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First stone circle in a 100 years found in Dartmoor

Wed, 2015-05-13 03:39

A previously unknown stone circle has been found on Dartmoor, the first new stone circle discovery in a hundred years. There are 30 stones, all of them now recumbent although packing stones found at the base of some of them indicate they were upright originally, in a circle 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter. One more stone lies just outside the circle and was built into an enclosure wall in more recent history. Radiocarbon dating of the peat underneath the stones found that they fell about 4,000 years ago. That means there’s a chance they could have been erected before Stonehenge which was built between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C.

At 525 meters (1722 feet) above sea level, it is the highest stone circle in southern England and would have dominated the landscape when the stones were still vertical. It is located 300 meters (984 feet) southwest of Sittaford Tor, one of Dartmoor’s hills topped with granite boulders, which was probably the source for the stones in the circle. The fact that the stones are of relatively uniform size and shape suggests they were deliberately selected and carried down the hill to the site.

The location of the circle is particularly significant because it fits perfectly in a crescent pattern created by seven other stone circles on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor. The newly discovered circle is the southernmost of the eight, just west of the first and northernmost circle, the one at Little Hound Tor. The author of the excellent Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks website has created a map of the arc. Archaeologists believe this pattern is deliberate, evidence of large scale planning and communication between the late Stone Age, early Bronze Age communities living on Dartmoor four to five thousand years ago.

The circle was discovered by Dartmoor native and stained glass artist Alan Endacott in 2007 after a controlled burn of the undergrowth exposed the stones long hidden beneath the brush. The find was not announced until last year and archaeological explorations are still in the early stages. Since this is the first stone circle found in generations, it gives archaeologists the first chance to study a pristine site using modern technology.

Jane Marchand, Senior Archaeologist, Dartmoor National Park said:
“Its discovery is providing an opportunity for investigation using the very latest archaeological scientific methods to provide long awaited insights into the chronology, construction and the purpose of these most elusive and iconic of Dartmoor’s prehistoric monuments.” [...]

Although the full results of the geophysical surveys are not back yet, preliminary results have revealed a wide ditch running in a linear fashion just outside the eastern side of the circle. Further investigation is planned later this summer.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Explore the 18th c. consultation letters of Dr. William Cullen

Tue, 2015-05-12 04:18

Dr. William Cullen was a chemist, surgeon, apothecary, physician, botanist, university lecturer and prominent figure in the Scottish enlightenment who was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the University of Edinburgh Medical School as the top medical school in Britain, if not the entire continent. Philosopher David Hume was a patient and friend. Physician and pioneering chemist Joseph Black was one of his students and remained a close friend throughout their life. The young William Hunter, the distinguished anatomist who brought us Smugglerius and whose collection formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow’s famed Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, was Cullen’s student and partner for four years before striking out on his own. Anatomist Alexander Monro II, father of that Alexander Monro who dissected William Burke’s body after his execution, was another student and friend.

Cullen lived a long life working almost up to his last breath, only retiring as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1789 when he was 80 years old, just a few months before he died. During his years in Edinburgh, he established his own private practice which was highly successful even though much of his work was conducted not in person but in letters. Physicians often consulted by correspondence at that time, and Cullen did us the great favor of keeping most of the letters he received from the 1760s onward along with copies of his replies, either handwritten or, after April 1st, 1781, made using the pressure copying machine invented by James Watt of steam engine fame.

That remarkable archive is now in the possession of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) and it is unique in its importance and immensity. There are 17 boxes of letters and 21 bound volumes of Cullen’s replies. Consultations were mainly the province of the wealthy (the cost was a whopping two guineas), but there are a wide range of patients and problems. There’s even a letter from James Boswell asking for help for a very ill Samuel Johnson. To make this treasury of medical history more widely available, the RCPE is working with the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies to digitize the collection and make it publically available to everyone from scholars to people who love falling down research rabbit holes (not that we know anyone who answers to that description here).

[The Cullen Project] will not only render this material viewable as high-quality digital images and readable as diplomatic and normalised transcripts, but the texts will be fully searchable. Internal references to ingredients (materia medica), symptoms, conditions, treatments, preparations, actions and body-parts are being tagged using XML mark-up. Additional metadata for each item, including all associated dates, persons and places is being recorded in the edition’s innovative database.

For example, here’s a featured letter sent to Dr. Cullen by a colleague, Dr. John Cairnie, seeking advice on the treatment of a patient suffering from erectile dysfunction. The young man had suffered from numerous bouts of venereal disease starting when he joined the Navy at 12 years of age. He was now 27 and was unable to get an erection but was nonetheless experiencing unfortunately frequent ejaculations. Cullen replied a few days later and the prescription he suggested to cure the poor fellow was written on the back of the letter to the right of seal: “Take half-a-drachm of Camphor; half-a-drachm of prepared Steel; two drachms of Gentian extract, and a sufficient amount of Gum Arabic mucilage to form pills of nine grains each. Three to be taken every morning and every night.”

On the Facsimile tab of the entry are photographs of the letter, back and front. You can hover over them to zoom in. The Normalized Text tab has a corrected transcript of the letter which replaces abbreviations and numerals with full words. The Diplomatic Text tab has a transcript which cleaves to the original syntax. Every ingredient, disease term, body part, syndrome, etc. is a link to a definition and other instances in which they appear in the good doctor’s correspondence. Care to know more about 18th century testicle doctoring? Click the link in the word “testicle” from the transcripts and you’ll find another 134 references in Cullen’s consultation letters to testes, stones and the scrotum.

It is truly a most alluring Charybdis of a database. I defy anyone to read just one letter without being sucked into the link whirlpool. If your family reports you as a missing person, don’t blame me; blame The Cullen Project.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The first selfie

Mon, 2015-05-11 03:45

Here it is:

Robert Cornelius took this picture of himself outside of his family’s lamp Philadelphia store in October or possibly November of 1839.

Although there were reports that Louis Daguerre had devised a method to fix images captured by a camera obscura onto a metal plate as early as 1835, the daguerreotype was first announced in January of 1839 and the process released to the public on August 19th. After detailed descriptions of how to take daguerreotype were published in Philadelphia journals and newspapers in September and October, Robert Cornelius, who had a great interest in chemistry and worked for his father doing silver plating, was approached by inventor Joseph Saxton to create a light-sensitive silver-coated plate for use in daguerreotypy. With Cornelius’ plate, Saxton took the earliest known surviving picture in the United States on October 16th, capturing the round tower of the Philadelphia Central High School and the old Pennsylvania State Arsenal building at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper from the window of his offices at the US Mint.

Cornelius was intrigued by the new technology and immediately set to doing his own experiments. His first subject was far more challenging than Saxton’s. Daguerreotypes required long exposure times of up to 15 minutes. Even the shortest exposures were at least three minutes, which made the medium less than ideal for capturing living, conscious beings. Schools and arsenals do photographers the courtesy of not even twitching once. Cornelius wanted to give it a go anyway, so he took his homemade camera — a box with an opera glass lens — into the yard behind the lamp store and there, in the daylight, he took a daguerreotype half-portrait of himself with crossed arms and tousled hair that wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion magazine today. He’s a little off-center, but I think it only makes him look more natural and less like he had to hold that pose for minutes on end. The lamp store, incidentally, was located on 8th Street between Market and Chestnut, just five blocks from the US Mint where Saxton took his first photograph.

After his first foray into daguerreotypy, Robert Cornelius caught the bug. In February of 1840 he opened a portrait photography studio and captured the likenesses of other sitters, wealthy clients and family and friends. He also published what is believed to be the first photograph in an advertisement in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Very few of his works, only around two dozen, have survived. Thankfully his masterful selfie is among them.

Cornelius quit the photography business in 1843 and returned to work for the family’s lamp and chandelier concern where he had a very successful career building a better mousetrap, mainly lamps that ran on cheaper and more easily accessible fuels like pig lard rather than the prohibitively expensive whale oil that was still the default option when he began. Under his tenure the company became the largest lamp business in the country before they were eventually overtaken by other better-mousetrap-makers. Robert Cornelius retired a wealthy man in the 1860s.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Red Lady of El Mirón buried with flowers

Sun, 2015-05-10 12:40

The El Mirón cave the Rio Asón valley of eastern Cantabria, Spain, has seen continuous human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic 41,000 years ago right through to the Bronze Age. The cave has been excavated yearly since the 1996 by a research team co-directed by Manuel González Morales of the International Prehistoric Research Institute of Cantabria and Lawrence Guy Straus, Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. In 2010, they discovered human bones deposited against the wall of a chamber at the back of the cave behind a limestone slab and encircled with the remains of small bonfires. The bones — an incomplete set including a mandible, a tibia with animal bites, several vertebrae and ribs, phalanges and part of the cranium — belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death. The skeletal remains and the sediment on which they rest were covered in ochre which is why she was dubbed the Red Lady of El Mirón.

