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Neolithic homes, 19th c. whale skeletons found on Orkney

Tue, 2017-08-29 22:59

Archaeologists excavating Cata Sand, a bay on the Orkney island of Sanday, have unearthed the remains of an Early Neolithic house and at least a dozen 19th century whale skeletons. The prehistoric structure dates to between 3400 and 3100 B.C. and is fairly extensive with its original hearth and remains of walls. Northwest of the core structures is a second hearth that archaeologists believe is from a later expansion and reconstruction of the house.

Prof [Colin] Richards said: “The early Neolithic house is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones.

“At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partition the house into different living areas. This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday.”

A number of artifacts have been found in the remains of the house — pottery fragments, flint knapping debris, animal bones, Skaill knives — and they are all well preserved, which is particularly key for the bones because time, soil and the elements have chewed up organic remains at other Neolithic sites in Orkney. The rich red-brown floors in the house indicate they have a rich complement of organic remains for researchers to study in the lab.

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute (UHI), the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and specialists from other institutions have been excavating the site since mid-August using a geophysical survey and midden finds from a previous exploration as their guide. When the site was discovered by UHI and UCLan researchers in November of last year, their survey found evidence of a large settlement they thought might date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BC). This was a transitional period which saw a great deal of social upheaval in Northern Scotland, so archaeologists were excited at the prospect of discoveries from so significant a time. If the dating on the Neolithic structure proves accurate, even though it will be earlier than expected nobody will be disappointed because it such a rare find in unusually good condition.

Sandy beaches are never easy to excavate, and the team has to do battle with the constant erosive action of wind and water. To top it off, the site is in the intertidal zone which means it is fully submerged twice a day. With less than a month to dig — the excavation is scheduled to end on September 8th — researchers are working assiduously to uncover as much of its archaeological material as they can.

The whales are an even more unexpected find, especially so many of them. The bones have been unearthed in two large cut pits. Local traditions suggest they are the detritus of a practice known as “ca,” from a word meaning “driven,” in which whales, dozens, even hundreds at a time, were chased towards the shore until they beached themselves. There they were butchered for their blubber, a valuable source of oil that was used in lamps, motors, soaps, even margarine. It smelled terrible burning, however, and I don’t even want to know what whale margarine tastes like, so when less unpleasant replacements were invented in the 20th century, the popularity of whale oil cratered.

The Cata Sand site is open to visitors. If you happen to be in the Sanday area, park in the parking lot and walk the western side to the highest dune. If it’s raining they won’t be there, but otherwise you can perch on the dude and see the excavation team at work.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tomb of China’s Shakespeare found

Mon, 2017-08-28 22:17

Archaeologists excavating the site of a demolished factory in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, east China, have discovered the tomb of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). A large grouping of tombs was first unearthed after the demolition of the old plant last year, 42 of them in total, 40 dating to the Ming Dynasty. Tomb M4 was identified as Tang’s from an epitaph, one of six found at the site some of which are believed to have been written by the playwright himself. His third wife Fu was buried with him in the tomb; his second wife Zhao was buried in the neighboring tomb labelled M3.

“The epitaphs can help us learn more about the calligraphy, art and literature in Tang’s time,” Xu [Changqing, head of Jiangxi Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute,] said.[…]

“This discovery is significant, because it tells us more about Tang’s life, his family tree and relationships with other family members,” said Mao Peiqi, vice chairman of the Chinese Society on Ming Dynasty History.

“Besides, by learning about the status and lives of Tang’s family, we can learn about education, culture and agriculture in the Ming Dynasty as well as the development of society,” he said.

Tang’s best known works are a series of plays known as the Four Dreams. One of them, The Peony Pavilion, is considered his masterpiece. It was the most popular play of the Ming Dynasty and continued to be performed in the classical Chinese opera tradition uninterrupted for hundreds of years until the present. Updated, experimental versions as well as the traditional style have been performed all over the world. There are references to it in popular music, novels, television and film.

Tang Xianzu and William Shakespeare died the same day: April 23rd, 1616. They had other things in common: exceptional lyrical qualities in their verse, themes of star-crossed romance, plot-driving dreams, ghosts, comical elements combined with the tragic and dramatic, historical settings and personages, and legacies as literary giants that loom large in their native countries and beyond. Because they were contemporaries with such enduring cultural influence, comparisons between Tang and Shakespeare are rife. Tang is often referred to as the Chinese Shakespeare as shorthand to explain the enormity of his importance in Chinese theatrical history. Last year, the 400th anniversary of both men’s deaths, The Peony Pavilion was performed at Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the Bard. This year, a statue of the two great playwrights standing side by side gifted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by the city of Fuzhou in 2015 was unveiled in the garden at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The discovery of Tang’s tomb is exciting not just for what it can tell us about his personal life, Ming Dynasty history and culture, but also because until now there was no commemorative location linked to his life for his myriad fans to visit to pay their respects. An empty tomb was built in a Fuzhou park in the 1980s just so there’d at least be some kind of monument. Now the city plans to create a destination site where Tang Xianzu and his family were really buried that will attract tourists, fans, artists and scholars alike.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Misunderstood dodo gets its due

Sun, 2017-08-27 22:16

A new study of bone sections has revealed new information about the life and reproductive cycles of the dodo bird. Because very few skeletal remains of dodo’s have survived, researchers have been reluctant to slice and dice them to use the latest technology that might discover more about a very misunderstood animal. Recent discoveries of bone fragments gave scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Cape Town a rare opportunity to take a look inside the dodo.

According to evidence in the different layers and types of tissue of the 22 bones examined, the dodo seems to have adapted its lifestyle to Mauritius’s stormy summer, from November to March.

During this period, heavy rain and strong winds can strip trees of leaves, flowers and fruit, causing severe food shortages for the island’s animals.

The dodo bones show repeated lines of arrested growth, which the researchers suggest correspond to the harsh conditions of the summer months when the birds were starved of food. […]

In common with many modern birds living on the island, the breeding season for dodos appears to have begun around August. Once chicks hatched, they grew quickly to almost adult body size, attaining sexual maturity before the stormy summer began.

