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Mummification in Egypt began 1,500 years earlier

Thu, 2014-08-14 22:59

Archaeologists have long believed that artificial mummification in Egypt began during the Old Kingdom, around 2,500 B.C. Mummies have been found from the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods (ca. 4500 – 3100 B.C.), but they were thought to have been naturally mummified in the arid heat of the desert. Evidence for the use of embalming agents was found on one examples from the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2,200 B.C.), only becoming frequent in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2,000-1,600 BC).

Now the results of an 11-year study are upending the conventional wisdom with chemical analysis of preservative resins found in prehistoric funerary wrappings. Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford have identified complex embalming agents in linen fragments from some of the earliest tombs in Egypt found in the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda in Upper Egypt.

Egyptologist Dr. Jana Jones of Sydney’s Macquarie University started the ball rolling in 2002 when she examined 51 wrapping samples excavated from Badari and Mostagedda in the 1930s and preserved in the collection of the Bolton Museum. Viewing them under a microscope revealed the presence of “toffee-like” substance likely to be resin. Researchers from Oxford University radiocarbon dated the samples to confirm they were indeed prehistoric as the archaeological evidence had indicated.

The resinous substances had to be confirmed chemically, however, because the microscopic analysis couldn’t conclusively identify them. That’s where University of York archaeological chemist Dr. Stephen Buckley came in.

Corresponding author on the article, Dr Buckley, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses, said: “The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period.”

Dr Buckley added: “Having previously led research on embalming agents employed in mummification during Egypt’s Pharaonic period it was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt’s 3000 year Pharaonic history. Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later.”

This revolutionary discovery underscores the importance of historic specimen collections in museums. They may seem like dust-magnet clutter, but as technology advances they can be an invaluable resource. First the cholera genome was mapped from 19th century specimens in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, now the history of Egyptian mummification has been rolled back 1,500 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Official War Dept. art from Western Front digitized

Wed, 2014-08-13 22:09

When the United States joined World War I, the War Department commissioned eight accomplished artists to go to France with the American Expeditionary Forces and sketch what they saw. Illustrators William James Aylward, Walter Jack Duncan, Harvey Thomas Dunn, George Matthews Harding, Wallace Morgan, Harry Everett Townsend, architect and etcher J. André Smith, and illustrator and muralist Ernest Clifford Peixotto were given the rank of captain in tn the Army Corps of Engineers and sent to the Western Front in 1918.

This was the first time the US put official artists in the field and the AEF artists had a specifically documentary brief. Their job was to make a visual record of the people and activities on the front lines.

Throughout 1918, prior to the war’s end in November, the artists produced some 700 works, ranging from charcoal sketches to completed ink or watercolor compositions. Bart Hacker, a curator at the National Museum of American History, says the artists depicted four types of scenes: soldier life (washing up, meal time); combat, aftermaths of war (destroyed churches, devastated fields); and technology. In one image, wounded men carry the fallen through trenches and barbed wire. In another, soldiers on horseback travel through a destroyed French village. Notably, Hacker says, the artists did not depict dead bodies.

That isn’t entirely true. They did not depict Allied dead, perhaps, but there are German dead. No blood or gore, however, not even in the field hospital scenes or in combat actions. So their work was meant to document the front, yes, but not the horrors of war in an explicit or even impressionistic way. These images were going to be shown to the public, after all, and bodies torn apart by artillery don’t really sell a war or reassure worried loved ones.

When the artists completed their sketches and watercolors, the pieces were sent to the War Department in Washington, D.C. where some of them were exhibited immediately. Works deemed to be incomplete were kept for the artists to finish upon their return. In January of 1920, the collection was given to the Smithsonian for exhibition. The drawings were put in storage in 1929 and have only been exhibited a handful of times since then.

This year’s centenary of the start of World War I has brought new attention to these works. The American History Museum has digitized the Smithsonian’s collection (there are a few pieces in other museums) and made them available for browsing in high resolution on its website. They may go on public display once again in 1917, the centennial of America’s entry into the war.