Radiocarbon dating found that the Red Lady died and was buried 18,700 years ago near the end of the last Ice Age at the dawn of the Magdalenian period. It is the only relatively intact Magdalenian burial ever discovered on the Iberian Peninsula. Intact burials from the period have been found in France (the country where the type site was found) and Germany and individual bones from the period have been found in Spain before, but they were scattered and not associated with a grave.

Cave burials in this era were very rare. All signs point to the Red Lady having been someone of great importance to the Upper Paleolithic people who used the cave as their home and workspace. The red ochre, very high in sparkly specular hematite, appears to have been imported, and the grave was tended for a significant amount of time because the ochre was reapplied after the long bones and much of the cranium were removed. The bones could have been victim to the unknown canine-sized predator whose teeth marks were found on the tibia, or the removal of the big bones also could have been a deliberate act. Her people could have removed them for display or some other ritual purpose and then reapplied the ochre. The discovery of numerous small hand and foot bones in the 2013 season confirmed that the soft tissues decomposed in place rather than the body having been dismembered before it was skeletonized.

The large limestone block two meters (6.6 feet) long and one meter (3.3 feet) wide had fallen from the roof of the cave and was engraved with symbols — multiple fine lines some of which form a V-shape that may represent the pubic triangle, often used in Paleolithic art as a symbol of the female. The block fell a few hundred years before the Red Lady was buried in the small space behind it. The engravings date to around the time of the burial, so it could be that the Red Lady’s mourners made a grave marker of sorts out of it, hence the possible female symbol.

With no obvious grave goods, researchers have been studying other items found at the burial site to see if they may have been associated with the grave. They discovered a baby tooth of a second person, thousands of stone fragments, bones of red deer, ibex, fish, antler points, bone needles and beads made from pierced shells and animal teeth. Stable isotope analysis of the Red Lady’s teeth found that her diet mainly (80%) consisted of meat from hoofed animals (likely the red deer and ibex whose bones were found) with fish making up most of the remaining 20% except for small amounts of starchy plants, seeds and mushrooms.

Researchers also collected pollen samples.

María-José Iriarte-Chiapusso and Alvaro Arrizabalaga at the University of the Basque Country in Spain have taken a different tack, focusing on the pollen found at the burial site. They found an unexpected preponderance of pollen from the Chenopod group, which includes plants like spinach (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi.org/2vc). Chenopod pollen is rare at archaeological sites from this period, and the high concentration found by the researchers doesn’t match the patterns at burial sites in areas where these plants were a food source, says Iriarte-Chiapusso.

It is possible that the plants were used medicinally at this time, but that would still fail to explain the high levels of pollen. “The extraordinary nature of the finds within the burial suggest that [the plants] had been deliberately sought out for some purpose related to the deceased,” says Arrizabalaga. This leads the team to believe that the woman’s people may have left a floral offering at the grave, probably of small, yellowish flowers.

“You can’t get away from the conclusion that this person, [out of] the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Magdalenians who once existed for several thousand years in Iberia, was given some kind of special treatment,” says Straus. “God only knows why.”

Researches will study her DNA next in the hope that it will lend insight into the repopulation of Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 21,000 years ago). Scientists hypothesize that when the cold was at its worst, people fled to southern climes before spreading back up north when temperatures warmed up again. If the Red Lady’s DNA can be linked to later populations in Belgium, Germany and the UK, it will be evidence that the Magdalenians who took refuge in Iberia went on to repopulate northern Europe.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman pool heater found in Bulgarian resort

Sat, 2015-05-09 08:39

Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, so beautifully immortalized on the column that bears his name, was as immense a construction project as it was a military one. Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) built several major roads during his campaigns in Dacia, feats of engineering urged by the military necessity to clear a path for the organized and speedy movement of troops and supplies. The Via Trajana almost bisects central Bulgaria. It started in the Danube city of Ulpia Oescus, today the town of Gigen just south of the Romanian border, then went south through Sostra (modern-day Troyan) and the Troyan Pass in the Balkan Mountains before ending in Philippopolis (modern-day Plovdiv) which in Trajan’s day was in the Roman province of Thrace and is now in southern Bulgaria. The road played an important strategic role in the conquest of Dacia since it provided the army with a vital link connecting the Roman province of Lower Moesia on the Danube Plain with the largest city in Thrace. An even longer road Trajan built, the Via Militaris, intersected Philippopolis going the other way, diagonally from the northwest to the southeast of what is now Bulgaria.

Subsequent emperors maintained and added to the roads, building watch forts and . Along the Balkan stretch of the Via Trajana, Antonius Pius (r. 138-161 A.D.) built a fortress at Sostra in the Osam river valley to garrison the area which is known to have revolted against his rule at least once. Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.) and Gallienus (r. 253-268 A.D.) built fortresses practically on top of their predecessors’ ones at Sostra. The garrison ranged from 500 to 1,000 soldiers strong at different times, all of whom were housed in long wooden barracks with tiled roofs and well-fed on a diet of domesticated animals, game and mussels from the Osam river.

As so often happened in the Roman empire, a bustling town grew alongside the outpost to take advantage of the security afforded by troops permanently stationed there and the many opportunity for trade. In the 5th century, invading Huns destroyed the fortress and the town which were then left undeveloped. With no subsequent construction to destroy what was left of the Roman structures, the site has proven a rich source of archaeological remains since excavations began in the 1970s.

More recently, a team led by archaeologist Ivan Hristov have been excavating Sostra and environs since 2002. They found a stretch of the Via Trajana in 2010 that’s an impressive 7 meters (23 feet) wide and in excellent condition, the best preserved Roman road ever discovered in Bulgaria. Last year Hristov’s team unearthed a Roman road station 5,400 square feet in area with well-appointed facilities including a praetorium — a general or governor’s council/judgment hall — and baths with hot and cold water pools. The baths were fed by brick channels built to carry water from the Osam through the underfloor hypocaust system that heated the water, floor and walls. Coins, jewelry and votive offerings found at the bottom of one of the channels underscores that the people who made use of the facilities were wealthy. This wasn’t a modest public bath for the villagers; it was more like a luxury resort for the well-moneyed traveler.

This year’s excavation has found a furnace used to heat up the water in a shallow pool next to the large swimming pool, much like the small hot tubs attached to the big pools in modern-day resorts. Hristov believes the resort regularly hosted government administrators and may even have been visited by the imperial family when they were in the area.

The Bulgaria National Museum of History plans to apply for National Monument of Culture status for the Sostra road station which will grease the wheels for additional excavation and partial restoration to enhance its potential as a tourist destination.

The new discovery at the Ancient Roman fortress Sostra is expected to help it receive the status of an archaeological preserve including the fortress, the road station, and a large Early Christian basilica together with several other ancient buildings located at the point where the Lomeshka River flows into the Osam River.

As the report puts it, tourists will be able to walk around an entire labyrinth of authentic archaeological structures.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Huge silver ingot found on alleged Captain Kidd shipwreck

Fri, 2015-05-08 09:01


A massive silver ingot weighing 110 pounds has been found in the Indian Ocean waters near the island Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar. It was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford on a shipwreck that he alleges is what’s left of Captain Kidd’s vessel the Adventure Galley. The silver bar is believed to be the largest ever found on a shipwreck.

The ingot has extensive markings on both sides which Clifford’s team thinks point to its originating in 17th century Bolivia. The History channel (they dropped “channel” from the official name but I just can’t bring myself to call it HISTORY the way they do), which has been filming Clifford’s exploration of the wreck for an upcoming multi-part series, has an image of the underside of the ingot with the marks labelled but not explained. I guess they’re saving the full explanation for the show. The ingot was recovered from the wreck and handed over to Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina in a public ceremony.

Clifford found this wreck 15 years ago and has been returning to it regularly ever since. The problem is there is no concrete evidence that it’s the Adventure Galley. They found an oarlock that’s the proper size for a galley like the Adventure and copious fragments of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain that stylistically dates to the late 17th century and that’s it. They had hoped to find personal belongings sailors might have left behind that would help identify the wreck, but that came to nought.

Île Sainte-Marie became known as the Island of the Pirates because a number of pirates used it as a base due to its convenient location next to the lucrative shipping lanes of the East India trade, its many protected bays and inlets and its rich endowment of fruit. Captain Kidd is known to have harbored there in the Spring and Summer of 1698, but the ship could have belonged to any of the many pirates and privateers who hung out on Sainte-Marie around that time.

