the real Girl with a Pearl Earring undergoing examination with all kinds of bells and whistles. The company that created the repro, Océ, used a proprietary system they call “elevated printing” which layers ink on the surface to create a dead-on accurate impression of the impasto, texture and brushstrokes, not just a flattened image of the original.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring will go back on display in Room 15 on March 12th. Two days before then, on March 10th, the museum will offer public lectures by conservator and head researcher Abbie Vandivere and curator Lea van der Vinde that will explain everything we know about the painting and the study taking place in the Golden Room.

The information they’ll be able to convey is limited because it’s going to take a while to analyze all the data. The final results will be published when the analysis is complete. Meanwhile, you can follow along with the research, which will be taking place 24 hours a day, not just during museum hours, on Abbie Vandivere’s outstanding blog. She posts daily updates on the work they’re doing, the tech they’re using, sharing her conservator’s eye view with fascinating photos of what she sees in the microscope, the painting’s history at the museum from acquisition through multiple restorations and tons more. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the job of painting conservator at one of the greatest museums in the world entails, then this blog will kick raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens right off the list and be your new favorite thing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rome Metro construction reveals centurion’s villa

Sun, 2018-03-04 00:24

Archaeologists have unearthed the large, luxuriously appointed 2nd century domus of a Hadrianic military commander at the Amba Aradam station on Rome’s future Metro C line. This is the same site where the military barracks were discovered in 2016, and in fact the villa is connected to the barracks dormitory via a corridor with a staircase. The villa was found 12 meters (40 feet) below the surface, three meters beneath the barracks. This is the first villa of a military commander ever discovered in Rome.

The domus is an imposing 300 square meters (3,230 square feet) in area over least 14 rooms. They are lavishly decorated with black and white mosaic floors with floral motifs, animals (a very smart-faced owl among them) and a scene of a satyr and a winged Cupid either fighting or frolicking. The villa also boasts marble tiles in contrasting colors and frescoed walls. One of the rooms was heated, likely a private bath, as evidenced by the telltale piles of bricks under the flooring that allowed the heated air to circulate. As was typical of the Roman villa, the rooms were arranged around the atrium, a square courtyard in the middle of the house in which archaeologists found the remains of a fountain.

On the other side of the barracks is another structure built later than the barracks and commander’s house. Replete with brick pavements, water conduits and tubs, the building appears to have been a service area where supplies were stored and kept as cool as possible. There archaeologists also discovered surviving wood objects, mainly construction tools like the forms used to build the foundations and discarded carpenter’s beams. The team has also found everyday use objects, gold rings, the carved ivory handle of a dagger, amulets and bullae that have helped archaeologists create a timeline of the remains and identify numerous reconstructions of the compound over the years.

Like the barracks, the domus and service area were abandoned and, the second half of the 3rd century, they were destroyed, their walls cut down to four-foot stumps. This likely took place in 271 A.D. when the Aurelian Walls were being fortified and anything outside of the perimeter that could provide refuge and access to the enemy was demolished.

The black and white mosaics, marble floors, fountain and frescoed walls that remain are too fragile to be left in situ while the new station is built underneath it. Therefore the entire site be dismantled, moved to a temporary location and then returned to their original location.

You can see some excellent footage of the excavators at work and of the villa in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Slavery Museum acquires painting of abolition icon

Sat, 2018-03-03 00:07

You’d think paintings of an enchained slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” would be plentiful. The image of a kneeling enslaved African appealing to our shared humanity appeared on everything from jewelry to snuff boxes to broadsides since its inception as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England in 1787. Potter and member Josiah Wedgwood had the idea of making jasperware cameos of that image and slogan as medallions to promote the Society’s goal of abolishing the slave the trade. He manufactured hundreds of them and gave them to his fellow members to distribute. They had an immediate impact, creating one of the first wildly successful political logos and slogans with worldwide reach.

Society co-founder Thomas Clarkson wrote in the second volume of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (published in 1807):

“Wedgwood took the seal of the committee, … for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Even after the trade and slavery itself were abolished in Britain, the abolitionist icon continued to thrive in countries like the US where ending slavery was still a distant prospect. And yet, the symbol was converted into an actual painted subject surprisingly seldom. In the UK, there are only two known. One is in the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. The other was in a private collection but has now been acquired by the National Museums Liverpool for the International Slavery Museum.

Am Not I A Man and A Brother was painted around 1800 and depicts the enslaved man kneeling against a background of a Caribbean sugar plantation. It was purchased for £50,000 funded by grants from the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures program.

Stephen Carl-Lokko, Curator, International Slavery Museum said:

“This acquisition represents the first painting ever to be acquired by National Museums Liverpool to depict the powerful and resonant iconography of abolition and we are very pleased to add it to our collection.

“Resistance is a key part of the history we bring to life in the International Slavery Museum and abolition is a very important part of this wider narrative.

“The painting is a remarkable surviving product of the early phase of the British movement to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the 18th and 19th century.”

The work is not going on display yet. It needs to undergo conservation first. Conservators expect it will be cleaned up and ready for exhibition by the end of the year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest known figural tattoos found on Gebelein Mummies

Thu, 2018-03-01 22:45

Ötzi the Iceman has competition for the world’s oldest tattoos from two pre-dynastic Egyptian mummies in the British Museum. Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman are two of six mummies unearthed in 1896 by British Museum Egyptologist Wallis Budge from their shallow sandy graves near modern-day Naga el-Gherira in southern Egypt. Covered in warm desert sand at the time of their burial, the six natural mummies were very well-preserved and the first complete predynastic bodies ever found. They were acquired by the British Museum in 1900.

They’ve been on display for more than a century, but nobody realized Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman had tattoos until a recent infrared examination. All that’s visible to the naked eye on Gebelein Man is a faint smudge on his upper right arm. Infrared photography revealed the smudge is actually a tattoo, and a figural one at that. It depicts two horned animals, one with a long tail and elaborate horns identifying it as a wild bull, the other with the curving horns and a shoulder hump characteristic of a Barbary sheep. The iconographic references are recognizable because they come up regularly in the art of Predynastic Egypt. This is just the first time they’ve come up in body art. The animal figures are thought to symbolize strength, still today an immensely popular motif in tattoo art.

Gebelein Woman’s tattoos at first glance do not appear to be figural. IR revealed the presence of four S-shaped figures running over her right shoulder and a bent line a little further down her right arm. Again, both of these motifs are found on predynastic painted pottery. However, the linear piece may not be an abstract design. It is similar to objects held in the hands of figures believed to be participating in religious rituals. Researchers think they may be clappers used in ceremonial dance. It could also be a staff symbolizing her holding high office. It’s possible they and the s shapes served a spiritual function on her body as well, marking her as a woman of status, advanced cult knowledge or singling her out for protection.

