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Rare ancient nilometer found in Nile Delta

Thu, 2016-05-19 03:51

Workers digging a water pump station in the ancient city of Thmuis discovered an ancient nilometer, a structure used to determine the water level of the Nile River. A team of American and Egyptian archaeologists from the University of Hawaii and the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies have excavated the find and believe it dates to the 3rd century B.C. when Thmuis was an important city under the Ptolemies. Fewer than two dozen ancient nilometers have been found in Egypt, making this a very rare find.

Thmuis, near the present-day city of El-Mansoura in Lower Egypt’s Nile Delta, flourished as port city from the 4th to 1st century B.C. It became the regional capital of the nome of Kha when the course of the Nile shifted from Mendes, a famous city in antiquity which had briefly been the capital of Egypt in the early 4th century B.C. under the reign of 29th Dynasty Pharaoh Nepherites. Located just half a kilometer north of Thmuis, in the 4th and 3rd centuries Mendes began to lose population as its branch of the Nile silted over and the river that was the lifeblood of Egypt moved to Thmuis. The people followed the Nile, abandoning the ancient capital for the new one.

Situated on an eastern branch of the Nile next to Daqahliyyah Lake bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, Thmuis became an important hub of agriculture, trade and religion in the region. In the Roman era, it was of significant military importance as well. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported in The Wars of the Jews that Titus, son of the new emperor Vespasian, brought his legions to Thmuis on a fleet of long ships. He moored the ships there and marched across the Sinai Peninsula to Cesarea before laying siege to Jerusalem in early 70 A.D. during the First Jewish–Roman War.

In December of 2012, an archaeological team sponsored by the National Geographic Society began excavating an area of Thmuis where monumental architectural features, possibly the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-246 B.C.) for his sister-wife Arsinoë II, had been discovered a few years earlier. The temple complex was on the banks of the Nile. Archaeologists believe the nilometer was part of this temple. Its discovery confirms that the Nile channel ran along the western side of Thmuis.

Priests used the nilometer to predict the extent of the annual flooding of the Nile.

Made from large limestone blocks, the nilometer was a circular well roughly eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter with a staircase leading down into its interior. Either a channel would have connected the well to the river, or it would have simply measured the water table as a proxy for the strength of the river. Seven cubits — roughly 10 feet (3.04 meters) — was the optimum height for prosperity.

“During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period,” says Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii. “If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.”

Because a weak flood meant there would be famine and an excessive one destroyed homes and drowned fields, predicting how far the waters would overflow was a matter of life and death. Thmuis residents brought offerings to the temple in the hope of winning the favor of the Nile River god. There’s a list of Greek names and associated numbers on one of the limestone blocks. Archaeologists believe they were sponsors who donated money for the construction of the nilometer.

It was in use for about 1,000 years before the course of the Nile shifted again, leaving Thmuis to suffer the depopulation that Mendes had suffered before it. Today it’s a small village, but the Nile’s ancient presence is still felt in the high water table, high enough to make it worthwhile to dig the well that unearthed the nilometer.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman fort built after Boudiccan revolt found in London

Wed, 2016-05-18 02:40

A Roman fort built in London in the aftermath of the Boudiccan uprising is shedding new light on this little-known period in the development of the capital. The site, on the edge of the early town 750 feet or so northeast of Roman-era London Bridge, was excavated by experts from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) between 1997 and 2003. They found a fort built over the ruins of commercial and residential structures destroyed in the revolt of 60/61 A.D.

Londinium was still a smaller city at the time of the uprising. It was founded after the Roman conquest of 43 A.D. so it was less than 20 years old and wasn’t an official colony yet when it fell to Boudicca. Thanks to the Thames and its direct line to maritime trade, Londinium was a growing concern with enough wealth to make it an appealing target for the Iceni. When he realized they were coming, the governor of Britannia, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, decided his scant troops could not successfully defend the city so it was better to sacrifice London and live to fight another day. He left, taking his army with him and the residents to the not-so-tender mercies of Boudicca. From Tacitus’ Annals 14:33:

Those who were chained to the spot by the weakness of their sex, or the infirmity of age, or the attractions of the place, were cut off by the enemy. Like ruin fell on the town of Verulamium, for the barbarians, who delighted in plunder and were indifferent to all else, passed by the fortresses with military garrisons, and attacked whatever offered most wealth to the spoiler, and was unsafe for defence. About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance.

Londinium was devastated. It was still in ruins in around 63 A.D. when the fort was built. It’s likely the fort’s aim wasn’t solely defense, but also to serve as a base for reconstruction efforts. From its size, it would have held between 500 and 800 soldiers.

Our excavations at Plantation Place for British Land on Fenchurch Street in the City of London exposed a section of a rectangular fort that covered 3.7 acres. The timber and earthwork fort had 3 metre high banks reinforced with interlacing timbers and faced with turves and a timber wall. Running atop the bank was a ‘fighting platform’ fronted by a colossal palisade, with towers positioned at the corners of the gateways. This formidable structure was enclosed by double ditches, 1.9 and 3m deep, forming an impressive obstacle for would be attackers.

Archaeologists unearthed a number of military artifacts from the site — plate armor, spears, shields, harness fittings, a partial cavalry helmet — as well as construction tools including a pick axe and hammer. They also found evidence of roads, storage facilities, a granary, a latrine, cookhouse, etc. within the fort precinct. The barracks appear to have been tents, however, not permanent buildings, and the fort was only in active use for a decade. Unlike later forts, this one was a temporary installation meant to help rebuild the city and keep the residents secure.

The fort is of great significant despite its impermanence because it is a strong indication that the Romans had picked Londinium to be the new capital. The previous provincial capital, Camulodunum, aka Colchester, does not appear to have had a similar fort built in the wake of its destruction by Boudicca. London was a practical choice. Unlike Colchester, London had easy access to the sea, ocean-going ships could go directly to the city via the Thames, and the city was new, not founded by potentially troublesome British tribes. Troops stationed at the fort provided much-needed labour and engineering expertise to rebuild roads, docks and buildings.

The Plantation Place fort was dismantled around 85 A.D. and the land it had occupied was built over with new development. Much of that was felled in the raging fire of 145 A.D., after which the area welcomed a new masonry townhouse. A hoard of gold coins was hidden in the basement around 174 A.D.