Moulting began after the summer had passed, around March, with the replacement of the feathers of the wings and the tail. By July, the moult would have been completed and the bird would have had a chance to fatten up, ready for the next breeding season to begin.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge here.

The dodo has become an icon of species extinction, unfairly painted as a clumsy weirdo who couldn’t find a way to survive, when, as this new evidence underscores, it was very well adapted to its unique environment before people hunted it mercilessly and destroyed its ecosystem. A native species of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the dodo’s large beak and rotund body gave it something of a comical appearance which has played into the narrative of the goofy bird who just couldn’t hack in the real world.

It was the Dutch they couldn’t survive. Dutch ships first made landfall on Mauritius in 1598. Forty years later, the Dutch established their first settlement to harvest the island’s ebony trees. They also attempted to grow sugar cane and introduced domestic animals and deer. None of these endeavors proved financially successful and the first colony was abandoned two decades years after its founding. Some desultory attempts to colonize the island ensued until the Dutch gave up once and for all in 1710.

They sure left their mark, though. They destroyed the ebony forests, depriving endemic species of their habitat. They slaughtered local birds and turtles for food, and overwhelmed the ones they didn’t eat with competing animal species. One of those local birds was the dodo. The last living one was sighted in 1662 and the Dutch cared not one whit, so little, in fact, that they didn’t even notice that by the early 1690s the entire species was gone, extinguished in less than a century.

For a long time the dodo was considered mythical and the only evidence that it had ever existed were a few drawings made from life by explorers and a smattering of bones. The 19th century saw a sudden surge of interest in the curious bird, but there was so little to go on that scientists had to make do with a few drawings and random body parts. In their 1848 monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred, Strickland and Melville remarked on how difficult scientific study of a bird that had gone extinct less than two centuries earlier was because the source material was so sparse and unreliable.

In the case of the didinae, it is unfortunately no easy matter to collect satisfactory information as to their structure, habits, and affinities. We possess only the rude descriptions of unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments, which have survived the neglect of two hundred years. The paleontologist has, in many cases, far better data for determining the zoological characters of a species which perished myriads of years ago, than those presented by a group of birds, which were living in the reign of Charles the First.

The first dodo fossils were found in 1865, but they were fragmentary. Research based on those finds that was published in science journals still had to rely heavily on speculation to fill in the many unknowns about this bird. Amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux was the first to discover complete or almost complete skeletal remains of dodos during his excavations in Mauritius between 1899 and 1910. Decades after the Dodo became a subject of fascination despite the lack of osteological material bemoaned by Strickland and Melville, Thirioux’s finds made little impact on the scientific community. One Thirioux skeleton, almost complete minus a few bones, wound up in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. The second is in the Mauritius Institute, appropriately enough. The one in the Mauritius Institute is the only complete dodo skeleton known and the only one that is from a single bird. The Durban skeletal is believed to be a composite of two partial dodo skeletons.

Neither museum realized what rare and significant specimens they had until a few years ago when the Natural History Museum’s Dr. Julian Hume sought them out to do the first comprehensive study of dodo anatomy in 150 years. The study was capped off with this nifty 3D laser surface scanning reconstruction of the skeleton at the Durban Natural Science Museum shows a detailed rendering of the bird’s skeletal structure in what scientists now believe is an anatomically accurate position.

Durban Dodo Skeleton – Anatomically Correct Pose
by Aves 3D
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

From the annals of people are terrible

Sat, 2017-08-26 20:19


On Friday, August 4th, visitors to the Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, Essex, did something so stupid and reckless it defies understanding. Parents of a young child lifted him over the barrier into a medieval sandstone sarcophagus, presumably to capture a precious memory of their cherub desecrating a funerary artifact. As anyone with two neurons to rub together could have predicted, the coffin was knocked off its stand. The impact cracked the fragile sandstone down the middle and took a chunk out of the floor of the coffin.

Museum staff discovered the damage later that day because in addition to being irresponsible numbskulls, the parents are also craven cowards who hightailed it out of the museum as quickly as their chicken legs could carry them without notifying anyone to the havoc they’d wreaked. Curators only found out what had happened by reviewing CCTV footage from security cameras.

“The care of our collections is of paramount importance to us and this isolated incident has been upsetting for the museums service, whose staff strive to protect Southend’s heritage within our historic sites,” said Claire Reed, the conservator responsible for repairing the sarcophagus.

“My priority is to carefully carry out the treatment needed to restore this significant artefact so it can continue to be part of the fascinating story of Prittlewell Priory.”[…]

The sandstone casket that was damaged is the last of its kind. “It’s a very important artefact and historically unique to us as we don’t have much archaeology from the priory,” said Reed.

Conservators are currently assessing the damage, but at first glance they expect it should be able to be repaired without breaking the bank. The council thinks it might take fewer than £100 ($130). Suitable materials for restoring historical artifacts can be expensive, however, and then there’s the cost that will be incurred by creating a new display for the coffin when it goes back on display. For its own protection, it will have to be completely enclosed, so museum visitors will have to pay in distance and separation from the artifact for the carelessness of two idiots.

Founded in around 1110 A.D. by Robert FitzSuen as the Priory of St Mary, a cell of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras in Lewes, Sussex, Prittlewell was a small monastery with fewer than 20 monks at any given time. Most of the medieval priory was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. That and later construction is why archaeological material from the original priory is so sparse. Henry VIII granted the monastery, its lands and revenues to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor of England and Keeper of the Great Seal, who also scored a number of far larger and more valuable monastic estates in the wake of the Dissolution.

Prittlewell remained in private hands until the early 20th century. The Scratton family made the most pronounced mark on the estate in the Victorian era, extensively renovating, rebuilding and adding to what was left of the medieval monastery to create an impressive and livable country home. Having lived in the era before Poltergeist, they created a walled kitchen garden over what had been the monks’ burial ground. The inevitable hauntings ensued and visitors have reported seeing a ghostly monk wandering the halls of the former cloister.

