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Ammonite’s epic final drag mark immortalized

Thu, 2017-05-11 23:51

Every once in a great while, a track or drag mark left by a long-dead animal is discovered in the fossil record. The most commonly found ones are known as mortichnia and are the traces of arthropods, bivalves, fish and other animals left just before their death. The longest mortichnial trackway recorded is 9.7 meters (32 feet) long and was left by a horseshoe crab in the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Lithographic Limestone near Wintershof, Germany. (Solnhofen limestones are among the richest sources of fossilized tracks and drag marks in the world.)

Finding both a fossilized drag mark and the fossil of the creature that left it is exceptionally rare. An ammonite fossil discovered in the late 1990s in the Upper Jurassic limestone of a quarry near the village Solnhofen in Bavaria put even the rarest of its brethren to shame by leaving a fossilized drag mark an unheard of 8.5 meters (28 feet) long. All the examples of ammonite drag marks found before this one were less than one meter in length.

The ammonite in question (Subplanites rueppellianus) was dead and drifting when it left its final testament: multiple continuous parallel lines dug into the sediment of what was then the sea floor by the ribs of the shell. At first glance, it’s not a terribly impressive specimen. A sub-adult male, it’s comparatively small at 114 x 101 mm (4.5 x 4 inches) and poorly preserved. It was damaged when it was collected; there’s a crack running through it, and a separate fragment was reattached during restoration.

The little guy’s drag mark, on the other hand, is in excellent condition. It was recovered in multiple pieces and put back together. Its dramatic length isn’t even complete, because the spot where the ammonite first began to drag along the sediment did not survive. Based on the depth of the furrows, researchers believe the ammonite started off buoyant courtesy of the gases in its shell generated by the decay of the dead animal. The drag marks start off light, then get deeper as the gases wear off and the ammonite shell drops lower onto the top layer of carbonate mud substrate.

The preserved start begins with two prominent ridges, with a single furrow. Here, the mark width measures 5.7 mm. From this point, the drag mark width was measured at approximately every 50 cm (Table 1). At one metre, additional ridges created by the ribs of the ammonite appear in the substrate, but they are faint and poorly preserved. Noticeably, at 1.7 m, an additional three ridges are present but disappear again.

Four ridges appear consistently from around 2 m (Fig 1), until about 6.5 m, where five prominent ridges appear. At approximately 7.5 m, only four prominent ridges can be seen, but beyond this point the drag mark preserves five very prominent ridges. It is not until the drag mark is nearly terminating, at 30 cm anterior to the ammonite, where six ridges are present and prominent. At 3 cm from the ammonite, the number of ridges increases to 11, showing that more of the ammonite is clearly in contact with the substrate (Fig 3). Here, the orientation of the ridges turns from being parallel to the long axis of the specimen to almost perpendicular to it, and increase in number to 18. Here, the ridges and furrows in the substrate mirror the spacing of the ammonite ribs that are well preserved, indicative of a touch down mark (Fig 3).

The shell was likely bounced along the substrate by currents and waves, not by another animal. The exceptional length of this drag mark indicates a very stable, calm current that was steady enough to keep the ammonite shell moving without tumbling or excessive rotating while not disturbing the sediment on the sea floor.

A digital model of the full surviving drag mark has been created using photogrammetry, a high-resolution composite generated from 645 photographs. And thus the ammonite with his epic drag mark, already preserved by fossilization, achieves digital immortality as well.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Girl found in coffin under San Francisco home identified

Wed, 2017-05-10 23:26

Last year, construction workers digging underneath a garage in San Francisco unearthed a child’s coffin. The bronze casket was three-and-a-half feet long and had two leaded glass windows, a popular design in the Victorian era for those who could afford it. Through the windows the well-preserved body of a little girl could be seen. She was wearing a white lace christening dress and ankle high shoes. She was also wearing a long necklace and holding a single flower which was at first believed to be a rose, but later found to be a purple nightshade flower. Little purple flowers had been woven into her hair and roses, baby’s breath and eucalyptus leaves were placed around her body.

The find was poignant, but not surprising. The home is in the Richmond District, which in the 19th century was the site of multiple cemeteries. When the real estate value of the district outpaced its value as a (not so) eternal resting place in the early 20th century, San Francisco evicted the underground tenants from Richmond and almost every other cemetery within city limits, leaving only two cemeteries of 26 intact. The city claimed this mass exhumation was necessary to prevent the spread of disease, but nobody was fooled. The remains of about 300,000 people were exhumed and reburied south of the city in Colma, which a decade later would be officially founded by cemetery owners as a necropolis that would never be subject to the political considerations that had spurred the liquidation of San Francisco’s graveyards. The little girl was one of 26,000 people buried in the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery, most of whom were moved to Colma’s Greenlawn Memorial Park in around 1920.

The medical examiner’s office examined the body in situ, but told homeowner Ericka Karner that it was entirely her responsibility to see to its disposition because the child was found on her property. She looked into reburial options, but the most modest estimate was $7,000. The priciest quote was $22,000. Meanwhile, the casket had been unsealed during the examination and the remains of the child, whom she named Miranda Eve, were beginning to deteriorate.

With the body of a little girl decaying in her backyard, Karner called City Hall. They wouldn’t take responsibility for the remains their predecessors had so half-assedly overlooked either, but they did put her in touch with the Garden of Innocence, a non-profit organization that arranges dignified burials for unknown or abandoned children. Elissa Davey, genealogist and founder of Garden of Innocence, raised money and arranged donations for the reburial. A month after she was found, Miranda Eve was reburied in a donated plot in Greenlawn Memorial Park. She was placed in her original bronze coffin, and it was placed inside a new wood casket inspired by the two-window design of the original.