That hasn’t stopped Clifford from making claims that are, to put it generously, hyperbolic.

“Captain’s Kidd’s treasure is the stuff of legends. People have been looking for it for 300 years. To literally have it hit me on the head – I thought what the heck just happened to me. I really didn’t expect this,” Mr Clifford said.

“There’s more down there. I know the whole bottom of the cavity where I found the silver bar is filled with metal. It’s too murky down there to see what metal, but my metal detector tells me there is metal on all sides.”

This has generated many a breathless “Captain Kidd treasure found!” headlines, but it’s really a shameless equivocation because even if Clifford truly did find the remains of the Adventure Galley — an if even bigger than a 150-pound silver bar — the legendary treasure of Captain Kidd was not on it. The £100,000 treasure he claimed in his famous last letter to have hidden was in a secret location in the Caribbean, and indeed, what kind of pirate would leave any part of his vast treasure on a derelict vessel while he took his best ship across the world to the Caribbean Sea?

According to Kidd’s testimony at his trial and a statement from pirate Theophilus Turner, the Adventure Galley, which by then was taking on so much water as to render it barely seaworthy, was burned to the waterline and then sunk. Before it was destroyed, Kidd had anything of value, from the cannon to the very hinges, loaded onto the Quedagh Merchant, a 400-ton merchant vessel he had captured in January of 1698 and renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd testified that the Adventure Prize was loaded with 10 tons of scrap iron and 14 or 15 spare anchors before leaving Madagascar for the Caribbean. A giant silver ingot is not likely to have been overlooked.

The archaeological record supports his testimony, as the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, discovered in 2007 in the Caribbean Sea near Catalina Island off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, was found with 26 cannons, most of them stacked in the hold muzzle to cascabel as cargo rather than armed on deck. Three large anchor crowns were found underneath one of the cannon piles and there were magnetic anomalies detected underneath the anchors that are consistent with the tons of scrap iron Kidd mentioned.

Even Clifford himself noted in 2000 when he first found the wreck that the Adventure Galley was stripped to the bone before it was destroyed and that therefore he did not expect to find any treasure. Now that a magnificent ingot has “literally” hit him on head (in actual fact he literally picked it up from the seabed, as is clear from a screencap of the History channel footage), instead of concluding from this that the wreck is likely not the Adventure Galley, Clifford has chosen to embrace it as Kidd’s legendary treasure no matter how groundless a claim it is. The ingot is so awesome on its own it really doesn’t need this kind of sensationlism tarnishing its cool.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Letter written in murderer William Burke’s blood on display

Thu, 2015-05-07 06:52

The University of Edinburgh is participating in this year’s Festival of Museums, a Scotland-wide series of special exhibitions and activities that will take place the weekend of May 15th – 17th, with a romp through their most deadly collections. One Last Fright will include events like a talk about gruesome Victorian medical procedures as seen in prints collected by surgeon Sir John William Thomson-Walker, poisonous cosmetics and dyes from the University’s geology collection and A Scandal in Surgeons’ Hall, an evening of dancing, magic, fortune-telling and a recreation of a Victorian crime scene.

The most popular event — tickets are already sold out but you can still add yourself to the waiting list — is a tour through the University’s collection of Arthur Conan Doyle books and related materials and best of all, a rare glimpse at a scrapbook relating to the Burke and Hare murders. The scrapbook, thought to have been compiled by a medical student shortly after the grisly events were exposed, has never been display in public before. Neither has its most gruesome page: a letter written in William Burke’s blood.

William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who moved to Edinburgh looking for work as navvies (canal diggers). Burke arrived in Scotland around 1817 and worked the Union Canal. Hare arrived around that time or a little later and also worked the Union Canal. In 1826, he married a widow who owned a cheap but not entirely disreputable (meaning it wasn’t a brothel) flop house. Burke and Hare didn’t know each other or meet until 1827 when Burke and his common-law wife Helen McDougal moved into the same neighborhood as the boarding house. They became friends and, when opportunity struck, partners in murder.

The late 18th and early 19th century saw an explosion of interest in medical studies. The University of Edinburgh was widely reputed to have the best medical school in Britain, if not Europe. So many students clamored to attend its lectures that private anatomy classes sprang up to service the demand. Dr. Robert Knox, a surgeon with a stellar reputation garnered attending to the wounded of the Battle of Waterloo, ran hugely popular anatomy, physiology and surgery courses starting in 1825. At their peak, his classes were attended by 400 students, more than attended all the other private anatomy lectures combined.

Knox’s advertisements emphasized that the every lecture would “comprise a full Demonstration on fresh Anatomical Subjects,” a very tall order when you consider that his 1828-9 Practical Anatomy and Operative Surgery lecture course ran from October 6th 1828 through the end of July 1829 with twice daily demonstrations, ie, dissections of human cadavers. “Arrangements have been made,” the ad assured prospective students, “to secure as usual an ample supply of Anatomical Subjects.”

Just what those arrangements were turned out to be the sticking point. By law, only executed murderers who had been condemned to posthumous dissection were released to anatomy schools. There were nowhere near enough people hanging from the gallows to satisfy the voracious appetite of the University and the private lecturers. For Knox’s Practical Anatomy course alone, we’re talking 10 months of twice daily dissections. Even if he reused bodies a few times — let’s go so far as to say the same cadaver could last a week (highly unlikely) — he still would have needed more than 40 bodies just to get through that one course. Then there was his Physiology course to supply, plus the University’s and the lectures by all the other anatomists.

Where there’s demand, someone is going to come up with the supply, and those someones were known as body-snatchers, grave-robbers, ghouls or resurrection men. Digging up recently deceased bodies was highly lucrative work. Resurrectionists would be paid the equivalent of months of wages for a single body. It was the kind of work best performed by locals who knew who was dead or dying and who had relationships with bribable cemetery sextons and with the anatomists. Locals also knew their way around, necessary for surreptitious nighttime excavation and transportation of dead bodies, and could better avoid or pay off law enforcement.

Burke and Hare were not local. They had none of the connections and knowledge resurrection men needed to make their macabre living. In fact, they quite fell into selling bodies by accident. When an elderly lodger at the Hare boarding house named Donald died still owing £4 rent, Hare and Burke stole the body out of the coffin, replaced it with tanner’s bark, and then schlepped it to the University of Edinburgh where they had heard Professor Alexander Monro III, Chair of Anatomy, was always keen to take a dead body off a guy’s hands. They asked a student in the courtyard if any of Monro’s staff was about and the student suggested they take their merchandise to Robert Knox at Number 10 Surgeon’s Square instead.

There they found three of Knox’s assistants — Jones, Miller and Ferguson — and arranged to deliver Donald’s body after nightfall. Dr. Knox examined the corpse and determined its market value was £7.10s (more than $1,000 in today’s money). None of them asked any questions. They just told Burke and Hare that they would be glad to see them again when they had another body to dispose of. That was December of 1827.

A few months later they had another body to dispose of, only this time it was no accident. Hare got a lodger so drunk he (it might have been a woman; the order of murders is unclear) couldn’t move, then covered his mouth and nose while Burke laid his weight across his chest until he was smothered to death. They put the corpse in a chest and alerted Knox’s assistants that they had fresh material. Miller arranged for a porter to meet them for their convenience and the body was brought to Knox’s lecture rooms. Knox expressed approval at its fresh condition and gave them £10 for the body.

Thus began a pattern that would continue undisturbed for another year. Lodgers would come in and if they weren’t already ill, Mr. and/or Mrs. Hare would get them pass-out drunk so Burke and Hare could suffocate them without the victims being able to put up much of a fight. This method ensured there were no obvious marks on the body indicating murder so Knox and his crew could continue to ask no questions.

Burke and Hare killed at least 16 people before they were finally found out. The last victim was Mrs. Mary Docherty. They were extra sloppy this time, stashing her dead body under a bed that a lodger had left her stockings on. The lodger saw the body and went to the police. Instead of disposing of her promptly in the river or somewhere, they quickly brought the body to Knox and made yet another sale even though they knew the cops would be sniffing around. An anonymous tipster told the police to check Knox’s anatomy lecture rooms and there they found Mrs. Docherty.

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Mrs. Hare were arrested. They had circumstantial evidence of two other murders — a young man names James Wilson (aka Daft Jamie) who was well known in the neighborhood and a beautiful young woman named Mary Paterson who was falsely rumored to be a prostitute — but charged them with Mrs. Docherty’s first because she was the only whose body had been found. The evidence was weak even in the one case because there was no proof she’d been murdered. Concerned Burke and Hare would get off by blaming each other, Lord Advocate Sir William Rae granted the Hares immunity if they testified against Burke.