In 1917 Prittlewell Priory, the buildings, the 22-acre property and six adjacent acres were bought from Captain Scratton by prosperous local jeweler and benefactor Robert Arthur Jones. He donated the whole kit and caboodle to the city of Southend with the explicit intent that it be turned into a multi-use public facility for the benefit of the people of Southend. Jones explained his reasoning at the time:

“I think it is a sin for a man to die rich, it is a great privilege to me to be able to do this, for I believe strongly in facilities for recreation. There will now be no need for such an out of the way and costly park as Belfairs. Prittlewell, with its historic and old-world associations, its beautiful trees and lakes, and its nearness to the centre of town, is an ideal place. Part of the building would be suitable for a museum, and there would also be refreshment room accommodation, while the grounds would provide facilities for cricket, football, tennis, hockey and other sports. I propose that the name of the park should be Priory Park”

In 1922 Prittlewell Priory opened as Southend’s first museum and Priory Park as its first public park. The damaged sarcophagus was unearthed near the former priory church in 1921 during the archaeological exploration of the site that accompanied its conversion into the museum and park. It contained a skeleton, likely the remains of senior monk because a stone coffin was an expensive object that would have been used for brothers of high rank.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chinese workers found buried in ancient Lima pyramid

Fri, 2017-08-25 22:20

The remains of 16 Chinese labourers from the late 19th and early 20th century have been found buried in a 1,000-year-old adobe pyramid in Lima, Peru. The bodies were discovered at the top of the Huaca Bellavista pyramid built by the Ichma people who flourished in Lima before they were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The pyramid was used as a clandestine cemetery by the Chinese because they were forbidden from using Catholic cemeteries. Historians believe they may have been drawn to the ancient sacred spaces which were used for high status burials when they were first built and for centuries afterwards. The remains of Chinese labourers have been found at other adobe pyramids in Lima, but this is the largest group of Chinese migrant burials ever found in Peru.

In a possible sign of how the Chinese gradually emerged from dire poverty in Peru, the first 11 bodies were shrouded in cloth and placed in the ground, while the last five wore blue-green jackets and were buried in wooden coffins, [lead archaeologist Roxana] Gomez said.

“In one Chinese coffin, an opium pipe and a small ceramic vessel were included in the funerary ensemble,” said Gomez.

The opium pipe has a porcelain base decorated with blue seashells. Other grave goods discovered in the graves include an inkwell and an unusual flat wooden box that historians believe may have held an important document like his work contract. In addition to the blue-green jackets, other clothing was found on the bodies, among them cotton hats and blue jeans.

One of the deceased was found with a fractured skull, likely the result of violent trauma. Even broken, his skull still retained the traditional braid of hair at the base. Chinese labourers were treated abysmally and there are several cases on record of them being beaten severely. The court cases were not about owners/overseers abusing Chinese workers, mind you. It was the Chinese on trial for responding with violence to the violence inflicted on them. Perhaps this young man was a victim of a workplace “injury.”

The cotton plantations in the foothills of the Andes in the Lima area were hard to farm. The land is arid desert, virtually rainless, and cannot grow any kind of crop at all without extensive irrigation systems piping water down from the mountains. Even irrigated, the land was only productive enough for two crops of cotton a year. The first was of comparatively good quality, but the manufactured product was still low-end. The second crop was worse in quality, lower in quantity and even more difficult to harvest. Harvesting by machine was not possible because the machines left too much of the bolls (the white fluffy part) behind while picking up too much of the leaves and stems that are useless in the manufacture of cotton textiles.

From a description on the back of a stereoscopic card of Chinese cotton plantation pickers published by Underwood & Underwood in 1900:

It has been found that Chinese laborers are the most reliable for work on a cotton plantation. They receive seventy cents, silver, per quintal (100 pounds) and they average two quintals a day. An expert picker will gather three quintals per day on the first crop of the season. On the second crop the laborers receive one dollar, silver, per quintal, because this crop is harder to pick. The cotton grown here is of medium grade, such as is used in the manufacture of coarse muslins and rough cotton goods.

With slavery abolished in 1854, the solution to the thorny question of who would willingly do this awful job for crap wages was what it always is: immigrants. Chinese indentured labourers migrated to Peru starting in 1849, when slavery was being phased out and there was a dire shortage of workers for the sugar and cotton plantations and guano mines. Just as in the United States with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese labour in Peru played a key role in the Guano Boom, a period of great prosperity for Peru thanks to profits from guano exports to Europe where it was highly prized as fertilizer.

In the mid-19th century, 100,000 Chinese labourers, almost entirely Cantonese men from Guangdong province, immigrated to Peru to work in brutal conditions for spare change. They were deceived into signing contracts with the promise of making a decent living only to find almost immediately they’d been lied to. The ships that transported them were called “floating hells” and the ones who survived the four-month voyage arrived riddled with disease and injury. They were immediately put to work in the plantations and mines, working from dawn until night. After 12 hours of back-breaking labour, they were locked into their quarters to keep them from running away.

Little wonder they hit the opium pipes once those doors locked, and the plantation owners encouraged the habit because they just so happened to have a monopoly on opium sales granted by the British. They couldn’t make that kind of money off of alcohol and coca.

Chinese immigration was severely restricted in 1909 and prohibited entirely in 1930. By then there was a well-established community of mixed Chinese and Peruvian heritage. Their descendants, the Tusans, still live in Peru today. Up to 3% of the population is of Chinese ancestry, more than 1,000,000 people according to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the largest ethnically Chinese community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. Lima has more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants that serve a unique fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine and a small but thriving Chinatown (the Barrio Chino) with schools, temples, benevolent associations and multiple Chinese language periodicals.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient child sarcophagi found at Rome’s Olympic Stadium

Thu, 2017-08-24 22:39

Workers installing new pipelines near Rome’s Olympic Stadium this summer uncovered two ancient Roman children’s’ sarcophagi. The ENEA utility company stumbled on the artifacts while digging in the Monte Mario neighborhood just behind the north curve of the stadium. They stopped the work and reported the find to the Special Superintendency for the Colosseum and the Archaeological Area of Central Rome which sent an archaeological team to excavate the site.

The marble sarcophagi were found about eight feet below street level. One of them is rough hewn, the chisel marks clearly visible on the interior and exterior, while the other is decorated with a bas relief on the exterior. The relief depicts a central pair of erotes (Cupid-like figures also known as putti or cherubs) holding aloft a circular medallion that is either too eroded or too soil-encrusted to identify the image it bears. It was likely an image of the deceased called a clipeus portrait, or perhaps a mythological reference. Two small figures recline underneath the medallion. On the right and left sides of the central scene are pairs of embracing Cupids and Pyches. Individual erotes cap the ends of the panel. Both it and the other, plainer sarcophagus were expensive luxury items that only the wealthy could afford. The children buried in them must have been from well-to-do families.

