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Lost temple of Artemis found on Greek island

Fri, 2017-09-29 23:04

An international team of archaeologists led by the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece (ESAG) in collaboration with the regional archaeological service have discovered the remains of the long-lost temple of Artemis near the village of Amarynthos on the island of Euboea in Greece.

Under the current director the excavations, University of Lausanne Professor Karl Reber, the team has been searching for the sanctuary since 2007, but they’re the new kids on the block, comparatively speaking. Researchers have been looking in vain for more than a century. The first Swiss archaeologists were invited to explore the ancient city of Eretria for the temple in 1964. Eleven years later, that initial foray cemented itself into a permanent institution when the mission was recognized by the Greek national government as the Swiss School of Archaeology in Athens. The dig has been so successful it has continued for more than 50 years. In 2014, 50 years after the first Swiss excavation broke ground in Eretria, the ESAG team could claim to have cleared the temple of Apollo, a shrine to Athena, the fortifications of the city’s western gate, a theater, luxury villas with elaborate mosaics, Roman-era public baths and a large gymnasium.

The sanctuary of Artemis Amarynthia, however, remained elusive. If it had ever been in Eretria, the Swiss team could find no trace of it. Starting in 2007, they moved further afield to study the environs of the city, territories under its control but not part of the actual city itself. At the foot of the Paleoekklisies hill just over five miles east of Eretria, ESAG archaeologists found a monumental portico dating to the 4th century B.C. that ran along the east and north boundary of an open-air structure.

This summer, the team dug survey trenches inside the portico perimeter in the hope of finding evidence from the most central location that this was indeed the much sought-after sanctuary. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. They found the remains of a number of structures constructed between the 6th-2nd century B.C. (the period when the temple was at its most active) and an underground fountain made of architectural blocks and the recycled bases of monumental statues. Those statue bases proved to be the smoking gun that identified the temple. They were inscribed with dedicated to Artemis, her twin brother Apollo and their mother Leto.

The inscriptions and the architectural significance of the materials strongly indicate that this was the Artemis sanctuary. That was confirmed by another discovery, not as glamorous as the statue bases, more on the utilitarian side, but just as meaningful to archaeologists: multiple tiles stamped with the name “Artemidos” (meaning “of the Artemis”) inside a rectangular cartouche.

Now, after also finding artefacts with inscriptions, they are sure that they have located the site of the Artemis Amarynthia, which was the end point of the annual procession of people from the once prosperous trading city of Eretrea, 10km away. They held a festival in honour of Artemis, the untameable goddess of hunting in Greek mythology. She was worshipped as the patron goddess of Amarynthos, which takes its name from an Eretrean man who was besotted by Artemis.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“Licking Dog” found in hoard of Roman bronze

Thu, 2017-09-28 23:27

Metal detectorists Pete Cresswell and Andrew Boughton discovered a hoard of Roman bronze in Gloucestershire (the exact location is not being disclosed) that includes a figurine of a type never before found in Britain. It’s a free-standing bronze statuette of a dog with his tongue hanging out. Known as a “licking dog” figure, it is believed to have been a symbol of healing and may have some connection to the temple to Nodens, a deity of hunting, dogs and healing, at nearby Lydney Park.

The dog stands at attention, his expression alert and focused upward, like he knows his master has a ball and is waiting for him to throw it. Holes drilled in his paws suggest he was once mounted to a base and there are two more holes on the upper left flank that may have once held pins that were part of the mounting system. There’s also a square hole on its underbelly. Each shoulder is decorated with a sideways teardrop-shaped panel incised with what could be stylized leaf or feather designs.

Cresswell, from Gloucestershire, said: “It’s not every day you come across a hoard of Roman bronze.

“We have been metal detecting for a combined 40 years, but this is a once in a lifetime discovery. As soon as I realised the items were of historical significance I contacted the local archaeology team, who were equally excited by the find.

“It’s a great privilege to be able to contribute to local and British history.”

Archaeologist Kurt Adams, Gloucestershire and Avon Finds Liaison Officer, examined the hoard. He provisionally dated it to the 4th century (318 – 450 A.D.) and the exceptional dog is the only intact piece in the group excepting a coin or two. The other artifacts are all fragments, mostly made of copper alloy. They include pieces of a broken statue of a person wearing an elaborately draped garment, vase and furniture fittings, escutcheons shaped like animal and human heads, handle terminals, bangles, folded up banding from chests or boxes, a little spoon, a hinge and a great many bits and bobs of undeterminate origin. There’s even an inscribed copper alloy plaque broken into four pieces that when puzzled back together reads (V?)MCONIA. It is curved at the back, suggesting that it too was once mounted on something. These fragments appear to have been deliberately cut up or broken, perhaps by a metal worker collecting scraps to melt down for reuse.

Intact or fragment, these objects are of great archaeological significance and require specialized treatment for their conservation and security. They are being kept at Bristol museum for the time being to give experts the opportunity to fully document, photograph and catalogue them. Once that task is complete, the British Museum’s Treasure Valuation Committee will assess the hoard’s full market value and recommend a reward to be paid in that amount, half going to the finder, half the to the landowner.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Take a 3D tour through Rothwell charnel chapel

Wed, 2017-09-27 23:31

Rothwell charnel chapel is the UK’s most complete surviving medieval charnel house, rooms used to contain the bones of the dead to make room in cemeteries for the next generation of corpses. The charnel chapels attached to churches in the Middle Ages weren’t scary places. They were well-lit, clean, sturdily built with permanent access from the exterior (doors, stairways) so the general public could visit and pay their respects to the dead. Rothwell Parish Church built its charnel room under the church and contains the remains of at least hundreds of people who died in the Middle Ages.

It’s difficult to know how many charnel chapels existed in medieval Britain. Historians have generally thought they were fairly rare compared to their frequency on the continent, but researchers from the University of Sheffield think they have located as many as 60, or at least what little is left of them Time and the destruction wrought by the Reformation took an incalculable toll. That’s why Rothwell’s is so significant. One of only two medieval charnel chapels still remaining in situ (the other is St Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent), it is largely intact and still contains human skeletal remains placed there between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, who led the project from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Rothwell charnel chapel is a site of major international significance. Surviving charnel chapels, with human remains still housed inside, are very rare in England. What is so fascinating about the Rothwell charnel chapel it is that it presents an ideal archaeological resource for researchers to use to advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period.