Davey didn’t stop there. She wanted to give Miranda Eve her identity back. The task was monumental. First they were able to discover the manufacturer of the coffin: N. Gray & Co. Undertakers. Then they found a map of the Old Fellow’s Cemetery which they compared with modern street and other maps to pinpoint the location of the burial. It took more than 1,000 hours of research and a year of assiduous work, but the Garden of Innocence team was finally able to discover Miranda Eve’s real name. She was Edith Howard Cook, daughter of Horatio Nelson and Edith Scooffy Cook, who died on October 13th, 1876, when she was less than two months short of her third birthday.

Funeral home records show Edith died from marasmus, or severe undernourishment. It’s not clear what caused the illness, but in late 1800s urban living could have led to an infectious disease, the nonprofit said.

Information released Tuesday reveals that Edith was born into two prominent families in the world of commerce and society. Her mother was born into a San Francisco pioneer family, as her father Peter Scooffy was an original member of the Society of California Pioneers.

Horatio Cook and Edith Scooffy married in 1870 and baby Edith’s father tanned hides and manufactured leather belts. He also served as Consul for Greece.

After her death at a young age, Edith’s parents had another daughter, Ethel Cook, who was declared by a Russian nobleman as the most beautiful woman in America, the nonprofit reported.

Her identity was confirmed by DNA which was a match with the DNA of Edith’s grand-nephew Peter Cook. The headstone of “Miranda Eve” was left blank on the back so they could engrave her real name on it, should it ever be found. Now that it has, Edith Howard Cook will have her name on her headstone again.

The Garden of Innocence website has uploaded a detailed report of the discovery, reburial and their exceptional research on their website.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mongoose on a leash identified in Middle Kingdom tomb

Tue, 2017-05-09 23:30

The Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) was one of the many animals in the Egyptian bestiary that figures in tomb decorations going back to the Old Kingdom. They were depicted mainly in hunting scenes, stalking their prey in the swampy riverlands, climbing a papyrus stalk to snatch hatchlings from a nest, feasting on a fish in the rushes, even attacking a goose mid-flight.

They are easily recognizable in this context and from the animal’s characteristic features — short legs, long tail, long body, short snout and small ears — but divorced from its natural setting, one depiction of a mongoose has been the subject of debate for more than a century. A new field study of wall paintings in the cemetery of Beni Hassan has identified an Egyptian mongoose being led on a leash in the 11th Dynasty tomb of Baqet I (Tomb 29). This is the only known depiction of a mongoose on a leash in ancient Egyptian art.

Beni Hassan is a Middle Kingdom (21st to 17th centuries B.C.) cemetery about 12 miles south of the modern city of Minya in Middle Egypt. There are almost a thousand rock-cut and shaft tombs in the cemetery. The rock-cut tombs are carved into the limestone cliff face that overlooks the lower part of the cemetery where the shaft tombs are located. The elite, mainly hereditary nomarchs (regional governors) were buried in the upper cemetery, their rock-cut tombs elaborately decorated with animals and scenes from daily life (wrestling, chipping flint tools, spinning, playing music, pot making, smelting, feeding oryxes).

Several of the decorated tombs were documented by Egyptologists in the 19th century, including luminaries of the field like Jean-François Champollion and, most notably, Scottish pioneer Robert Hay, who undertook the first exceptionally thorough project to illustrate, trace and draw every ancient Egyptian tomb and temple he encountered in the 1820s and 30s. By the time of British Egyptologist Percy Newberry’s expedition to Beni Hassan in 1890, the paintings in one of the tombs Hay had documented (Tomb 3) were so faded and damaged that Newberry had to rely on Hay’s 60-year-old work in his own publications. Newberry’s team made important new tomb discoveries and meticulously illustrated every painting found, tracing them in full-size or drawing them from life. One of the draughtsmen on that team was a young Howard Carter. Newberry would be part of his team 30 years later when Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Newberry noted the unusual image of the leashed animal in his reports, suggesting it might be a mongoose, but other scholars disagreed with his identification. The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry team has recently conserved and cleaned the Beni Hassan tombs, and Professor Linda Evans of Macquarie University in Australia has surveyed the refreshed paintings using the latest technology.

The conservation and recording has “revealed many scenes not found in Newberry’s reports,” wrote Evans. In addition, the new work has identified creatures in the drawings that Newberry had been uncertain about. [...]

Evans’ team determined that the animal is “morphologically identical” to the Egyptian mongoose, wrote Evans, noting that the animal is also clearly depicted on a leash. “The animal clearly sports a gray collar that tapers to join a long, gray leash, which is held in the left hand of a bearer, who also holds the leash of a spotted hunting dog situated below the mongoose,” Evans said. [...]

“While mongooses have never been fully domesticated — that is, subjected to controlled breeding — some cultures have chosen to keep the animals as pets in order to control unwanted pests, such as snakes, rats and mice,” Evans wrote.

Evans speculates that the mongoose could have been used the way some bird dogs are used today, to scare birds out of the bush so hunters can have at them. That’s one possibility, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have been used to stalk and catch prey as well.

My grandmother told me that her mother, my very formidable great-grandmother who was reputedly a crack shot, used to hunt rabbits with ferrets. Their long, tubular bodies easily fit into warrens, and they had an implacable drive to get to the other side of whatever tunnel they were in and to kill whatever might be in their way. They’d clear a warren in no time, keeping the rabbit population under control and providing the family with much-needed food.