While I’m on the subject of the Smithsonian and digitization, the institution has just launched a massive transcription project asking volunteers to sift through millions of images of documents, artifacts and natural history specimens in its collection and transcribe them to make these invaluable resources searchable. Beta testers took days to convert handwritten notes and archives into searchable text that would have taken Smithsonian employees months to complete.

All you have to do is register here, then activate your account by clicking the link in an email they send you and setting your password. Once you’re logged in, go to the Transcription Center and pick your project. Quite a few of the first round of projects are complete but you should look through them anyway because you can enjoy the transcripts which can be browsed page by page or downloaded in their entirety. You can transcribe pages that haven’t been done yet or you can review transcriptions that others have done.

A few open projects on my short list:

Archives Center – NMAH, Charles Francis Hall on his 1860 journey to the north, exploring western Greenland.
National Anthropological Archives – Horatio Hale’s notes on the vocabulary of more than a dozen West and Central African languages spoke by slaves in Rio de Janeiro and on their facial scarification.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries – Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics manuscript about science, math, medicine, religion, etc. written around 1769-1780.

Bookmark the site and check back regularly for new projects.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Entrance to “extremely important” Amphipolis tomb found

Tue, 2014-08-12 22:53

Excitement is mounting in Greece over the excavation of a vast tomb atop Kasta hill in the ancient Central Macedonian city of Amphipolis. The Kasta Tumulus was first excavated in 2012, revealing a circular tomb almost 10 feet high (eroded from an estimated original height of 80 feet), 525 feet in diameter and 1,640 feet in circumference, making it significantly larger than the Great Tumulus at Vergina (43 feet high, 360 feet in diameter) that houses the tombs of Philip II of Macedon and other members of the royal family. In fact, it’s the largest tomb ever discovered in Greece.

Almost as soon as digging began, speculation exploded in the media about who might be buried in such a monumental tomb. Could it be Roxana of Bactria, last wife of Alexander the Great, and their son Alexander IV Aegus? According to historian Diodorus Siculus (The Library of History, Book 19, Chapter 52 and 105), they were imprisoned and killed in Amphipolis by Cassander, distant relative of Alexander the Great and Regent of Macedon, in around 310 B.C. Siculus says Cassander had his minion kill them and conceal the bodies. The largest tumulus in Greece doesn’t seem like an ideal spot to conceal anything. Outside of the fever dreams of the press, therefore, there is zero historical evidence that mother and son were interred in Amphipolis and zero archaeological evidence attesting to who was interred in the tumulus.

With Greece’s economy in deep recession, there was no budget to continue excavations or even to secure the site, now exposed to the world in injudiciously excessive terms as a tomb of great historical interest. Archaeologists found Philip II buried in a 24-pound gold casket. Even the most distant possibility that someone in the Macedon royal family or adjacent thereto could be buried in the Kasta Tumulus would surely prove an irresistible lure to looters.

Somehow the money was scraped up to continue excavations and by Spring of 2013, much of the perimeter of the tomb had been unearthed. The foundation of the perimeter wall was built of large limestone blocks clad in marble from the island of Thasos, the same kind of marble used to make a sculpture known as the Lion of Amphipolis. The lion and blocks of marble were found in the Strymon river in the early 1910s. Greek soldiers dragged the blocks out of the river and used some of them to build a base for the lion a few kilometers away from the Kasta Tumulus. The loose blocks and columns that weren’t used in the reconstruction are still there, grouped together next to the lion monument.

Many of the marble pieces from the tomb were missing, so Michaelis Lefantzis, the archaeological team’s architect, went looking among the lion’s marbles for blocks that may have come from the tomb. He found that 400 blocks from around the lion and 30 from the base were the same in shape, size and elaboration as the ones in the wall encircling the tumulus. It seems the Romans stripped them in the 2nd century A.D. and used them to stabilize the banks of the river. Archaeologists believe the lion was once perched on the top of the tomb before it was tossed in the Strymon.