With so little hard data to go on, many historians thought charnel houses were of minor religious import even in their heyday in England, that they were just places to store bones dug up from the intercutting of new graves or during church construction. The University of Sheffield’s Rothwell Project has upended that belief. It wasn’t until the 13th century that charnel houses and chapels began to be constructed. Before that, dug up bones were reinterred in the new grave or in mass pits. The new charnel spaces of the 13th century were the first time human skeletal remains were kept above ground in meaningful quantities. That’s a major shift in attitude and approach, and it can’t be explained in utilitarian terms because reburying the bones is a lot easier, cheaper and faster than building an above-ground space for them.

Rothwell Project researchers think this shift is connected to the doctrine of Purgatory receiving official Church recognition in 1254. Souls suffering the torments of purgation could be sped on their way to heaven by the prayers and hymns of the living on their behalf. Charnel chapels in mainland Europe are known to have had confessionals and been treated as places or repentance and forgiveness. English charnel chapels also had priests whose duty it was to hear confessions and offer absolution. The Sheffield team thinks all this is linked together, that charnel chapels, like chantries in the churches above them, provided the public with the opportunity to pray for the souls of the departed still locked in purgatory and to avoid the same fate themselves. The rejection of purgatory and confession by Protestants explains why the charnel chapels and their human remains were so cruelly disposed of during the Reformation. The bones were reburied, often in unconsecrated ground, and the rooms either walled up so no trace of them was visible from the outside or reused for random purposes rented out to local merchants for cool storage.

Unfortunately Rothwell charnel chapel is not widely accessible as an archaeological resource, no matter how valuable it might be, because it can’t accommodate human traffic (not of the living kind, anyway) due its delicate preservation conditions. The space is tight, keeping moisture and temperature steady is a challenge, and one false move could irreparably damage the structure and human remains.

In this day and age, there are other options. The Digital Ossuary is a collaboration between the University’s archaeology and computer science departments which has captured the physical space of the charnel chapel, its proportions, where the medieval access points were, high-resolution detail of the bones which will allow osteological study that was previously impossible as well as help determine conservation practices for the long-term preservation of the charnel.

“This new digital resource provides an opportunity for people all over the world to explore the site and helps us to preserve this fascinating window into the past for future generations.” […]

The new digital resource, together with research on the chapel, will be fed into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield.

Archaeologists leading the project are also welcoming the input of researchers who might be interested in working with the model, which has been published via ORDA, the University’s file sharing platform.

And now, without further ado, here is the 3D flythrough of Rothwell Parish Church’s charnel chapel.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bones of headless frogs found in 4,000-year-old jar

Tue, 2017-09-26 23:27

Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have discovered a jar containing the skeletal remains of at least nine frogs, all of them headless, in a Canaanite tomb outside Jerusalem. The discovery was made three years ago during an archaeological excavation in advance of development in the Minhat neighborhood near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. In 2014, the IAA team’s exploration unearthed an intact tomb from the Canaanite period, about 4,000 years ago during the Middle Bronze Age. It contained several clay vessels of different shapes and sizes, some undamaged and in exceptional condition.

According to [IAA excavation directors Shua Kisilevitz and Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe]: “For an archaeologist, finding tombs that were intentionally sealed in antiquity is a priceless treasure, because they are a time capsule that allows us to encounter objects almost just as they were originally left. At that time, it was customary to bury the dead with offerings that constituted a kind of “burial kit,” which, it was believed, would serve the deceased in the afterworld. When we removed the stone that blocked the tomb opening, we were excited to discover intact bowls and jars.

“In one of the jars, to our surprise, we found a heap of small bones. The study of the bones, by Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the University of Haifa, revealed at least nine toads. Interestingly, they had been decapitated.”

The study also identified material from plants, including date palms and myrtles, in samples taken from inside the clay vessels. These could only have been transferred into the jars shortly before they were buried in the tomb. Date palms and myrtles are not native to the area, so the Canaanites must have planted the trees themselves.

According to Dr. [Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University], in this period the date palm symbolized fertility and rejuvenation, which could explain why the ancients cultivated the trees in this environment, where they do not grow naturally. According to the scholars, these plants may have been part of an orchard planted in an area where funeral rituals were held, during which offerings of food and objects were made to the deceased. The scholars surmise that the jar with the headless toads was among these offerings.

This video from the IAA YouTube channel is in Hebrew with no English subtitles, alas, but it’s well worth watching even if you can’t understand the commentary because there’s cool footage of the intact vessels and the broken one filled with frog bones being recovered from the tomb. You can see how challenging it was to get into the narrow, deep space. IAA archaeologist David Tanami had to be upside-down and almost completely vertical to reach the opening.

The study’s findings will be presented on October 18th at the “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region” conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The presentation is open to the public.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Possible Viking boat grave found in downtown Trondheim

Mon, 2017-09-25 23:40

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of what appears to be a Viking boat grave under the market square in central Trondheim, Norway. In the final days of the excavation, the team of archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) recognized a boat-shaped feature in the soil even though there was no visible wood and the site had been repeatedly disturbed by later construction which pockmarked it with postholes and pits.

Further excavation revealed that there was no wood left to be found. It has long since rotted away leaving only the imprint of the boat, corroded rusty lumps and the a few barely preserved nails. Those meager features were sufficient for archaeologists to identify them as parts of a boat. It was at least four meters (13 feet) long and was placed in a north-south orientation.

Two long bones were also found, which is how we know this was probably a boat burial. They were in very poor condition, however, and only DNA testing can ascertain conclusively whether the bones are human. A piece of sheet bronze found leaning against one of the bones is likely a personal belonging interred with the deceased as a grave good. The very few other artifacts that have been discovered seem to be personal objects as well.

Dating is tricky. The team unearthed a small fragment of a spoon and of a key in one of the later postholes dug into what was once the middle of the boat. They can’t be sure these pieces are from the grave, but if they are, then they can loosely date the boat burial from the 7th to the 10th century. This is the first boat burial from this period discovered in downtown Trondheim.

The location away from today’s harbor and the fjord suggests that the boat grave dates from the late Iron Age, or perhaps the early Viking Age.

– It is likely a boat that has been dug down into the ground and been used as a coffin for the dead. There has also probably been a burial mound over the boat and grave, says NIKU’s Knut Paasche, a specialist in early boats.

He believes that the boat type is similar to an Åfjord boat, which has historically been a common sight along the Trøndelag coast.

– This type of boat is relatively flat in the bottom midship. The boat can also be flat-bottomed as it is intended to go into shallow waters on the river Nidelven.