I had pet ferrets at the time, which is what inspired the story-telling, and according to my grandmother they bore only superficial resemblance to the ones my great-grandmother used for ferreting. The hunters were much larger and much, much meaner. My guys were sweet and cute and funny with the vestiges of that powerful prey drive turned into quirky, charming behaviors like stealing keys out of guest’s purses and hiding them under the bed. That’s because they were fully domesticated, bearing as much relation to their wild cousins as that tabbycat on your lap does to a serval. Maybe the ancient Egyptians went mongoosing just like my great-grandmother went ferreting. (People still use ferrets to hunt today, btw, especially in the UK.)

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mode Persuasive Cartography collection digitized

Mon, 2017-05-08 23:22

Persuasive cartography is decidedly more the former than the latter. Its aim is to sell a product or influence opinion using the aesthetic allure and/or the impression of scientific rigor conveyed by maps. The actual science of mapmaking — accurate renditions of land masses, roads, structures, topographical features — isn’t the point, except insofar as it lends the cachet of objectivity to a pitch.

Retired lawyer PJ Mode began collecting maps after seeing an exhibition of old and unusual maps at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1980. Over the years he began to narrow his focus to maps of the persuasive persuasion, fascinated by the reasoning behind them. With the advent of the Internet, finding new cartographical gems and researching their background has become increasingly accessible. Today PJ Mode has more than 800 persuasive maps in his collection.

Last month, more than 500 of them were digitized by the Cornell University Library. Now there are 862 of them. They can be browsed by subject or date, you can just load the whole shebang and go through them front to back, or you can limit by date, date range, creator or subject from there. I’m partial to the subject divisions which convey a real sense of how far-reaching this medium was. Almost 200 of the maps are in the Advertising & Promotion category, and they are some of the most aesthetically interesting. The Niagara Belt Line uses one of the most spectacular views in the world to promote its electric trolley line.

A good image can sell even the worst product, as any advertiser knows. Patent medicines, most of which were useless at best, active poisons at worst, needed all the colorful artwork they could get: see Peruvian Bitters, for example, which used a literal bird carrying an ad for the product over a bird’s-eye view of San Francisco to flog its bogus cure for malaria, dyspepsia, addiction and unhappiness.

Even the plain ones without fancy graphics are intriguing because the dry presentation is often used to legitimize an extremely questionable proposition, like the Northern Pacific Railroad Gold Bonds or the Two Queens Mines in Australia, which was a straight-up scam.

The greatest number of maps, 349, are in the pictorial subject which covers an extraordinary amount of ground from military to political to moral advocacy. There’s even an edition of a map very similar to one I own in giant foldout poster form: a timeline of world history from a Biblically literal creationist perspective. Other subject categories you can browse include Alcohol, Heaven & Hell (schematics of Dante’s Inferno are always popular), Poverty, Prostitution, Crime, Slavery, Suffrage, Railroads, and lots and lots of wars.

All of the digitized maps are available for download in high resolution (the full Niagara view was so huge my server couldn’t even handle it, and my server is used to the strain, believe me), or if you prefer, can be zoomed in extreme closeup on the Cornell site itself. Fair warning: this is a timesink of gloriously massive proportions. The information on each entry was written by PJ Mode himself based on his research. He makes no claim to flawless understanding, so if you find something you think might be inaccurate, you’re encouraged to click on the “Contact” link at the bottom of the page and let folks know.

Speaking of which, the following video is 50 minutes long, but it’s so worth it. It’s a talk PJ Mode delivered last year to The Grolier Club and the New York Map Society about persuasive cartography. Unlike most lecture videos, the people doing the talking only appear rarely. The vast majority of the presentation is of the maps being projected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been irritated by the neglect of the visual aids in recordings of these types of events. Whoever filmed this talk deserves an award. Be sure to watch it full screen so you can see the small details of the map as large as possible.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

7,000 bodies from asylum may be buried under Mississippi campus

Sun, 2017-05-07 23:49

In 2013, workers building a new road on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in Jackson unearthed the remains of 66 individuals buried in pine coffins. These were remains of patients of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, in operation between 1855 and 1935, who had been buried in an area of the campus that is now known as Asylum Hill, for obvious reasons. The remains were removed to the Mississippi State University anthropology department for study before reburial in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s cemetery where donated anatomical and past archaeological human remains are interred. Road construction continued.

Remains have been found before on Asylum Hill, but after the discovery of the 66 coffins, tests were done on 20 acres of the UMMC campus where extensive construction was planned, and experts found evidence of 1,000 bodies buried there, maybe more. Now a ground-penetrating radar study has found there are at least 2,000 bodies buried on those 20 acres, and there may be as many as 7,000. The staggering numbers pose a thorny problem, because it costs $3,000 to exhume and rebury a single body. At a $21 million price tag, it would be prohibitively expensive to rebury all of the dead, even if they had room in the UMMC cemetery to accommodate so many bodies.

It’s also far from an ideal solution for the many descendants who are desperate for information about their relatives and for a proper burial where they can pay their respects. Read the comments on my previous article for just a tiny sample of people who have searched high and low for any clue about the fate and whereabouts of their family members. Perhaps there’s a solution that can address both the financial hardships and give solace to the survivors of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum’s patients.

Now UMMC is studying the cheaper alternative of handling those exhumations in-house, at a cost of $400,000 a year for at least eight years. It also would create a memorial that would preserve the remains with a visitors center and a lab that could be used to study the remains as well as the remnants of clothing and coffins.

Ralph Didlake, who oversees UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, believes the lab would be the first of its kind in the nation — giving researchers insight into life in the asylum in the 1800s and early 1900s.