The discovery underscored what an impressive monumental structure the tumulus was in antiquity. Now archaeologists are on the verge of getting inside and maybe discovering who was so important as to garner such a fancy final resting place.

So far, workers have unveiled a flight of 13 steps that lead to a broad path, flanked by masonry walls, which end in a built-up arch covering two headless, wingless sphinxes — mythical creatures that blend human, bird and lion characteristics.

Archaeologists believe the entrance will be unearthed by the end of the month. They haven’t found any evidence of tomb raider activity, no tunneling, no break-ins, so they expect to find an intact tomb. Anticipation is so high the Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, visited the site Tuesday, calling the tumulus “clearly extremely important.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient instrument found in 7th c. Kazakhstan burial

Mon, 2014-08-11 22:22

Archaeologists have found an artifact they believe to be an ancient musical instrument in the burial of a Turkic warrior in the region of East Kazakhstan. The burial in the Altai mountains was found intact, with the remains of an adult male in his 40s at the time of death and those of a horse buried next to him. The grave goods identify the deceased as a warrior of some status, and their design allowed archaeologists to provisionally date the burial to the 7th century.

The scientists found weapons belonging to this epoch next to the warrior: a helmet, a quiver, an arrow, a sword, sabers, as well as a horse with a golden harness and a bridle. The most important discovery of the excavation was a musical instrument, similar to (Kazakh) kobyz….

The kobyz is an ancient Kazakh instrument that has two strings made of horsehair. It was believed to be a sacred instruments that could drive away evil spirits. It was often used by spiritual medics and shamans.

There has been a dedicated effort by the Kazakh government and institutions of higher learning to expand historical and archaeological explorations of the nation’s past. The Altai mountains have been the site some of the most important archaeological finds relating to the nomadic peoples who inhabited the region from the 1st millennium B.C. on.

This most recent find was made as part of a Turkic Academy project investigating the statehood system of Western Turkic Khaganate, a state ruled by a Khagan (or Khan) of the Ashina clan after the founder’s kingdom, the Göktürk Khaganate, was split into east and west by his sons in the early 7th century. At its peak, the Khaganate’s sphere of influence stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, from modern-day Kazakhstan all the way to the other side of Russia. Its founder, Bumin Khagan, was crowned in the Altai mountains, so this was an important center of power.

The Khaganate united a great many nomadic tribes under one (or after the splintering, two) rulers. In the second half of the 7th century, the ten tribes of the Western Turkic Khaganate began to fight amongst themselves which left the state vulnerable to Chinese invasion. In 659 A.D., it was absorbed into Tang Dynasty China. They didn’t get to keep it for long. The tribes revolted and in 682 A.D., the Second Turkic Khaganate was established. It was the first Central Asian state that used Old Turkic as its official language, as evidenced by its appearance on stele known as the Orkhon inscriptions that tell the history of the Khaganate and its liberation from Chinese rule.

The remains of the Altai warrior will be removed for further investigation by the Turkic Academy. The bones will be directly dated and the surviving organic elements like the wooden musical instrument conserved and studied.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. sculpture of Jesus has human teeth

Sun, 2014-08-10 22:58

Restorers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) working on a polychrome statue of the Christ of Patience have found eight human teeth in the figure’s mouth. These types of statues often have teeth, but they’re carved out of wood or bone either as a plate or as individual teeth. This is the first time actual human teeth have been found.

The ends of the teeth can be seen through the open mouth of the statue (they’re rather impressively white and even, too), but it wasn’t until restorers X-rayed the head to determine its conservation needs that they saw that they were full adult teeth complete with roots. According to Fanny Unikel, head restorer of INAH’s Restoration Workshop of Polychrome Sculpture of the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museology (ENCRyM), the teeth were probably donations made by devout parishioners, a practice seen frequently with far less painful materials like hair for wigs or clothing. Had they been saintly relics, they would have been displayed on their own and highlighted for people to revere.