Excavations are over for the season and there are no current plans to explore the site further.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

After many arduous labors, Hercules back in Turkey

Sun, 2017-09-24 23:57

A Roman-era marble sarcophagus decorated with a bas relief of the Twelve Labors of Hercules on its sides has returned to Turkey after a long sojourn in the at haven of looted antiquities smuggling that is the Geneva Free Port. The saga begins on December 3rd, 2010, when the 2nd century A.D. sarcophagus was discovered in one of the Free Port warehouses by customs officials during an inventory check. Measuring 7.7 x 3.7 feet and weighing three tons, the sarcophagus is actually on the smaller side for its type, but it’s still hard to miss as a suspect antiquity, even hidden under piles of blankets and boxes.

This type of sarcophagus was a popular consumer good, produced on a large scale in workshops in Dokimenion (modern-day Iscehisar, western Turkey) from locally quarried marble in the second half of the second century. They weren’t all cookie-cutter pieces, however. Some are distinctly better than others, commissioned by people who could afford the highest reliefs, the most prized marble and the greatest sculptors. This sarcophagus is the best of all the surviving examples, with top-notch carving depth and anatomical detail. A very wealthy person must have commissioned it.

After years of being used as a pivot for the illicit trade in antiquities thanks to its no questions asked approached and tax-free Geneva warehouse complex, Switzerland was now taking a different approach. In 2003, it finally ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 2005 it passed a law requiring that all objects of cultural patrimony had to have verified ownership records. In 2009, a new law forced international traders in cultural goods to file complete and accurate inventories. This law had teeth too, with funding for a customs notification system and thorough inspection of the goods stashed in Free Port warehouses.

So when the sarcophagus’ so-called owner, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership co-owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam who have been involved in many, many highly questionable transactions of looted artifacts, was unable to provide proper documentation in compliance with Switzerland’s more stringent regulation, the object was sequestered. Ali protested vociferously. He insisted it had belonged, like all of his loot, to his father who had bought it legally in the 1990s. He fought all attempts at restitution, and the case dragged through the courts for six years.

A joint investigation by Swiss and Turkish authorities found that the sarcophagus had likely been looted from the ancient site of Perge in Antalya during an illegal excavation in the 1970s. This was confirmed by soil and marble analyses. How it wound its way from Turkey to Switzerland remains unclear and the Aboutaam’s father Sleiman died in 1998 so he can’t answer any questions. He also can’t be prosecuted. On September 21st, 2015, a Swiss prosecutor issued an order that the sarcophagus be restituted to Turkey. The Aboutaam’s appealed twice before withdrawing the last appeal in March 2016. That left the restitution order as the final legal say in the matter, and all that was left was for the slow grind of the legal grist mill to finish its work before the piece was returned. Culture and Tourism Ministry officials in Geneva received the sarcophagus on September 13th. It was in Turkey on September 14th.

After almost seven years of legal wrangling, detective work and waiting, the Hercules sarcophagus was welcomed to its new home, the Antalya Museum, on Sunday in an unveiling ceremony presided over by Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. It is now on display next to the Weary Herakles, a Roman copy in marble of a 4th century B.C. original bronze by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon, which was also looted from Perge and whose torso was pried out of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a lengthy battle so it could be reunited with the legs already on display the museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unusual Bronze Age hoard found in Cumbria

Sat, 2017-09-23 23:31

Metal detectorists in Cumbria have discovered a small Bronze Age hoard that is the first of its kind found in the county. The hoard was cached in a hole in the bedrock covered by stones. The group, small in size but large in historical significance, consists of one gold bracelet, three gold penannular lock-rings and one copper alloy cauldron fragment, all dating to the late Bronze Age. Three of the four jewelry pieces (the bracelet and two lock rings) have stains that may be corrosion or the residue of an organic material buried with them. The stains could also have been caused by something in the soil itself at the time of deposition, although if that were the case it seems like the other objects would have the same kind of staining.

The lock rings are made from sheets of gold curved into circular shapes. They are bound to an outer circle with gold wire and have been delicately incised with concentric rings vaguely reminiscent of the tracks on old wax or vinyl records. Two of the lock rings are almost identical in size — only 1 cm difference in width and .1 gram in weight — and while the third is smaller than the other two, the craftsmanship is so similar experts believe they were created if not by the same hand, then by the same workshop.

The lock rings, meanwhile, are very similar to an example from Portfield Camp, near Whalley, Lancashire.

The purpose of this latter kind of artefact is much debated, through – as they are normally found in pairs, it has been suggested that they may have been a form of high-status personal ornament peculiar to the late Bronze Age (c.1000-800 BC), possibly earrings or some kind of hair decoration.

These newly discovered examples, decorated with concentric rings and bound with gold wire, are unusual for being a group of three.

The gold penannular bracelet, with its undecorated design, flat, circular terminals and uneven curvature has features in common with an example now in the British Museum which was unearthed at Beachy Head, East Sussex, in the 19th century and is now in the British Museum. The bracelet and three lock rings are all a strong yellow color, an indication that the gold has copper added to the alloy.

The find spot — isolated, out-of-reach, high places located near notable features like hillforts and stone circles — is very much in keeping with past Bronze Age lock ring finds. The cauldron fragment is unusual for a lock ring cache. It may have been a previous deposition, but experts don’t think so because it was so found so close to the other pieces that it seems they were all buried together.

The findspot lies in an isolated high place on a prominent ridge that seems to have been an area visited throughout later prehistory. It is situated just below a possible Iron Age hillfort and close to a number of other prehistoric settlement sites, as well as a concentric stone circle. The presence of roughed-out stone axes found nearby hints at the site lying on one of the major transmission routes south for the Langdale axe factories during the Neolithic period, while socketed bronze axes that were also found nearby, probably from a smith’s hoard, point to the area’s importance during the Bronze Age.

‘The enclosed platform, sometimes described as a hillfort, has no evidence of buildings or habitation,’ said Stuart [Noon, Finds Liaison Officer for Lancashire and Cumbria]. ‘It appears that the site may have been of ritual importance, a place where offerings could be placed or buried in the ground or even inserted into the limestone outcrops, and which, it could be speculated, may have hosted gatherings and celebrations.’

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Golden altar of Sahl Church removed for study

Fri, 2017-09-22 23:32

Sahl Church in the Northwest Jutland village of Sahl near Struer is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Built around 1150 out of granite ashlars, it has several notable features: a rune stone built into the chapel’s west wall, 16th century frescos, a burgundy silk velvet chasuble embroidered with silver thread made from the wedding dress of Queen Anna Sophia that is still used today on special occasions. Its most spectacular feature is the Golden Altar, a gilded copper altarpiece made by a Danish master artisan from Ribe in around 1200. Embedded with crystals around the borders, the reliefs on the altarpiece panels depict figures and scenes from the Bible, particularly the childhood and suffering of Jesus, and Christian symbolism.