“It would be a unique resource for Mississippi,” said Molly Zuckerman, associate professor in Mississippi State’s department of anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”

There were no dedicated state facilities for the mentally ill in Mississippi before the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum was built. The insane were kept at home, when families could handle it, and chained up in prisons with criminals when they couldn’t. Conditions were opprobrious. The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum was designed according to the Kirkbride Plan, a new approach to the treatment of mental illness devised by Quaker physician Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride premised on the then-novel theory that insanity could be curable and that the environment in which patients were treated played a key role in their recovery. The facilities had to be cheerful, airy, with social spaces like dining rooms and parlors reminiscent of home. Patients were to get plenty of time enjoying the grounds, both for pleasure and to farm the land as an early form of occupational therapy.

The problem with the Kirkbride Plan when implemented by state asylums is that it required no more than 250 patients be admitted at one time. That was the magic number to ensure the space was conducive to healing and that there was sufficient staff to provide individual attention. But the states who invested serious money building these asylums — it took almost five years for the Mississippi legislature to appropriate funding for construction of theirs — had big problems adhering to Kirkbride’s ideal population density.

The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum started off with the best of intentions. There were 150 inmates when it opened in 1855. After the Civil War, the numbers started to rise. In 1870 there were 300 patients. By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Mississippi legislature stopped funding maintenance and oversight, and as a result the asylum rapidly declined. Within a year the new superintendent described the conditions as “verging on what the original Bedlam must have been like.” The inmate population continued to rise through fires, polluted water, desultory repairs and additions. In 1920 there were 1,670 patients. In 1930, there were 2,649. At its peak, there were 6,000 patients. Finally the run-down, massively overcrowded conditions could no longer be ignored. When a new state hospital opened in Whitfield in 1935, the old one was closed and all remaining patients were moved to the new facility.

The structure was demolished, and in 1954 the University Medical Center was built on the site. Construction workers have encountered bodies and headstones ever since, but nobody did a thorough investigation or really conceived of the massive scale of burials until the 2013 discovery.

Didlake, Zuckerman and others have formed the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, made up of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and even an expert in dating the wood of the coffins.

It was the consortium that developed the memorial/visitors center/lab plans.

“We have inherited these patients,” Didlake said. “We want to show them care and respectful management.”

That’s an important step in the right direction, but I like Karen Clark’s idea cited in the news article to collect DNA from descendants so there’s a chance the bodies could be identified. Her three-times great-grandfather, Isham Earnest, was an inmate at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum in its early days and is believed to have died there in the late 1850s. Depending on conditions of the remains, nuclear DNA may not be retrievable, although mitochondrial DNA is much hardier. The oldest of the remains are just over 150 years old, which is quite fresh, really, from an archaeological perspective, so it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s an ambitious project and would require significant additional funding. It would so worthwhile, though.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare 17th c. Dutch wall map of Australia emerges at auction

Sat, 2017-05-06 23:44

James Cook’s detailed exploration and mapping of New Zealand and eastern Australia during his first voyage (1766-1771) would overshadow the more limited Dutch efforts from more than a century earlier, but the first Europeans to sight and make landfall on the Australian continent and surrounding islands were the Dutch. The first European to step foot on Australia was Willem Janszoon in 1606, although in keeping with the fine tradition of European explorers he had no idea where he was, thinking he was in southern New Guinea. He mapped some of the coastline and made contact with the pointy end of the indigenous people — ten of his men died in the process — but like his compatriots who followed, he didn’t explore thoroughly.

The Dutch never attempted settlement. Their aims were strictly pecuniary. The Dutch East India Company (VOC), always on the lookout for new lands with the apparently limitless gold, silver and precious gemstones of a Mexico or Peru, received a report from one of their operatives in Japan that he’d heard speak of a country to the south rich with gold. In 1639, the VOC’s Governor-General Antonio van Diemen sent two ships to find this El Dorado of the Pacific. One of them, the Engel, was captained by Abel Tasman. They searched for six months, going as far as 2,000 miles from Japan, 1,000 miles further into the North Pacific than any other European explorer before them, but were unsuccessful.

But the dreams of diving into bottomless vaults of gold like unto Scrooge McDuck never die, and people had been positing that there had to be an unknown large land mass in the Pacific, the Terra Australis Incognita, since antiquity. The discovery of South America ramped up excitement at the prospect of the Terra Australis because philosophically geographers imagined the world had to have some kind of symmetry, so the new continent needed something to balance it out on the other side of the globe.

The VOC sent Tasman out again to find the South Land in August of 1642. His brief was to look south of New Guinea this time, and should he find the new world and make contact with the locals, he was to use the mercantile goods his ships were laden with to trade for gold and silver. Van Diemen’s instructions on this point were clear:

“Keep them ignorant of the value of the same, appear as if you were not greedy for them; and if gold or silver is offered in any barter, you must feign that you do not value those metals, showing them copper, zinc and lead, as if those minerals were of more value to us.”

On November 24th, the crew sighted land. From Tasman’s journal of the voyage:

This land being the first land we have met with in the South Sea and not known to any European nation we have conferred on it the name of Anthoony Van Diemenslandt in honour of the Honourable Governor-General, our illustrious master, who sent us to make this discovery; the islands circumjacent, so far as known to us, we have named after the Honourable Councillors of India….

That island is now known as Tasmania. From there he traveled southeast, sighting what we know as South Island, New Zealand, on December 13th. He named it Staten Landt because he thought it was connected to Stateneiland, Argentina, on the tip of South America. His attempts to make contact with the indigenous people didn’t go well. The Maori were not interested in whatever stuff he had in his cargo hold. They greeted him by attacking his ship and killing four of his men.