The full research on the Plantation Place fort has been published in An Early Roman Fort and Urban Development on Londinium’s Eastern Hill, now for sale in the museum shop and available for pre-order on Amazon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rome subway build finds Praetorian guard barracks

Tue, 2016-05-17 05:45

Construction of Rome’s third subway line, Metro Line C, has made a sensational discovery: the remains of a 2nd century Praetorian Guard barracks. Thirty feet under Via Ipponio between the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran in the historic center of Rome, the barracks cover an astonishing 1,753 square meters (18,870 square feet) of surface area (ed note: the AP story says it’s 900 sq meters, but all of the Italian press reports the larger figure so I’m going with their data), and that’s just what’s been exposed thus far. They were built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), only to be demolished just over a century later during construction of the Aurelian Walls (271-275 A.D.). The demolition was thankfully half-assed, leaving impressive ruins — the walls are up to five feet high — which were then buried.

There are 39 rooms, each four by four meters (13 x 13 feet), that open onto a central hallway. Some of the rooms, likely the officers’ quarters, are richly decorated with mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The bricks in the walls bear the stamp of the imperial kilns from 123 and 136 A.D., which is how the structure was dated. There’s also a mass grave on the site. So far 13 skeletons have been excavated from it and a few artifacts including a bronze coin and a bronze bracelet.

A number of military remains have been discovered in the neighborhood. Under St. John in Lateran is the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium (built under Septimius Severus, ca. 200 A.D.), a couple of blocks northeast under Via Tasso is the Castra Priora Equitum Singularium (Trajan, ca. 100 A.D.), and west of that near the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo is the Castra Peregrina (Augustus, 1st century A.D.).

Work on Metro Line C began in 2007 and has been beset by funding problems, corruption scandals and wonderful but expensive and time-consuming archaeological discoveries. While the subway tunnels themselves have been dug 80 feet below the surface to avoid hitting constant ancient roadblocks, the new stations can’t avoid bumping into thousand of years of history. The barracks site was discovered during construction of the Amba Aradam station and the city authorities tried to keep the news under wraps to avoid having to announce work on the line was suspended yet again.

The newspaper Il Tempo broke the news of the find last Wednesday, publishing a story complete with quotations from a letter about the find written by Francesco Prosperetti, Special Superintendent for the Archaeological Area of Rome. In the letter Prosperetti describes the discovery as exceptional and in such a good state of conservation that it would not be possible to pursue the idea of dismantling it, finishing construction and then rebuilding the structure in its original context. The barracks complex is so large it occupies the entire southern half of the station and extends beyond it. The northern half of the station is also replete with archaeological remains that haven’t been explored so it’s not known at the moment what they are or the impact they’ll have. As for how so large and complete an ancient structure could have been missed by preventative archaeology done on the site before construction began, Prosperetti notes that archaeologists took core samples which pointed to ancient boundaries under a massive modern structure, but they were buried so deep underground it wasn’t possible to explore them in the preliminary stages.

The subway company now has to figure out how to proceed, and however they go about this, it’s likely going to cost time and money. Metro Line C is already the most expensive subway construction project in history. In a press conference Monday, Prosperetti gave assurances that both the great archaeological importance of the find and the Metro budget and deadlines would be respected. The plan is to integrate the ruins into the station, creating the first fully fledged “archaeological station” in Rome, all without extra expense or delays. If that sounds less than entirely believable to you, that’s because it is.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Conscientious objector graffiti to be preserved

Mon, 2016-05-16 03:46

Hundreds of graffiti on left on the walls of Richmond Castle by conscientious objectors during World War I will be preserved by English Heritage, thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Richmond Castle was built a few years after the Battle of Hastings by the Alan Rufus, a relative of William the Conqueror’s and the 1st Lord of Richmond. The remains of a hall block from the 1080s still stand, the most surviving 11th century architecture of any castle in England. In 1854 the Duke of Richmond leased the castle, many parts of it now derelict, to the North York Militia. Barracks were constructed against the western wall and a reserve armory built near the castle gate.

It was the 19th century armory which was put to use in World War I as a prison for conscientious objectors after conscription began in 1916. The castle was occupied by the northern Non-Combatant Corps, a support unit which allowed people with religious or moral objections to killing to serve in non-combatant roles. That didn’t work for all the objectors, 16 of whom wanted no part of the war effort, combatant or no. In theory the conscription law had a “conscience clause” which allowed people with pacifist religious beliefs to be exempt from combat, but in practice exemptions were very hard to come by. Even members of a church denomination like the Quakers which had strictly upheld the principle of non-violence for hundreds of years at times under extreme persecution and duress, faced arrest and imprisonment.

The Richmond Sixteen included people from different Christian denominations — Quakers, Methodists, International Bible Students (renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931) — and socialists. They were kept in eight small, damp cells on two floors of the old armory. Often they were forced to subsist on bread and water. They kept their spirits up by singing, discussing religion and politics, playing chess through a hole in the wall and decorating the walls that confined them with hundreds of graffiti. There are Bible verses, portraits of loved ones, hymns, political statements, a calendar and more.

The Richmond Sixteen were moved from the castle on May 29th, 1916, to a military camp near Boulogne in France. As soon as they stepped foot on the camp, they were officially considered on active duty, which meant they would be subject to harsh military justice should they refuse to follow orders. Since everyone knew they weren’t going to follow any orders, the move to France was basically a gun to their head. When they declined to schlep supplies at the dock when ordered, they were court-martialed, found guilty and “sentenced to suffer death by being shot.” Their sentences were quickly commuted to 10 years’ hard labour.

It turned out that Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had issued a secret order that none of the conscientious objectors in France were to be shot. He didn’t want them dead; he wanted people to think the military wouldn’t hesitate to shoot COs to death as a deterrent to anyone else thinking of asking for an exemption from service.

When the COs were shipped back to England, they had sentences to serve in civil prisons and work centers. For the rest of the war the Richmond Sixteen busted up rocks in a quarry near Aberdeen where the local newspapers referred to them as “degenerates.” When they were finally released, the “conscies” were widely reviled as cowards and treated with contempt. Finding a job and a place to live was a huge challenge.