Popular devotional objects in the Middle Ages, only seven golden altars remain today in Denmark and only two of them in their original locations. (The rest are kept at the National Museum.) The bursts of iconoclastic zeal and the preference for plain church decor of the Reformation took a heavy toll on these objects. Many of them were destroyed and the ones that remain are not in the best of the condition. The altarpiece of Sahl Church is by far the best preserved of the seven, largely intact with no major missing parts. Most of the crystals were lost by the 1930s, but they were restored by National Museum experts in 1935.

In 1850, Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, an archaeologist who was Denmark’s Inspector for the Conservation of Antiquarian Monument, surveyed the church as part of an inspection tour of the area. He warned in a letter that Sahl’s vicar was “adamant that the strange old altarpiece was to be removed” and when he wasn’t able to get rid of the priceless medieval gold and crystal altarpiece, he hired a local artist to paint over the wings. They weren’t original to the piece, thankfully, and they’re gone now but it lends some insight into why there are so few of these inestimable treasures left. Changes in fashion and taste can wreak havoc on historic artifacts, even ones whose value in sheer materials is blatantly obvious. This same vicar, by the way, also had the church’s medieval wooden coffer axed to pieces FOR FIREWOOD. Yet another page in the endless People Are Terrible ledger.

The altar has not been absolutely dated. What we know of their ages has been deduced from analysis of the design style and craftsmanship. When it was last restored more than 80 years ago, it was only spruced up. A new study of the Sahl Golden Altar by conservators at the National Museum of Denmark will give experts the opportunity to use modern methods of analysis to test the wood itself. Dendrochronology, if successful, can provide very precise dates. It will also be X-rayed and the gilding analyzed. They hope the study will reveal more information about the altar’s construction and materials.

While the altar is at the museum, visitors to Sahl Church will see a large-scale photograph of it draped over its usual location.

Within the last few years, the National Museum has conducted further studies on several of the golden altars. The results from this will be gathered in a publication about the unique cultural heritage of golden altars from the Middle Ages, which exists in Denmark.

It is the Carlsberg Foundation, which has granted the money for analyzes of the alhl from Sahl, and the experts hope that the results will be available at the end of the year.

In addition to a new study of the altar, the church itself will also be thoroughly reviewed. This appears in a publication published in the beginning of 2018, where the churches in Estvad, Rønbjerg and Vinderup will also be described.

The publication of the four Western Jutland churches is published as a volume in the National Museum’s great work of Danish Churches, which aims to publish descriptions of all the churches of the country. The project started in 1933, and today about two thirds of the Danish churches are described.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Another brief interlude

Thu, 2017-09-21 20:51

I am internetless again, but again it should be a brief lapse. I’ll be up and running with a fresh story tomorrow, Liver of Piacenza willing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare Rockwell painting owned by Debbie Reynolds for sale

Wed, 2017-09-20 23:40

A rare painting of Benjamin Franklin striking a saucy pose as he signs the Declaration of Independence will be sold to the highest bidder at The Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds Personal Property Auction to be held in Los Angeles on October 7th-9th. For the past seven years until Ms. Reynold’s recent death, the painting was on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which must be disconsolate by the loss of so important and unique a piece.

The painting is accomplished in oil on 37 x 28 in. canvas, capturing a full-length portrait of Benjamin Franklin with a quill pen in hand, prepared to sign The Declaration of Independence and leaning on a Federal-style desk with the Seal of the United States behind him. The platform base reads, “Sesqui * Centennial * Celebration * of * the * Signing * of * the Declaration * of * Independence”. This incredibly historic Rockwell work has been exhibited in twelve museums around the United States since 1972 and has been published in several books.

Rockwell painted the work for the cover of the May 29, 1926, edition of the Saturday Evening Post commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Post commissioned the subject and chose Benjamin Franklin for a specific reason: Franklin was the publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette, the Philadelphia newspaper that the Saturday Evening Post claims as its historical ancestor, even though the Post didn’t exist until 1821 and the Gazette ceased publication in 1800.

The Post‘s reverence for Franklin continued to be expressed in its covers for decades. Between 1943 and 1961, every January the cover would feature a portrait of Benjamin Franklin (usually rather dry ones with a sadly unsaucy stone bust in the foreground) and a quote from his writings. Even today the revived magazine runs a “find Benjamin Franklin’s key” contest, named after his famed kite experiment first published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Gazette of October 19, 1752.

The pre-sale estimate for the oil-on-canvas original capturing the history of one of the United States’ most brilliant innovators, statesmen and printers and a magazine whose slice of Americana covers by Norman Rockwell have become iconic is $2,000,000 – $3,000,000. This is the first time the painting has been gone up for public auction, so the sky is probably the limit, pricewise.

Some of the proceeds from the auction will go to Debbie Reynolds’s most beloved charity The Thalians and The Jed Foundation, an anti-suicide organization chosen by Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Peruvian child mummy X-rayed in Texas hospital

Tue, 2017-09-19 23:48

An ancient Peruvian mummy that has been part of the collection of the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science for 60 years received its first X-ray yesterday at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Very little is known about the mummy which was removed from Peru by unknown (illegal?) means at an unknown time. It has been at the museum since it opened in 1957, a gift from New York’s American Museum of Natural History via its former employee and the Corpus Christi Museum’s first director, Aalbert Heine. The mummy was one of many ancient artifacts and remains Heine brought to the new museum, accession number 137 in a collection that now counts in the millions.

There are no records extant of the mummy at the Museum of Natural History. The Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science’s tag labels it the mummy of an Inca child approximately 2,000 years old. As the Inca Empire is nowhere near that old (the civilization’s origin story places its founding in the 13th century), the label is drastically off-base. It is wrapped in a coiled rope that looks like a basket but isn’t. The only other potential source of information about the mummy are a few textile fragments that have somehow managed to remain on her body, but they have yielded no more answers so far.

Attitudes towards the display of human remains have changed over the years as the anthropological approach shifted from treating people like curios to respect for the dead (and living, for that matter) within their cultural context. The mummy was removed from display in the 1980s and has been kept in storage ever since. Last year, collections manager Jillian Becquet and assistant curator of education Madeleine Fontenot began to investigate the history of the mummy with the aim of repatriating it to its homeland. After extensive research in the museum archives, newspaper records and scrapbooks, the two had little new information to show for it.