After that, Tasman got out of Dodge City with a quickness and headed back to Batavia. He did a little more charting on the way — Tonga, Fiji — but no landing and no contact. On a second voyage in 1644, he made it to Australia, mapping the north coast, but that was the extent it. Seven months after he left, he was back in Batavia.

The VOC was disappointed, to say the least. He found no new trade routes, no new markets for Dutch goods, and worst of all, no gold. He didn’t even do much in the way of exploring or mapping, not that that was any kind of priority for the VOC beyond its usefulness in enabling profitable trade. They thought Tasman had been too timid for the job. The next person they sent to the South Land would be bolder. Only there was no next person, not a Dutch one, anyway. The next person would be the Englishman James Cook 120 years later.

Until Cook, it was the Dutch who had the most information about Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the East Indies, and not coincidentally, Dutch maps were considered the cream of the crop in the 17th century. In 1659, Joan Blaeu, official Cartographer to the Dutch East India Company, used all of the VOC’s private records of the exploration of the Terra Australis from Janszoon to Tasman to create a great wall map of Australia, its surrounding islands and Southeast Asia. This would be the first map to label Australia “Nova Hollandia.” “Nova Zeelandia” and some of van Diemen’s Land make an appearance too.

This map is so rare there are only two known copies complete with Blaeu’s imprint and side panels describing the lands on the map. One of the two (dimensions: 158.7 x 117.4cm) has been rediscovered in an Italian villa where it has remained unrestored in its original condition since at least the 19th century. It is going under the hammer at Sotheby’s Travel, Atlases, Maps & Natural History sale on May 9th in London, along with a second Joan Blaeu wall map, this one of Asia (117 x 155cm), in equally good condition.

Richard Fattorini, Sotheby’s Director in Books and Manuscripts said: “It is wonderful to find a pair of wall maps in their original unrestored condition, retaining the linen and rollers as decorated for an early, or possibly the first, owner. Wall-maps, by their very nature, are susceptible to damage; mounted on a linen backing, with wooden rods, suspended on a wall, they could be subjected to careless handling, sunlight, heat, damp and soot. They often have a very poor survival rate as, once damaged or geographically superseded, they were readily discarded. As a consequence, they are often found in a frail state.”

There are some holes, tears and damage with loss of small parts of the drawing and text, but all in all, these are near-miraculous survivals. Because of its seminal importance in the history of cartography and exploration, the Australia map is estimated to sell for 200,000-250,000 GBP ($248,320-310,400). The map of Asia is a comparative steal at 60,000-80,000 GBP ($74,496-99,328).

An excerpt from Blaeu’s commentary on the Australia wall map:

“Papas landt or Nova Guinea, Nova Hollandia, discovered in the year 1644, Nova Zeelandia or New Zealand reached in 1642, Antoni van Diemens land found in the same year, Carpentaria, thus named after General Carpentier, and still other lands, partly discovered are shown in this map. But of all these and of the above-mentioned islands we cannot speak more fully because of the want of space; nor has there yet been published anything, or little concerning these last named; wherefor the reader and spectator must rest content with this map, until I. [Joan] Blaeu, shall publish these and the aforesaid a large book, full of maps and descriptions, which is at present being prepared.”

Less than a year later, a group of Dutch merchants compiled a book full of Blaeu’s wall maps as a gift for King Charles II in honor of his restoration to the throne. It is indeed a large book. A very, very large book.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Preview Rome’s San Giovanni subway museum

Fri, 2017-05-05 23:21

After six years of delays caused by constant archaeological discoveries, the first station of Rome’s new Metro C line is complete. The San Giovanni station near the Papal Archbasilica of St John in Lateran was unveiled to the press this week. The subway stop won’t be open to the public until the end of the year at the earliest because the rest of the line is still under construction. The station’s atrium museum was opened to the public on April 1st of this year, but that was just for the one day. It’s not clear whether visitors will be able to enjoy the exhibits before the official opening of the San Giovanni subway station.

The construction of the San Giovanni station beginning in 2011 unearthed a vast swath of the city’s history, from prehistory to the modern era. The richest finds date to the late Republic and early Imperial era, with the most extraordinary features discovered on a 1st-3rd century A.D. commercial agricultural concern 20 meters (65 feet) below the surface, the closest ever found to the center of the ancient city. Archaeologists discovered farming-related artifacts including a three-pronged iron pitchfork, woven baskets, and leather fragments, possibly from a shoe or glove. The farm’s engineering was evidenced in grooves carved deep into stone from the many turns of a long-decayed waterwheel, and in recycled amphorae, their ends cut open to be nested into each other in long lines for use as water channels. Archaeologists also found a huge hydraulic reservoir (115 feet by 230 feet), the largest ancient Roman water basin ever found, dating to the 3rd century A.D.

“It’s so big that it goes beyond the perimeter of the (metro) work site and it has not been possible to uncover it completely,” [excavation head Rossella] Rea explained. “It was lined with hydraulic plaster and, on the basis the size that had been determined so far, it could hold more than four million litres of water”. [...]

“It seems likely that its main function was to be a water reservoir for crops and an area that made it possible to cope with overflows from the nearby river. No other basin from ancient Roman agriculture is of comparable size. Beyond the walls of the work site it extends toward the (ancient city) wall, where it is probably preserved”.

San Giovanni’s massive archaeological endowment didn’t stop there. A surprising number of well-preserved archaeobotanical remains were recovered, among them seeds, nuts, and the roots and stumps of willows and other trees. A number of peach pits were also discovered, likely the remnants of the farm’s orchards. Peaches are not native Roman fruits — these probably originated in Persia — and even in the Imperial era they were still considered an expensive, exotic import. It indicates that the farm was used to produce luxury foods, likely for the Imperial table.