The graffiti they left on the walls of their Richmond Castle cells has survived for a hundred years, but conditions have been as unkind to it as people were to their creators. The 19th century armory was built lime-washed walls that were never intended to last. Water is leaking in through cracks in the roof and walls. Salts in the lime react to moisture, crystallizing and lifting the lime layer off the wall behind. As the lime flakes off, it takes the graffiti with it.

The Buildings Conservation and Research Team at Historic England have been studying the site since 2014, documenting temperature and humidity levels, analyzing the walls and wash, pinpointing the most threatened areas. They have laser scanned the walls and captured the graffiti with high resolution photographs. They didn’t have the funding to do the necessary repairs and conservation until this year. From 2016 to 2018, English Heritage will spend £365,400 to repair the roof and walls, stop the water penetration and treat the graffiti in greatest danger. Once the walls have been stabilized enough to ensure people’s breath won’t harm the artwork, the cells will be open to the general public for the first time in 30 years.

For more information about the Richmond Sixteen, the graffiti and the castle, see English Heritage’s website. Here are two short videos they made with fine shots of the interior.

Conserving the graffiti:

Inside the cells:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Thomas Jefferson’s hair sells for $491 a strand

Sun, 2016-05-15 12:38

The first lock of hair from the head of third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson ever to be offered at public auction sold on Saturday, May 14th, for $6,875 including the buyer’s premium. You might think for that amount you’d get traditional tuft of hair, maybe tied in a ribbon or encased in a velvet-lined box, but no. There are precisely 14 reddish hairs in this lot, held in a glassine envelope. They look like he got some tape stuck on his hair and had to pull it off losing a few in the process.

The ownership history of these hairs is well documented with a clear connection to Thomas Jefferson, which is why they sold at more than double the pre-sale estimate of $3,000, already a princely sum for 14 hairs. Locks of hair were common keepsakes in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several of Thomas Jefferson’s are extant. None of them are known to have been sold at auction before, however. The first owner of the hairs (save for Jefferson himself when they were attached to his scalp) was Doctor Robley Dunglison who was very close to Jefferson in the last year and a half of his life.

Robley Dunglison was an English doctor trained as a general practitioner and obstetrician. He was working at the Eastern Dispensary in Whitechapel, London, in 1824 when he met Francis Walker Gilmer, a lawyer and friend of Thomas Jefferson’s and the first chair of law at the University of Virginia. The university had been founded in 1817 and was just about to open its doors to students (the first class would meet on March 7th, 1825), but first they had to find some professors. Jefferson commissioned Gilmer to recruit faculty in Britain. Gilmer offered Dunglison a positioning heading the anatomy and medicine department and Dunglison accepted, in no small part because it gave him the wherewithal to marry his sweetheart Harriette Leadam. They married on October 5th, 1824, and on October 27th they set sail for Virginia.

By the terms of his contract with UVA, Dunglison was prohibited from establishing a private practice which made him the first professional full-time professor of medicine in the United States. There was one exception: he was allowed to treat Thomas Jefferson who was by then 81 and in very poor health. For most of his life Jefferson had avoided doctors, believing most illnesses naturally sorted themselves out. He explored his thinking on the subject in an 1807 letter to Dr. Caspar Wistar, the country’s foremost anatomist and professor of anatomy, midwifery, and surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.

As far as Jefferson was concerned, physicians were more often than not ill-informed quacks randomly experimenting on patients only to worsen the problem, delay the healing and/or take credit for any improvement that would have happened anyway if they’d just been left alone. “I believe we may safely affirm that the inexperienced and presumptuous band of medical tyros let loose upon the world destroys more of human life in one year than all the Robinhoods, Cartouches, and Macheaths do in a century,” he wrote. (Cartouche was the nickname of the famous highwayman Louis Dominique Bourguignon who stole from the rich and gave to the poor in early 18th century France. He was captured and executed by breaking on the wheel in 1721.)

Jefferson thought enough of the young Dunglison to overcome his reluctance. Dunglison first treated him for an obstructive uropathy, probably caused by an enlarged prostate, by passing a bougie. Jefferson paid close attention, taking notes on the remedies Dunglison recommended and learning how to pass the bougie himself. After that bonding experience, Dunglison became Jefferson’s personal physician and was a frequent visitor at Monticello from then on and was at Jefferson’s deathbed on the Fourth of July, 1826.

The lock the 14 hairs came from passed from Dr. Robley Dunglison to his son Dr. Richard J. Dunglison, editor of the first five American editions of Gray’s Anatomy. It was then passed down to his step-son Charles Ferry Fisher, a librarian of the Philadelphia College of Physicians. Most of the lock was donated to the college along with other Robley Dunglison artifacts, but they kept a few of the hairs. Those few hairs were eventually acquired by autograph dealer Charles Hamilton.

A 1929 affidavit from Charles Ferry Fisher attesting to the provenance of the hairs was included with the lot, as is another letter from Charles Hamilton confirming its authenticity. It’s not known when the lock was snipped. Since it’s still the reddish hair of Jefferson’s younger days — he was fully grey by the time of his death — Dr. Dunglison was likely given it to remember his most famous patient by rather than taking it himself.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New detailed 3D sonar image of Agnes E. Fry

Sat, 2016-05-14 06:34

When side scan sonar found the wreck of an iron-hulled Civil War steamer off Oak Island, North Carolina, on February 27th, 2016, researchers from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology identified it as one of three blockade runners known to have gone down in the area: the Agnes E. Fry, the Spunkie or the Georgianna McCaw. The measurements of the wreck suggested it was the Agnes E. Fry. The remains are 225 feet long, the Fry 236 feet long. The other two candidates were significantly smaller.

Archaeologists were hoping to get a conclusive identification when divers explored the site in March, but the currents were very active and visibility was consistently bad, maxing out at 18 inches on a good day. Divers were able to recover a few artifacts — a deck light, a coal sample and what appears to be the handle of a homemade knife — but nothing with a name. Still, the sonar and diving data clearly matched what we know about the Fry. Contemporary documents report that the two engines and paddlewheel were salvaged from the Fry. The engines and paddlewheel are missing from this wreck. At least one boiler is still in place, and it is of a newer type than McCaw or Spunkie were equipped with. The hull design is also more modern than the two other lost blockade runners. Damage to the bow and stern explains the small discrepancy in dimensions between the wreck and the Agnes E. Fry before it sank.