Enter the Driscoll Children’s Hospital. An X-ray might reveal important information that would confirm its Peruvian provenance, an essential step in the repatriation process.

“She was not my average patient!” said Suzi Beckwith, Diagnostic X-ray Coordinator at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. […]

“Because of the size of the mummy, I thought it was a baby,” Beckwith said. “But looking at the X-rays, you see her legs are actually tucked in. So she’s not a baby. She’s a little girl.

X-rays can confirm gender, age, and even cause of death.

“We’re looking for things that can help us give information to anthropologists in Peru, and then hopefully confirm cultural group that she belongs to, said Jillian Becquet, Collections Manager at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The burial position confirmed by the X-rays could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Different cultural groups buried their dead in different positions, so experts could determine her origins from that alone. Examination of her bones could pinpoint injuries, healed, peri-mortem or post-mortem.

The museum is working with Peruvian Embassy officials to identify the mummy and arrange for her return. Fontenot and Becquet hope Peruvian experts can learn more about her by studying the rope that binds her and the fragments of cloth. They’re not at that stage yet, however. Before they decide whether to invest in that kind of research, Peruvian officials will study the X-rays and documentation to see if the mummy is a likely candidate for repatriation to Peru. The more data they have, the more securely they will be able to claim her as their own.

“Whatever group was around her chose to do this very caring thing, to wrap her purposefully and bury her,” Becquet said. “Somebody along the way disrespected that, and so we want that to be restored.”

When this little mummy is returned to the land of her ancestors, the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science will have no people left languishing in its storage cabinets. She is the last one.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Indian manuscript with zero symbol far older than realized

Mon, 2017-09-18 23:32

Researchers have discovered that an ancient Indian manuscript is far older than previously realized and therefore contains the earliest known example of the symbol for zero as it is used today. The Bakhshali manuscript, written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, was discovered buried in a field near Peshawar in 1881. Indologist AFR Hoernle bought it from the farmer who found it and in 1902 gifted it to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where it is kept in the rare books collection.

Replete with Sanskrit numerals, including many instances of the small dot that is the ancestor of our zero, the manuscript is believed to have been written by Silk Road merchants practicing math rather than being a philosophical or scholarly work. Its age has long been subject to debate among scholars and the best guesses, based on factors like writing style and the mathematical concepts it convers, put it between the 8th and 12th century.

University researchers hoped radiocarbon testing would provide an absolute date and answer some of these long-standing questions. They were astounded when several of the pages turned out to date between 200 and 400 A.D. Before now, the zero dot on the wall of the Ganesh temple at the 9th century Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, India, was believed to be the oldest visual representation of the ancestor of the modern zero numeral. Researchers expected the Bakshali manuscript to date to around the same time as the depiction in the temple.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

The reason for the confusion about its date is that the birch pages date to three different periods, hence the range of styles and arithmetic.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said:

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bodleian will loan one folio from the Bakhshali manuscript to the Science Museum in London for its upcoming Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition. This is the first time any part of the manuscript has been loaned to another institution and a unique opportunity to see a seminal piece of mathematical history alongside other important of India’s contributions to the history of math, science and technology. It runs from October 4th, 2017, through March 31st, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest royal tomb of Centipede dynasty found in Guatemala

Sun, 2017-09-17 23:25

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ have discovered the oldest known royal tomb of the Wak or Centipede dynasty. The international team from the El Perú-Waka’ Archaeological Project (PAW) found the tomb excavating tunnels under the Palace Acropolis. Analysis of the ceramic grave goods date the tomb to 300-350 A.D. Going from the date alone, the deceased could be King Te’ Chan Ahk who ruled in the early 4th century.

The skeletal remains of an adult male were found inside the tomb, but there were no inscriptions that would conclusively prove his identity. One artifact did make it clear that this was a royal tomb: a jade funerary mask. The portrait mask, painted a bright red with cinnabar, has a tell-tale hair tab on the forehead characteristic of the Maize God. There’s a symbol on the tab reminscent of a Greek Cross which is a combination of the glyphs for “Yellow” and “Precious,” another reference to the corn deity.

[Guatemalan archaeologists Griselda Pérez Robles and Damaris Menéndez] discovered the mask under the head of the ruler, and it may have been made to cover the face rather than as a chest pectoral. Archaeologists at Tikal in the 1960s discovered a similar greenstone mask in the earliest Maya royal tomb, dating to the first century A.D.

Additional offerings in Burial 80 included 22 ceramic vessels, Spondylus shells, jade ornaments and a shell pendant carved as a crocodile. The remains of the ruler and some ornaments like the portrait mask were painted bright red. Burial 80 was reverentially reentered after 600 A.D. at least once, and it is possible that the bones were painted during this reentry.

El Perú-Waka’ was an important city-state that controlled major north-south and east-west trade routes during the Mayan classical period. It produced a wide range of goods for trade — maize avocados, latex, jade — and its support was hungrily sought after by the greatest rivals of the time: Tikal and Calakmul. The north-south trade route linked the great Classical period Mayan power center of Calakmul in modern-day Campeche, Mexico, with its allies to the south in what is today Guatemala. The rulers of Calakmul, the mighty Snake dynasty, cemented their relationships with the rulers of conquered, vassal and allied cities in strategically significant areas by marriage. Lady K’abel, aka Lady Snake Lord, daughter of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of Calakmul, married King K’inich Bahlam II of the Centipede dynasty in the 7th century.

The Wak dynasty long predates the rise of Calakmul and its military and political machinations, however. Drawing from later inscriptions found at El Perú-Waka’, historians believe the dynasty was founded in the 2nd century A.D. making it one of the earliest Mayan ruling families. By the early 5th century A.D., the city’s population numbered in the tens of thousands and the city had dozens of public buildings, squares, religious centers and more. That was the heyday of the city’s prosperity, even though its alliance with Calakmul and the benefits it incurred from the relationship were still hundreds of years away.