It was at the trial in December of 1828 that the notion that Burke and Hare had been resurrectionists came into play. The only reason there was any question of whether they were resurrection men was because Helen McDougal needed plausible deniability. She knew Burke and Hare were dealing in corpses, but if she could claim that she thought they had bought the bodies or robbed graves to get them, then she wouldn’t be an accessory to murder. It worked; the jury found the charge against her not proven. Burke was found guilty of the murder of Mrs. Docherty and sentenced to death and dissection.

On Wednesday, January 28th, 1829, Burke was hanged. His body was delivered to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection by Alexander Monro who immortalized the event by writing the following letter with the murderer’s blood.

This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28th Jan. 1829 for the Murder of Mrs. Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1st of Feb. 1829.

As was the custom at the time, Burke’s skin was used to bind books and make accessories, some of which are on display today at the University’s Anatomical Museum. Burke’s skeleton was preserved for anatomical study, as recommended by the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle at sentencing: “I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.”

Monro’s letter made its way into the scrapbook along with news stories, songs and other references to the murders, trial and execution. It will be on display along with a petition signed by medical students around the time of the murders demanding more bodies be made available for anatomical studies. Ultimately the Burke and Hare murders solved the cadaver bottleneck once and for all. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act allowing any unclaimed bodies to be given to medical schools for dissection before burial. That gave medical schools access to the great masses of dead paupers instead of the much thinner supply of murderers and put a virtually immediate end to the resurrection trade in the United Kingdom.

(In the US it went on for much, much longer, but that is another story and will be told another time.)

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Original The War of the Worlds drawings for sale

Wed, 2015-05-06 03:24

H.G. Wells first published his groundbreaking alien invasion story The War of the Worlds in serialized form in Pearson’s Magazine from April to December of 1897. The next year the first edition of the complete novel was published. It was an immediate success. Translated editions in Dutch, German, Polish, French, Russian and Italian followed in close succession, as well as several other English language editions, and while some of them had a smattering of graphic elements — the occasional tripod on the cover or title page — the first fully illustrated edition wasn’t published until 1906. It was this expensive special edition of only 500 copies that would influence the depiction of Wells’ creations for the next century.

The illustrator was Henrique Alvim Corrêa, a Brazilian artist who lived a short but intense and productive life. Alvim Corrêa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1876 to a wealthy family. His father, a prominent lawyer, died when he was seven years old. His mother was remarried to banker José Mendez de Oliveira Castro in 1888, and in 1892, when Alvim Corrêa was 16 years old, the family moved to Lisbon before settling permanently in Paris a year later. In 1894 at the age of 18, he began his formal instruction in art under military painter Édouard Detaille. Military themes had been extremely popular in French art since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and Henrique followed in his master’s footsteps, exhibiting well-received military pieces in the Paris Salons of 1896 and 1897.

In 1898 Alvim Corrêa suddenly quit his studies, and against the wishes of his family married 17-year-old Blanche Fernande Barbant, daughter of engraver Charles Barbant, who was himself a successful illustrator of books by Jules Verne, among other authors. The newlyweds moved to Brussels and had their first child late that year. Cut off from his family’s financial support and connections in the art world, Alvim Corrêa had to scrape together whatever commercial work — advertisements, house painting — he could find to make do. By 1900 his finances were stable enough that he was able to move his family to the suburb of Boitsfort where he opened a studio.

Still little known as an artist, Alvim Corrêa hustled like crazy to get his work out there. He developed a style of strong contrasts and dynamic movement in drawing and painting, exploring surreal dreamscapes, caricatures, figures in action (military men, working women), landscapes real and fictional, themes of eroticism and violence individually and in combination. In 1903 he read The War of the Worlds and was inspired to draw his vision of Wells’ Martians which fit so handily with the recurring themes in his private work. Entirely unsolicited, Alvim Corrêa took his handful of drawings to London and showed them to Mr. Wells, who didn’t know him from Adam. The author was so impressed with the artwork that he invited Alvim Corrêa to illustrate the upcoming special edition of The War of Worlds by Belgian publisher L. Vandamme.

Alvim Corrêa returned to Boitsfort where he spent two years working on the illustrations. At the same time, he organized a solo exhibition of his own work which opened in 1905 and garnered him significant buzz. He went back to London that year to show Wells the finished group of 32 drawings. Wells loved them and in 1906, L. Vandamme published the large format luxury illustrated French edition of The War of the Worlds. Each of the 500 copies of the special edition was numbered and signed by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Wells would say of the illustrations: “Alvim Corrêa did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen.”

Unfortunately his busy 1905 also included several months spent in Switzerland where he had surgery in the vain attempt to stop the tuberculosis that was laying waste to his lungs and intestines. He recovered from the surgery but not from the TB. That powerful drive of his could not overcome tuberculosis. He had to slow down his hectic work schedule considerably, but even a slowed down Alvim Corrêa continued to produce unique art, like Visions Erotiques, a collection of 20 erotic drawings entwining sex and death that he published under the pseudonym Henri Lemort (Henry the dead) in 1908. In 1910 he put together another exhibition of his work, this time alongside other artists’ pieces.

Working until the very end, Alvim Corrêa died in 1910 at the age of 34. He remained virtually unknown, even in his own country, outside of a small circle of rare book collectors and Wells connoisseurs. In the early 1970s Brazilian art historians brought him back into the light as a native son of great talent and innovation. Over the following decades his work, especially the Wells drawings, went on display at museums all over the country. His original drawings for The War of the Worlds remained in his family until 1990 when 31 of the original 32 were sold to a private collector, along with a poster announcing the special edition and a charming note Wells wrote to Alvim Corrêa in November of 1903 in which he told him he was “very glad indeed you like my Moon Men.”

That entire set is now on sale again at Heritage Auctions. Each piece is being sold in individual lots, with the letter being the least expensive at an estimated sale price of $500-$700, which is basically its autograph value. The estimate for the poster is $3,000-$5,000. The illustrations range from $5,000 to a high range of $25,000 for the title page. The collection all together could take in $500,000.

Such a shame it’ll be broken up, though. I hope some proper nerd buys the whole group and donates or loans it permanently to a museum. The 31 original artworks, poster and letter were displayed at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame’s inaugural The War of the Worlds exhibition in Seattle, Washington, from October 2004 to October 2005. That was the first (and last, as far as I know) time Alvim Corrêa’s drawings were exhibited in the United States. The museum is the passion project of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who could light his cigars with half a million dollars and has repeatedly proven himself unafraid to pour money into his love of history.




Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Neolithic eel fishing spear with bone prong found at Lolland

Tue, 2015-05-05 03:09

The archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the Danish island of Lolland has discovered another pre-historic treasure in exceptional condition. After the flint dagger with intact bark handle, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and the flint axe with the intact wood handle, now archaeologists have unearthed a Stone Age wooden eel fishing spear with the central bone prong still in place.

Similar spears, known as leisters, are still used to capture eels today, but archaeologists could not confirm whether the design of two lateral prongs that curve outwards with a straight, sharp central prong was used in pre-historic times as well. While individual lateral wooden prongs, bone points and more rarely pairs of prongs have been found before, this is the first time a leister has been found with all three prongs in position. It confirms that Neolithic eel spears had the same configuration as modern ones, which means the craft of eel fishing hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.

“Unfortunately, the string winding and the shaft were missing, but the position of leister prongs and bone point in relation to each other can only be interpreted as the result of a leister that has broken off – the pieces were still sitting at an angle in the old seabed. This means that we can now say with a greater level of certainly that Stone Age fishing leisters had both lateral wooden prongs and a centred bone point, although a tiny amount of uncertainty remains until we find a complete preserved leister,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist] Søren Anker Sørensen continues.

The leister has not been radiocarbon dated yet. It was discovered in an area that in the Late Stone Age had two lagoons and a 65-foot-wide belt of stone marking the spot where the coast was in around 3,000 B.C. The spear points could range from the middle to the late Neolithic. An individual lateral prong from a leister was found at another dig site in the ancient lagoon which dates to the late Neolithic.