The dental implant Christ is one of a group of 17th and 18th century statues of the saints belonging to the church of San Bartolo Cuautlalpan, a farming community in the central Mexico municipality of Zumpango. They have major condition problems — missing parts, termite and rodent damage, multiple layers of overpainting obscuring the original paint, bad previous repair attempts, thick coatings of hardened eggs and baby oil used by the parishioners to polish the statues — and have undergone an extensive program of restoration this year.

Saint Bartholomew, Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and Our Lady of Sorrows were all in significantly worse condition than the Christ of Patience. He may be drenched in blood and have bone-deep gouges in the flesh of his cheek and knee, but over the centuries he was always covered in clothing and only taken out for the Holy Week procession. The other statues have carved clothes and appear on saint days and other religious events; some spent time in a warehouse where they were at the mercy of vermin and less than ideal climactic conditions. Our Lady of Sorrows has a very rare mechanical element — her hands could be raised to her face as if she were crying — that hasn’t worked in years. In order to examine her insides with the aim of repairing the mechanism, restorers had to give her a CT scan because X-rays couldn’t see through the layer of lead paint, one of eight layers of overpainting just on this one statue.

Compared to his mother’s travails, Jesus has had it relatively easy. After examining the statue closely and X-raying to determine any internal damage, restorers found his structure is sound. The statue was cleaned and some areas of paint loss on the torso, sandal, legs and soles of the feet were filled in using a technique called rigatino which lays stripes of several hues in short brush strokes that from a distance blend in with the original painting but that do not attempt to disguise the fact that restoration was done. The platform on which Christ of Patience sits had been overpainted in a tragic beige. Restorers were able to remove it and reveal the reds and greens of the original polychrome.

There are some lovely gruesome views of the statue in this Spanish-language video featuring restorer Fanny Unikel talking about the teeth, the statue’s excellent condition and restoration.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

World’s oldest eel dies at 155 in Swedish well

Sat, 2014-08-09 22:35

Sweden is in mourning today over the death of the world’s oldest eel. Åle the eel was around 155 years old when he left a country bereft, a prodigious age for the European eel Anguilla anguilla which in the wild typically lives around seven years in fresh water before returning to the ocean to spawn and die. They can be very long-lived, though. The oldest recorded wild eel was 85 years old.

Åle was put in the well in the fishing village of Brantevik on the southeastern tip of Sweden by eight-year-old Samuel Nilsson in 1859. This was a common practice in a time when running water was rare (Stockholm only got public water mains in the 1850s; it took more than a century after that for waterworks to be installed in smaller towns) and a good eel could keep the home’s water supply free of bugs, worms, eggs, algae and any other number of critters. European eels will even eat carrion, so they’re extremely helpful additions to a well.

This particular eel has been a star for close to a hundred years, garnering articles in the paper, TV news stories and documentaries, even making an appearance in the Swedish Tom Sawyer, Bombi Bitt and I written by Fritiof Nilsson Piraten in 1932. Thomas Kjellman, current owner of the cottage, remembers Åle from when he was a boy. His family bought the house in 1962 with the understanding that the eel came with the property.

Last Tuesday, Kjellman lifted the lid off the well to show his famous eel to guests when he discovered Åle was no more. He had fallen apart, in fact, which must have put a bit of a damper on the annual crayfish party. They had to drain the well in order to recover the delicate remains which are being kept in the freezer until eel expert Dr. Håkan Wickström comes to pick them up. He will then take them to a laboratory in Stockholm for a necropsy.

Although the body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well. Rings in the otolith, or ear stone, of the eel would reveal its exact age.

The Kjellman family will have to take solace in the fact that they have a backup superannuated eel. Their other well eel, currently unnamed, is only about 110 years old.