Erotes were common motifs in funerary reliefs, particularly for children because they’re basically babies with wings. They continued to be used into the Christian era, reinterpreted as angels bringing the souls of the dead to heaven. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a sarcophagus with very similar iconography to the one found near the stadium, although the clipeus portrait identifies the deceased as a young man, not a child.

Preliminary examination suggests the sarcophagi date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. — the Met’s sarcophagus dates to the late 2nd, early 3rd century and the more refined carving is indicative of an earlier date than the cruder art on the newly discovered one. The dating can’t be asserted with confidence until the objects have been subjected to further testing. Concerned that the open excavation pit was too easily accessible to vandals and looters, archaeologists decided to remove the sarcophagi from the site as soon as they could. They have been transported to the laboratories of the Special Superintendency to be cleaned, studied and conserved. The first dating results and other research will be published next fall.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

6th c. mosaic inscription found near Damascus Gate

Wed, 2017-08-23 22:51

A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists surveying the site of a cable line installation near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate this summer have discovered a rare 6th century mosaic inscription that namedrops the Emperor Justinian. The excavation was just about complete with little to show for it besides a few extremely damaged ancient remains that were mangled by repeated infrastructure projects in the area in recent decades. Then the team spied a piece of the mosaic inscription between the network of pipes and cables.

When they excavated it fully, they found large room with a surviving mosaic tile floor. Most of the floor is covered in simple white tesserae, but one section has an inscription in black tile. The six lines of Greek mention the precise date, Constinius (aka Constantine), who was in charge of the building project, and the Byzantine Emperor Flavius Justinianus, better known to us today as Justinian the Great.

Dr. Leah Di Segni, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the expert on ancient Greek inscriptions, deciphered the inscription. The inscription reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction”. According to Di Segni, “This inscription commemorates the founding of the building by Constantine, the priest. The inscription names the emperor Flavius Justinian. It seems that the building was used as a hostel for pilgrims.” Di Segni added, “‘Indiction’ is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 AD.”

For centuries the Damascus Gate was the main entrance into northern Jerusalem, and the area became a hive of activity during the 6th century under the fully Christianized Byzantine Empire thanks to a sharp increase in religious construction and pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The building with the mosaic floor was on the road leading into and out of the gate, the perfect location for a pilgrim hostel.

Constinius is also mentioned in another inscription a church in the Old City: the Nea Church dedicated in 542 A.D., the largest church in Jerusalem at that time and one of the most important in the Byzantine Empire. It even made it on the extraordinary Madaba Map, a cartographic floor mosaic of the Middle East in the apse of the 6th century church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan, which contains the first known map of Jerusalem. An inscription found on the vault of the Nea Church, first excavated in 1970, again mentions Constantine, the abbot of the church, and Emperor Justinian.

That Constinius oversaw the construction of Jerusalem’s most important church inside the city walls as well the pilgrim hostel outside the walls shows how prominent a person he was in mid-6th century Jerusalem. Since a number of other structures from this time have been unearthed in the Damascus Gate area, archaeologists believe he was involved in large-scale, organized building projects of churches, monastery complexes and other religious structures both inside and outside the city walls.

Di Segni adds, “This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church. The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”

The mosaic has been lifted from the site and, after briefly being displayed to the press at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, is now undergoing conservation at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s laboratory.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen de Kooning found 32 years after theft

Tue, 2017-08-22 22:00

In a happy counterpoint to yesterday’s sad news, a painting by Willem de Kooning stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson 32 years ago has been found and returned to the museum. Woman-Ochre was snatched November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, in a classic two-person misdirection ploy. A woman and a man waltzed into the museum bright and early at 9:00AM. The woman ran interference with the security guard, capturing his attention while her partner cut the painting out of the frame. They quickly left together and that was the last anyone saw of them. The whole operation from entry to exit had taken less than 15 minutes.

The subsequent police investigation failed to find the culprits or the painting and for three decades the case was cold as ice. It turned burning hot earlier this month when David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. Van Auker saw it hanging behind the bedroom door at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, and decided to buy it along with a pile of other assorted gewgaws from the sale. He had no idea it was an original de Kooning; he just thought it was cool.

He propped the painting up against the wall of his shop and a customer told him it looked like a de Kooning. Then another customer noticed it and mentioned it could be a de Kooning oil painting. A third soon joined the chorus. Van Auker started getting antsy. Much Googling ensued, and when he read about the theft from the museum, he realized he very likely had a gazillion dollar stolen painting in his shop. He nervously moved it into the bathroom to keep it out of view of any more customers.

Van Auker called the UAMA and told them he thought he had their long-lost de Kooning. The next day the head of the museum, a curator and a restorer from the Arizona State Museum scrutinized the painting. The restorer examined it for two hours at the end of which she confirmed that it was authentic. After spending a night under lock and key at the local police station, Woman-Ochre was transported back to the museum in Tucson.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.

Woman-Ochre is one of a series of paintings de Kooning did exploring the female form, a subject that many critics and artists asserted had been superseded by abstract, non-representational art. While eschewing the traditional depictions of what he called “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” Kooning drew from a wide range of iconographic references — prehistoric mother goddess figurines, advertising models, pinup girls — to create abstract expressionist versions of figures out of thick lines and dynamic slashes of color.

Paintings in de Kooning’s Woman series today grace the walls of the world’s top museums, and on the rare occasions when they become available on the market, they sell for astronomical prices. Ten years ago one sold for $137.5 million. Bound by the terms of the Gallagher donation, the UAMA cannot sell the painting even if it wanted to, which it most emphatically does not, but based on the comparables, it could be worth something in the neighborhood of $160 million.

At the time of the theft, the painting was insured for $400,000, a risibly small sum compared to its market value today. The museum very wisely put the money in an endowment fund and used the interest to upgrade its security systems. Upon the painting’s return, the museum paid back the original $400,000 to the insurers so they again have clean title to the artwork.