Another exciting find from the excavation is the end of a hafted arrow. The shaft isn’t complete — the piece is about four inches long and broken in two — but the most important part of the weapon is: the pointy end. The flint arrowhead is attached, and the adhesive and binding used to fix the point to the shaft is still preserved. There was some discussion about how Stone Age peoples attached the flint parts of their weapons to the wood in the comments on the axe article (hi Virginia Burton!). This arrow answers the question neatly. You can see in the photograph how tightly wound the string binding is.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Starring Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday

Mon, 2015-05-04 03:36

While frolicking through silent movie history yesterday, I came across a veritable treasure of a comedic short. It’s called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and it stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday the “scientific detective,” a parody of Sherlock Holmes who was a cocaine aficionado albeit nowhere near as rabid a one as Mr. Ennyday. The character’s name isn’t the only shameless, even joyful, drug reference. Our hero is not only an avowed drug user, he wears a bandolier of syringes filled with liquid cocaine strapped to his chest and injects himself every few minutes. He also has a large round box labelled “COCAINE” in large print that he grabs fistfuls of powder out of that he then buries his face into with Scarface-like gusto. His wall clock eschews hour markers in favor of four words at the cardinal points: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. When the single hand points to drinks, Ennyday’s manservant makes him the beverage of champions: equal parts Gordon’s Gin, laudanum and prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide).

This is no Reefer Madness. There is no stern moral conclusion about the evils of drugs. Fairbanks is his usual gregarious, athletic self, just sillier than usual. This was filmed in 1916 when drugs like cocaine, cannabis and opiates were readily available from pharmaceutical companies. Many states had laws against the sale and use of coca and opium and in December of 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which in theory made it a federal crime. Authorized companies (pharma) and individuals (doctors, patients) could still dispense and use cocaine and opiates, however.

Douglas was still a comparative rookie when he made this wacky picture, having moved to Hollywood in 1915 and signed a contract with the newly formed Triangle Pictures where he worked under the D.W. Griffith point of the triangle (the other two points were Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet). His first film was released in November 1915. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released just seven months later in June of 1916. By then, with fewer than 10 films under his belt, he already had above the title billing. It was the second time he worked with husband and wife writing team John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson directed the picture — very amusingly, I might add; there are some great comedic beats in there — and Loos wrote the intertitles with tongue firmly in cheek. Fairbanks made his own contributions to the script, something you see reflected in the beginning and closing sequences where he’s playing himself pitching the madcap story of Coke Ennyday to a studio writer who naturally tells him this is a ridiculous idea for a picture that will never be made.

(Loos would later go on to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a huge success in print, on stage and in film, with the most famous movie version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Emerson would go on to be a huge parasite on his wife, sponging off her success, stealing her money, losing it all and stealing it again when she bounced back, all the while cheating on her and manipulating her with faked illnesses and endless drama.)

When Fairbanks rose to the loftiest heights of Hollywood fame, he reportedly came to hate this wild foray into drugged-out good times and tried to have it destroyed. With all the silent pictures we’ve lost to time and nitrate volatility and studios not giving a crap about their history, it’s remarkable that this bizarre little two-reeler survived even when the greatest star of the era wanted it gone.

Also of historical note is the relatively subdued racist angle. There’s a Chinese laundry guy/opium dealer stereotype, but it’s small potatoes compared to the blatant racism of the debate around the passage of the Harrison Act which was all about cocaine making black men crazy, aggressive, superstrong and driving them to rape white women, while the Chinese used opium to lure innocent white girls into drug addiction, illicit relationships and, inevitably, prostitution.

The movie really doesn’t care about any of that noise. It’s quite remarkable, because studios were consistently cowardly when it came to potentially controversial issues, even before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the later implementation of the Production Code. The story was by Tod Browning, best known today for his ground-breaking and still creepy as hell talkie Freaks. He had run away from home to join the circus when he was a teenager, so he was not easily scandalized.

Anyway, without further ado, here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Watch Too Much Johnson online

Sun, 2015-05-03 06:05

Last night Turner Classic Movies aired the restored work print of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson found in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was the second film Welles ever made (the first was a short eight minutes long; the third was Citizen Kane) and had long been thought lost before the silent film experts of Cinemazero discovered the print that had been languishing forgotten in a shipping company warehouse since the 70s.

An adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gillette, Welles made significant changes to the original script of Too Much Johnson for an experimental staging by his Mercury Theatre company. The original plan was for the three reels of the picture to be introductions to each act, the first reel 20 minutes long, the remaining two 10 minutes each. The film was silent slapstick in the style of Mack Sennett’s early comedies and it would set the stage for a performance of the play done as a screwball comedy.

This was Welles’ first full experience of shooting and editing a movie. In 10 days of filming, he shot 25,000 feet of film. He took all 25,000 feet of highly flammable 35mm nitrate to his hotel suite at the St. Regius and edited it himself on a Moviola machine. Producer John Houseman and assistant director John Berry aided him in this slightly insane endeavor, and would later recall that nitrate film covered the floor of the suite reaching knee-high. There was at least one fire. Somehow, the men, the film, the hotel suite and the hotel, for that matter, survived this cockamamie scheme, and Welles managed to narrow down the 10 reels of footage to a rough working print just over an hour in running time.

He never did finish editing the movie. There may have been an issue with royalties — Paramount owned the film rights to the original play — and legend has it the Stony Creek Theatre, the theater near New Haven where the play was to have its trial run, did not have the fireproof projection booth and/or a high enough ceiling to show the film. However, Paramount has no record of sending Welles a letter asserting their rights and the Stony Creek Theatre started out as the Lyric Theater, a nickelodeon, in 1903 (the same year The Great Train Robbery altered the movie-going landscape forever) so even though it was purchased by a community theater group in 1920 and a proper stage and fly gallery added, it seems odd that it would have lost all its original film projection capabilities by August 16th, 1938, when the Too Much Johnson preview began.

Whatever the reason, the movie part of the Mercury staging of the play never did happen. Without it the play, which Welles had modified extensively assuming there would be introductory films, didn’t work and the New Haven trial was a flop. Although Welles made noises that the play would move on to Broadway, the debut kept getting postponed and ultimately dropped. The Mercury Theatre company had begun putting on live hour-long radio dramas in July of 1938, and in October of that year they pulled off the greatest radio drama caper of all time with the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The huge reaction got them a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and two more years of weekly shows, so Too Much Johnson fell by the wayside.

The footage wound up in storage. Welles himself completely forgot about it until he found a print at his house in Madrid in the 1960s. He refused to show it publicly, saying that it made no sense without the play context, much like the play had made little sense without the companion film. When that print was lost in a fire, scholars thought this important transitional piece that had much to reveal about the development of Welles’ directorial approach was gone forever. That’s why the discovery of the second print in Pordenone was greeted with such joy by film nerds and Welles’ fans.

Too Much Johnson was restored by the geniuses at the George Eastman House with invaluable help from Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands and had its world debut at a silent film festival in Pordenone in October of 2013 before making its US debut later that month at the George Eastman House. That viewing was for members only; the rest of us had to wait to get our eyeballs on it, so I was kicking myself for not realizing ahead of time that the movie would finally air on a widely accessible cable channel. It’s pretty great, too. I didn’t find it all that confusing, even though there are no intertitles and there are repetitive takes included.

The stand-outs for me are Joseph Cotten, who legs it over the rooftops of New York City with impressive gameness, grace and skill, the cinematography and the angled shots, surprising quick-cuts and close-ups that would come to define the Welles of Citizen Kane and after. Cotten makes Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, one of Welles’ inspirations for the picture, look like an accountant at a desk job. This was done with a shoe-string budget. There were no stunts, no carefully arranged shots that made a guy dangling from a clock a few feet above a platform look like he was dangling from a clock many stories in the air. Cotten and the man he has cuckholded, played with moustache-twirling zest by Edgar Barrier, scramble up and down Battery tenements, scooch around ledges and plank over chimneys with the greatest of ease.

Cinematographer Paul Dunbar pulled a rabbit out of a hat, making this two-buck-chuck of a film look way more expensive than it had any right to look. There are great shots capturing the geometry of the city (diagonal criss-cross fire escapes, stacks and stacks of boxes, background skyscrapers, hats covering the ground like confetti). Scenes set in “Cuba” were shot in a quarry over the Hudson River planted with palm trees Welles picked up at a local plant nursery. It’s downright eerie how well it all works.

But you don’t have to take my word for it just because I neglected to alert you to the impending airing. Thankfully the National Film Preservation Foundation has come to the rescue. When I posted about the restoration two years ago, the NFPF was raising money to digitize the movie and make it available for free on its website. Well, they were successful! You can watch the whole restored 66-minute work print online here. Being a particularly awesome organization, they have also uploaded an edited version which is an “educated guess” of how Welles might have pared down the footage for use alongside the play.