“The Classic Maya revered their divine rulers and treated them as living souls after death,” said research co-director David Freidel, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“This king’s tomb helped to make the royal palace acropolis holy ground, a place of majesty, early in the history of the Wak — centipede — dynasty. It’s like the ancient Saxon kings England buried in Old Minister, the original church underneath Winchester Cathedral.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Irma exposes dugout canoe, history buff saves it

Sat, 2017-09-16 23:05

A dugout canoe driven from its watery home on the bottom of the Indian River just north of Cocoa in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma has been saved thanks to the quick thinking and responsible actions of a local history buff. Freelance photographer and history enthusiast Randy “Shots” Lathrop spotted a cypress log on the banks of the Indian River on Monday, September 11st. A less keen eye would have dismissed it as just another piece of arboreal debris littering the shores of the river thanks to Irma’s destructive power, but Lathrop noticed its carved interior and prow and recognized it as a dugout canoe.

He took a picture and sent it to an archaeologist friend who confirmed that it appeared to be a canoe. Lathrop immediately reported the find to the Florida Division of Historical Resources, as required by law, but with all the havoc wreaked by the hurricane the FDHR, the state archaeologist wasn’t going to be able to inspect the canoe right away. Meanwhile, county workers were clearing the area of debris. Lathrop was concerned that they would mistake it for a log, toss it in the truck and put in a landfill before the archaeologist had a chance to see it. He secured permission from the FDHR to move it to safety.

That was easier said than done, however. The canoe weighs close to 700 pounds, and is saturated with water from having been at the bottom of a river for years or even centuries. He enlisted the aid of a friend with a truck and the two of them managed with difficulty to heft the artifact onto the bed. They transported it to a nearby freshwater pond and submerged it to keep the wood from drying out and to keep hurricane debris collectors from disposing of it.

Three days later, the FDHR dispatched a regional archaeologist from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to examine the canoe. He wasn’t comfortable identifying its makers or date based solely on the preliminary investigation, but the possibilities are intriguing. This is an unusual piece.

The 15-foot-long canoe could be anywhere from several decades to several hundred years old, according to Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman with the department. Carbon dating will help to narrow down the boat’s age. […]

The canoe has a squared off form, which Revell said is commonly seen in the historic period (from 1513 to about 50 years ago in Florida), but there are several uncommon features on it too: compartments, square nails and what appears to be a seat.

“The compartments are a bit out of the ordinary,” she said. “The square nails are cut nails. Cut nails were first in production in the early 19th century so that helps to indicate it is a historic canoe.”

Lathrop noted that there are visible remains of red and white paint, colors traditionally used by the Seminole people to paint canoes (among other things).

The canoe is now being conserved in a water bath. There are no specific plans for its ultimate disposition at this juncture, but the buzz is it will stay in Brevard County where it will go on public display once it has been stabilized.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Reindeer hunters find Viking sword in Norway

Fri, 2017-09-15 23:55

A group of reindeer hunters discovered a Viking sword last month while stalking the mountains of Lesja in Oppland, south central Norway. Einar Ambakk found the three-foot-long sword nestled between rocks on August 23rd at more than a mile in altitude. The sword was embedded hilt-down in the gaps between stones. Half of the blade jutted up above the rocks. Einar saw it first and, not even recognizing that it was a sword, placed both his hands on each side of it and lifted it up. Only when he’d pulled it all the way out did he realize he, like a young and confused Once and Future King, had just drawn a sword from the stone.

The hunters reported their discovery to the municipality. Experts examined the weapon and determined it dates to the Viking era, around 850-950 A.D., and is exceptionally well-preserved. The sword’s fine condition and high-altitude location 1,640 meters above sea level generated much excitement. Two glacier archaeologists from Secrets of the Ice, a metal detectorist and a local archaeologist went to the find spot with the reindeer hunters to explore it further.

They were fortunate to be able to find the precise place. The hunters didn’t record the GPS coordinates, but the pictures Einar Ambakk took of the sword had geolocation data enabled, so the team was able to use that information to identify the exact find spot even in the stark mountainous terrain which doesn’t have much in the way of landmarks to help guide them. Even if there had been some peculiar rock formation or other fortuitously identifiable feature, it could only have provided a general search area. The sword selfies made a full and accurate archaeological investigation of the specific site possible, something that was not an option, for example, when a hiker discovered an earlier Viking sword 300 miles southwest of Lesja in 2015.

They found no other artifacts with a 20 meter area of the find. This is significant because if the sword had been schlepped up the mountain by someone who met their end leaving the sword as mute witness to his final days, the team would probably have discovered the remains of other equipment even though the organic materials (including the body and clothing) had rotted away. There is no evidence of ritual weapon sacrifice, a nearby burial, or anything else that might explain the sword’s location.

Nor is there evidence on the sword and in the context of the find to indicate the sword was hidden below the surface and only recently shifted into view due to the movement of the stones in the permafrost. No scratches, no dents, no dings, no bending, at least one of which you’d expect to find had the sword recently been put through a stone wringer. Archaeologists think Einar Ambakk found it pretty much in its original position, perhaps a little lower from sliding down into the crack between the stones.

It may seem strange for the sword to have survived on the surface for more than one thousand years. However, to all appearances this is what happened here. Isolated finds of well-preserved iron arrowheads are also known from the high mountains, and some of these artefacts are even older than the sword. The preservation is probably due to a combination of the quality of the iron, the high altitude and the mostly cold conditions. For most of the year, the find spot would have been frozen over and covered in snow.

The sword would most likely have had bone, wood or leather covering the grip, but the organic parts are no longer preserved.

Because a Viking’s sword was likely his most prized possession, it wouldn’t have just been abandoned or forgotten during a mountain-top jaunt. Not that the find site is ideally suited as a walking trail. The rocky terrain would have been treacherous and there was a well-established path nearby without any such obstacles. It’s possible the owner of the sword got lost in the white-out of a blizzard and died, but, as the glacier archaeologists point out, if that were the case, then where is the rest of his gear? You don’t climb a mile up a mountain carrying only a sword.

The sword is now at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo where it will be studied further and conserved.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Met acquires splendid gilded Egyptian coffin

Thu, 2017-09-14 23:01

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired an exceptional gilded cartonnage coffin from Late Ptolemaic Period Egypt. Cartonnage was made of layers of linen or papyrus plastered together to create a material that when wet could be molded into a desired shape and then dried into a hard shell. The hardened shell was then painted or gilded, more frequently the former than the latter. Cartonnage funerary masks and sarcophagi were used in Egypt from the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 B.C.) well into the Roman era.

Molded into a mummiform shape, the coffin was made between 150 and 50 B.C. to hold the remains of one Nedjemankh. He was a priest of Heryshef, a fertility god depicted with the head of a ram, in Heracleopolis Magna. The city had been the cult center of Heryshef since the third millennium B.C. and the Ptolemies, keen to associate their Greek religious traditions with the ancient Egypt pantheon, declared Heryshaf the equivalent of Herakles and renamed the city to match.