You can catch a glimpse of Åle in his rather depressing well home/dungeon at 2:39 in the following video. You can see him in all his big-eyed glory (reportedly a result of a century spent in near constant darkness) when they bring him up into the light starting at 4:00.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Fri, 2014-08-08 22:25

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Plough turns up rare Pictish symbol stone

Thu, 2014-08-07 22:05



In May of last year, a farmer ploughing a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland, encountered an intriguing obstacle. The landowner reported to the authorities that he had “broken his plough on a rather large stone with some sort of carving on one side,” but he was underestimating it. The solid pink granite stone actually has carvings on two sides, which makes it rare, and those sides are adjacent, which may make it unique.

Experts found that the boulder, which is nearly five and a half feet long and weighs almost 1,500 pounds, is a Class I Pictish Symbol Stone, meaning it’s an unshaped stone incised with symbols but no cross. This is the earliest type of symbol stone, and the Dandaleith Stone may date to as early as 500 A.D. The symbols on one face are an eagle with a crescent and V-rod underneath it. On the adjacent face there’s a mirror case symbol (a circle atop a rectangle) with a notch rectangle and Z-rod symbol underneath.

The symbols have been typed and categorized from the 350 or so stones that have been found, but experts still don’t know what they mean or how the stones were used. One theory is that the symbols represent a kind of heraldry for important families. The stones could have been grave markers (although archaeological evidence of burials associated with Pictish Symbol Stones is sparse) or perhaps boundary markers. For more information about the Picts and the symbol carvings, see Historic Scotland’s dedicated website.

Dr David Clarke, former Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, said: “The presence of two sets of symbols on a single stone is itself a very unusual feature relative to the corpus of symbol-bearing stones, but the presence of two sets of symbols on adjacent faces may be unique. The corresponding orientation of the sets of symbols is also a very unusual feature.”

The stone was declared a Treasure Trove following its discovery, and was reported to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS), who act as the regional archaeology service for Moray Council. Claire Herbert, regional archaeologist at ACAS, said: “Members of the public regularly contact the Archaeology Service about artefacts they have found, but the reporting of the Dandaleith Stone was something truly unexpected, a real rarity. I would like to thank the ploughman and landowner for reporting their find to us, and for their continued help and cooperation.

“To our knowledge, this is a truly unique find which has the potential to alter our understanding of Pictish Symbol Stones. We are privileged to be involved in the continued protection of such a wonderful object.”

As per the Treasure Trove law, once an object is declared treasure, the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP) determines which of the interested museums will be allocated the artifact and what sum it will pay the finder as an ex gratia payment. The amount of the payment is determined by how much it would cost to purchase an equivalent object on the antiquities market. In March of this year, the SAFAP allocated the Dandaleith Stone to the Elgin Museum which is just 15 miles north of Dandaleith.

While the museum raises the funds for the payment, display and transportation of this large and heavy piece of granite, the stone is being conserved and documented at Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Edinburgh.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mystery of skeleton in Penn Museum basement solved

Wed, 2014-08-06 22:56

A skeleton kept in an old wooden box in the basement of Philadelphia’s Penn Museum has regained his history, and what an illustrious one it is. Curator of the museum’s Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge knew the skeleton was there, one of 2,000 complete skeletons in the collection, but it had no catalog card or any other identifying marks. It might have remained a mystery skeleton forever had it not been for one of my favorite things: an ambitious digitization project.

In 2012, the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked on a collaborative mission to digitize all the artifacts, photographs, archives, maps, notes and other documents from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur, now in southern Iraq, from 1922 and 1934. The 12 years of excavations were joint expeditions of the British Museum and the Penn Museum. As was common archaeological practice at the time, half of what they unearthed remained in country, while the other half was split evenly between the two institutions. Funded with a $1.28 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations will digitally reunite all the products of these seminal digs and make high resolution images of every pot fragment, cuneiform tablet, archaeological layer map, bull-headed lyre, etc. available for free in an online database.

Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager, encountered in the course of his work some division lists recording which items were sent to Philadelphia and which to London. It was the list for the 1929-1930 dig season (a fateful season during which Katharine Woolley invited Agatha Christie to visit the dig where she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan) that caught his eye.