And that’s just scratching the surface of what was found during the San Giovanni dig. More than 40,000 artifacts were unearthed (hence the half a decade of delays): ancient pottery, coins, oil lamps, delicate glass perfume bottles, baked clay pipes, lead pipes, architectural elements, sculptures, reliefs, colorful dishware from the 17th through 19th centuries and on and on. The station museum displays a broad selection of these treasures in spacious, well-lit display cases.

The station has been ingeniously designed to take advantage of its subterranean location to create an immersive time machine experience for travelers and visitors. Riders enter the station today, then as they descend towards the train platforms, they pass through the Middle Ages to the Rome of the Emperors to the Republic all the way back to the Pleistocene. Artifact exhibits and information panels accompany you as you time travel, marking important dates in the city’s history.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First-ever funerary garden found in Luxor

Thu, 2017-05-04 23:07

Archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have discovered the first-ever funerary garden at the entrance of a Middle Kingdom (1980-1790 B.C.) tomb on the Draa Abul Naga hill on Luxor’s west bank. Egyptologists have known about these gardens from iconographic depictions on tomb walls and at the entrances to tombs, but this is the first time archaeological remains of a physical funerary garden have been found. The discovery of the garden and archaeobotanical analysis of its remains will confirm what Egyptologists have learned from the paintings and provide new information about plants and the environment of Middle Kingdom Thebes and the role of botany in funerary rituals. Along with the sun, the plant world was the best expression of the Egyptian idea of perpetual rebirth and resurrection.

The funeral garden was found in a courtyard at the entrance to a rock-cut tomb believed to date to the Twelfth Dynasty, about 4,000 years ago. The garden is a rectangle that measures about 3×2 meters (10×6.5 feet) and is raised about a foot and a half off the ground. It is divided into a grid with rows of five or seven beds each about a foot square. Experts think each of the small beds contained different plants. In the middle of the garden are two beds slightly higher than the surrounding ones that likely contained small trees or shrubs. Thanks to the wonders of desert preservation, archaeologists found a tamarisk shrub in one corner of the garden. It was still upright with intact roots and foot-long trunk. Next to it was a bowl containing the remains of dates and other fruit that was probably an offering.

CSIC professor and dig leader José Manuel Galán:

“The plants grown there would have had a symbolic meaning and may have played a role in funerary rituals. Therefore, the garden will also provide information about religious beliefs and practices as well as the culture and society at the time of the Twelfth Dynasty when Thebes became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time. We know that palm, sycamore and Persea trees were associated with the deceased’s power of resurrection. Similarly, plants such as the lettuce had connotations with fertility and therefore a return to life. Now we must wait to see what plants we can identify by analysing the seeds we have collected. It is a spectacular and quite unique find which opens up multiple avenues of research”.

“Digging in a necropolis not only allows us to discover details about the world of funerals, religious beliefs and funerary practices, it also helps us discover details about daily life, about society and about the physical environment, both plant and animal. The necropolis thus becomes, as the ancient Egyptians themselves believed, the best way to understand and embrace life,” concludes the CSIC researcher.

Besides the garden, the excavation team discovered a mud-brick chapel attached to the facade of the rock-cut tomb. There are three stelae on the exterior. One of them is dedicated to one Renef-seneb, another to “the soldier (“citizen”) Khememi, the son of the lady of the house, Satidenu.” The stelae also include references to a local Theban deity named Montu and the gods Ptah, Sokar and Osiris. The chapel and stelae date to the Thirteenth Dynasty (around 1800 B.C.), so they are later than the garden and rock-cut tomb.

The Djehuty Project, now in its 16th dig season, is exploring that key period when ancient Thebes became the capital of unified Egypt about 4,000 years ago. This season’s discovery of the garden and the tomb and chapel underscore how important the Dra Abu el-Naga hill was during this period as a center of funerary and religious activity.

In this Spanish-language video, José Manuel Galán discusses the discovery of the funerary garden. It’s not subtitled, but the visuals speak for themselves. He starts by explaining where the garden was found and its archaeological significance. Around the 20 second mark, there are images of the garden iconography found in tombs. Overhead views of the excavated garden begin around the 30 second mark, with film of the excavation itself starting at 40 seconds. At 55 seconds, there’s an amazing scene of an archaeologist recovering seeds from one of the beds with tweezers. At 1:12 is a nifty digital reconstruction of the garden and the plants that might have grown there. At 1:54 you can see the excavation of the tamarisk trunk. Professor Galán points out in the voice-over that the tamarisk had a funerary association in Egyptian religion. The soul of the deceased would fly onto a branch of the tamarisk and perch there waiting for offerings.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restoration of Mausoleum of Augustus begins

Wed, 2017-05-03 23:01

Remember when I wrote that article on the history of the Mausoleum of Augustus, how it got to its current derelict condition and how the mayor of Rome planned to get a restoration started by the end of the year to coincide with the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ death? That was 2014. The restoration did not get started by the end of 2014. Nor by the end of 2015. Or 2016. But at long last, the Mausoleum’s day has finally dawned. The old mayor, Ignazio Marino, is gone and the new mayor, Virginia Raggi, officially inaugurated the 10-million-euro ($10.9 million) restoration project on Tuesday.

Six million of the total cost was raised from a private donor, not the mysterious Saudi prince who was bandied about by the former mayor as a potential funding source, but the Italian telecom brand TIM. The rest of the money was contributed by the city of Rome and Italy’s culture ministry.

The refurbishment, which will end in a grand reopening in April 2019, will include 3-D effects and the restoration of the 13,000 square metres of a monument that is even bigger than the famed Castel Sant-Angelo, built over the tomb of a later emperor, Hadrian.