The recently-acquired coffin is a spectacular example of a very high status cartonnage artifact, even unique in several ways. It is composed of layers ofa linen, gesso and resin and decorated with gold, silver and glass. The lid is covered with scenes of funerary spells and one long inscription referring to the gold and silver that are so prominently displayed in the coffin itself. Inside the lid is an image of the sky goddess Nut adorned with silver foil. The base of the coffin is decorated with a djed pillar, symbol of stability and the creator god Osiris.

Unique to this coffin are the thin sheets of silver foil on the interior of the lid, intended to protect Nedjemankh’s face. To the ancient Egyptians, the precious metals gold and silver symbolized several things. On a general level, they could represent the flesh and bones of the gods, or the sun and the moon; on a more specific level, they were identified with the eyes of the cosmic deity Heryshef, whom Nedjemankh served.

Even more remarkably, the long inscription on the front of the coffin’s lid explicitly connects gold and “fine gold” (electrum) to the flesh of the gods, the sun, and the rebirth of the deceased. The association of the inscription with the actual use of metals on the coffin is a rare — possibly unique — occurrence.

Perhaps even rarer than the beauty, condition and quality of the cartonnage coffin is that it was actually legally exported. No fraudulent “private Swiss collection,” no forged documents, no fake history ginned up by sellers seeking to justify a sudden appearance on the market in the 90s. Instead, there is a full ownership record and legal paperwork proving that it was exported from Egypt in 1971 with a license from the authorities. Believe it or not, it was bought by a real Swiss private collector from the shop of Cairo dealer Habib Tawadrus. (This is the first time I can recall seeing the Swiss private collector be an actual flesh-and-blood human instead of a convenient fiction to cover the widespread flouting of cultural patrimony laws in the antiquities trade.) The coffin has remained in the owner’s family until the Metropolitan bought it from them this year.

It is now on display in the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries for Egyptian Art.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

One of largest Mycenaean tombs found in Greece

Wed, 2017-09-13 23:18

Archaeologists have discovered one of the largest tombs of the Mycenaean era in Orchomenos, Greece. The burial chamber is an estimated 3,350 years old, dating to the 14th century B.C. and is the ninth-largest Mycenaean chamber tomb of the 4,000 known to have been excavated in the last century and a half.

It is of monumental scale, with a road 20 meters (66 feet) long carved of out of stone leading into the tomb. The burial chamber is a single large room 42 square meters (452 square feet) in surface area. The walls were topped by a stone roof that was originally around 3.5 meters (11 feet) high. That figure is an estimate because the roof collapse in antiquity, perhaps even shortly after it was constructed in the Mycenaean era.

The cave-in damaged some of the artifacts and human remains inside the tomb, but it also saved it from a far worse danger than architectural failure or natural disaster: human beings. Covered by the collapsed pile of rocks, the tomb was hidden from looters and from well-meaning people who might seek to reuse the tomb, a very common practice in ancient Greece. That makes this find extremely valuable to archaeologists, because they can learn so much about a single identified point on the timeline without concern that later interventions have contaminated the scene. It will be one of the best documented Mycenaean tombs ever found on the Greek mainland.

The remains discovered inside the tomb are of an adult male, about 40-50 years old. He was buried with a selection of expensive and meaningful objects: more than 10 tin vessels, a pair of bronze hooks from horseshoes, bow fittings, arrows, brooches, jewelry, a seal ring, pottery and more. Because there are no other people buried there — almost unheard of with monumental Mycenaean tombs which were usually built to accommodate multiple family members over the course of generations — archaeologists are in the unique position of being able to associate every artifact with the one man interred in the chamber.

It has already upended some of the received wisdom on Mycenaean funerary practices.

Finding this burial site and its features will give researchers the opportunity to better understand the burial practices of the region during the Mycenaean times. For example, the deposition of many jewels on a man-made burial contests – as in the case of a centuries-old warrior from Pylos found in 2015 – the widespread belief that the jewelry was mostly accompanied by women in their last home. It is also noteworthy that, with the exception of two small false amphoras, no Mycenaean ceramics were found in the grave, which, moreover, is extremely popular in this period.

This was a great way to inaugurate the first year of a five-year collaboration between the Greek Culture Ministry, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Viotia, the British School of Athens and the University of Cambridge. The interdisciplinary program combines excavation with osteoarchaeological study to find out more about the Mycenaean era. The discovery of the tomb dovetails perfectly with the program’s mission.

Orchomenos in the southeastern Greek province of Boetia traced its founding back to the mythological king Minyas, described as the son of an array of different deities and demigods depending on which account you read. He moved his people inland from Thessaly and established a new royal dynasty in a new capital. Heracles burned it down once in a fight against the Minyan king who was exacting heavy tribute from the Greeks.

Whatever the kernel of truth in the city’s origin myth, by the Mycenaean era Orchomenos was a center of wealth and civilization. It had a grand palace with elaborately frescoed walls, monumental tombs and ambitious infrastructure projects. The wetlands of nearby Lake Copaïs were drained to reclaim the fertile land for agriculture.

At its peak in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C., Orchomenos was comparable in prosperity and pomp to Thebes, the most important city in Mycenaean Greece. Its rise was halted in the 12th century B.C. when the city was razed — archaeological remains attest to Orchomenos being devastated by fire — but it was rebuilt successfully enough to reengage its rivalry with Thebes. That’s what did them in the end, internecine warfare. It was sacked repeatedly by Thebes and its allies in the 4th century B.C., and while it was rebuilt by Philip II of Macedon and his son, the future Alexander the Great, in 335 B.C., it never recovered its former significance. Under the Roman Empire and the Byzantine, Orchomenos had declined into just another sleepy little town among many, albeit one with an excellent theater courtesy of the Macedons.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Irma cannot defeat cats with opposable thumbs

Tue, 2017-09-12 23:31

Ah, Internets, how I missed you. An outage of just over 24 hours had me in full white-knuckle withdrawal mode. I don’t know how the Harvey/Irma folks can stand it. Take, for instance, the staff of the Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West. Key West, like all of the Florida Keys, was smack in Irma’s path, and the Overseas Highway, its sole road linking it to the mainland, was sure to be underwater leaving Key West without means of resupply. Residents were ordered by the governor to evacuate the Keys. The National Weather Service minced no words, warning that “nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe” from Irma. Governor Rick Scott minced even fewer words: “You will not survive.”