It said that the Penn Museum would receive, among other items, one tray of “mud of the flood” and two “skeletons.” Further research into the Museum’s object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed “pre-flood” and found in a stretched position, was recorded as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.

Exploring the extensive records Woolley kept, Hafford was able to find additional information and images of the missing skeleton, including Woolley himself painstakingly removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling. When he queried Dr. Monge about it, she had no record of such a skeleton in her basement storage—but noted that there was a “mystery” skeleton in a box.

When the box was opened later that day, it was clear that this was the same skeleton in Woolley’s field records, preserved and now reunited with its history.

The fact that he’s garnered the nickname “Noah” is a hint of that history. The skeleton is 6,500 years old, 2,000 years older than the remains found in the more glamorous Royal Cemetery of Ur. Woolley found it in Pit F, a trench he dug 50 feet deep under the surface of the archaeological site of Ur. When he reached 40 feet down, he countered a thick layer of water-lain silt that became known as the “flood layer.” This was the find that provided evidence of a great flood, not the world-destroying flood that would thousands of years later be described in the Biblical story of Noah, but a major local disaster that submerged Ur when it was an island surrounded by marshes. People regrouped after the flood, rebuilding Ur and burying their dead, but the story of the flood became legend and was incorporated in literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Woolley kept digging underneath the flood layer and found 48 graves from the Ubaid period (5,500 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.). The Penn skeleton had been buried with ten pottery vessels at his feet in a grave dug into the silt, which indicates he had survived the flood.

Thanks to Woolley’s conscientious method of excavation and preservation — coating the skeleton and the soil around it in wax then covering it in plaster of Paris to keep it safe during the journey — Noah will be a great boon to research on this early period of Ur. Modern technology may be able to reveal much about his life, diet, health, perhaps cause of death, maybe even some DNA given the good condition of his teeth. Not much is known about the Ubaid period, so this research could fill in a great many blanks. And let’s not forget the silt. Archaeologists are learning amazing things from context soil nowadays.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Faces of medieval Scotland

Tue, 2014-08-05 22:59

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four schoolboys find 4,300-year-old gold ornament

Mon, 2014-08-04 22:04

A group of boys seven to ten years old from Alston Primary School in Cumbria discovered a rare gold ornament from the Copper Age on an archaeological dig in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland. The ornament is a thin oval sheet of gold 1.3 inches long rolled into a semi-cylinder with two rows of repoussé dots along the outer perimeter and two parallel lines in the center crossing the width of the piece. On the rolled edge between the two lines is a long, thin tab also bordered in repoussé dots.

It’s not certain how they were meant to be worn. Called tress rings, they may have been hair tresses, worn wrapped around a braid or lock of hair. They’ve also been labeled “basket earrings” (because they look like the kind of curved edge basket ladies in period movies use to collect flowers from a garden) and may have been worn with the tab inserted into a piercing and then wrapped around the outside of the semi-cylinder. They would have hugged the outside of the ear like modern ear cuffs do.

Aidan Bell (10), Luca Alderson (8), his brother Sebastian Alderson (10) and Joseph Bell (7) learned about the area’s Copper Age history in school and through a brilliant program called Dreaming the Land that draws on local archaeology and folklore and involves the children through art work and performance. That inspired them to participate in a community dig organized by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Altogether Archaeology project (which also organized Dreaming the Land), and next thing you know, they struck gold.

Seven-year-old Joseph Bell, one of the four boys to make the discovery, said: “We were digging carefully in the ground and I saw something shiny, it was gold. Me and Luca started dancing with joy. It was very exciting.” His friend, eight-year-old Luca Alderson, added: “When I first saw it I felt happy but I thought it was plastic. When I found out it was gold, I was very happy.”

As well he should be. Not only is it gold, but at around 4,300 years old, it’s one of the earliest metal objects ever discovered in the UK and one of only 10 similar pieces known. One of those other nine was also unearthed at Kirkhaugh in 1935. It was found in a burial mound along with a decorated ceramic drinking vessel known as a beaker, the type artifact for and the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Beaker Culture of western Europe, and a “cushion stone,” a flat-faced stone used as an anvil for crafting gold and copper.