The project represents a “model of public and private collaboration we hope will become a model,” said Raggi.

It doesn’t look bigger than Castel Sant’Angelo today, but when Augustus built it when he returned to Rome in 31 B.C. after his final defeat of Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium, its grandeur was without parallel. It had a lot of competition because the Campus Martius, the “Field of Mars” where troops mustered and tribes gathered to vote just outside the pomerium, the city’s ancient religious boundary, had become a popular location for new temples, public buildings, artworks and the tombs of the rich and noble. Now the sole ruler of Rome, Augustus planned his Mausoleum to contain his ashes and those of his whole family. Made of brick clad in white marble, the interior had a vaulted ceiling and separate corridors for each family member. The entry was flanked by two pink granite obelisks Augustus looted from Egypt, and an earthen tumulus planted with cypresses topped the roof. When it was finished in 28 B.C., the Mausoleum was 295 feet in diameter and an estimated 137 feet high.

Everyone who was anyone in the Julio-Claudian line — minus Augustus’ disgraced daughter Julia, her disgraced daughter Julia and the Emperor Nero who was buried in the tomb of his paternal family — was buried in the Mausoleum, and it was one of the great icons of Rome until the 5th century when the Visigoths plundered it. Following in the Visigoths’ footsteps were the usual suspects of late ancient and medieval Rome — popes and endlessly squabbling Roman nobles — who stripped the building of its marble and converted it into a fortress. That’s what happened to Castel Sant’Angelo, formerly the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, too, but Castel Sant’Angelo remained in use as a papal fortress and prison for centuries, while the fortifications of Augustus’ tomb were destroyed during a petty war between noble families only decades later.

Stripping the fortress left the Mausoleum in a ruinous state. It found new life in the Renaissance as a sculpture garden, amphitheater, a sort of sideshow spectacle venue, and in the early 20th century, an Art Nouveau theater. Then came Benito Mussolini. In 1936, he decided he’d return the Mausoleum to its true Roman origins and tore down all the later additions and modifications, leaving the original brick walls. He planted cypresses on top of the walls in the mistaken belief that Augustus’ architects were as simple as he was, even though anyone who’s ever even seen what trees and vines can do to buildings would have realized this was an incredibly dumb idea.

The Mausoleum never recovered from that disastrous “restoration.” It was closed to the public in the 1970s because it was structurally unsound and dangerous. For decades it has been a crumbling shadow of its former self, a virtually unknown and unrecognized ruin in the middle of a wide Fascist-era piazza, shelter to homeless people and junkies, used as a litter receptacle by passersby.

The restoration project will hopefully reverse this appalling history of neglect and incompetence. The tomb will be closed to the public for the duration, although some “special” visits may be arranged for small groups (VIPs, I’m guessing), until the grand reopening in 2019.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

24 Bronze Age axes found in Norway

Tue, 2017-05-02 23:15

The first finds were made by metal detecting brothers Joakim and Jørgen Korstad on January 25th of this year. Scanning a field in the village of Hegra, about 25 miles east of Trondheim, Norway, they discovered nine socketed axes (known as Celts), a spearhead, a casting mould and a fragment that may be a piece of an ancient horn called a lur. Realizing they had stumbled on an archaeological mother lode, the brothers called Nord-Trøndelag County Council archaeologist Eirik Solheim, who immediately had the area secured and inspected the finds on the spot. He dated the axe heads and other artifacts to the Late Bronze Age, between 1100-500 B.C.

Last week, a more thorough excavation of the site was undertaken funded by Cultural Heritage and the Nord-Trøndelag County Council. The Korstad brothers and their trusty metal detectors aided Eirik Solheim archaeologist Merete Moe Henriksen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). The second search unearthed another 15 axeheads and additional metal objects and fragments. That brings the total of the Hegra Bronze Age hoard up to 30 artifacts, 24 of them axes.

This is the largest number of axes ever found in a single deposit in Norway. As if that weren’t significant enough, only about 800 metal artifacts from the Bronze Age have been recovered in Norway, so 30 in one fell swoop is a finding of sizeable proportions. In the county of Trøndelag only about 150 metal objects from the period have been unearthed, so the county’s Bronze Age metallic artifacts have just increased by 20 percent.

Stjørdal municipality is one of the areas in central Norway that has a concentration of ancient rock art and rock carvings. Solheim has wished for a museum to showcase the rock art of the area.

“We know that there’s been a lot of activity in this area, but we’ve lacked artefacts. Now this shows up and it’s infinitely more than we could have asked for. It’s so spectacular and totally cool,” he says.

NTNU researchers will now study the objects in the hope of determining the nature of the hoard, why the artifacts were buried there. The always popular religious ritual is a possibility, but there may have been a more practical motive as well. They could have been hoarded temporarily for safekeeping before being melted down and recast, only for the plan to be interrupted.

The axeheads have already revealed a Kinder egg-like surprise inside: there appear to be other metal objects encased within some of them. The team will also test the objects using XRF analysis to determine what alloy they are composed of. The type of alloy will indicate whether the axes were tools used for work or if they were decorative. Small samples of the metal will be analyzed to determine the origin of the copper. Copper is known to have been mined locally in the Bronze Age, including in what is now the municipality of Meråker, about 50 miles east of Trondheim.