The NFPF version (I’ve only seen the work print all the way through) is actually better than the version TCM showed, in my opinion, because the score is so much better. They’ve added a proper silent movie score whereas the TCM version was a very repetitive, sloooooow, minimalist composition that doesn’t match the slapstick action at all. They’ve also provided phenomenal notes explaining the full context of the play, comparing the original to drafts of the Mercury version so it’s much easier to follow the story. So yeah. Two thumbs most enthusiastically up.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Sat, 2015-05-02 03:24

From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.

Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.

She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.

It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.

The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.

First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.

The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.

Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.

Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.

Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.

Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British soldiers, archaeologists find early shots fired at Waterloo

Fri, 2015-05-01 03:10

An international team of archaeologists and British war veterans have come together to excavate the Waterloo battlefield. It’s the first large-scale archaeological survey of the Hougoumont Farm area which proved to be a vital position attacked repeatedly by French forces during the June 18th, 1815, battle. So far the team has focused on the site of a wood south of the farm buildings that took the brunt of early French attacks. It’s been less than a week and a geophysical survey, a metal detector survey and test trenches have found coins, uniform buttons, fragments of firearms and English and French musket balls.

Dr Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, leading the archaeology, said: “The full team has only been working on site for two days and we have made some very interesting discoveries. In particular, we have started a comprehensive survey, including metal detecting, of the area of the former wood to the south of the Hougoumont buildings and we have already found spent and unfired musket shots at the southern-most tip of the wood, also fragments of firearms and clothing such as uniform buttons.

“We know that shots were exchanged between the French and Allied armies in these woods during the night before the battle, as the French probed the allied position and the first real fighting took place in the same spot. I am confident these shots were fired very early in the battle, probably in the first exchanges.”

The team is hoping this excavation will answer questions about the battle. Much has been written about it, but eye-witness accounts and reports from the battlefield can be biased, muddled and contradictory. Although some topographical features have been altered either deliberately (the Lion Mount) or through natural processes and illegal metal detecting by souvenir hunters has removed a lot of the metal artifacts, the field has been left largely undeveloped in the 200 years since the battle. Battlefield archaeologists are optimistic that there is a great deal left to discover, including the locations of mass graves. The geophysical survey of the area around Hougoumont Farm detected anomalies that could be buried human remains. Any human remains discovered will be studied but not disturbed. The aim is to mark the graves, not to exhume bodies.

The Waterloo Uncovered excavation project was conceived by Major Charles Foinette, serving with 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, and Mark Evans, an Afghanistan veteran who was also an officer with the Coldstream Guards. The dig is all the more meaningful to them because a company of the Coldstream Guards were stationed at the farm and defended it valiantly against French attacks. Several other former and current Coldstream Guards are part of the excavation team through project partner Operation Nightingale, a program found in 2012 that puts soldiers injured in Afghanistan to work on archaeological excavations as a form of vocational training and physical and social therapy. It’s been a great success from the first year and Mark Evans is living proof of it since he was first introduced to archaeology through his participation in Operation Nightingale as an Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD. To have soldiers working at the site lends valuable insight to battlefield archaeology.

“Now we’ve got some of the top archaeologists in the world working on this site, but none of them has ever been in a battle, and it’s that perspective that the soldiers bring. They’ve been there, they’ve seen it. A different time and a different place, but they understand the confusion, they understand how ground is so important to cover and to make into advances,” Evans said.

The project is currently slated to last a year, but it could develop into a longer-term investigation if the will is there.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

16th c. murals, burials found in Cuzco church

Thu, 2015-04-30 03:36

During the restoration of the 16th century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the Peruvian town of Maras, 25 miles northwest of Cuzco, researchers discovered a crypt with skeletal remains and the original murals that had been covered with more fashionable artworks by a famous native son in the 17th century. Experts from the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco (DPDDC), the governmental organization in charge of administering the cultural patrimony of the Cuzco region in southeastern Peru, found the crypt under the floor of the Virgen de las Nieves chapel. Inside are a jumble of human bones that researchers estimate belong to 32 people interred in the early days of the church. The remains are disarticulated and scattered likely as a result of deliberate and repeated desecrations that are known to have occurred in the region.

The Templo Mayor San Francisco de Asís was built in 1556, 22 years after the conquest of Peru, the same year the town was founded by Spanish general Pedro Ortiz de Orué. It was constructed in colonial style with adobe walls on a masonry foundation and a tile roof and packed with religious art. Since the restoration of the church is a top-to-bottom project covering the building and all the art inside of it, paintings on the presbytery wall by Antonio Sinchi Roca were removed for conservation.

Antonio Sinchi Roca, born in Maras, was one of the most prominent artists of the Cuzco School, many of whom are unfortunately anonymous today. Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo, born to a wealthy Madrid family in 1626 and the powerful bishop of Cuzco from 1673 until his death in 1699, was his patron. His painted a series of portraits of the saints and scenes from the Gospel for the church of Saint Francis in his hometown. There are some great views of them in this video from right before the refurbishment began.

Underneath Roca’s paintings researchers found a multi-panel mural with scenes of the Virgin Mary. Covered up barely a century after their creation, the murals are in remarkable condition with beautifully bright colors. Another mural was discovered on the wall of the central nave that has more abstract geometric and zoomorophic designs.

These murals predate the Cuzco School of religious art, the first organized artistic movement in the New World of which Roca was one of the most famous exponents. Keen to dive right into the conversion of the Inca people after the conquest, Spain sent artists to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, to found a school that would teach the local Quechuas and mestizos to paint religious art in the European style. The Cuzco School artists painted scenes integral to the Catholic catechism — the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child, Christ in Glory, saints, angels (often depicted as warriors), the Final Judgement, the sacraments — using a palette of bright reds, yellows, earth tones and shining gold. They eschewed perspective, focusing instead of emphasizing the important figures by making them dominant in size and in the splendour of their robes.

Restoration of the church began in July 2013 and is scheduled to be complete by July of 2016. The art has been removed to a lab for conservation. No word on whether or how they’ll integrate the original murals with the works that have been covering them for more than 300 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chauvet Cave replica opens in France

Wed, 2015-04-29 03:17


The walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France are decorated with the earliest known pictorial drawings made during the Aurignacian period, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. More than 1,000 drawings of animals — including horses, bison, lions, cave bears, panthers, eagle owls, woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses — hand prints and abstract line and dot designs cover 91,000 square feet of space. The art has unique qualities like incised outlines that give figures depth and a sense of dynamic movement conveyed by multiple legs as if we were seeing the animals in motion.

The cave was discovered in December of 1994 by three speleologists: Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it was named), Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. They were the first people to see the splendour on the walls since the cave opening was sealed by a rockfall 23,000 years ago. France learned a hard lesson with the Lascaux Cave which was discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and in dire condition by 1955 thanks to the carbon dioxide, moisture, contaminants and lichens introduced by unwitting visitors. This time they took no chances. The French government declared the Chauvet Cave a protected heritage site almost immediately and only made it available to fewer than 200 researchers a year.

Because of its excellent condition, the density and quality of the art, which includes some species of animals like the panther and owl seen in no other Paleolithic art, and the rich remains of prehistoric fauna and human footprints found on the ground, the cave was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2014. But how to share said heritage with said world without causing irreparable harm to it? Again Lascaux paved the way. Lascaux II, a replica of the main sections of the cave and its art, opened in 1983 and has been very popular to the tourists who can no longer see the original cave.

In 2008, a contest was launched to select the architect who make a replica of the Chauvet Cave. French architects Fabre and Speller won, but their design for the concrete building that would house the replica cave was only one part of a complex whole. This construction and art project would ultimately requiring the close collaboration of 500 people employed by 35 different companies. A 3D laser scanning survey was carried out in 2011 so that every feature of the cave interior could be duplicated. Since the cave is very long, it was rearranged in the replica, basically folded into a circle with all the art consolidated, but meticulously mapped out to its original topography. The original 91,000 square feet were thus reduced to a more manageable but still vast 32,000 square feet, 10 times the size of Lascaux II.

The construction of the walls, ceilings and floors with their accurate topographic features was achieved by bending thousands of metal rods to precisely match the natural lumps and bumps mapped by the 3D scans. The rods were then welded together in sections that could be affixed to steel beams in the ceiling of the new structure. Before they were installed in place, the cage-like sections were covered with two layers of mortar: one of landscape mortar and a top layer of finishing mortar the same colors and textures as the clay and limestone of the original. Even the cracks were reproduced exactly. A thin layer of fine mortar sprayed with a retardant to keep it damp while the artists work was used for the walls with engraved images and finger paints.

Once the sections were prepped, the artists got their turn. Painters used the same kind of charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and the ocher pigment used by the Aurignacian artists tens of thousands of years ago. Pictures of the originals were projected onto the wall sections, ensuring they were reproduced accurately to the millimeter. Thanks to the mortars used as a base, these materials will sink into the walls over time just the original ones did.