According to Billy Ray Morris, Deputy State Archaeologist and director of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, there are also references from the US Life Saving Service to this wreck being the Fry as late as the 1920s. Morris is “99.99% positive” on the wreck being the Fry, which is as convinced as anyone of a scientific bent can be.

The discovery made international news which spurred Capt. J.D. Thomas of the Charlotte Fire Department Special Operations/EMS Command to offer the Underwater Archaeology Branch the use of a state-of-the-art 3D sonar device provided by Nautilus Marine Group International, plus a team of experienced search and rescue divers to work with the maritime archaeologists. The 3D sonar technology allowed the team make a complete, highly accurate, multi-dimensional map of the wreck in days no matter how murky the waters. It also detects details that the side scanning sonar missed. This was the first 3D sonar imaging was used to scan a shipwreck site in North Carolina.

The results of the scan were combined into a sonar mosaic which shows the wreck in exceptional detail and high resolution. The Underwater Archaeology Branch has released the composite image complete with labels identifying the different parts of the ship and Billy Ray Morris was kind enough to send me a beautifully huge version of the mosaic.

Here’s the original side scan sonar image, just for comparison.

Quite a difference, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see this technology widely applied to maritime archaeology.

The Agnes E. Fry was built and launched on the Clyde in Scotland in 1864. It was initially named the Fox, but Captain Joseph Fry renamed it after his beloved wife (and first cousin; their mothers were sisters), Agnes Evelina Fry, nee Sands. Captain Fry had had an illustrious career in the US Navy. He reluctantly resigned his commission when the Civil War broke out despite believing in the principle of the Union because he could not stand to fight against his home state of Louisiana and his family and friends. His skills as a naval captain were put to use in the Confederate Navy.

In the Spring of 1864, he was sent to Scotland to pick up the new ship. He stopped in neutral Bermuda for supplies for the Confederacy and returned with his much-needed cargo to North Carolina where he tried seven times to get it through the Union blockade of Wilmington with no success. He finally broke through and on November 10th, 1864, wrote to his wife:

Many vessels have arrived here since I first left Bermuda, and it is also true that many have been lost trying to get in. God has watched over our safety, and prospered us wonderfully. I have been chased over and over again;… have had the yellow fever on board; have headed for the bar about seven times in vain. … I never was so happy in my life as when I at last arrived, and thought I should be with you in three or four days; nor so miserable as when I found they wanted me to try and go out again immediately, by which I lose my chance of coming home. But I am bound to do it. I am complimented on having the finest ship that ever came in, named, too, after her whom I love more than all the world beside. The owners are my personal friends, and are pledged to take care of you in my absence, or in case of my capture. She is a vessel they especially want me to command, and although I would not leave without having seen my family for twice her value, still duty requires that I should do so.

Blockade running required persistence and daring, and a strong, fast ship, all of which Joseph Fry had, but the latter not for long. The Agnes E. Fry ran aground near the mouth of the Cape Fear River on December 27th, 1864. Fry was given command of another ship in Mobile Bay until the end of the war.

Perhaps his time as a blockade runner gave him a taste for smuggling for a cause, because less than a decade after the Confederate surrender, he was commanding the steamer Virginius and bringing its cargo of rebels and weapons to Cuba to fight Spanish rule. He was captured by the Spanish before he got there and taken to Santiago de Cuba. Captain Fry and his crew were court-martialled on charges of piracy and convicted. Over the complaints of US and British officials, they were sentenced to death. On November 7th, 1873, Joseph Fry and 52 of his officers and crew were executed by firing squad in a brutally slapdash manner. A witness described the scene:

“The victims were ranged facing the wall, and at a sufficient distance from it to give them room to fall forward. Captain Fry having asked for a glass of water, one was handed him by Charles Bell, the steward of the Morning Star. Fry then walked from the end of the line to the center, and calmly awaited his fate. He was the only man who dropped dead at the first volley, notwithstanding that the firing party were but ten feet away. Then ensued a horrible scene. The Spanish butchers advanced to where the wounded men lay writhing and moaning in agony, and, placing the muzzles of their guns in some in stances into the mouths of their victims, pulled the triggers, shattering their heads into fragments. Others of the dying men grasped the weapons thrust at them with a despairing clutch, and shot after shot was poured into their bodies before, death quieted them.”

Another 93 were scheduled to be shot, but the second round of executions was interrupted by Commander Sir Lambton Lorraine of the British warship Niobe who threatened to bombard the city if they didn’t stop. The execution of Joseph Fry caused outrage in the United States. President Ulysses S. Grant gave a speech to Congress decrying it as a barbaric slaughter in violation of treaties between the countries. Fry was seen as a martyr and patriot, and while things didn’t come to blows quite yet, fury over his fate still simmered 25 years later when war finally did break out between Spain and the United States.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Egyptian coffin holds youngest known mummified fetus

Fri, 2016-05-13 03:02

A tiny ancient Egyptian coffin previously believed to hold mummified organs has been found to contain the youngest known example of a mummified fetus. Mummified fetuses are rare in the archaeological record of ancient Egypt. Two mummified fetuses in coffins were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but they were at about 25 weeks and 37 weeks gestation. This one is only 16 to 18 weeks gestation.

The coffin was excavated in Giza in 1907 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology. When the 1906-1907 dig season ended, Petrie distributed the finds to more than 20 institutions in Britain and the United States. The miniature coffin went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The cedar wood coffin is just 44 centimeters (17 inches) long. It’s a miniature version of a Late Period Egyptian coffin probably dating to between 664 and 525 B.C. The wood has deteriorated over the years, but even through the networks of deep cracks on the exterior and interior of the coffin, the quality of the carving shines. This was an expensive piece.

Inside the coffin is a bundle wrapped in linen bandages and coated in black resin that was poured over it before the lid was put in place. Because the package is so small, curators thought it contained internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. In preparation for the museum’s bicentennial exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, curators wanted to find out what exactly was in that bundle. X-rays were inconclusive but there were indications that small skeletal material might be present.