Dating to between 3351 and 3017 B.C. (Ötzi died around 5,300 years ago, so the Iceman and the sand people are roughly the same age when accounting for margins of error), the Gebelein mummies can each claim new records in the history of tattooing. Gebelein Man has the earliest figural art; Gebelein Woman is the oldest known tattooed woman in the world. Ötzi’s tattoos are patterns of dots and lines.

The results of the study have been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, but the issue is in progress and the article is not yet available online.

Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology said:

“The use of the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, has transformed our understanding of the Gebelein mummies. Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over five thousand years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Richard III’s Cornwall accounts for fiscal year 1483 found in 1930s royal souvenir trinket box

Thu, 2018-03-01 02:45

An antiques dealer has discovered the yearly income records for the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III in a box of 1930s royal memorabilia he acquired as a single lot in an estate sale. The compotus rolls, the accounts of the monarchical estates in the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III (and for a brief window nominally under his nephew Edward V who was never crowned and whom Richard deposed two months after his ascension), were drawn up for Richard after he took the throne and covered the period from Michaelmas (September 29) 1482 until Michaelmas 1483.

Written in Latin on 11 thin parchment membranes by a scribe with an elegant hand for calligraphy initials, the rolls record that profits were handsome in the Duchy of Cornwall in 1483. The annual income from the Cornish manors, burghs, courts and tin mines, plus a handful of Devon manors totalled around £500. A labourer made about £2 a year.

The accounts show detailed showing totals for rents, sales and court receipts for manors within the Duchy and in Devon.

Also detailed are the names of bailiffs who supervised work on the each manor and would act as a link between the serfs and their feudal lord. The amounts raised from each manorial lord amounted to between £12 and £30 per annum.

Overall, the Duchy of Cornwall’s seigneurial records have survived unusually well, retained for generations by manorial archives, county archives and by duchy management. Today almost all of the accounts between 1300 and 1500 and beyond can be found in the county Public Records and the Duchy of Cornwall Office. This scroll is one of only a handful to survive in private hands.

The owner didn’t know exactly what was now in his private hands until a medieval manuscripts expert from Bonhams examined the parchment. He has now put it up for auction in Bonhams upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on March 21st in London. The pre-sale estimate is $5,500 – 8,300.

Peter Hammond, president of the Richard III society, said: “It is a very important record and we don’t know how many of these 15th century documents still exist.

“It gives us a handle on the kind of income that was coming in to keep the country running. The bureaucracy was alive and well in the 15th century – they kept amazing records.”

Historian hope the document will remain in Britain following the sale and be made available for public research.

Mr Hammond said: “It would be good if it was bought by the Cornwall Record office or the National Archives and it would be great if people were then able to see it.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Discovering the British Library’s medieval literature

Wed, 2018-02-28 00:11

The British Library’s Discovering Literature project, a website with selections of exceptional works from its collections digitized, explicated by experts with multimedia aides and resources for teachers, has added a new subsection dedicated to its medieval literary treasures. Discovering Literature: Medieval submits for your approval/devouring 50 digitized manuscripts and early printed books dating from the 8th to 16th centuries. These rare volumes are some of the most influential works in the history of English literature.

There’s The Wycliffite Bible, the first complete translation of the Bible into English, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, the first work written by a woman in English, the first autobiography in English (The Book of Margery Kempe) and the only surviving Old English manuscript of Beowulf which somehow avoided the fate of so many priceless works of literature in the Robert Cotton collection that burned to ashes in a devastating October 23rd, 1731, conflagration at the aptly named Ashburnham House. William Caxton’s illustrated early print edition of The Canterbury Tales may not have the color and beauty of the hand-illuminated The Book of the Queen by Christine de Pizan (the first woman author to actually make a living on the income from her writing), but it was a groundbreaking advance for the dissemination of literature and literacy.

Digital technology puts all of these rare or unique masterpieces, some of which aren’t even available to scholars, at our fingertips. The sole surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, one of the greatest works of Middle English poetry, is so fragile after having barely escaped the same fire that almost incinerated Beowulf, that our grubby hands wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it. Now we can enjoy its glories while smearing inches of caked Cheeto dust on our mice without a care in the world.

If your ability to read manuscripts and early print of Old and Middle English is a bit rusty, allow the more than 20 articles written by academics, poets, authors in their own right, to help you understand what you’re seeing and the impact it had on its time and ours. Or rifle through the associated collection items. There are some fantastic maps. The Beatus World Map with its remarkably modern abstract graphic is a particular favorite of mine.

When you’re done getting your Gawain and Beowulf on, you can lose more hours, days, weeks of your life perusing the Romantics and Victorians section. It features more than 1,200 items from the BL’s collection from first edition published books to diaries, advertisements, penny dreadfuls, illustrations, manuscripts, pamphlets, letters and so much more. On top of the period items, you can enjoy more than 150 articles written by scholars about the works in the collection and 25 documentary films. For the educators among us, there are 30 teachers’ notes good to go. It’s like college, seriously.

Discovering Literature is an unparalleled resource, a way of making an enormous collection like the British Library’s, a feast beyond any normal individual’s ability to ingest, never mind digest, accessible to everyone. It’s not dumbed down or meager. It’s just curated carefully to convey a wealth of information in concentrated form. Already so successful in its aims, this project is still just revving up. More content is added all the time.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gardener in Galilee finds medieval St. Nicholas ring

Tue, 2018-02-27 00:14

Dekel Ben-Shitrit was weeding a garden of a home in the Moshav Yogev (a moshav is a cooperative farming community similar to a kibbutz only not collectively owned), when he spotted an object in the vegetation. It was a ring with what appeared to be a human figure on it. Curious to know more about it, Ben-Shitrit posted a picture on Facebook where it caught the eye of Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef, director of the Israel Nature and Park’s Authority Lower Galilee Education Center and his neighbor on the nearby Kibbutz Hazorea. Dr. Ben-Yosef recognized its advanced age and uniqueness and recommended he report the find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The ring was examined by IAA Byzantine archaeology expert Dr. Yana Tchekhanovets whose preliminary identification indicates it is a representation of Saint Nicholas. The iconography of a haloed bald man wearing a mantle and holding a bishop’s staff points to him. It is a signet ring in excellent condition that makes a deep imprint that clearly shows the attributes of the Christian saint. Dr. Tchekhanovets dated the ring to between the 12th and 15th centuries. Crusader Jerusalem was conquered by the Islamic forces of Saladin in 1187, and the last Christian territory, Acre, fell in 1291. That broad date means the ring could have been crossing the Holy Land when it was under Christian or Muslim control.