Because they wanted to reproduce not just the art but convey the experience of being in the original cave, geological features like stalactites and calcite concretions were recreated out of epoxy resin or concrete. Crushed or powdered glass was added to the resin to give it that beautiful glittery look you see in natural cave formations. Some of the pieces were treated with glossy topcoat that make them look wet, like the water that formed them is still dripping.

Once all 27 large panels were complete, they were installed in the building along with replicas of the bones and footprints found on the ground in the original cave. It took only 30 months from the time construction began in 2012 until its completion. The cost was $59 million, sure to be recouped many times over by the expected influx of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year. On Saturday, April 25th, 2014, the replica opened to the public.

This video is in French, but even if you don’t speak any you should still be able to follow it roughly based on the descriptions above, and you really should watch it because it is mind-blowing how they put this thing together.

Also, if you have Netflix, you have to watch Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed very rare access to the original cave and the result is an artistic tour de force as much in execution as in subject matter.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mystery basilica under Porta Maggiore opens to the public

Tue, 2015-04-28 13:48

In April of 1917, construction of the Rome-Cassino railroad line just outside the gates of the Porta Maggiore on the Via Praenestina in Rome was halted by a cave-in. The cause turned out to be the collapse of an ancient roof of a building nobody knew was under their feet. As it happens, most ancient Romans probably had no idea it was under their feet either. It was deliberately built about seven or eight meters (23-26 feet) below the level of the ancient Via Praenestina in the early decades of the 1st century A.D. and constructed in such a way as to give little indication that something was going on down there.

The part that caved in was the barrel vaulted roof of a dromos, a long entrance gallery that sloped down from the surface and then turned at a right angle for a short passageway into a small square atrium topped by a domed vault. Light was provided by a skylight at the beginning of the dromos, another where it corners into the short passageway and a third in the atrium vault. The atrium opens into a rectangular hall 12 meters (40 feet) long and nine meters (30 feet) wide divided into three barrel-vaulted sections. Two rows of three square pillars separate the central nave from the aisles on either side. The nave is wider than the aisles and opens into a semi-circular apse at the bottom. The main hall was lit by chandeliers and lamps.

This is the classic basilica design, used by the Romans as loci for business transactions, court proceedings and imperial audiences. What makes this building unique in the Roman world is that it is a basilica built for a pre-Christian religious purpose. Roman temples had columned porticos, a main room where the deity’s image was housed and one or more back rooms to store equipment, sacrifices and treasure. When Christianity was decriminalized by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Constantine wanted to build impressive churches, as opposed to the cramped underground chapels, catacombs and private homes used when it was a suppressed religion. He turned to the basilica as a public building of widely-recognized civic importance that was not associated with pagan religious practices, and Christian churches have embraced that ancient design ever since.

The Porta Maggiore basilica is not a temple and it’s not Christian, but it’s definitely a religious building. The decoration attests to that, as does the fact that it was built underground in the first place. Above a wainscoting-like band of red paint of which there are sections extant, the walls and vaults are covered with exquisite white stucco reliefs of mythological scenes like Sappho’s legendary suicide by throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff into the ocean, Zeus’ eagle abducting Ganymede, Medea offering a magical narcotic beverage to knock out the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the underworld, Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, Paris and Helen, Hippolytus and Phaedra, the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, and one of the Dioscuri kidnapping one of the Leucippides for his bride. There are also heads of Medusa, children at play, animals, plants, a wedding, winged Victories, Nereids, bacchantes, herms, urns, a pygmy returning to his hut after a successful hunt, a table groaning with food and drink, stylized landscapes with garlanded columns and votive trees, worshippers praying to or decorating altars, ritual devotions, and all kinds of geometric and floral flourishes. The quality of the reliefs is exceptionally high and the consistency of style confirms a first century A.D. date.

The method of construction is one of the most fascinating aspects of this unique structure. Nothing else like it has been found. Builders dug seven or eight meters down into the soft volcanic tufa creating trenches where the perimeter walls would go and squared pits where the pillars would go. They then poured that fabulous Roman concrete into pits and let it set. No need for forms or scaffolding; the tufa itself provided the support necessary. Once the concrete had hardened, they poured the concrete for the arches over the pillars and the barrel vaulted ceilings. Lastly they dug out all the tufa from the interior and voila: underground basilica. So damn ingenious. Even though the walls were painted and stuccoed, you can still see the rough texture imprinted on them by the tufa as they dried.

The mosaic floors have remained essentially intact. Made primarily of white tiles with black borders around the walls and pillars, there are untiled areas whose outlines suggest they were once the bases of statues or large urns. In the center of the nave and aisles are small pits that archaeologists believe were the anchor points for the chains used to raise and lower the chandeliers. The skeletal remains of a dog and a pig were found underneath the floor of the apse, likely a sacrifice made during the consecration of the basilica.

Since its discovery, historians have proposed several possible uses for the building — tomb, nymphaeum, site of a funerary cult of the dead — but the prevailing theory at the moment is that it was a place of worship for members of a Neopythagorean mystery religion. Neopythagoreanism was a revival of an earlier school of thought espoused by the mathematician Pythagoras of Theorem fame that held that union with the divine was possible through ascetic living and contemplation of the cosmic order. Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, was a central tenet. The presence of multiple scenes dealing in the movement of souls to and from the underworld (Orpheus, Sappho) and transitions from one state of being to another (Ganymede, the Dioscuro and Leucippid) on the basilica decorations are clues to its possible association with this Hellenistic mystery cult. There is so much variety in the stucco reliefs, however, and so much we don’t know about the symbolism behind them, that the basilica’s usage may remain a mystery forever, which is fitting, really.

This marvelous space was filled with rubble and sealed just a few years after it was built. Its location may explain its fate. The basilica is believed to have been built on property belonging to the Statilius family. This is evidenced by a burial ground nearby for the servants and freedmen of the Statilii. This family was new, only a few generations from its first consul Titus Statilius Taurus I who had fought for both Anthony and Octavian during the Triumvirate and ultimately backed the right horse at the right time leading Octavian’s armies at Actium.

The Statilii were very wealthy (gotta have big money to come from nothing and successfully climb the cursus honorum) and one of them,
Titus Statilius Taurus IV, became a target of imperial greed because of his wealth. Titus Statilius Taurus IV was consul in 44 A.D., proconsul of Africa from 51 to 53 A.D. and the great-uncle of the future empress Statilia Messalina, third wife of Nero. After his return from Africa, he was caught in the cross-hairs of Emperor Claudius’ notorious wife Agrippina.

Tacitus describes the events in his Annals, Book XII, Chapter 59:

Statilius Taurus, whose wealth was famous, and whose gardens aroused [Agrippina's] cupidity, she ruined with an accusation brought by Tarquitius Priscus. He had been the legate of Taurus when he was governing Africa with proconsular powers, and now on their return charged him with a few acts of malversation, but more seriously with addiction to magical superstitions. Without tolerating longer a lying accuser and an unworthy humiliation, Taurus took his own life before the verdict of the senate.

Rubble found in the basilica dates to the middle of the first century, and archaeologists believe it was sealed during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. So we have a brilliantly built, expensively decorated, secret underground basilica constructed on Statilius land just outside the ancient walls of the city. Sounds like something a very rich person with “an addiction to magical superstitions” might build, no? The missing statuary and urns and missing altar could have been confiscated and/or destroyed by imperial order, or they could have been removed by his people before the basilica was sealed to prevent them from getting into any more trouble.

That theory was proposed by French historian Jérôme Carcopino who was Director of the French School in Rome in 1937. More recently, historian and professor of Roman art and archaeology Gilles Sauron proposed that the basilica was constructed by an earlier Statilius, Titus Statilius Taurus III, second son of the original new man Titus Statilius Taurus, who was consul in 11 A.D. Recent conservation work has found different sizes of mosaic tiles and possible indications that some of the stucco reliefs may have been done at different times, so both historians may be right after all.

Once it was rediscovered by the railway workers, the basilica was restored several times. To provide access to the structure which is now 13 meters (about 43 feet) below street level, a staircase was built from the Via Praenestina connecting to the short passageway right before it opens into the atrium. It has very rarely been open to the public, however, because of its delicate condition. Stucco is extremely susceptible to moisture and as early as 1924, just seven years after it was found, water damage became such a concern that conservators covered the top with a cap of pipe-clay to form an impermeable membrane. It proved not to be impermeable, unfortunately, so 25 years later they tried again. In 1951 the railway paid for construction of a dome of reinforced concrete to protect the delicate basilica beneath from the vibrations of the trains and water damage. It was a stop-gap measure and the basilica continued to deteriorate.