Curators turned to micro CT, scanning the bundle at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology. Fitzwilliam experts collaborated with radiologist Dr. Tom Turmezei and pediatric radiologist Dr. Owen Arthurs to examine the cross-sectional images produced by the micro CT scans. They concluded that the bundle contained the remains of a very young fetus. The fingers of both hands and toes of both feet are clearly visible, as are the long bones of the legs and arms. The skull and pelvis have collapsed, but the bones that remain allowed researchers to determine the fetus was no more than 18 weeks old. There are no signs in the surviving bones to explain why the fetus was miscarried.

The long bones of the arms are crossed over the chest, which means the tiny fetus was very carefully posed in its tiny coffin. Add to that the careful mummification and elaborate decoration of the coffin, and it’s clear the fetus was of great importance to its bereaved family.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, “Using noninvasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.”

Other ancient societies, the Romans, for example, had no such care for dead babies, nevermind miscarried fetuses.

The miniature cedar coffin is now on display at the Death on the Nile exhibition, alongside some truly exquisite artifacts pertaining to Egyptian beliefs about death. It runs through May 22nd, so the clock is ticking if you want to see the exhibition. I’m including all the wonderful images of artifacts in the show that the Fitzwilliam made available to entice those of you who can make it to Cambridge and give those of us who can’t at least a taste of the marvels on display.



Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Britain’s biggest gold nugget found near shipwreck in Wales

Thu, 2016-05-12 00:05

A treasure hunter has found the largest nugget of gold ever discovered in the UK near the shipwreck of the Royal Charter off the coast of Anglesey, northwest Wales. Vincent Thurkettle was shallow diving when he spotted the nugget in a crevice about 40 meters (131 feet) from the wreck and just five meters (16 feet) from the shore. The wreck and its environs are usually covered in six feet of sand, but storms had shifted the sands and exposed the crevice in the sea bed and the chicken egg of gold nesting inside of it. At 97.12 grams (3 oz), the nugget is almost twice the weight of second biggest nugget ever found in Britain, the Carnon Nugget, which weighs 59g and was found in Cornwall in 1808. The third largest at 57.9g is the Rutherford Nugget, found in Scotland in 1869.

Built in 1855, the Royal Charter was an iron-hulled steam clipper with sails and back-up steam engines which could be used when the wind was uncooperative. Its speed and sturdiness made it the ideal ship for the challenging Liverpool-Australia route which crossed almost the entire length of the Atlantic, passing through the Cape of Good Hope, notorious for its brutal storms. The Royal Charter pulled off this crossing in fewer than 60 days, a cakewalk for the time, and thanks to the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851, there were plenty of passengers most extremely keen to get to the antipodes to try their luck in the Australian Gold Rush. The return voyage was typically replete with prospectors carrying the fruits of their panning and digging labour.

It was on one of those return trips from Australia to Liverpool that the Royal Charter, laden with a cargo of 79,000 ounces of Australian gold insured for £322,000 (worth an estimated £120 million in today’s money) plus much more carried by miner passengers, encountered a violent storm off the coast of Anglesey near the village of Moelfre. The captain decided to drop anchor in Moelfre Bay, lower the sails and shut down the engines lest the northerly winds drive the ship towards North Wales. This proved a fateful decision as it kept the ship in the middle of the roughest part of the storm. Assaulted by waves 60 feet high and winds of 100 miles per hour, the anchor chain broke and the ship was dashed onto the rocks. In the wee hours of on October 26th, 1859, the Royal Charter broke apart and sank.

One of the crew managed to get to the shore 50 yards away towing a lifeline, but a total of only 39 people — 21 passengers, 18 crew, all men — were able to use the lifeline to reach the safety of the shore. The exact number of passengers and crew is unknown but is estimated to be around 450. The passenger manifest listed 320, but people who purchased last-minute tickets weren’t listed. In the two weeks between October 25th and November 9th of that year, storms wrecked 325 ships taking 748 people down with them. The dead from the Royal Charter make up more than half of that terrible total.

The storm, which was so massive around 200 ships sank in it, became known as the “Royal Charter gale.” As a result of the tragedy, the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, which was only five years old at the time and only collected meteorological observations, was made to issue official gale warnings via the new telegraph technology to ships in British waters. The first gale warnings were issued in June of 1860.

The owners of the ship and insurance underwriters set to salvaging what they could of the Royal Charter‘s valuable cargo. When Charles Dickens visited the wreck site on New Year’s Eve, 1859, salvage operations were still ongoing. He described the wreck and the salvage he witnessed in The Uncommercial Traveller.

Even as I stood on the beach with the words ‘Here she went down!’ in my ears, a diver in his grotesque dress, dipped heavily over the side of the boat alongside the Lighter, and dropped to the bottom. On the shore by the water’s edge, was a rough tent, made of fragments of wreck, where other divers and workmen sheltered themselves, and where they had kept Christmas-day with rum and roast beef, to the destruction of their frail chimney. Cast up among the stones and boulders of the beach, were great spars of the lost vessel, and masses of iron twisted by the fury of the sea into the strangest forms. The timber was already bleached and iron rusted, and even these objects did no violence to the prevailing air the whole scene wore, of having been exactly the same for years and years. [...]

The divers were down then, and busy. They were ‘lifting’ to-day the gold found yesterday—some five-and-twenty thousand pounds. Of three hundred and fifty thousand pounds’ worth of gold, three hundred thousand pounds’ worth, in round numbers, was at that time recovered. The great bulk of the remainder was surely and steadily coming up. Some loss of sovereigns there would be, of course; indeed, at first sovereigns had drifted in with the sand, and been scattered far and wide over the beach, like sea-shells; but most other golden treasure would be found. As it was brought up, it went aboard the Tug-steamer, where good account was taken of it. So tremendous had the force of the sea been when it broke the ship, that it had beaten one great ingot of gold, deep into a strong and heavy piece of her solid iron-work: in which, also, several loose sovereigns that the ingot had swept in before it, had been found, as firmly embedded as though the iron had been liquid when they were forced there. It had been remarked of such bodies come ashore, too, as had been seen by scientific men, that they had been stunned to death, and not suffocated. Observation, both of the internal change that had been wrought in them, and of their external expression, showed death to have been thus merciful and easy.