The de Kooning is in need of some tender loving care. The edges are ripped from being hacked out of the original frame and whatever jackass reframed it stapled it to a board. The thieves also rolled it up for ease of transport, making the paint brittle in parts. Thankfully it has not begun to flake yet. Before the painting goes back on display, it will undergo thorough restoration and study. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating how the stolen work wound up in the nice but humble three-bedroom home of a retired music teacher and a retired speech pathologist.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Mon, 2017-08-21 22:57

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The 1st photographs of a total solar eclipse

Sun, 2017-08-20 22:08

It’s been far too long since I indulged in a theme post. As total eclipse of the sun mania has struck the US, I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. The subject covers three of my favorite obsessions: the history of photography, the history of astronomy and historical firsts, all accompanied by that greatest of all obsessions, great high-resolution pictures.

William and Frederick Langenheim were born in Schöningen, Germany in 1807 and 1809 respectively. The were from a prominent family — their father Friedrich Wilhelm was mayor of Schöningen from 1808 until 1813 — but left what was then the Duchy of Brunswick in the 1830s. They immigrated to the United States and carved out careers as journalists. By 1842, they had opened a photography studio in Philadelphia.

The Langenheim daguerreotype studio quickly rose to preeminence in the city, thanks to the brothers’ great talent, inventiveness and embrace of new technology. In 1850 they debuted a new projectable photographic slides they called Hyalotypes. The device used to project them was a better-mousetrap version of the magic lantern which projected small drawn or painted images onto large screens. The stereopticon, as the Langenheim’s device became known, was a huge leap forward because it projected photographic images, not drawings, and because daguerreotypes capture even the most minute detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye, they could be magnified onto a screen at enormous dimensions, large enough that an auditorium of thousands could see spectacular images of, say, Niagara Falls or St. Peter’s Basilica without loss of resolution.

The brothers’ stereopticon had another feature that would prove momentous: a twin lense system that allowed the images to be faded one into the other, a smooth transition that far outshone the magic lantern’s choppy switch-overs. When they conceived of showing slides in an orderly progression, one dissolving into the other in a chronologically rational sequence, they unwittingly introduced the forerunner to the moving picture. The Langenheims charged people a dime to see pictures of natural, historical, architectural, artistic and scientific wonders projected on the big screen and the device was a huge hit.

A perfect subject for the stereopticon appeared in the skies over North America on May 26th, 1854. It was a total eclipse of the sun, the first one in the US since Louis Daguerre announced his new image-fixing process in 1839. The Langenheim brothers took eight daguerreotypes of the eclipse as it progressed. Only seven of them have survived. They are now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive. In the northern hemisphere, the moon always shadows the sun from right to left during a solar eclipse; these images therefore seem odd because they are, like all uncorrected daguerreotypes, reversed laterally as in a mirror.

It is noteworthy that these daguerreotypes are quite small, three exceptionally so. In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all-a total eclipse.

As for our eclipse, now so easily captured by terrestrial and satellite technology, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is going all out. They have secured safe solar telescopes from the National Air and Space Museum and will make them available to the public between 1:00 and 4:00PM so people can watch the eclipse up close and in total security. They’ve also created an exhibition, Solar Eclipses: Past and Present, from their pictures and records of other eclipses.

For all you eclipse watchers out there, don’t forget your protective eyewear. If you don’t have the opportunity to view the eclipse in person, you can follow its whole extraordinary path on NASA’s website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dutch shipwreck yields more treasures

Sat, 2017-08-19 22:12

Divers exploring the wreck of the Rooswijk, an 18th century Dutch ship off the coast of Kent, England, have discovered a sealed seaman’s chest whose contents are unknown but could be actual treasure. The largest of several chests recovered from the wreck, it is about one meter long and could contain objects like sabre blades (known to have been on board) that need a long container. Or, like other chests previously recovered from the wreck, it could contain silver ingots and coins, a conventional treasure as well as a historical one.

Of course, any contents at all would be archaeologically precious, but archaeologists dare not open it for risk of damaging the chest and/or its contents.

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to open the mystery chest. Conventional x-rays often don’t reveal much of heavily concreted objects. Angela Middleton, a conservation expert at Historic England, hopes to persuade the customs authorities to bring along one of the scanners they use at the port to check for people and goods hidden in lorries, and see if it shows up anything.

“We might find out it is impossible to open the chest without destroying it. Or we might find out what is in it and decide it’s just not worth even trying to open it,” she said.

The Rooswijk, a three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) trading ship, had just set off from Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta with a hold full of silver bullion and coins to buy spices when it was blown off course in a storm and sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off Kent in January of 1740. Known as the Ship Swallower, the Goodwin devoured the Rooswijk and all 250 crew and passengers on board.

The ship was so heavily laden it went down in a flash. British newspapers reported on the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship in the storm. Letters and debris washed ashore. It’s not clear whether the VOC was made immediately aware of these reports. The voyage to Jakarta was so long Dutch East India officials wouldn’t have had reason to worry until after the ship failed to reach its scheduled stop at the Cape of Good Hope, months after its departure and sinking.

Whatever was left of the Rooswijk and its very heavy, very valuable cargo was covered over by the Goodwin Sands and its location remained a mystery for centuries. After years of documentary research and a magnetometer survey, a diver found the wreck and in 2005, a team of underwater archaeologists explored it. They recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, including musket parts, knives, sword blades, hilts and scabbards, pewter dinnerware, silver coins, more than 500 four-pound silver ingots. Because the wreck is owned by the Dutch government by virtue of its having absorbed the Dutch East India Company in 1798, the artifacts recovered from the wreck are property of the Netherlands and were returned to it. Some of them are now on display at the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.

Because of its historical importance and rarity — just a third of the 250 known VOC wrecks have ever been found and the Rooswijk is the only one of them to be scientifically investigated — in 2007 the site was designated a protected wreck. The designation made any unauthorized interference with it a crime. Still, the location was kept under wraps to discourage treasure hunters from trying their luck.

Last year, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England launched a new excavation of the Rooswijk. There was an urgent need to survey the site because changing tides had drastically shifted the deep silt layers, exposing timbers that have long been shielded under the sediments. This not only triggered precipitous decay, but it made it more likely that looters might find the ship.