You can get a look at the ring’s imprint in this IAA video at the 38 second mark:

Obviously the figure depicted on the ring bares no relation to the Jolly Old Elf so associated with the contemporary tradition of Christmas gift-giving. The Saint Nicholas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition was more akin to the Western Saint Christopher, patron saint of all travelers, including merchants, sailors and pilgrims. Wearing a ring or medallion with his image — his attributes are the bishop’s crook and vestments — was meant to confer his protection on the wearer.

The spot where the ring was found, in the Jezreel Valley just east of Megiddo near the Roman base of Legio, was a busy travel route for merchants, soldiers and pilgrims from antiquity onwards.

Dr. Yotam Tepper, an expert on the ancient Roman road system in Israel, points out that even after the last Crusader knights had departed, Christian communities continued to exist and Christian pilgrims continued to visit Jerusalem and the Galilee.[…]

“We know that the main road from Legio toward Mount Tabor passed by Moshav Hayogev,” says Tepper. “It seems the road also served Christian pilgrims heading for holy sites on Mount Tabor, and in Nazareth and around Lake Kinneret.”

It’s entirely possible that a medieval pilgrim lost his ring on his way to or from the coast. There’s no way of knowing for certain because the ring was not buried and found in situ during a rigorous archaeological excavation, but rather found nestled in weeds on the surface, so it probably wasn’t discovered where it fell hundreds of years ago.

According to hagiographical lore, Saint Nicholas was himself a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Born to a wealthy Greek family in Lycia (modern-day Turkey), Nicholas was raised by an uncle who was an abbot and became a monk at a very young age. One of the earliest miracles he is said to have performed — predicting a storm at sea, praying it away, raising a sailor who had died in a fall from rigging — was when he was a young man on his first pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. He returned to the Holy Land when he was in 40s, joining a group of ascetic monks and living in a mountain cave outside Bethlehem for several years. When he emerged, he again made a pilgrimage to all the main sites of the gospel accounts.

Pilgrims would carry his image with them even as they followed his example for many long centuries after Nicholas’ death in 343 A.D., but surviving pieces like this ring are very rare. They are easily overlooked, trafficked or kept by finders.

Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft inspector, who received the ring from Ben-Shitrit to place it in the National Treasures Collection, had high praise for the gardener: “We thank Ben-Shitrit for handing over this special artifact to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and we encourage others to do the same, When they do, they enrich and deepen archaeological understanding of the past that belongs to all of us. The Israel Antiquities Authority will be awarding Ben-Shitrit a good citizenship certificate in thanks for his action.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medieval city found under high school gym in Finland

Sun, 2018-02-25 23:13

Well-preserved remains of medieval buildings and roads have been discovered under the floor of the gymnasium of the Cathedral School of Åbo in Turku, Finland. When the gym’s floor was removed during renovations. Workers found the remains of two houses, vaults, staircases and a paved road from the 14th century.

It is not an unexpected find. The oldest city in Finland, Turku was founded in the 13th century, and while the medieval center of the city around the cathedral had to be rebuilt after it was levelled by fire in 1827, excavations in the 1990s unearthed the foundations of 13th and 14th-century stone and brick houses, and numerous artifacts. At that time Turku was the site of the bishopric and Turku Cathedral, consecrated in 1300, which is just down the street from the school. Aboa Vetus next door to the school has integrated the medieval remains under its floors into only archaeological museum in Finland.

Even though it is houses in a 19th century from the post-fire reconstruction, the school itself has been in existence since the 13th century and given its location in the heart of the medieval monastery district, it is unsurprising that medieval remains have been found on school property before, including in a dig of the schoolyard just last year, a dig that it still ongoing.

“What was surprising is how well preserved these are. Traces of these were noticed by the archeologist Juhani Rinne when the gym was built at the beginning of the 1900s, but now the picture has come into focus,” says the leader of the dig team, Kari Uotila. […]

Hundreds of cubic metres of fill have been hauled out of the dig site, revealing the walled ruins and vaulted cellars. Now down a metre and a half into the soil, the team has reach floor level in parts of dig.

According to Kari Uotila, some of the cellar vaults collapsed after the great fire of 1827.

“These are 2.5 metre high vaults that were broken during the reconstruction of the city. Right now, we’ve uncovered about a dozen different vault structures, as well as staircases and hallways belonging to two buildings.”

Excavations will continue for another month. The archaeological team is hoping to reach the floor level of the houses. The really thorny problem is what to do after that. The whole point of tearing up the gym floor was to build a new one with fresh supports. Those support pilings as currently planned cannot be constructed without largely destroying the ruins. Uotila is hoping the remains will be left in place and that the shoring supports issue will be sorted out so that the remains can still become integrated into the building as a display.

Installing a transparent floor with magic carpet supports that would make the medieval city visible as the kinds runs around and dunk basketballs would be awesome, no question, but may not be possible or be the best solution for the long-term preservation of the structures. Local architect Benito Casagrande thinks they should go another way altogether.

Casagrande says that there are construction alternatives that can be used to straighten the school structure and build a floor that would not require pilings. The floor could be raised and a false ceiling in the gym removed, leaving plenty of space and air for student activities.

“This is a terrible significant find. I think all of these well preserved ruins are unbelievable treasures which should be put on public display for people to experience. Gradually, we are understanding what a large and handsome city Turku was in the 14th century,” argues Casagrande.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Late pharaonic necroplis found in Minya, Egypt

Sun, 2018-02-25 00:17

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown necropolis from the late pharaonic and early Ptolemaic periods in Minya, 150 miles south of Cairo. Burial grounds have been found in the area before. Late last year, archaeologists embarked on an excavation with the aim of discovering the rest of the necropoli at Minya, and soon struck paydirt. They unearthed tombs of priests of Thoth, inventor of writing, god of wisdom and the patron deity of the 15th nome (province) of Upper Egypt, known as Khmno, and of its capital city Ashmounin. They also found burials of the priests’ family members.