Official salvage continued for years, and when the companies finally called it a day with about 80% of the cargo recovered, unofficial treasure hunters persisted. They continue to persist to this day. Vincent Thurkettle is a professional prospector and has been panning/diving for treasure for close to 40 years. He’s been leading teams of friends and relatives to the explore Royal Charter site for years. In 2011 he made the news for finding gold dust, nuggets, coins and 200 artifacts from the wreck. He kept mum on the big nugget, which he discovered in 2012, in order to continue to search the site without interference from the public. Also, he developed something of a Gazza Ladra love for this great find. “I had grown very fond of it,” he said. “Other pieces I’ve found before have been quartz with gold in, but this was a big lump of gold with bits of quartz in.”

Anything found close to a shipwreck by law has to be reported to the Receiver of Wreck (RoW) which then researches ownership and determines where the salvage should go. It’s not clear when Thurkettle reported it. He kept it for long enough to grow fond of it, so it seems it wasn’t immediately turned over to the Receiver. The RoW has claimed it for the crown now, which means they’ve probably had it for at least a year since the law says they’re supposed to hold on to wreck salvage for a year to give private owners a chance to claim it.

The nugget is currently stashed in a safe place before it finds a new home in a museum. Thurkettle will have to content himself with a salvage award and the same visitation rights the rest of the public will get when the nugget goes on display.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

NPG acquires rare album of photos by Victorian pioneer

Wed, 2016-05-11 03:23

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a rare album of albumen prints by Victorian photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander, a pioneer of art photography and photomontage. The album contains 70 photographs of known and unknown people taken in the mid-1800s. They include portraits of Rejlander, his wife Mary, Hallam Tennyson, son of Lord Alfred Tennyson, poet and essayist Sir Henry Taylor, a number of unknown sitters and models representing allegorical themes like prayer, sadness and painting. Copies of some of the portraits in the album are in museums and private collections, but most of them were previously unknown to scholarship.

Born in Sweden around 1813, Rejlander trained as a painter in Rome and moved to England where he opened a portrait photography studio in 1850. In addition to the portraits of moneyed clients, Rejlander photographed street kids and prostitutes, some of whom modeled for his allegorical works. His experiments with techniques like double-exposure and photomontage were cutting edge and one of them, an allegory called The Two Ways of Life which shows two young men presented with views of the virtuous and decadent life, made him famous. He combined 32 of his own negatives in that one montage; it took him six weeks to complete. The nudity on the sinful side caused some pearl-clutching, but Queen Victoria, who we now know had a keen appreciation for the carnal pleasures of marriage, liked it so much she bought a copy to give to Prince Albert. His innovations in the field earned him the title the father of art of photography.

It’s not known who compiled the album. It was part of the estate of Surgeon Commander Herbert Ackland Browning whose father was connected by marriage to Dr. Marsters Kendal, surgeon to the future King Edward VII. Annotations in the album indicate the album was lent to the Prince of Wales, so it’s possible it came though Dr. Kendal directly from the artist who, according to one of the notes in the album, at first refused to sell until the buyer offered “£2.2.0 for the Swedish poor.” It remained in the Browning family for 140 years, unpublished and unrecognized, until they put it up for auction in 2014.

The album was sold by Morphets of Harrogate on September 11, 2014, for a hammer price of £70,000 ($101,000) to a Canadian buyer. In February of 2015, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the album because its significance to the history of photography and 19th century art. Christopher Wright of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), the body that made the recommendation that the export license not be immediately granted, explains the album’s unique historical import:

Rejlander was one of the most popular photographers of his day, famous for pioneering combination prints and for his illustrations in Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This particular album, a rare survival, is known to have been shown to both Pope Pius IX and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), who was an enthusiastic collector of his work.

The NPG already had 10 photographs by Rejlander in its collection, but the addition of this album greatly enhances its 19th century photography gallery.

Dr Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th century photographs. It transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists. And it contains some of the most beautiful and expressive portraits of the Victorian era.”

The Rejlander album will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in October. The NPG has already digitzed the prints from the album which can be seen on its website. If you’d like the turn the pages of the album and zoom in closer than the NPG photos allow (albeit with unfortunate watermarks), the auction company made a neat digital flipbook.



If the Flash album doesn’t work for you, here’s a pdf version.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

USS Monitor turret conservation ramps back up

Tue, 2016-05-10 02:16

Conservation of the 120-ton revolving gun turret of the USS Monitor, raised from the protected wreck site off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on August 5th, 2002, is ramping back up this month after years of painful budgetary restrictions that saw the conservation staff reduced by half and left the massive remnant of the ironclad vessel in limbo. A year-long fundraising push has generated $1 million in donations which has allowed USS Monitor Center conservators to start a two-month campaign on the turret.

The gun turret is kept in a 90,000 gallon tank in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, filled with an alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide to preserve and desalinate the metal. Every Monday until the middle of July, the tank will be drained (it takes four and a half hours to drain the whole thing) so conservators can work on it. They will clean it thoroughly, inside and out, using small chisels, hammers, dental drills and air scribes (miniature compressed air jackhammers) to remove layer upon layer of concretions.

Conservators will also attempt to remove the nut-guards, shields that covered the nuts to keep them from flying out should the turret be subject to artillery fire. The exposed walls will then be excavated for small artifacts pinned there when the ship capsized and sank on New Year’s Eve, 1862. A number of discoveries have been made before behind the shields, including a monkey wrench, a bone-handled knife and a silver table spoon with the initials “SAL” engraved on the handle that researchers believe belonged to Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, one of 16 crewmen who went down with the ship.

Once the cleaning and archaeological work have been completed, the turret’s newly exposed interior and exterior walls will be scanned through a 3-D photogrammetry process in order to record the progress of the electrolytic reduction and descaling treatments.

The sensitive images also may enable the conservators to uncover hidden clues imprinted on the turret’s exterior during the Monitor’s milestone clash with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads in March 1862, as well as its confrontation with Confederate shore batteries at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River two months later.

So discerning is the data gathered by the technique that it could provide the exact depth and circumference of both seen and unseen indentations made by enemy shot, bolts and shells, Hoffman says.

The tank will be filled up every Friday to preserve the turret over the weekend, then it all starts over again Monday. When this project is completed in mid-July, the tank will be filled back up for another long-term treatment. In total, conservators expect treatment to take 15 years before the turret can be safely exhibited in the museum without the protection of its tank, fresh water and alkaline solution. The $1 million raised is a fraction of the projected total cost of the full conservation. That’s more along the lines of $20 million, so the museum is continuing to raise funds.