Working with the divers who first explored the wreck in 2005, archaeologists have recovered pewter tankards and spoons, glass brandy bottles, elaborately carved knife handles, shoes, wine glasses with twist stems, an onion jar, cooking tiles, Mexican silver dollars and cut up pieces of eight. All of the artifacts have been taken to a huge warehouse in Ramsgate to be recorded and receive any emergency treatment they require. They will then be moved to a Historic England facility for further conservation before being returned to the Netherlands.

There will be an open day at the Ramsgate warehouse on September 16th to give the public what may be their only chance and seeing some of these finds before they leave the country.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Five centuries of history unearthed in Roman villa

Fri, 2017-08-18 22:34

An international team of archaeologists, students and volunteers excavating the Roman villa of Durreueli at Realmonte in Sicily have unearthed evidence of habitation and usage from a much broader period than previously realized.

Through a month of excavations, they determined the villa was consistently occupied between the 2nd and 7th century CE and reconfigured to settlement in the 5th century Common Era (CE). That conclusion comes following the discovery of new walls, floor levels, staircase and water channel.

The team found cookware and lamps along with a large quantity of African Late Roman pottery and related materials such as kiln spacers. This leads researchers to believe an important function of the village was to produce pottery, bricks and tiles in industrial scale, helping explain the economic history of Late Antique Sicily.

One of Sicily’s largest Roman villas covering 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) in area, the Durreueli remains were first discovered in the early 1900s during railroad construction. They weren’t professionally excavated until 1979 when a team of Japanese archaeologists explored the site for six years. They unearthed important parts of the villa, including its baths and exceptional mosaics dedicated to the deities of the sea the structure so dramatically overlooks, but nowhere near the wide range of dates that the current excavation has encountered.

After Japanese excavation ended in 1985, the site was closed the public and all but ignored, even though it is just a hop, skip and a jump from the area’s preeminent tourist attraction, the Scala dei Turchi (the staircase of the Turks), a limestone rock formation that looks like gigantic steps built on a golden beach. The city of Agrigento with its exceptional Doric temple is just six miles to the east.

Dig director Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor in History at the University of South Florida, sought to rectify this unfortunate neglect of such significant archaeological remains. Working with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento, Tanasi not only excavated the villa this season, making important finds that vastly expanded its chronology, he enlisted USF’s state-of-the-art Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) to thoroughly scan the site and create 3D views that will prove invaluable in determining the best approach to ongoing excavations in interpreting the phases of construction.

There aren’t any really good pictures of the excavation (not by my standards anyway), but Dr. Tanasi’s YouTube channel steps into the breach. There are super-short videos of the excavators in action:

Charming testimonials from participants in the project:

And the greatest gems in the collection, aerial and terrestrial 3D scans of the whole villa which are extremely cool views for we civilians as well as and essential tools for archaeologists.

The USF team will return to the villa next summer for a second season of excavations.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest surviving original picture of US President found

Thu, 2017-08-17 22:54

A daguerreotype portrait of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by Philip Haas, the earliest surviving original photographic image of a US president, has been rediscovered after more than a century and a half of languishing in obscurity. It is going up for auction at Sotheby’s Photographs sale on October 5th in New York. This silver plate portrait has been in the family of Horace Everett, a congressman from Vermont who served in the House of Representatives from 1829 to 1843, since Adams gifted it to him in 1843, but the seller, a descendant who wishes to remain unnamed, thought it was a portrait of Horace Everett and had no idea that an object of national significance was stashed amidst his attic clutter.

Claims of historical precedence tend to come with caveats and asterisks, and it must be noted that the daguerreotype, a so-called half plate measuring about 5 inches by 4 inches, is not, technically, the earliest photographic image of an American president.

That honor, if few others, belongs to William Henry Harrison, who had his likeness taken in 1841, around the time of his inauguration. He died of an uncertain illness 32 days into his term, and the original daguerreotype is not known to survive, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850. And Adams himself was first photographed in 1842, by the Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr., though the images appear to be lost.

With the earlier pictures surviving only in later reproductions, that makes this daguerreotype the oldest known original image of a US president. (Until someone reads the headlines, is inspired to dig through grandpa’s junk and finds the William Henry Harrison portrait.)

The son of second President of the United States John Adams and his redoubtable wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams ably filled his father’s very large footsteps, carving out an exceptional career as a diplomat and politician. He started out with a bang as a US Minister to the Netherlands under President George Washington. Other high ranking diplomatic posts followed, in between which he held his first high elected office as a Senator from Massachusetts (1803-1808). He was President James Monroe’s Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825 — it was Adams who actually crafted the Monroe Doctrine, not Monroe — and then succeeded him to the highest office in the land when he was elected the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829).

After his loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1829 presidential election, despondent by the ugliness of the campaign and devastated by the suicide of his son, Adams contemplated retirement. Within two years he was back in the public service game. John Adams had been a one-term president, after all, the first one. John Quincy was the second, so he was still very much following in his footsteps. Between 1831 and 1848 he was repeatedly elected to the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts.

Horace Everett’s time in Congress overlapped with John Quincy Adams’. The two men were politically aligned and personal friends. Everett happened to be at Haas’ studio when the former president sat for the portrait. Adams had interrupted Everett’s sitting, in fact, which is why Adams gave him the signed plate as a gift since he’d been witness to its conception and had graciously allowed him to cut the line.

A patchwork of labels on the back of the newly discovered daguerreotype, which is in a simple ebonized wood frame, attests to that personal connection. There’s a piece of brown paper, apparently clipped from an envelope, with “J.Q. Adams” in the return address space, in what appears to be the former president’s handwriting. “He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,” Ms. Bierman said.

There’s also a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes.”

That was a bit of an overstatement. Louis Daguerre released his process of fixing images onto metal plates in August of 1839 and American photographers were experimenting with his system within months.

It wasn’t even one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits. Hell, it wasn’t even one of earliest daguerreotype portraits Philip Haas made of John Quincy Adams. This plate was the product of Adams’ second portrait shoot with Philip Haas. The first one had taken place a week earlier. In his diary entry for March 8th, 1843, John Quincy Adams recorded with wonderment his impressions of the technology.