One of the tombs belonged to a priest identified in the hieroglyphics on his canopic jars as Djehuty-Irdy-Es, a Haras Sa Aissa, meaning one of the Great Five, a title reserved the senior priests of Thoth. The four alabaster canopic jars, all in excellent condition, still contain the remains of the deceased’s mummified organs. Their lids represent the heads of the sons of Horus. The priest’s mummy was found wearing a gilded bronze collar depicting the winged sky goddess Nut.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and leader of the excavation describes the mummy thus:

The mummy is decorated having a collection of blue and red beads as well as bronze gilded sheets, two eyes carved in bronze and ornamented with ivory and crystal beads.

“It is seen stretching her wings to protect the deceased, according to an ancient Egyptian belief,” Waziri said, adding that four amulets of semi-precious stones were also found decorated with engraved hieroglyphic texts, one phrase says, “Happy New Year.”

That amulet, a scarab, was discovered on New Year’s Eve in what is either a fortuitous coincidence or a sign that the ancient gods aren’t quite dead yet. The mummy is in a relatively good state of preservation but has suffered some moisture damage.

A large group of people, likely the priest’s family, was buried close by. The sarcophagi of 40 family members were found in the tombs. These are very high quality, expensive limestone coffins, many of them anthropoid and engraved with hieroglyphics that include the owners’ names.

All told, so far the team has explored 13 burials. In these other tombs archaeologists have found more sarcophagi, statuettes, pottery and other funerary artifacts, including more than a thousand intact faience ushapti figurines plus hundreds more broken into pieces and the excavation is far from over. According to Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani, the density of finds is so significant that it will take at least five years to fully excavate the necropolis.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest known cave art painted by Neanderthals

Fri, 2018-02-23 21:49

An international team of researchers have dated painted art found on the walls and inside four caves in Spain and discovered that the oldest known art in the world long predates behaviorally modern humans. Previously believed to be solely the province of Homo sapiens, the painted walls and marine shells are indisputably the work of Neanderthals.

La Pasiega, section C. Cave wall with paintings. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (centre left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. (Credit: P. Saura)

The paint is made of mineral pigment, not charcoal, so it’s not possible to use radiocarbon dating to figure out how old they are. Instead, researchers turned to the calcium carbonate crusts that formed on top of the paintings when water dropped down the wall. The art has to be older than the calcite, ergo, dating the calcite gives a minimum age of the paintings.

Calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign. The U-Th method dates the formation of the crust which gives a minimum age for the underlying painting.
(Credit: J. Zilhão)

The technology used, Uranium-Thorium dating, requires a very small sample and returns more precise dates going back further in time than radiocarbon dating based on the radioactive decay of Uranium into Thorium. Researchers tested more than 60 carbonate samples from cave paintings in three Spanish sites, La Pasiega, in Cantabria, north-eastern Spain, Maltravieso in Cáceres, western Spain, and Ardales in Andalusia, southern Spain.

Dirk Hoffmann and Alistair Pike sampling calcite from a calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign in La Pasiega. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

The results found that the paintings are at least 64,000 years old. In La Pasiega, the ladder with animal shapes in the interior rectangles and dots on the inside is a minimum of 64,800 years old. The red-painted speleothems in the Ardales cave are more than 65,500 years old. A hand stencil in Maltravieso is more than 66,700 years old. All of them long predate Homo sapiens‘ arrival in Spain who only moved to the area 40,000 years ago. The results of the testing have been published in the journal Science and can be read here.

Left: Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (centre right, centre top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal. (Credit: H. Collado) Right: Color enhanced version of Panel 3. (Credit: H. Collado)

Samples from all three caves from the north, center and south of the peninsula date to the time when Neanderthals were the only human species in the area, which means these paintings aren’t random or some one-off fluke, but rather a conscious, well-developed cultural approach with specific symbolic meaning and thoughtful application. The locations, all of them in the depths of caves where they did not live, light sources and pigments were chosen with careful deliberation to make their artistic and spiritual visions come to life.

Left: Cave wall in Maltravieso with Neanderthal hand stencil, almost completely covered with calcite. It is older than 66,000 years. (Credit: H. Collado) Center: Color enhanced version of stencil. (Credit: H. Collado) Right: Detail of stencil, color enhanced. (Credit: H. Collado)

Even older examples of the Neanderthal ability to convert abstractions into art have been found in southeast Spain in the Cueva de los Aviones. Marine shells discovered there are pigmented with red and yellow and perforated. Again using Uranium-Thorium dating, the team has dated the flowstone covering the shells to an astonishing 115,000 to 120,000 years old. Homo sapiens produced similar pieces but the earliest of them date to between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Left: A shell with remnants of pigments found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones. It dates to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. (Credit: J. Zilhão) Right: Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones and date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

The results of the shell dating study have been published separately in Science Advances and can be read here.

“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places”, says Paul Pettitt from University of Durham, also a team member and cave art specialist. In the Cueva Ardales, where excavations are currently being conducted by a German-Spanish team, the presence of Neanderthals has also been proven from analysing occupation layers. “This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art”, says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations. […]

“According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable”, concludes João Zilhão, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona and involved in both studies. “On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”

When the fossilized remains of Neanderthals were first discovered in the 19th century, one of the proposed names for the hominid species was Homo stupidus. They were held to be apelike and unintelligent, incapable of abstract or symbolic thought. The confirmation that they were not only capable of symbolism but also pretty freaking phenomenal artists puts to rest those old prejudices once and for all. Neanderthals were just as cognitively capable as modern humans.

Cueva de los Aviones, seen from the breakwater of Cartagena harbour. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Inscription found on medieval spindle whorl in Poland

Fri, 2018-02-23 00:07

The small, purplish spindle whorl was unearthed by archaeologists in Czermno, Poland, in 1952. What the people who found it didn’t realize is that the biconical slate piece was inscribed, making it a unique find in the Polish archaeological record. It was Iwona Florkiewicz from the Institute of Archeology of the University of Rzeszów who discovered how precious this little piece really during an inventory project of materials discovered at Czermno over the course of decades.

Palaeographic research (on the form of writing) carried out by Dr. Adrian Jusupović, historian from the Institute of History PAS in Warsaw, shows that the inscription was made in the second half of the 12th century or in the 13th century.

The spindle whorl bears an inscription composed of 6 letters in Cyrillic, which can be transcribed as Hoten\’. It is a masculine name that means a lover, volunteer or master. It is also possible that the inscription was a toponym. In that case it should be associated with the name of a town or village. But researchers find this second possibility is less likely.

It is the only spindle whorl with a text inscription from this period ever discovered in Poland. It’s likely not of Polish origin, in fact. The slate itself is a non-native material. It is Volhynian slate, recognizable from its characteristic shades of pink to purple, found in the Ukraine. From the 11th century through the mid-13th, craftsmen in the nearby town of Owrucz produced inexpensive spindle whorls from the slate that were sold throughout the Kievan Rus and in what is now Poland. This trade came to an abrupt end in the 1240s when the invading Mongols destroyed the spindle whorl workshops.