One brilliant fundraising approach will be taking place over the next few months while the tank is empty during the week. For a price of 100 tax-deductible dollars a person, the USS Monitor Center’s director, historian John V. Quarstein, will lead visitors through the museum exhibition and the Batten Conservation Complex, the largest marine archaeological metals conservation lab in the world which contains the three largest pieces of the USS Monitor encased in massive conservation tanks: the vibrating side-lever steam engine, two XI-inch Dahlgren shell guns and their gun carriages, and the largest and most famous of them all, the gun turret. Visitors will have the chance to handle some of the artifacts recovered from the turret, and best of all, they’ll be allowed to go inside the drained turret tank. Waterproof boots at least eight inches high are required. Now that’s a killer gift idea for the history nerd who has everything. To schedule a tour (15 people at a time, max), contact Hannah Piner at hpiner@MarinersMuseum.org or call (757) 952-0465.

To follow the conservation project as it proceeds, check out the USS Monitor Center’s outstanding blog with entries written by the conservators doing the work. The museum’s website also has webcams trained on the three tanks so you can see the conservation as it happens.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iron Age chamber used as trash chute by Victorians

Mon, 2016-05-09 03:17

A subterranean chamber recently discovered on Mainland, Orkney, turns out to have been discovered by the Victorians first, and they filled it with rubbish. The entrance to the structure was found by Clive Chaddock on his land near the Harray Manse. A horticulture professor at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Chaddock called his colleagues from UHI’s Archaeology Institute to investigate. Two weekends ago, the Archaeology Institute’s Martin Carruthers and county archaeologist Julie Gibson examined the find.

The structure is an architecturally impressive well or a souterrain, an underground gallery used neither as a tomb nor for religious purposes. Their exact purpose is unknown. They are associated with settlements, so could have been used for food storage or perhaps a place to hide when the going got tough topside. The Orkney Islands have several notable souterrains, among them Castle Bloody, a souterrain mound on the island of Shapinsay with several passageways leading to a central chamber, a multi-chambered one at East Broch in the island of Burray and another chamber near the Harray Manse.

This one has a short entrance gallery with a low ceiling which leads to partially corbelled square chamber. Comparison with similar structures suggests it dates to the Iron Age. The chamber is fully roofed, but in the 19th century it was exposed and used as a trash chute. Its full depth is obscured by a pile of rusted iron kettles, buckets, glass bottles and even imported French mustard jars. Whoever found it didn’t document it, and eventually it was closed back up and forgotten again.

Martin Carruthers spoke to the Archaeology Institute’s excellent blog about the archaeological double-whammy.

The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. There are no uprights or pillars present inside the chamber, which makes this structure feel like one of the so-called wells more than a classic souterrain or earthhouse. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber also encourages the idea that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber. The chamber might be really quite deep underneath all the Victorian, and perhaps earlier, in-fill.

As you can see from the images there’s so much Victorian material it probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually its often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents. The Victorian rubbish is potentially a neat snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value. What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of. So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney.

The site has been sealed again and will be monitored for the time being. Keep an eye on the Archaeology Orkney blog for future updates (and for its general awesomeness).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare image of Jewish man found on 13th c. pottery fragment

Sun, 2016-05-08 15:17

A fragment of 13th century pottery unearthed in Teruel, Aragon, eastern Spain, has been identified as a rare depiction of a Jewish man. The fragment was discovered in 2004, one of thousands that were squirreled away for later documentation. It was catalogued in 2011 but the image was only recognized as a Jewish figure this year by archaeologist Antonio Hernandez Pardos. This is a very rare find. Most surviving images of Spanish Jews from the Middle Ages are illuminations in Haggadot or Christian prayer books.

Unusual for pottery decorations from that period, which mostly featured geometric shapes or depiction of flowers, the Teruel fragment shows the lower part of the face of a bearded man wearing a frilled gown that Pardos was able to trace back to Jewish iconography from the period. [...]

The research by Pardos suggests the fragment was part of a work performed by the earliest known potters of Teruel, who were possibly commissioned by a Jewish resident of the area.

Founded in 1170 by Alfonso II of Aragon on the border between his kingdom and Muslim Spain, Teruel flourished during the second third of the 13th century after King James I of Aragon conquered Xarq-al-Andalus, the Levante or eastern region of the Iberian peninsula. Under James I’s relatively enlightened rule, Jews and Moors moved from less tolerant climes and settled in Teruel. The earliest documentary evidence of Jews living in Teruel dates to 1258 when James I confirmed the Jewish community’s tax obligations to the crown. The first written reference to actual members of Teruel’s Jewish community comes 11 years later. It mentions Dueña del Cano and her late husband Samuel Najarí, an important money lender who was one of the crown’s top creditors.

Jews in Teruel thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, engaging in a variety of trades, particularly weaving and dealing wool. Several prominent Jewish scholars lived in Teruel. Things took a dark turn at the end of the 14th century. A delator (informer or denunciator) arrived in 1385, presaging the pogroms and riots of 1391 which spread through Spain like wildfire and resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews and forced conversions of thousands more. That bloody year was a turning point for Jews in Christian Spain. More and more laws were enacted against them, prohibiting money-lending, commerce with Christians, wearing the same clothes as Christians and forcing them into walled Juderías. Many Jews fled south to the more tolerant areas of al-Andalus. The Jewish community of Teruel was diminished but survived until 1492 when the last bastion of Muslim Spain, the Emirate of Grenada, fell and all of Spain’s Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity or expelled from the realm.

The small fragment of pottery is of outsized significance because despite the distinctiveness of the Jewish community in medieval Spain, with its unique legal status, designated living areas and particular religious/cultural traditions, there are few clear markers of Jewishness in the material culture. There’s no immediately identifiable Jewish architecture like there is Islamic architecture, no immediately identifiable ceramic tradition distinct from Christian or Islamic crafts. The exception is in objects of religious meaning and ritual purpose, but everyday things with an unmistakable Jewish identity are very rare in any period, all the more so in the first few decades of Jewish presence in Teruel.

This lacuna widened into a chasm during the Spanish Civil War when Teruel was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Fought over three months from December of 1937 through February of 1938, the Battle of Teruel devastated the city, subjecting it to constant artillery barrages and aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands of people died before the Nationalists finally won. Large sections of the medieval center of the city were destroyed, and what had once been the Jewish Quarter was all but leveled.