One museum curator, 10 museums staffers and more than 50 cats were not persuaded. Curator of the Hemingway Home and Museum Dave Gonzales chose to stay in the historic property once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and 10 staffers joined him. Perhaps even more beloved (and certainly better known) than the mere humans are the cats, most of them polydactyl, descended from the author’s original cats.

Hemingway loved cats and ended up with more than 50 of them. He had a great fondness for polydactyls which were considered good luck on board ships. It was a sea captain who gave Hemingway his first polydactyl, Snowball. Today the descendants of Snowball and his feline family live on the estate and have the run of the place, just as the cats did when Hemingway lived there. Most of them are neutered, with only a select few allowed to breed very rarely to ensure the population remains steady at around 50. Named after the greatest stars of pop culture, they are so famous and so popular that polydactyls, particularly those with little thumbs that make them look like they’re wearing boxing gloves, are commonly known as Hemingways. Half of the visitors to the Hemingway Home and Museum go there just to see the cats.

Nobel-prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s home on Key West has many of his personal belongings on display from furniture to pens, and of course it has its greatest stars roaming the grounds, but it is a National Historic Landmark whose history long predates Hemingway’s residence. The white Spanish colonial mansion was built in 1851 by marine architect Asa Tift. A ship’s captain and salvage wrecker who was well-versed in the challenges of building on a small island that is almost entirely at sea level, Tift chose his site wisely. He picked the second highest point in Key West at 16 feet above sea level and then quarried its limestone. That provided his home with a deep, dry basement and a supply of 18-inch blocks carved from solid limestone with which to build it.

A family squabble kept the old Tift mansion boarded up and abandoned until Ernest Hemingway bought it in 1931 for $8,000. He lived in the home with his second wife Patricia and their two sons from 1931 until 1940. Those brief nine years were exceptionally prolific, the most productive of his life. He wrote 70% of his total output during those years, including To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He also paid a nosebleed-inducing $20,000 to have the first in-ground pool in Key West installed in 1938. Two years later and three years after he began his affair with Martha Gellhorn, Ernest moved to Cuba, got a divorce and got remarried to Gellhorn three weeks after it was finalized.

He kept the house until his death, although he never lived in it again. He died in 1961 and his widow (wife #4, Mary Welsh) sold it to Bernice Dickson who would transform it into a museum. In all this time, through the dozens (hundreds?) of hurricanes and crazy storms it has seen since 1851, the Hemingway Home has always held out against the elements. Its basement doesn’t flood. Its walls remain unbreached. That’s why Gonzales is so confident in the Hemingway Home’s capacity to weather even a monster hurricane like Irma. Only Solares Hill (18 feet above sea level) is at a higher elevation than the Hemingway estate, and its massive limestone construction and deep basement make it one of the safest places, if not the safest, on the island. It also has an array of generators for power and climate control. The ten employees who are joining Gonzales live at lower elevations on the island and have chosen to seek shelter behind those thick limestone blocks.

Besides, somebody has to take care of the cats. The staff helped round them all up and bring them indoors to safety. Father John Baker from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Basilica (one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Florida and Pauline Hemingway’s parish when she lived at Hemingway Home) blessed the staff and cats.

Window and shutters nailed down under plywood, fully stocked with supplies, safe and dry in a basement that has never flooded, Gonzales, the staff and the cats stared Irma down. She was no match for them. From the Hemingway Home Cats Instagram page:

We are so extremely happy to announce that everyone, cats and staff, have weathered the storm and are only reporting trees down on property as far as damage goes. Communication with the Hurricane crew is incredibly limited and they currently do not have power, water, phones or internet. We do not have any photos to share at this time. Nicole was our only admin for the page that stayed on the hurricane crew. She will share when internet access is available. Please keep in mind that clean up is already underway and therefore we will not be posting anything more until normal communication services are available on the island. We appreciate the concern and well wishes.

Here’s a great tour of the Hemingway Home and Museum led by Dave Gonzales, whose handsome snowy beard may or may not be related to Hemingway’s iconic facial hair.

And here is an extremely badass cat with many toes ideally positioned for the pummelling of interlopers keeping Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter from harm.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Technical difficulties

Mon, 2017-09-11 18:56

Due to inclement weather, my Internet is out. If the cable company isn’t lying, I should be back online soon. Don’t panic!

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cache of cavalry weapons found at Vindolanda

Sun, 2017-09-10 23:59

Speaking of banner dig seasons, this year’s excavations at Vindolanda Roman fort have unearthed a unique treasure: a large cache of weapons left behind on the floor of a cavalry barracks.

The discovery of the barrack was momentous on its own. The team of archaeologists and volunteers dug underneath the stone foundations of the 4th century fortress (the last one built at Vindolanda) and found a layer of anaerobic soil. That has been the secret to Vindolanda’s exceptional preservation of organic materials likes leather shoes, wooden toilet seats, birch log water pipes and, its famous writing tablets. Archaeologists did not expect to find this type of soil in this location and were elated.

Inside the oxygen-free soil layer, the team found timber walls, floors and fences recognizable from the remains of the stables as a Roman cavalry barrack. In total they’ve unearthed eight rooms — the stables, the living space for the humans, the kitchen ovens and fireplaces. The first blade was unearthed in a corner of the living room. The iron blade was still sharp and secured inside its wooden scabbard and the wooden pommel intact.

The numen of Vindolanda must be looking out for their archaeologists because a few weeks later the team found a second cavalry sword. It was just the blade and intact tang this time — no handle or scabbard or pommel — but it’s an incredibly rare piece nonetheless and the team was ecstatic to have found two cavalry swords inside one month. Long and very thin, Roman cavalry swords rarely survive the ravages of time because they’re so easily destroyed by corrosion.

They also found two wee wooden swords, toys for children, doubtless, and a massive quantities of assorted artifacts. Rubbing shoulders with swords real and toy were ink writing tablets, shoes, stylus pens, ink writing tablets, copper-alloy harness fittings, and even more weapons from cavalry lances to ballista bolts.

The abandonment of such an exceptional (and expensive) assortment of goods left strewn on the floor of the barracks must have been occasioned by some impending danger.

Birley said: “The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war. What’s exciting is that [they] are remarkably well-preserved … There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armour, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

The barrack is one of the earliest built at Vindolanda. Constructed in 105 A.D., it predates Hadrian’s Wall by almost 20 years. At that time, it was host to military units from all over the empire, including the Belgians in the 1st Cohort of Tungrians and the Spanish Vardulli Cavalrymen.

Birley said: “There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History