While it’s possible the spindle was an import that was then inscribed in Poland, the lettering and indeed the inscription itself suggest it came to Poland with the inscription already done. Not only is it written in Cyrillic, but a number of inscribed spindle whorls have been found in the former territory of the Kievan Rus (Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), whereas this the first found in Poland.

As Czermno was a border town, it was yanked and forth between Poland and the Kievan Rus for centuries. The Kievans took it in the 10th century. Bolesław the Brave of Poland’s Piast dynasty took it back in 1018. After his death in 1025, Czermno’s fortunes shifted again and Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus, reconquered the town and region in 1031. There it stayed until the 14th century when Casimir III the Great reclaimed it for Poland. So at the time this spindle whorl was made, Czermno was firmly in the ambit of the Kievan Rus.

“We are not sure whether the spindle whorl was used for its original purpose – spinning – or had a secondary function as an amulet. The latter possibility should not be ruled out” – Florkiewicz believes. She adds that according to the researchers, similar inscriptions could be signs of ownership. There are known spindle whorls that bear the names of women and men. “It is also possible that in this case it is the name of the object’s maker” – she concludes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Only known Roman boxing gloves found at Vindolanda

Wed, 2018-02-21 13:57

The Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland continues to reap the blessings of its anaerobic, waterlogged soil. Last summer’s dig season was replete with important finds including a cache of 25 writing tablets, but the greatest find was a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barracks from around 105 A.D. in which were found all kinds of utility items from daily life — ink writing tablets, styluses, combs, pottery, wooden spoons, bowls, leather shoes, small wooden swords that were likely children’s toys — as well as an extraordinary group of cavalry weapons, armor and harness fittings. Two swords, one complete with wooden pommel, its edge still sharp inside an intact wooden scabbard, were particularly exciting finds.

Among the treasures discovered in the remains of the cavalry barracks were two leather pieces unlike anything else found at the fort. Thousands of leather shoes have been unearthed at Vindolanda. These definitely weren’t shoes. They are elliptical bands which archaeologists and Roman experts have identified as boxing gloves. Dating to around 120 A.D., they are the only known surviving boxing gloves from the Roman era.

Unlike the modern boxing glove these ancient examples have the appearance of a protective guard, designed to fit snugly over the knuckles protecting them from impact. The larger of the two gloves is cut from a single piece of leather and was folded into a pouch configuration, the extending leather at each side were slotted into one another forming a complete oval shape creating an inner hole into which a hand could still easily be inserted. The glove was packed with natural material acting as a shock absorber. This larger glove has extreme wear on the contact edge and it had also undergone repair with a tear covered by a circular patch. The slightly smaller glove was uncovered in near perfect condition with the same construction but filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather.

The two gloves can still fit comfortably on a modern hand. They have been skilfully made, with the smaller glove retaining the impression of the wearer’s knuckles. It is likely that the gloves functioned as sparring or practice caestu each has a stiffened contact edge being a softer representation of the of the more lethal metal inserts used in ‘professional’ ancient boxing bouts. It is thought that the larger glove may have been unfit for purpose due to prolonged use and may have survived alongside the ‘newer’ model resulting from a personal attachment given to it by the owner.

Boxing was a popular sport in Classical antiquity. It was used to hone and improve combat skills in the Roman army, as well as for general fitness. In addition to regular sparring, boxing matches and tournaments between soldiers were arranged as spectator sports attended by civilians.

As of yesterday, the gloves are now on display in the Vindolanda museum. They’ve been fitted onto a pair of mannequin hands and mounted in front of a large image of The Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic bronze statue posed with begloved hands on his knees in front of him. The mannequin hands are placed in front of the boxer’s so they look almost like extensions of his own. It’s a little… disconcerting, but ultimately I think it’s a good idea to convey how they were worn in antiquity.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hieroglyphic inscription identifies statue of Kushite king

Wed, 2018-02-21 00:27

The head from a statue of a Kushite ruler discovered in 2008 at the site of the Temple of Amun in, Dangeil, Sudan, has been identified as that of Aspelta, the king of Kush who reigned from 593 B.C. to 568 B.C. Archaeologists thought the head might be that of Aspelta based solely on a comparison between its features and those of other statues known to depict the Kushite king, but his identity could only be confirmed when fragments of the statue containing a hieroglyphic inscription were discovered during the 2016 and 2017 dig seasons. The inscription, now puzzled back together, describes Aspelta as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” “Beloved of Re’-Harakhty” (a Kushite version of the Egyptian sun god “Re”) and as having been “given all life, stability and dominion forever.”

He was not, incidentally, king of Upper and Lower Egypt or any other part of it, for that matter. Some of his distant predecessors were, but by the time Aspelta took the throne, the Kushite monarchs no longer ruled Egypt. The last Kushite king of Egypt was Tanwetamani who ruled ca. 664–653 B.C. and lost control of the ancient land to the north more than 50 years before Aspelta’s reign. The title is vestigial, a carryover of former glory rather than any stubborn claim to the throne of Egypt.

The Temple of Amun where the statue pieces were found is about 2,000 years old. The statue of Aspelta is believed to have been carved during his lifetime circa 2,600 years ago. It was displayed in the temple long after his death for religious reasons.

“Statues might be displayed in temples, particularly the forecourts of temples, after the reigns of the kings, as they may have served as intermediaries between the people and the gods in popular religion,” [excavation co-director Julie] Anderson told Live Science.

The temple remained in active use until the early 4th century. Kush collapsed shortly thereafter and that was the end of the temple’s ancient prominence. It retained enough significance, however, that in the Middle Ages the ruined temple was repurposed for use as a burial ground for wealthy people, even though the area was firmly Christian by then. The last two field seasons have discovered eight graves dating to between the late 11th and early 13th centuries containing skeletal remains of adult women and one juvenile. The tombs were rich with grave goods, among them elaborate bead necklaces, bead belts, rings, bracelets and anklets. More than 18,500 beads and 70 copper bracelets in total were found in the eight graves.

There are no indicators of who these people might have been. The jewelry suggests they were rich, members of the elite, but there are no names or any other information that might explain who they were or why they buried in the remains of an ancient temple dedicated to a sun god.

Meanwhile, the statue of Aspelta is still being pieced together. The Berber-Abidiya Project team, a collaborative effort of archaeologists from the British Museum and the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) are hoping to discover more fragments to aid in the reconstruction. Once more of the work is done, they’ll be able to tell how large a statue it was. Right now it looks to be about half life-size.