The war-damaged areas were extensively developed in subsequent decades. The Jewish Quarter was rediscovered in 1978 when the ruins of a building abutting its central square and three menorahs were unearthed. The structure was built in the mid-14th century when the neighborhood was going through a third phase of improvement. The large cellar built on powerful masonry arches discovered in 1978 was initially believed to be a synagogue because of its impressive size and strength. The Jewish Quarter wasn’t fully explored archaeologically until 2004 when a major urban renewal project in the plaza area provided the first opportunity for a proper archaeological survey of the site. The excavation revealed several layers of pottery fragments which gave archaeologists new insight into the evolution of the neighborhood in the 13th century, from the perspective of both use and production of ceramics.

There are boxes full of fragments from this excavation that haven’t been studied yet. Pardos expects there are more happy surprises to be found in there. His study of the fragment has been published in the journal Sefarad and can be accessed free of charge here (Spanish language pdf).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New Kingdom mummy found with animal, flower tattoos

Sat, 2016-05-07 06:36

During the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale’s 2014-2015 dig at Deir el-Medina, archaeologists found a female mummy with extensive tattoos of animals and flowers. The mummy dates to between 1300 and 1070 B.C., which makes her the first mummy from Dynastic Egypt with non-abstract figural tattoos. Her artwork wouldn’t be out of place in a modern tattoo shop. She has lotus blossoms on her hips, cows on her left arm, baboons on her neck and Wadjet eyes, also known as the Eye of Horus, on her neck, shoulders and back.

“Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” says bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University in California, who presented the findings last month at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Austin noticed the tattoos while examining mummies for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, which conducts research at Deir el-Medina, a village once home to the ancient artisans who worked on tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Looking at a headless, armless torso dating from 1300 to 1070 BC, Austin noticed markings on the neck. At first, she thought that they had been painted on, but she soon realized that they were tattoos.

Aware of studies like the recent multispectral photographic imaging scan that discovered previously unknown tattoos on Ötzi the Iceman, Austin examined the mummy under infrared lighting with an infrared sensor. She found more than 30 tattoos, several of which were on skin that was too darkened by the mummification process for the ink to be seen with the naked eye. Working with Cédric Gobeil, director of the French mission at Deir el-Medina, Austin photographed and digitally reshaped the tattoos to see what they looked like on living flesh, before the skin was shrunk and shriveled by mummification.

All of the tattoos are religious symbols. Cows represent the goddess Hathor; the lotus was a symbol of rebirth associated with Osiris; baboons represent Thoth. Wadjet of eye fame was one of the earliest Egyptian deities, later split into various gods including Hathor who, in one version of the mythology, restored Horus’ left eye after Set tore it out. It was a protective symbol against evil. It’s possible that the woman was a priestess, singer and/or musician in the service of Hathor and that the tattoos on the throat and arms were meant to strengthen her performance and connect her to the gods.

Judging from the degree of fading, the tattoos appear to have been made at different times. This may be an indicator of increasing status in her religious community; the greater the seniority, the more tattoos. Alternatively, they have been her way of expressing her religious fervor, and given how painful the application must have been, it would have demonstrated very great dedication indeed.

There are no known written records from ancient Egypt that mention tattooing, but there is iconographic evidence in wall paintings and figurines. There’s a faience bowl in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden from around the New Kingdom (1400-1300 B.C.) that depicts a lute player with a pictogram of the god Bes on her thigh and a v-shaped dot grouping on her chest. The Louvre has a piece from the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 2033–1710 B.C.), a faience figurine of a nude woman wearing a belt of cowry shells, her body adorned with groups of dots that may or may not represent tattoos, but are very similar to the dots and dash groupings found on mummies of the period. These kinds of figurines have traditionally been known as Brides of the Dead (this is a misnomer as some were placed in the tombs of women and others weren’t found in tombs at all) and are believed to be guarantors of sexual success and fertility in the next life.

The earliest Egyptian mummies with identifiable tattoos have the same kind of patterns seen on the Brides. The first examples were unearthed in the late 19th century, most famously at Deir el-Bahari in 1891. French archaeologist Eugène Grébaut discovered the mummy of a woman named Amunet who was a priestess of Hathor in the 11th Dynasty (ca. 2134-1991 B.C.). Her body was tattooed with diamond-shaped patterns of dots on her right thigh, matrices of dots under her sternum and above her navel, and a multiple rows of dots forming an elliptical pattern that covered her abdomen from leg to leg. This tattoo is particularly relevant to fertility because during pregnancy it would have stretched and grown to give the pregnant belly the appearance of being wrapped in a net, likely a protective symbol.

In the New Kingdom, pictographs of the gods were added to the abstract dot and dash patterns. Pictographs of the war goddess Neith have been found on mummies of women dating to around 1300 B.C. Tattoos of Bes, protector of mothers, children and the household, have been found on the thighs of dancers and musicians. Bes danced, sang and made noise to scare away evil spirits, so it’s a reasonable connection. These mummies date to the 4th century B.C. and were the oldest known non-abstract tattoos in Egypt before the recent discovery of the figural tattoos on the mummy from Deir el-Medina.

That’s one of the reasons the find is so exciting. Another is that the archaeological record of Egyptian tattoos is patchy at best. Tattoos can be very hard to spot on darkened and wizened mummified flesh, or they can be lost to decay. Besides, we’re no longer in the giddy, reckless days of late 19th century, early 20th century Egyptology when archaeologists loved to unwrap mummies, often in front of crowds. Nowadays mummies are kept wrapped as a matter of course. Technology like CT scanning allow examination in great detail without the invasive and destructive interventions of yesteryear. It can’t read tattoos on the surface of the skin, however, so keeping mummies wrapped makes documenting tattoos impossible.

With the great success of infrared imaging on the Deir el-Medina mummy, perhaps the large gaps in the record can be at least partially filled by examining mummies that were unwrapped back when that was trendy, or whose wrappings have been lost. All of the Egyptian mummies with tattoos discovered thus far have been female. Was the art form the exclusive province of women, or have we just not found the tattooed men yet? There is artwork that suggests men had tattoos too. A thorough IR analysis of the mummy record may at long last answer the question.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History