The recently discovered piece was also found in a burial mound, this time accompanied by three flint arrowheads and a jet button. In a beautiful fluke of history, brothers Sebastian and Luca Alderson are the great-great-grandsons of Joseph William Alderson who worked on the 1935 dig. The newfound ornament and the 1935 one have the same decoration and dimensions. Archaeologists believe they are a matched pair and because of the cushion stone found in 1935, probably the work of professional metalworkers exploring the area for its mineable resources, the first in a long line of people who would seek to exploit the area’s richness in precious ores.

[Altogether Archaeology leader Paul] Frodsham said: “When the metal worker arrived in the area I’m sure he’ll have been seen as someone very exotic and special because the chances are that no-one here will have ever seen a metal object until he showed up. We can only assume he was buried here, alone, because he was a long way from home and died unexpectedly.”

Prof. Fitzparick Andrew added: “I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the grave it is on the edge of the Alston ore field. I think the man buried at Kirkhaugh was part of a small group that was prospecting for copper over 4,000 years ago.”

The ornament and other artifacts will be studied by experts, after which the gold piece will hopefully be reunited with its 1935 brother currently on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

WWI flamethrower excavation and reconstruction

Sun, 2014-08-03 22:07


In 2010, a team of archaeologists excavated the muddy fields of Montagne de Cappy, a mile south of Mametz in the Somme department of northern France, looking for the remains of the last Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, a 56-foot-long, 2.5 ton flamethrower invented by Royal Engineers officer William Howard Livens to shoot a 300-foot wall of fire across the German trenches. The British built four of these complex machines for use on the first day of the Battle of Somme (July 1, 1916). Two were put out of commission by German shells before the battle. The other two were deployed and successfully cleared the German lines, allowing the British forces to penetrate well into German territory while everywhere else along the front lines the stalemate persisted.

Because they were so unwieldy and unusable when the lines were moving, the British only deployed the projector one more time in 1917. They apparently gave a few to the Russians as well, but none have survived that we know of. The archaeologists digging in Montagne de Cappy hoped to find one of the two that were shelled by the Germans on June 28th, 1916. They researched the location thoroughly, turning to diaries, trench maps, aerial photographs and ground penetrating radar to narrow down the possible spot.

When I wrote about the project a week before excavations began, I didn’t realize that Time Team, Channel Four’s capsule archaeological dig program, were filming the dig as well as building an experimental reconstruction of the Livens projector. The episode covers the background history of the invention, the 2010 Montagne de Cappy excavation and the Royal Engineers’ reconstruction of a Livens projector using modern materials. The result is flaming hot drama.

In part one of the episode, we see William Livens’ personal story, the invention is described, the location explained via trench maps and excavations begin. The tunnel that collapsed onto the Livens flamethrower was called Sap 14 and the team soon find some timbers that may be an entrance to it.

The next section focuses on the excavation. The search for the flame projector stalls a little, but they still find lots of artifacts — glass jars, bullets, a toothbrush, a jam tin — that illuminate life in the trenches. Around the 10:30 mark, the first flamethrower-related artifact is unearthed, a tool used to assemble the projector on site. More tools are found and then finally a piece from the Livens device itself: a valve.

When the part is recovered, it’s in such good condition that they can still turn the valve. Archaeologists then excavate a 30-foot stretch of wooden roof and walls from Sap 14. You can see when they dig down that thick, watery clay soil that caused so many problems for the Royal Engineers to tunnel through. This is where the Manchester sewer builders with their clay-kicking technique came in to play. Incidentally, historian Peter Barton, author of a book about the tunneling companies who discovered the photographs of the Manchester sewer workers, is part of the Montagne de Cappy excavation team.

This last video shows the discovery of a key piece of the Livens projector and the experimental model in action. Step back from the screen or risk frying off your eyebrows.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History