Named after the region, the Berber-Abidiya Project aims to conserve the temple and its artifacts in situ so it can be converted into a museum and archaeological park. This will bring much-needed tourist attention to an area where cultural patrimony is in danger from development, road construction, agriculture and irrigation installations.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lock of George Washington’s hair found in college library

Mon, 2018-02-19 23:53

A lock of George Washington’s hair has been discovered in an 18th century almanac in the library of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Archivist Daniel Michelson found a red leather-bound volume of the Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793 nestled in the stacks on the third floor of the library and gave it to librarian John Myers to catalogue. The almanac is inscribed “Philip Schuyler’s a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793.”

Schuyler was a member of a very prominent New York family that figured largely in the Revolutionary era and beyond, so the fact that the book belonged to him made it an important object. Myers carefully turned each pages of the book and found annotations from Philip Jeremiah Schuyler including instructions on how to “preserve beef for summer’s use.” Then, inside an envelope stuffed into the accordion folder affixed to the book’s cover, Myers discovered strands of grey hair bound in a single white thread. The envelope was labelled “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. & (scratched out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”

Philip Jeremiah Schuyler was the son of General Philip John Schuyler who fought in the Revolutionary War and was elected to the Continental Congress, the New York State Senate and the Senate of the United States. He is considered one of the founders of Union College. General Schuyler was a personal friend of George Washington’s and served under him in the Revolutionary War. His daughter, Philip Jeremiah’s sister, Eliza was married to Alexander Hamilton. The James A. Hamilton who wrote the note on the envelope identifying the hair as George Washington’s was their third son.

Alexander and Eliza were close friends of George and Martha Washington. It’s likely that Martha gave them the lock of hair after George’s death in 1799 as a memento, a common practice at the time, all the more so for prominent citizens mourned by many friends and indeed the whole country.

“In an era when people frequently exchanged hair as a keepsake, it’s quite probable that Martha had given Eliza some of George’s hair, which in turn was given to their son, James, who later distributed it, strand by strand, as a precious memento to close friends and family members,” said Susan Holloway Scott, an independent scholar and author of the recent historical novel “I Eliza Hamilton.”

Officials with the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany, believe that James Hamilton gave the lock of Washington’s hair to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, whose initials are on the envelope discovered at Union. The mansion displays another few strands of Washington’s hair in a locket kept under glass.

A lack of documentation on clear custody of the material found in Union’s archives or DNA testing makes it difficult to verify that the strands of hair are Washington’s. The handwriting believed to be James Hamilton’s on the envelope is similar to Hamilton’s handwriting that accompanies strands of Washington’s hair held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

DNA testing is not possible as the hairs have been exposed to too many hands and potential contaminants to allow for accurate results. They’re also cut, not pulled from the root as Martha was not a monster. Union College has no record of the book entering its collection, so there’s no clear line of ownership history that could help solidify the claim. However, the Schuylers had such a strong connection to the college and the hair itself is very similar to other strands that are confirmed to have been George Washington’s.

India Spartz, head of Union College library’s Special Collections and Archives, is currently conserving the hair bundle, the almanac and an 1804 letter to 1804 Philip Jeremiah Schuyler that was also found inside the accordion folder. The group will be exhibited at an undetermined point in the future.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Purloined Klimt drawing found in secretary’s closet

Sun, 2018-02-18 20:23

A mystery almost 70 years in the making was solved when a lost drawing by Gustav Klimt was returned to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria, after the death of a former secretary who turns out to have stolen it decades ago. The sensual drawing of two women, Zwei Liegende (“Two Reclining Figures”), was one of four loaned to the museum (then the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz) by Linz-born artist Olga Jäger in 1951. The other three were pieces by Egon Schiele. In 1964 it was loaned to the Albertina Museum in Vienna and returned without incident. That is the last mention of the four loaned works on the historical record.

Olga Jäger died in 1965 and it seemed the disappearance of the drawing might fly under the radar forever, but in 1990 Olga’s niece-in-law, wife of nephew Kurt Jäger, sent the museum a letter asking that the loaned works be returned. Museum staff looked for the art in their own stores and in other city and regional collections, but came up empty. The niece’s sons pressed the case in 2006 and again a thorough search was fruitless.

In 2011, the Jäger descendants sued the City of Linz and were awarded damages in the amount of €100,000 ($124,000) for the loss of one of the Schiele works (“Paar”). Damages got even more damaging in 2017, when the Linz Regional Court ordered the city to pay the Jägers €8.21 million (about $10 million) for the other three. The Klimt drawing was the least costly of them, assessed at €100,000.

This January, the Klimt was returned to the museum out of the blue. It was delivered by a lawyer who explained his client, said former secretary, has died in December and left explicit instructions in her will to recover the work from her closet and give it back to the city.

But how did the Klimt drawing end up in a closet? According to [Julius Stieber, the director of culture and education for the City of Linz], the secretary’s will said that in 1964, she noticed some irregularities with the documentation of the Schiele pictures after a loan to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and notified the Neue Galerie’s then-director, Walter Kasten.

Mr. Kasten told her to keep the irregularities quiet and gave her the Klimt drawing as “hush art,” Mr. Steiber said, further describing the will’s account of the events. “For years the Klimt hung in her apartment, but when the Jäger case became public, she hid it in her wardrobe,” Mr. Stieber said.

“It’s like a thriller,” Klaus Luger, the mayor of Linz, said in a news conference on Tuesday.

The secretary has not been named for legal reasons. The three Schiele pieces are still missing and there is no evidence she was involved in their loss. Was Kasten handing out art like candy to cover his tracks? The police investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the 1990 letter, which had also fallen through the museum’s cracks, has led to a reopening of the court case. It could be pivotal in determining whether the heirs waited too long to pursue their case. The statute of limitations may have run out.

The drawing is now on display in the 1918 – Klimt – Moser – Schiele exhibition at the Lentos Museum. It runs through May 21st, 2018. After it closes, the drawing will be returned to the Jäger family as long as they repay the €100,000 the museum paid them for it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ugly Sweater-wearing idiot steals thumb of terracotta warrior

Sun, 2018-02-18 00:16

An individual who can only be described as a complete dumbass has been busted by the FBI for breaking the thumb off a Terracotta Warrior on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and hiding it in his desk drawer. It’s incalculably sad that this 24-year-old loser who still lives at home with Mommy and Daddy was at the museum on the evening of December 21st just to attend an Ugly Sweater Party. He was able to access the room where 10 priceless terracotta warriors, among them the Cavalryman standing next to a horse, were on display simply by walking through a door carelessly left unlocked by (Keystone) rent-a-cops and stepping over the black rope capable of cordoning off nothing and nobody.