I walked this morning to Mr Haas’ shop, and he took from his camera obscura there Daguerrotype likeness of me. The operation is performed in half a minute, but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me. Mr Haas says it is a chemical process upon mercury, silver, gold and Iodine. It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.

He returned for a follow-up shoot on March 16th. From his diary entry from that day:

According to promises I walked up to Mr Haas’s shop about 9. my hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett there for the same purpose of being facsimileed. Haas took him once, and then with his confront took me three times – the second of which he said was very good – for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.

The daguerreotype is estimated to sell for $150,000–250,000, but it’s likely to go for much more than that due its illustrious subject, uniqueness and historical significance.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

Wed, 2017-08-16 22:09

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

Tue, 2017-08-15 22:41

Fruit cakes are famous for their longevity, mainly because they start off close to inedible so it takes years for them to cross the line into fully inedible. Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) have found a 106-year-old fruit cake in a 19th century hut on Cape Adare. It looks remarkably well-preserved, although none of the conservators have sampled the confection.

The hut is the oldest structure in Antarctica. The Borchgrevink huts are the only surviving first constructions by humans on a continent. It is one of two structures built by the Norwegian pioneer of polar exploration Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899 and used by later explorers. AHT experts believe the cake dates to the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s calamitous final expedition to the South Pole. He and four others reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 only to find to their dismay that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had gotten there a month earlier on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his men died on the return voyage when their dog teams failed to meet them at the pre-determined rendezvous spot.

The fruitcake was made by the Huntley & Palmers company, purveyors of sweet treats since 1822, and Huntley & Palmers cakes are known to have been among the supplies for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott himself didn’t go to Cape Adare. It was First Officer Victor Campbell’s Northern Party who sheltered in Borchgrevink’s hut and used it to hold their stores in the summer and winter of 1911. When the party was picked up in January of 1912, they left tinned supplies behind.

The New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust began a project in May 2016 to recover and conserve all the artifacts in the Cape Adare huts before the huts themselves are conserved. Because the site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), the objects will all be returned to their original locations after the conservation of the buildings is complete.

The complexity of the project and the short seasons of the polar environment required stringent deadlines for everything to get done on time. The team has conserved close to 1,500 artifacts between May of last year and July of this year. The fruit cake was one of the last ones and conservators had no idea what it was because the tin was so corroded the label and brand could not be identified. It was only when they opened the tin that they saw it was a Huntley & Palmers fruit cake still in its original paper wrapper.

Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out. The cake itself was in excellent condition.

Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek said “With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Silver in coins tracks Rome’s rise to power

Mon, 2017-08-14 22:41

A study of Roman coins has discovered a significant shift in the source of the silver in the early 3rd century B.C. from Greece and its former colonies in southern Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. German and Dutch researchers took samples from 70 silver coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C., drilling minute holes in the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. The samples were subjected to geochemical analysis to determine their metal composition. The team was able to determine the quantities and proportions of major elements (identified by an electron probe microanalyzer or EPMA), trace elements (identified using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry or LA-ICP-MS) and lead isotope signatures (identified using a Multicollector-Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer or MC-ICP-MS).

The lead isotope values of Roman silver coins before 209 B.C. largely overlap with coins minted in Magna Graecia from silver ore mined in the Aegean and Rhodope Mountain regions. The study found that the majority of coins minted after 209 B.C. were made from silver mined in the southern Iberian peninsula, source of the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. The post-209 B.C. coins also have a higher silver content, greater than 96% by weight.

These findings are evidence of a massive shift in wealth from Carthage to Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.). That 209 B.C. would be a demarcation line is no coincidence. Rome’s first attempt to relieve Carthage of its Iberian territories in 211 B.C. had failed miserably with the defeat of brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio in the battles of Castulo and Ilorca.

Their humiliation would be redeemed two years later by Publius’ son Scipio Africanus. He did what his father and uncle could not do and conquered Qart Hadasht (the Carthaginian name for the city of Carthage), modern-day Cartagena, a Mediterranean port city founded in 227 B.C. by Hasdrubal the Fair as the jumping off point for the Punic conquest of Spain. More than a century later, it was still the seat of Carthaginian power on the Iberian peninsula. By taking Cartago Nova, as Scipio renamed it, Rome hobbled Carthage’s control of the southeast. The loss was compounded in 208 B.C. when Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at Baecula. Scipio broke the last of Carthage’s power in Iberia in 206 B.C. when he defeated an allied army of Carthage and Numidia at the Battle of Ilipa.

Cartago Nova had massive silver mines and indeed would go on to provide a constant supply of silver for the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire for centuries. Between Scipio’s successful conquest of Carthage’s silver-rich southern Iberian territories, war booty and, after the cessation of hostilities, the forced payment of punitive reparations, Rome was newly in possession of enormous silver resources. It wasted no time in converting them to cold hard cash.

Dr Katrin Westner, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, one of the leaders of a group of scientists in Germany and Denmark that carried out the research, said the effect on the Roman empire was profound.

“This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.” […]

Professor Kevin Butcher, of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, said the project had confirmed what had previously only been speculation. “This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation.”

The results of the study were presented on Monday at the Goldschmidt Conference which is being held in Paris this week.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Carved bones reveal Ice Age ritual cannibalism

Sun, 2017-08-13 22:01

A research team from the Natural History Museum in London team has found evidence of ritual cannibalism on 15,000-year-old skeletal remains. The study focused on a single bone, a radius (the large bone of the forearm) that was unearthed in 1987 from Gough’s Cave, a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwestern England, which has one the greatest numbers of human skeletal remains from the Magdalenian period (ca. 17,000–12,000 years before the present). Examination of the bone and microscopic analysis of bone biopsy samples revealed cut marks, damage from percussive force and engraved incisions. It’s the last of these that suggest a ritual component to the cannibalistic practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Cheddar Gorge.

Evidence of nutritional cannibalism has been found on other bones in Gough’s Cave — butchering and tooth marks on ribs and even toe bones — and human crania cut for use as skull cups have also been discovered, but the patterned incisions on the radius are the first intentional engravings identified on the cave’s Ice Age human remains. Microscopic analysis makes clear that the incisions are distinct from the slicing marks left by butchering and comparison with more than 400 other cut marks on bones, human and animal, discovered in Gough’s Cave.