Archaeologists hope to return to Hegra in the fall to look for more artifacts and get some answers to some of the questions about this unique hoard.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rodin’s unique Absolution on display for the first time

Mon, 2017-05-01 23:10

Absolution, a unique and mysterious work by Auguste Rodin, has gone on display at Paris’ Musée Rodin for the first time since its creation in around 1900. Very little is known about this sculpture. There is no documentation about it in the artist’s archives, and he never made a marble, terracotta or bronze version of it. It’s such an experimental piece with no directly comparable works in Rodin’s oeuvre that curators aren’t even sure if it’s finished. The fact that he kept it at all suggests Rodin was at least satisfied with it.

It has never been exhibited before because it is incredibly fragile. Three plaster sculptures are draped with a fabric coated in plaster, the latter of which posed a particularly thorny conservation challenge. It was kept in storage wrapped in paper, and when conservators removed the wrapping, they found the piece coated in dust and broken in several places. The three plaster figures had come apart and the fabric had lost a good portion of its plaster coating. In order to even get to the figures, the draping had to be lifted which, given its extreme fragility, was a risky operation. Then the broken figures had to be put back together and the fabric, cleaned and repaired, put back in place. They had to accomplish all of this with just an old black and white photograph of how the sculpture had once looked to go on.

This video shows the difficulties conservators had to overcome to stabilize Absolution enough to put it on display, albeit in a glass box to protect it from even the smallest breeze that might cause the textile to move.

Rodin was one of the first sculptors to include textiles in his artworks. He took advantage of the flexibility of the medium to drape and mold the fabric, which he would then coat in plaster. The integration of textiles lent his sculptures a soft, fluid element in marked contrast with the hardness of plaster and stone. In Absolution the textile envelopes the figures of a man, Ugolino della Gherardesca, betrayer of his benefactor, condemned to the lowest circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno; a woman, representing the Earth; and the head of a martyr. The draping obscures many details of the sculpture within, framing and highlighting the thematic significance of the kiss of forgiveness, the eponymous absolution.

Absolution has been on display since last month at the Kiefer-Rodin exhibit. The exhibition commemorates the centenary of Rodin’s death by pairing his work with pieces by contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer that were inspired by sculptures and drawings by Rodin. Like Rodin, Kiefer experimented with contrasting media, hard and soft, textile and stone. By putting Kiefer and Rodin together, the exhibition emphasizes the modernity of Rodin’s vision. It will run through the end of the year.

The original plan was for Absolution to travel to the Barnes in Philadelphia where it would be on display from November 2017 until March 2018 before returning for permanent display in Paris, but the Musée Rodin’s conservators determined that it is impossible to transport the delicate sculpture anywhere, never mind across the Atlantic, without damaging it. The textile is the main sticking point. Any vibration or movement can cause the gypsum to flake off, and because of the way it is draped over the plaster figures, it can’t be packed or wedged in a way that supports it during transit. Figuring out protective packaging for the textile would be so complex and experimental an engineering challenge that the Musée Rodin is unwilling to take the risk.

So Absolution is staying in Paris, safe from people’s breath and air currents in its glass box.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Denmark’s oldest grape seeds were locally grown

Sun, 2017-04-30 23:53

Archaeologists have found evidence of homegrown grapes in late Iron Age and Viking Denmark: two charred grape seeds unearthed from a site on the west shore of Lake Tissø, Western Zealand. This is one of the richest sites from the late Germanic Iron Age and Viking Age ever discovered in Denmark. Since the 1990s, excavations have unearthed two aristocratic residences (one dating to 550–700 A.D., the second to 700–1050 A.D.), pit houses, assembly places, a market and artisan workshop area and ritual sites.

In the 2012-2013 dig season, the team collected soil samples for macrofossil analysis from both the aristocratic residences. In 2015, archaeobotanist and curator at the National Museum Peter Steen Henriksen recovered one charred seed while sifting through a five liter soil sample from Bulbrogård, the oldest of the royal complexes. Examining it under the microscope, Henriksen could see that it looked like a grape seed; the charring had not altered its shape. A colleague confirmed the identification. It was indeed a seed from the common grapevine (Vitis vinifera). He found a second grape seed in a soil sample taken from the later royal complex, Fugledegård.

Before this find, the earliest grape seeds found in Denmark date to the late Middle Ages, and historical records from the 13th century support that grapes were grown in Denmark during the medieval warm period. Because this was such an exceptional discovery, the grape seeds were studied in further detail. Each seed was subjected to archaeobotanical analysis. One of them, the one from Fugledegård was radiocarbon tested. The C14 result dated it to between 780 and 980 A.D., the Viking Age. The Bulbrogård was not dated because researchers wanted to preserve it for strontium isotope analysis. (The testable cores of the seeds are so small it wasn’t possible to run both tests on each.) The strontium isotope results placed the grape seed squarely in the range characteristic for Denmark, specifically Zealand.

They are by far the oldest grape seeds discovered in Denmark, and the first potential evidence of local viticulture in late Iron Age/Viking Age Denmark. There’s no way to confirm the seeds were used to grow grapes at Lake Tissø. They could have been in the lees of a wine barrel, although that would not explain how the seeds were found in two complexes that were 600 meters and at least a hundred years apart. Besides, it’s hardly an import if the raw material was grown on the island.

“This is the first discovery and sign of wine production in Denmark, with all that that entails in terms of status and power. We do not know how [the grapes] were used – it may have been just to have a pretty bunch of grapes decorating a table, for example – but it is reasonable to believe that they made wine,” archaeological botanist and museum curator Peter Steen Henriksen of Denmark’s National Museum told Videnskab.dk. [...]

“Before we only had suspicions, but now we can see that they actually had grapes and therefore the resources to produce [wine] themselves. Suddenly it all becomes very real,” professor Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum told Videnskab.dk.

The results of the study have been published in the Danish Journal of Archaeology and can be read here.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History