He got a couple of his friends to join him, but they quickly left because they’re not complete dumbasses. He lingered a bit, looking at the statues with light from his cell, putting his arm around the Cavalryman and taking a selfie like an idiot. Then he deliberately with malice aforethought snapped off one of the statue’s thumbs and slipped it in his pocket before decamping.

We know all this now because the FBI’s crack Art Crime squad reviewed security tape footage and saw it all go down. The museum staff only noticed the damage to the Cavalryman on January 8th, more than two weeks after it was looted. That’s when the FBI stepped in. FBI Special Agent Jacob Archer compared the surveillance footage to credit card receipts for the night and identified the thief as Michael Rohana of Bear, Delaware.

When the agent showed up at the Rohana household, Michael folded like an origami crane.

In front of his father, Rohana admitted it that he had stashed the thumb in his desk drawer.

A U.S. attorney has decided to charge him with theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of major artwork stolen from a museum, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

He was arrested and released on a 15,000-USD bail, on the condition that he hand over his passport, consent to drug testing, and refrain from leaving the country before trail.

Meanwhile, the museum has reviewed its security systems and procedures in the wake of this debacle.

The actions of one jackhole and the failure to follow any number of responsible security protocols shouldn’t irredeemably taint the exhibition. This particular group of warriors and artifacts have only been shown in two museums in the US. The first was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, from which they all survived unscathed. The Franklin is the second and therefore the only one on the East Coast. It’s the first time in 30 years that the City of Brotherly Love has had any Terracotta Warriors come stay for a while and given the colossal miscarriage of stewardship, it may be more than 30 years before they come back. Plus, they’ve created a nifty Augmented Reality app that allows visitors the chance to see the warriors in virtual close-up and to view them with digital versions of the original weapons and accessories that have long since been destroyed or lost. The Cavalryman would likely have held his horse’s reins in one hand and a spear in the other. The digital view includes those long-gone accoutrements.

Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor runs through March 4th of this year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medieval carved Gonzo demon found in Lincolnshire

Sat, 2018-02-17 00:09

Archaeologists excavating the route of the Lincoln Eastern Bypass highway in Washingborough, just outside of Lincoln city, Lincolnshire, have discovered a stone sculpture of the Muppet Gonzo that dates to the Middle Ages. Technically it’s a corbel, carved in the shape of a grotesque of the beakhead type, terminology that I’m sure is deeply offensive to members of the Gonzo species, whatever that might be.

The Romanesque style dates it to the middle of the 12th century when it was probably used to adorn a church or chapel. The bug eyes, long, downward-facing beak or nose, not to say the human face between its jaws, were intended to strike fear in the heart of the congregants, to avoidance of sin and failing that, repentance so as to avoid being devoured by beaked demons from Hell.

Beakhead corbels were particularly in vogue in the century or so after the conquest of Britain by the Norman French in 1066.

Before then, most village churches were simple wooden buildings, but William the Conqueror’s invasion force and their descendants set about rebuilding in stone, driving home the message that they were now the new landowners. Our example is particularly finely sculpted.

The exact source of the Gonzo-faced corbel is unclear. It’s possible that there was a carving workshop there instead and our cruelly and unfairly maligned Muppet friend was made on site but intended for another destination. The Network Archaeology team has found evidence there was an extensive medieval monastic grange nearby that was active from the Norman Conquest until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was sure to have had a chapel and the corbel could have come from the grange’s early years.

The contract archaeology firm has been digging along the bypass route since September 2016 and they have unearthed an unprecedented wealth of artifacts and human remains from every major time period — Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, Post-Medieval. The team has recovered 40,000 objects and pieces of archaeological material, including flint weapons and tools going back as far as 12,000 years ago, Bronze Age barrows, pottery, intact and in fragments, the foundations of several stone buildings, lime kilns, pottery kilns and wells from the Roman period, and more than 150 skeletons dating to the Middle-Saxon period (700-900 A.D.) given a Christian burial.

The Lincolnshire County Council has a big photo album of the discoveries on their Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sea monsters and murder scandal in one dress

Fri, 2018-02-16 00:18

The Yale Center for British Art recently acquired a portrait of a young lady by renowned Jacobean painter William Larkin. The panel painting is believed to be a depiction of Lady Jane Thornhaugh, wife of Sir Francis Thornhaugh, because its ownership history can be traced back through family inheritance to an 18th century Thornhaugh. The inscription provides a date for the portrait — 1617 — and the age of the subject as 17. Assuming on solid grounds that the sitter was a Thornhaugh, only Lady Jane could fit the date and age.

William Larkin’s portraits of early 17th century aristocracy and nobility capture more than just the individuals’ looks. They are invaluable records of the fashions, textiles, accessories, furnishings and styles of the most rarified denizens of James I’s court. Lady Thornhaugh’s gown in this portrait provides a glimpse into the playful motifs popular in Jacobean times, and is even a little scandalous, and I don’t mean the more than generous décolleté.

She is wearing a masque costume with a pale yellow lace collar and a silk gown embroidered with fantastical flora and fauna, including insects, birds and numerous sea monsters diving in and out of the embroidery. As if that weren’t cool enough (and it is), the yellow color of her lace collar and cuff is a nod to a huge scandal that rocked high society shortly before the portrait was painting.

It all started with a poem in praise of the ideal wife. The poet was Sir Thomas Overbury, one of King James I’s favored courtiers. He introduced his bestie Robert Carr to court and Carr quickly rose in the ranks of the king’s retinues, soon becoming his favorite and among the most powerful men in England. Overbury was seen as Carr’s puppetmaster, largely because he was. When Carr began an affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Overbury protested that it would harm his standing at court as she was notoriously unchaste. Carr ratted him out to Frances Howard, so when Overbury wrote and circulated A Wife, she was sure that was a direct hit on her as the embodiment of none of those wifely virtues.

The Countess schemed to take Overbury down, spreading malicious gossip about him and then convincing the King to offer him an ambassadorship to Russia which Overbury would turn down, offending James. Overbury got thrown in the Tower of London for that offense, and was dead within months.

Two months after Overbury’s death, Frances Howard had successfully secured an annulment from her husband and remarried to none other than Robert Carr. That’s when the rumors started that there was some kind of shenanigan afoot. Overbury had died too conveniently and too quickly. Could Frances Howard have had a hand in it?