By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.

The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.

Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.

“The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,” says [the study’s lead author Dr. Silvio] Bello.

The incisions were made in linear, zig-zag patterns that have been seen before in Magdalenian contexts. Animal bones this period found in France have similar engravings, and multiple animals bones in Gough’s Cave are also engraved with the zig-zag incisions. The patterns engraved on the radius bone, however, are the first on a human bone ever found at a Paleolithic site. In fact, it is the earliest known example of an incised human bone, period.

As for what the symbolic purpose of these engravings may have been, there is no way to determine that. It could have been purely artistic, but the inextricable association with the butchering and eating of the dead suggests a more complex motivation.

“Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.

“Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read free of charge here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

Sat, 2017-08-12 22:33

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Long-gone Montreal cemetery won’t give up ghost

Fri, 2017-08-11 22:45

Archaeologists in Montreal are trying to identify the remains of, among other individuals, a soldier whose bones were unearthed last year during construction work. A Hydro-Québec discovered the bones when laying a power line underneath one of Montreal’s central thoroughfares, René Lévesque Boulevard. Then they found more. These were the remains of people interred in a Protestant cemetery that was in use from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th.

Known variously as the Dufferin Square Cemetery, the Saint Lawrence Burial Ground and the Dorchester Street Cemetery, the Protestant cemetery was created in 1797 outside the city walls of what is now Old Montreal. It was made necessary by the city’s rapid population growth after the British conquest of French Canada, ushered in by the Surrender of Montreal in 1760 and formalized in the 1764 Treaty of Paris. The cemeteries inside the city walls were overcrowded and taking up increasingly valuable real estate, and authorities were concerned about all that decaying flesh spreading infectious diseases like cholera amongst the living. (John Snow’s ground-breaking epidemiological study identifying fecal contamination in drinking water as the source of cholera was still more than 50 years away.)

Because there were laws against Protestants and Catholics being buried together, the city authorized two new cemeteries in the suburbs. The Protestant one opened first; the Catholic one followed two years later. Montreal’s Protestant residents were given the opportunity to move their loved ones’ remains to the St. Lawrence. Over the next few years as the old city cemeteries were sold off for development, people scrambled to transfer remains before they were built over. One of those people was fur trader and successful entrepreneur James McGill, best known today as the founder of McGill University. His dear friend and former business partner John Porteous had been buried in one of the old city cemeteries and in 1799, Porteous’ remains were in danger of being unceremoniously ploughed under when the land was reclaimed for new construction. McGill personally saw to it that Porteous’ body was moved to the shiny new Protestant cemetery in the burb and buried in the plot he had bought for himself.

Montreal’s continued expansion in the 19th century ensured the new Protestant burial ground was soon as overcrowded and inconvenient as the ones inside the old city had been. The roomier Mount Royal Cemetery opened in 1852. Two years later, the old cemetery was closed to new burials and left to its own devices. Reclaimed by nature, its headstones broken and leaning precariously, graves sunken, the grounds studiously unmaintained with weeds as high as an elephant eye, the cemetery was razed in 1875 to make way for Dufferin Square, a public green space off Dorchester Boulevard. (The elegant street, dotted with mansions and running through Old Montreal, would be expanded into an eight-lane artery running east-west through Montreal in 1955 and renamed René Lévesque Boulevard in 1987.)

Again the city alerted people that it was going to go down so if they wanted their deceased to rest in peace, they’d have to move the remains themselves. Some of Montreal’s most famous sons were buried in the St. Lawrence Burial Ground. James McGill was interred there in 1813 alongside his old friend John Porteous. (He couldn’t be buried next to his wife because she was Catholic.) John Molson, founder of the brewery that still bears his name, was buried there in 1836. They and other wealthy, prominent people were moved. McGill was reinterred on the campus of the university that bears his name. Molson and other big shots were moved to Mount Royal. The poor, tradespeople, middle class, people without surviving family or who had simply been forgotten, were left behind.

Over time, the exact location of the cemetery was forgotten until in the late 1970s a massive government office building was built on Dufferin Square. Planners thought they’d taken care of the whole cemetery situation by taking a page out of the Leicester handbook and turning it into a parking lot, but when construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau began, they started turning up body after body, eventually unearthing more than 100 sets of human remains. Some were reburied in Mount Royal, but rumor has it there are a lot of restless spirits lingering at the site and the complex has a reputation for being haunted by some very angry ghosts.

Even with this ghoulish history looming in the background, archaeologists didn’t expect to find the bones of dozens more people when the work on the power line was done last year.

“We weren’t certain if we were within the cemetery borders or not,” says André Burroughs, an archeologist with Hydro-Québec who oversaw the work. “At first, we were surprised.”

The discovery turned up the remains of 61 individuals, many of them just bones gathered in collective burial boxes. […]

About half the individuals’ remains were discovered inside three pine boxes. They were probably exhumed from the original Protestant cemetery in Old Montreal and re-buried collectively.

The officer’s skeleton and military accoutrements offer some of the most extensive clues into someone’s personal history. The man had suffered from poor nutrition, based on marks found on his teeth.

He was fairly tall – about 5-foot-10 – and lived to middle age, judging from his long bones. His body shows no trauma to indicate he was injured in battle.

Some of the bones discovered during the construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau also belonged to soldiers, identified as members of the British garrison who guarded Montreal before 1814. Perhaps he was one of their comrades.

The bones are being kept in a laboratory for study at the moment. Once the research is done, the plan is to give them to the city of Montreal to store in its extensive archaeological collection, but this story has gotten a lot of media attention and a number of individuals and organizations have offered to provide a more personal disposition for the remains.

The Last Post Fund, whose National Field of Honour is in suburban Pointe-Claire, says it would consider burials for any soldiers. The St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal expressed interest in caring for the remains of Scottish Montrealers. Two women wondered whether the remains might be those of their ancestors, and one offered a DNA sample.

Mr. Burroughs says the remains could eventually end up at the Mount Royal Cemetery on the mountain, following the path that their predecessors took about 160 years earlier.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

Thu, 2017-08-10 22:48

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History