Because of its precarious condition, this beautiful basilica, unique in the world, is barely known. That may change now that a new restoration more than 10 years in the making has addressed long-term issues with water penetration, cleaned out the plague of parasitic microorganisms that feast on stucco, and installed eight machines that filter the air to operating-room cleanliness and monitor the temperature and humidity. Work on the dromos, atrium and apse is complete, but it is ongoing on the vaulted ceilings. They’re still raising funds to restore the naves.

The basilica will be open to guided tours only, reservations obligatory (call 0639967700 to book a visit). Because an excess of human bodies with their breathing and sweating and greasiness and germs can drastically alter the precarious environmental balance of the structure, tours are offered on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

This Italian news story shows the basilica before restoration:

This is a fly-through with some CG effects of the basilica as it is now:

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Goya’s witches back together again at long last

Mon, 2015-04-27 11:14

In November of 1792, the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, then 46 years old, was afflicted with a severe illness that almost claimed his sanity if not his life. Symptoms included deafness, dizziness to the point of being unable to stand and vision loss. He spent six months, the first half of 1793, convalescing at the home of financier and collector Don Sebastián Martínez in Cádiz. Martínez secured the best medical attention available for his friend but Goya never did fully recover. He lost his hearing permanently. Martínez described his slow recovery in a letter to Goya’s close friend Martín Zapater, an Aragonese merchant Goya had known since they were schoolboys together at the Escuela Pia in Zaragoza:

The noises in his head and the deafness have not improved, but his vision is much better and he is no longer suffering from the disorders which made him lose his balance. He can now go up and down stairs and in a word is doing things he was not able to do before.

Some doctors today speculate that his symptoms may have been caused by Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder which can cause vertigo, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), migraines, vomiting, abnormal eye movements and temporary of permanent deafness. Whatever the cause, the illness had a profound effect on Goya. It altered his understanding of his body, and therefore of the body in general, profoundly. He wrote to Zapater at the end of 1792 saying “Now I don’t fear witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars or any kind of body except human ones.”

That would turn out to be a prophetic vision of his art after his recovery. Goya, who up until that point had focused on idealized beauty, relatively sunny compositions and portraits commissioned by the wealthy and aristocracy of Spain, began to explore darker subjects, starting with a series of 11 small oil-on-tinplate pieces that would become known as the Fantasy and Invention series. In a 1794 letter to his friend Bernardo de Yriarte he wrote: “Vexed by my illnesses, and to compensate in part for the great wastes of time they have cost me, I have dedicated myself to painting a group of cabinet pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations that ordinarily find no place in commissioned works.” He mentions one in particular, a courtyard in a madhouse “in which two nude men fight with their warden beating them and others with sacks (a subject which I witnessed in Zaragoza).” Yard with Madmen (1794), now at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, could not be starker in contrast to the Watteauesque tapestry cartoons of his early career, religious paintings and royal portraits painted just three years before his illness.

Although Goya continued to be court painter and make flattering portraits by commission, in his private art he wrestled with those witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars that so compelled him since his own body had turned traitor. Most of these were not for public consumption, although he did paint several witch-themed canvases for the country home of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. In 1799 he published Caprichos, a group of aquatint etchings depicting “numerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,” whose most famous plate today is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, but he quickly withdrew it from sale out of concern that the Inquisition might come calling over his depictions of clerical folly.

Later in life, between 1819 and 1823, his explorations of haunted humanity came to their fullest fulgor in the Black Paintings, 14 murals he painted on the walls of his country house outside of Madrid called the Quinta del Sordo, meaning the House of the Deaf Man (named after a previous owner). Black because of the dark palette and because of the subject matter, their unflinching horror and modernity have deeply influenced and continue to influence artists ever since. Saturn Devouring His Son remains unparalleled in its depiction of cannibalistic madness, and The Great He-goat (Witches Sabbath), originally on the wall to the left of Saturn on the ground floor of the Quinta del Sordo, is probably the second best-known masterpiece of the collection. The Black Paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1873 and are now in the collection of the Prado.

In the same period when he was so uniquely decorating his walls at Quinta del Sordo, Goya also created an album of drawings known today as the Witches and Old Women album. It was one of eight albums Goya filled with his private visions, imaginings and dreams after his illness and you can see parallels between the small drawings and the figures in this vast Witches Sabbath mural. After his death in 1828, Goya’s son Javier rearranged the drawings into three large albums and after Javier’s death in 1854, his son Mariano sold the three albums. Eventually the drawings were removed and sold piecemeal winding up in collections all over the world.

In the dismantling of the albums, Goya’s careful numbering of each drawing was sometimes cut off, so even though we know, for example, that the 22 ink drawings of witches and old women were once all together in one of the original eight albums, their order was lost. Now for the first time since were sold at auction in Paris in 1877, the witches are all together again and on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London, and in their original order.

In what the noted Goya scholar Juliet Wilson-Bareau calls a “feat in forensics”, conservators and curators spent months examining the sheets to determine the pictures’ correct order. Although Goya (1746-1828) meticulously numbered each sketch, eight lost their numbers over the years. The team analysed the brown and grey ink marks on the back of the drawings and “realised that some stains might be more than just accidental workshop marks”, says Stephanie Buck, the Courtauld’s curator of drawings. These offset marks corresponded with the sketches on the front, which means that the Spanish master drew the pictures in a bound sketchbook and not on loose sheets of paper that were later bound. Buck says that the discovery of the offset marks was instrumental in determining the correct sequencing.

This is not only the first time the drawings from the Witches and Old Women album have all been together again in a public exhibition; it’s the first time any of the eight albums’ drawings have been shown together. Goya only ever shared them with close friends and associates. If you’d like to share the great artist’s unfettered examinations of human nature as he originally composed them, The Witches and Old Women Album exhibition runs through May 25th, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Viking blacksmith grave even greater than expected

Sun, 2015-04-26 10:23

Last fall, farmer Leif Arne Nordheim borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove some pesky flagstones from his garden in Sogndalsdalen on the southwestern coast of Norway. Lifting the last flagstone revealed tools — a hammer and tongs — which Nordheim first assumed were of relatively recent manufacture. When he found a bent blade, he realized it was likely archaeological and called in the county Cultural Department. Archaeologists from the University Museum of Bergen soon followed and an excavation of the find site ensued.

The find turned out to be far greater than originally realized, and the ancient blacksmith tools were impressive enough already. Archaeologists unearthed a large collection of forging tools and weapons, including three hammers of different sizes, two anvils, blacksmith tongs, coal tongs, a rake to remove coals, a tray used to add coals, a chisel, a scythe, a sickle, a drill, pieces of grindstone, nails, a single-edged sword, an axe, two arrows and a knife. Underneath the tools and products of the blacksmith trade archaeologists found more personal items: a razor, beard trimming scissors, tweezers, a frying pan and a poker.

The deepest layer of excavation contained ashes, charcoal and small bone fragments. The pieces of bone haven’t been identified yet, but archaeologists believe they are human remains, likely the blacksmith owner of the marvelous tools above. Between the ashes and bones fragments, researchers found the objects that the deceased was probably wearing when his body was cremated: beads and a bone comb.

In total the excavation yielded about 60 artifacts and 150 assorted fragments. Forging tools have been found in graves before, but this is an exceptionally rich collection for a blacksmith burial. Indeed, it’s the richest burial, blacksmith or not, found in the area in years.

“We think that the blacksmiths’ contemporaries wished to show how skilful he was in his work by including such an extensive amount of objects. He might have forged many of these tools himself.”

“The grave gives the impression that this was a local blacksmith and he enjoyed a high status in his society beyond being his trade,” says [co-leader the excavation Asle Bruen] Olsen.

The design of the axe and some of the other metal objects dated them to the 8th or 9th century A.D. Subsequent radiocarbon dating confirmed the date of the burial to be around 800 A.D.

The artifacts are currently being conserved by experts at the University Museum of Bergen. Once they’re stabilized they will go on display, possibly in a dedicated exhibition. Incidentally, the University Museum of Bergen has a neat Instagram account, incidentally. As always, I wish the pictures were bigger, but the highlights from the museum’s collection are fascinating.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Liquid mercury found under Teotihuacan temple

Sat, 2015-04-25 14:37

The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.

The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.

Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.

Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.

(mercuric sulfide) is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)

Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.

I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.

They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.

As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

Fri, 2015-04-24 06:36

In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.

In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.

His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. [...]

My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.

Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.

This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.

He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”

Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.

In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.

The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)

In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History