It took two years for anyone to look into it, but when King James I reluctantly agreed to an investigation, famed jurist Edward Coke and philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon were selected to lead it. The trial in 1616 revealed that Frances Howard had definitely had a hand way up in it. She had replaced the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower with one of her minions and got a new gaoler appointed to tend to Overbury. The gaoler, Richard Weston, poisoned Overbury with sulfuric acid. He was aided in this by Anne Turner, another minion of Frances Howard’s who was well-known for her skills as a yellow starcher who produced the pale yellow collar and cuffs so favored by the fashionable set at court and so sharply detailed in Larkin’s portrait.

Frances Howard and Robert Carr were convicted of the murder, but quickly pardoned by King James. Anne Turner was hanged from her neck until dead, a neck adorned, as poetic justic would have it, with a yellow starched ruff.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Baby cradled in mother’s arm is oldest infant burial in the Netherlands

Thu, 2018-02-15 00:42

Dutch archaeologists have discovered a 6,000-year-old Stone Age burial of a woman with a baby cradled in her arm in the central Netherlands city of Nieuwegein. It is the oldest infant burial ever found in the Netherlands.

Nieuwegein is rich with archaeological material from the Swifterbant culture, a Neolithic-era culture who transitioned from hunter-gathering to cattle farming in settlements along the riverbanks and wetlands of what are today the Netherlands between 5300 and 3400 B.C.

An abundance of Swifterbant artifacts and remains, about 136,000 of them (far more than were discovered at the type site in Swifterbant, Flevoland province), have been found under six and a half feet of clay and peat at Nieuwegein’s Het Klooster business park. Artifacts include hundreds of pieces of flint, a grindstone worn to a smooth surface by the second grinding stone used the mill grains and cereals, a striking jet pendant, animal bone chisels and earthenware pottery. The clay and peat have kept the objects and remains in an unusually good state of preservation for thousands of years. One of the pottery vessels still had a layer of food in it.

They also discovered four skeletons which they cut out of the clay en bloc and transported to the Leiden laboratory of RAAP Archaeological Consultancy for careful excavation. One of them was the skeleton of a young adult woman who was 20-30 years old at time of death. When the remains were first unearthed, archaeologists didn’t realize they’d just found the oldest infant burial in the Netherlands. They didn’t realize it was an infant burial period. There was no osteological material immediately visible pointing to the presence of a baby buried with the young woman. It was the woman’s right arm bent at a 90 degree angle with her elbow out that suggested to archaeologists there was something anomalous in that spot. The Swifterbant culture buried their dead with their legs outstretched and arms straight by their sides.

When the remains were excavated in the lab, archaeologists discovered small bone fragments in the crook of the woman’s right arm: pieces of the clavicles, skull, a leg bone, a mandible complete with milk teeth. The teeth were so small they could have belonged to a newborn (there are teethlets in their wee jaws, they just haven’t erupted yet) or a baby up to six months old.

“It really makes an impression when you find little baby teeth buried in clay for 6,000 years and see how similar they are to all those milk teeth that are kept in matchboxes by parents everywhere!” [Dutch broadcaster] NOS quotes [project leader Helle] Molthof as saying.

This is an exceptionally rare discovery. Infants have such soft bones that they disintegrate within months of burial. The waterlogged conditions of this burial, the thick alluvial clay deposits and the peat, preserved these fragile remains for 6,000 years.

The archaeological team hopes to determine whether the adult woman and the baby she was laid to rest cradling are, as one would suspect, mother and child, using DNA analysis.

DNA testing will have to determine whether the woman is the baby’s mother, although there seems to be little doubt that she is, and the sex of the baby. The archaeologists hope the find will tell them more about the burial ceremonies of the Swifterbant people. “We know how they lived, what sort of food they ate, what their houses were like but we don’t know very much yet about how they buried their dead and what happened to the children,” Molthof told the broadcaster.

Isotope analysis will have to show if the woman was born in the area or whether she travelled there at a later date.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Trail of mammoth footprints found in Oregon

Wed, 2018-02-14 00:41

A team of scientists have unearthed a Pleistocene-era Columbian mammoth trackway at Fossil Lake, Oregon. The fossilized footprints are about 43,000 years old and include tracks left in the volcanic soil by adult, juvenile and infant mammoths. There are 117 footprints, a large enough number and wide enough range of ages that studying the track will lend new insight into how mammoths interacted with each other as a herd.

The first footprints were discovered in 2014 by paleontologist Greg Retallack of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History during a field trip with UO students to study fossil plants. The site is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, so last year BLM researchers partnered with researchers from the University of Oregon (including Retallack) and University of Louisiana researchers to explore the trackway.

Initially, the UO-led team, which included Adrian Broz, now a doctoral student of Retallack’s who had been in the fossil class, quickly zeroed in on a 20-footprint track exhibiting some intriguing features.

“These prints were especially close together, and those on the right were more deeply impressed than those on the left — as if an adult mammoth had been limping,” said Retallack, who also is a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences.

The limping animal wasn’t alone, the six-member research team reported in a study published online ahead of print in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. Two sets of smaller footprints appeared to be approaching and retreating from the limper’s trackway.

“These juveniles may have been interacting with a limping adult female, returning to her repeatedly throughout the journey, possibly out of concern for her slow progress,” said Retallack, the study’s lead author. “Such behavior has been observed with wounded adults in modern, matriarchal herds of African elephants.”

Trace fossils such as those found in trackways can provide unique insights into natural history, Retallack said.

“Tracks sometimes tell more about ancient creatures than their bones, particularly when it comes to their behavior,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this kind of interaction preserved in the fossil record.”

The team also studied the soil layers at the trackway site. It appears the climate and plants in the Fossil Lakes area in the Ice Age were not dissimilar to its modern counterpart, although the lakes were larger, it was drier in the summer and precipitation was higher in the winter. There was also more lowland grassland, one of the Columbian mammoth’s preferred foods. The mammoths and other grass-eaters (a prehistoric horse print was also found at the trackway) were essential to the grassland ecosystem. They fertilized it with their dung and suppressed other plants by trampling and uprooting them during grazing. It’s likely that the fertile grassland of the Ice Age succumbed to desertification after the extinction of the mammoths and other large native grass-eaters 11,500 years ago. Hence the dry lake beds and their precious cargo of fossils.

There are some killer drone’s eye views of the trackway and the wild dessert beauty of the Fossil Lake area in this video:

The study, still in the corrected proof stage, is available for purchase here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History